U.S. military aid is fueling big ambitions for Syria’s leftist Kurdish militia

The Washington Post reports: In a former high school classroom in this northeastern Syrian town, about 250 Arab recruits for the U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State were being prepped by Kurdish instructors to receive military training from American troops.

Most of the recruits were from villages surrounding the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, and the expectation is that they will be deployed to the battle for the predominantly Arab city, which is now the main target of the U.S. military effort in Syria.

But first, said the instructors, the recruits must learn and embrace the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader jailed in Turkey whose group is branded a terrorist organization by both Washington and Ankara.

The scene in the classroom captured some of the complexity of the U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State in Syria, where a Kurdish movement that subscribes to an ideology at odds with stated U.S. policy has become America’s closest ally against the extremists.

The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is the military wing of a political movement that has been governing northeastern Syria for the past 4 1 / 2 years, seeking to apply the Marxist-inspired visions of Ocalan to the majority Kurdish areas vacated by the Syrian government during the war.

Over the past two years, the YPG has forged an increasingly close relationship with the United States, steadily capturing land from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. airstrikes, military assistance and hundreds of U.S. military advisers. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey in grip of fear as Erdoğan steps up post-terror attack crackdown

The Observer reports: Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, rarely goes on the defensive. Yet in his first public appearance since the New Year’s Eve massacre in an Istanbul nightclub, he felt obliged to publicly reject the notion that his government’s intolerant approach to civil society could possibly have encouraged the attack claimed by Islamic State that left 39 people dead.

Erdoğan was speaking before a regular gathering of elected community leaders, an opportunity he usually uses to glad-hand political support.

However, the shock of the attack has further rent an already divided country. While no one believes that the government is directly responsible, it is accused of creating an atmosphere in which a religious fanatic could get away with murder.

“Nobody should be forced to share the same kind of lifestyle,” said Erdoğan, adding that if anyone had come under pressure to conform to an alien way of life it had been “this brother” – meaning himself.

Erdoğan’s rise from street urchin to inhabiting a palace that architects estimate to have cost more than £1bn has indeed been hardscrabble. In 1998 he was removed from office as mayor of Istanbul and briefly imprisoned for reciting a well-known nationalist poem which the prosecutor deemed “an incitement to violence and religious hatred”.

However, greater obstacles might lie ahead. The difficulties that are already facing Erdoğan’s Turkey hardly need rehearsing. A civil war across the Syrian border has led to an influx of what may be as many as three million refugees. A once booming economy is now ailing. In 2015 – in order to woo the nationalist vote – the government shredded its attempt to secure an agreement with dissident Kurds. On top of this, there is the debilitating drip, drip of terrorist incidents. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Turkey’s Parliament on Monday kicked off debate on proposed constitutional amendments that would hand Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s largely ceremonial presidency sweeping executive powers and Erdogan himself the possibility to serve two more five-year terms.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for 14 years, has long pushed imbuing the presidency with greater political powers, arguing that strong leadership would help Turkey grow.

The main opposition party fears that if approved, the reforms would concentrate too much power in Erdogan’s hands, turn the country into a de facto dictatorship and move Turkey away from democracy and its anchor in the West. [Continue reading…]

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How we fool ourselves on Russia

William J Burns (former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and a former Foreign Service Officer who has been called “the quintessential diplomat” and who served in five administrations) writes: In the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, profound grievances, misperceptions and disappointments have often defined the relationship between the United States and Russia. I lived through this turbulence during my years as a diplomat in Moscow, navigating the curious mix of hope and humiliation that I remember so vividly in the Russia of Boris N. Yeltsin, and the pugnacity and raw ambition of Vladimir V. Putin’s Kremlin. And I lived through it in Washington, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations.

There have been more than enough illusions on both sides. The United States has oscillated between visions of an enduring partnership with Moscow and dismissing it as a sulking regional power in terminal decline. Russia has moved between notions of a strategic partnership with the United States and a later, deeper desire to upend the current international order, where a dominant United States consigns Russia to a subordinate role.

The reality is that our relationship with Russia will remain competitive, and often adversarial, for the foreseeable future. At its core is a fundamental disconnect in outlook and about each other’s role in the world.

It is tempting to think that personal rapport can bridge this disconnect and that the art of the deal can unlock a grand bargain. That is a foolish starting point for sensible policy. It would be especially foolish to think that Russia’s deeply troubling interference in our election can or should be played down, however inconvenient.

President Putin’s aggressive election meddling, like his broader foreign policy, has at least two motivating factors. The first is his conviction that the surest path to restoring Russia as a great power comes at the expense of an American-led order. He wants Russia unconstrained by Western values and institutions, free to pursue a sphere of influence.

The second motivating factor is closely connected to the first. The legitimacy of Mr. Putin’s system of repressive domestic control depends on the existence of external threats. Surfing on high oil prices, he used to be able to bolster his social contract with the Russian people through rising standards of living. That was clear in the boomtown Moscow I knew as the American ambassador a decade ago, full of the promise of a rising middle class and the consumption of an elite convinced that anything worth doing was worth overdoing. But Mr. Putin has lost that card in a world of lower energy prices and Western sanctions, and with a one-dimensional economy in which real reform is trumped by the imperative of political control and the corruption that lubricates it.

The ultimate realist, Mr. Putin understands Russia’s relative weakness, but regularly demonstrates that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising powers. He sees a target-rich environment all around him.

If he can’t easily build Russia up, he can take the United States down a few pegs, with his characteristic tactical agility and willingness to play rough and take risks. If he can’t have a deferential government in Kiev, he can grab Crimea and try to engineer the next best thing, a dysfunctional Ukraine. If he can’t abide the risk of regime upheaval in Syria, he can flex Russia’s military muscle, emasculate the West, and preserve Bashar al-Assad atop the rubble of Aleppo. If he can’t directly intimidate the European Union, he can accelerate its unraveling by supporting anti-Union nationalists and exploiting the wave of migration spawned in part by his own brutality. Wherever he can, he exposes the seeming hypocrisy and fecklessness of Western democracies, blurring the line between fact and fiction.

So what to do? Russia is still too big, proud and influential to ignore and still the only nuclear power comparable to the United States. It remains a major player on problems from the Arctic to Iran and North Korea. We need to focus on the critical before we test the desirable. The first step is to sustain, and if necessary amplify, the actions taken by the Obama administration in response to Russian hacking. Russia challenged the integrity of our democratic system, and Europe’s 2017 electoral landscape is the next battlefield.

A second step is to reassure our European allies of our absolute commitment to NATO. American politicians tell one another to “remember your base,” and that’s what should guide policy toward Russia. Our network of allies is not a millstone around America’s neck, but a powerful asset that sets us apart.

A third step is to stay sharply focused on Ukraine, a country whose fate will be critical to the future of Europe, and Russia, over the next generation. This is not about NATO or European Union membership, both distant aspirations. It is about helping Ukrainian leaders build the successful political system that Russia seeks to subvert.

Finally, we should be wary of superficially appealing notions like a common war on Islamic extremism or a common effort to “contain” China. Russia’s bloody role in Syria makes the terrorist threat far worse and despite long-term concerns about a rising China, Mr. Putin has little inclination to sacrifice a relationship with Beijing.

I’ve learned a few lessons during my diplomatic career, often the hard way. I learned to respect Russians and their history and vitality. I learned that it rarely pays to neglect or underestimate Russia, or display gratuitous disrespect. But I also learned that firmness and vigilance, and a healthy grasp of the limits of the possible, are the best way to deal with the combustible combination of grievance and insecurity that Vladimir Putin embodies. I’ve learned that we have a much better hand to play with Mr. Putin than he does with us. If we play it methodically, confident in our enduring strengths, and unapologetic about our values, we can eventually build a more stable relationship, without illusions.

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Vladimir Putin’s newest export: terrorists

The Daily Beast reports: With the establishment of ISIS’s “caliphate,” veterans of the Caucasus or Central Asia insurgencies have found a new port of call, and ISIS has even gone so far as to declare a wilayat, or province, on Russian Federation territory, more out of bluster than anything approaching the medieval reality it has been able to impose on now-dwindling areas of Syria and Iraq.

According to Jacob Zenn, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, “not including al-Qaeda and also not including Uighurs, if you’re looking at Russian-speaking jihadists, you’re looking at mostly Uzbeks.” And very few of them actually come from Uzbekistan but are rather cultivated as migrant laborers inside Russia. “They get picked up by a jamaat,” he said, referring to the Arabic word for an Islamic council, “with professional ISIS recruiters in Russia who get money for each guy they send to ISIS in Syria. The route is through Turkey. There hasn’t been much done about it.”

The reason for that, Zenn says, is that either Russia has willfully turned a blind eye to the exodus or because the FSB can’t keep track of everyone leaving, particularly from networks in Siberia or the Russian regions away from Moscow.

One of the fiercest battalions in ISIS is actually called the Uzbek Battalion; members from it were reported to have fought in Fallujah and kept the city from falling earlier to pro-Iraqi-government forces last year.

“A large number of the Uzbeks in Syria are actually Kyrgyz citizens. Their motivation is the Kyrgyz nationalist movement in Kyrgyzistan.”

Almost all Tajiks join ISIS as opposed to other Islamist or jihadist factions in Syria, according to Zenn.

As for Russians, the total number fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq is impossible to know for sure, as official or semiofficial sources have given varying figures at varying points of time.

Ilya Rogachev, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department on New Challenges and Threats, put the total at “more than 3,200” in November 2016. A year earlier, the FSB estimated that it was closer to 2,900. FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov said in December 2015, that of the 214 jihadists who had repatriated to Russia, “They have all been placed under tight control in law-enforcement agencies: 80 have been tried, 41 more are under arrest.”

Meanwhile, Chechen intelligence, according to the New Yorker, claims that as many as 3,000 to 4,000 Chechens alone have joined ISIS, that is, not counting Russian citizens from other parts of the country.

Indeed, some believe that Chechen republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, himself a former Islamist insurgent turned Russian state hireling, saw the rise of ISIS as a convenient opportunity to solve his own domestic terrorism problem by exporting it to the Middle East — an allegation that has already been leveled with increasing evidence against Russia’s security services, writ large.

Elena Milashina, a reporter for Russia’s investigative opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, concluded in 2015, based on field research in Dagestan, that “Russian special services have controlled” the flow of jihadists into Syria in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, when the Kremlin feared a terror atrocity would scandalize the international sporting competition it spent so many millions of rubles hosting. “In our village there is a person, a negotiator,” Akhyad Abdullaev, the head of a Dagestani village, told Milashina. “He, together with the FSB, brought several leaders out of the underground and sent them off abroad on jihad.”

The FSB’s so-called “green corridor” for transiting these violent fighters, as The Daily Beast reported, included helping them to obtain passports and other necessaries to migrate to Turkey and/or Georgia, and then ultimately to Syria. The belief was that they’d either be killed on a foreign battlefield and thus become one less headache for law enforcement to worry about, or they’d be picked up upon their return home. One unnamed FSB officer confirmed this policy to the International Crisis Group: “We opened borders, helped them all out and closed the border behind them by criminalizing this type of fighting. If they want to return now, we are waiting for them at the borders.”

A year later, in May 2016, Reuters also, “identified five other Russian radicals who, relatives and local officials say, also left Russia with direct or indirect help from the authorities and ended up in Syria.”

Many Russian-speaking jihadists have gone on to positions of great prominence in the organization. [Continue reading…]

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Russia’s new favorite jihadis: the Taliban

The Daily Beast reports: More than 15 years into America’s war in Afghanistan, the Russian government is openly advocating on behalf of the Taliban.

Last week, Moscow hosted Chinese and Pakistani emissaries to discuss the war. Tellingly, no Afghan officials were invited. However, the trio of nations urged the world to be “flexible” in dealing with the Taliban, which remains the Afghan government’s most dangerous foe. Russia even argued that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark in the war against the so-called Islamic State.

For its part, the American military sees Moscow’s embrace of the Taliban as yet another move intended to undermine NATO, which fights the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State every day.

After Moscow’s conference, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova spoke with reporters and noted that “the three countries expressed particular concern about the rising activity in the country of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of IS [the Islamic State, or ISIS].”

According to Reuters, Zakharova added that China, Pakistan, and Russia agreed upon a “flexible approach to remove certain [Taliban] figures from [United Nations] sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.”

The Taliban, which refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, quickly praised the “Moscow tripartite” in a statement posted online on Dec. 29. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s Jihad on Turkey

Roy Gutman reports: Ten days before the New Year’s attack on an Istanbul night club for which the so-called Islamic State now claims responsibility, it posted a grisly video on social media showing its forces burning two Turkish soldiers alive — and coupled it with a warning of worse atrocities to come.

Turkey “has become the land for Jihad,” a Turkish ISIS fighter calling himself Abu Hasan declared in the immolation video. He urged the group’s sympathizers in Turkey to “burn it, blow it up and destroy it.” It may well have been a signal to proceed with the attack early Sunday, which killed at least 39 and wounded 65.

“A hero soldier of the caliphate attacked one of the most famous nightclubs, where Christians celebrated their pagan holiday” and “transformed their celebration into mourning,” the group said in a message posted on an Internet app early Monday.

The message, a rare example of ISIS taking responsibility for an attack in Turkey, went on to condemn the Turkish intervention in northern Syria, where its forces along with Syrian rebels now encircle the ISIS-held town of Al Bab. “The government of Turkey should know that the blood of Muslims, which it is targeting with its planes and its guns, will cause a fire in its home by God’s will,” it said.

The Turkish government, which has clamped down severely on news reporting on the assault, responded defiantly, vowing to continue the cross-border operation. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s Syria policies could create a hotbed for ISIS to plan attacks

Mohamad Bazzi writes: Since Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and its allies forced out the last rebels from eastern Aleppo and regained full control over Syria’s largest city, the six-year-old Syrian civil war has now entered a new phase. The next major battle will be to drive out the Islamic State group from the city of Raqqa, but that fight is far more dependent on the United States than Assad and his allies.

Donald Trump wants to stay out of Syria’s complicated war. But as soon as he’s inaugurated on Jan. 20, the new American president will face a crucial decision: Will he continue the Pentagon’s support and training for a coalition of Syrian rebel groups leading the offensive to oust ISIS from Raqqa, the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate?

That campaign began Nov. 6 with a mobilization of some 30,000 rebels to encircle Raqqa and cut it off from all sides and deny ISIS the ability to resupply with weapons and fighters. The battle to push the Islamic State out of Raqqa could take months. If it falters under a fledging Trump administration, ISIS would continue to have a safe base from which it would unleash new terror attacks in Syria and Iraq, and inspire and possibly direct operations around the world.

After the fall of eastern Aleppo, there are signs of an emerging division of labor in Syria between the incoming Trump administration and that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia would continue its intensive air strikes and logistical aid to help Assad recapture territory from rebels, while Washington would take the lead in the fight against ISIS. On Dec. 10, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the Pentagon would send 200 additional special forces to Syria — for a total of 500 US troops on the ground — to help train and advise Syrian opposition groups who are fighting ISIS, especially around Raqqa. [Continue reading…]

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The Mosul Dam is failing

Dexter Filkins writes: On the morning of August 7, 2014, a team of fighters from the Islamic State, riding in pickup trucks and purloined American Humvees, swept out of the Iraqi village of Wana and headed for the Mosul Dam. Two months earlier, ISIS had captured Mosul, a city of nearly two million people, as part of a ruthless campaign to build a new caliphate in the Middle East. For an occupying force, the dam, twenty-five miles north of Mosul, was an appealing target: it regulates the flow of water to the city, and to millions of Iraqis who live along the Tigris. As the ISIS invaders approached, they could make out the dam’s four towers, standing over a wide, squat structure that looks like a brutalist mausoleum. Getting closer, they saw a retaining wall that spans the Tigris, rising three hundred and seventy feet from the riverbed and extending nearly two miles from embankment to embankment. Behind it, a reservoir eight miles long holds eleven billion cubic metres of water.

A group of Kurdish soldiers was stationed at the dam, and the ISIS fighters bombarded them from a distance and then moved in. When the battle was over, the area was nearly empty; most of the Iraqis who worked at the dam, a crew of nearly fifteen hundred, had fled. The fighters began to loot and destroy equipment. An ISIS propaganda video posted online shows a fighter carrying a flag across, and a man’s voice says, “The banner of unification flutters above the dam.”

The next day, Vice-President Joe Biden telephoned Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish region, and urged him to retake the dam as quickly as possible. American officials feared that ISIS might try to blow it up, engulfing Mosul and a string of cities all the way to Baghdad in a colossal wave. Ten days later, after an intense struggle, Kurdish forces pushed out the isis fighters and took control of the dam.

But, in the months that followed, American officials inspected the dam and became concerned that it was on the brink of collapse. The problem wasn’t structural: the dam had been built to survive an aerial bombardment. (In fact, during the Gulf War, American jets bombed its generator, but the dam remained intact.) The problem, according to Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American civil engineer who has served as an adviser on the dam, is that “it’s just in the wrong place.” Completed in 1984, the dam sits on a foundation of soluble rock. To keep it stable, hundreds of employees have to work around the clock, pumping a cement mixture into the earth below. Without continuous maintenance, the rock beneath would wash away, causing the dam to sink and then break apart. But Iraq’s recent history has not been conducive to that kind of vigilance. [Continue reading…]

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Fresh advance in east Mosul to begin within days

Reuters reports: Iraqi forces will resume their push against Islamic State inside Mosul in the coming days, a U.S. battlefield commander said, in a new phase of the two-month-old operation that will see American troops deployed closer to the front line in the city.

The battle for Mosul, involving 100,000 Iraqi troops, members of the Kurdish security forces and Shi’ite militiamen, is the biggest ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. The upcoming phase appears likely to give American troops their biggest combat role since they fulfilled President Barack Obama’s pledge to withdraw from Iraq in 2011.

Elite Iraqi soldiers have retaken a quarter of Mosul, the jihadists’ last major stronghold in Iraq, but their advance has been slow and punishing. They entered a planned “operational refit” this month, the first significant pause of the campaign.

A heavily armoured unit of several thousand federal police was redeployed from the southern outskirts two weeks ago to reinforce the eastern front after army units advised by the Americans suffered heavy losses in an Islamic State counter-attack.

U.S. advisers, part of an international coalition that has conducted thousands of air strikes and trained tens of thousands of Iraqi ground troops, will work directly with those forces and an elite Interior Ministry strike force. [Continue reading…]

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Yes, Donald Trump is making terrorist attacks more likely. Here’s how

Karl Vick writes: ISIS may be losing ground in Iraq and Syria, but things are very much moving its way on the next battleground: the realm of terrorist attacks like the truck rampage in Berlin. The group thrives on the kind of clash-of-civilizations rhetoric frequently invoked by populist politicians across the West — especially President-elect Donald Trump, who as a candidate famously declared, “I think Islam hates us.”

Counterterrorism experts warn that Trump’s them-against-us approach both encourages extremists and makes it harder to detect their plots, by discouraging cooperation from moderate Muslims. The likely result is a dangerously escalating cycle of attacks and reactions that fuel more attacks.

“There’s a pretty perfect storm brewing, insofar as the rise of populist nationalism in Europe and in the United states plays perfectly into the terrorists’ narrative,” Daniel Benjamin, a former counterterrorism chief at the State Department who is now at Dartmouth, tells TIME. “As we know, ISIS was using Donald Trump in its propaganda to try to enhance its recruitment. It’s now in a much better position to make the case that the West really is determined to destroy Islam and it’s an unalterable enemy, as it has been characterized since bin Laden.” [Continue reading…]

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Drugs and terror: Berlin truck-attack suspect followed familiar pattern

The Wall Street Journal reports: The 24-year-old Tunisian migrant suspected of killing 12 people in an attack in Berlin this week typified a new wave of young jihadists in Europe who mix drug dealing and other illegal activities with Islamist terror.

Anis Amri, who was killed in a shootout with Italian police in Milan on Friday after days on the run, peddled cocaine in a hip neighborhood of the German capital, while becoming increasingly radicalized and declaring his allegiance to Islamic State.

It is a pattern that has become increasingly common. Two brothers involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris sold hashish from a bar in the Belgian capital, Brussels. One — Salah Abdeslam, the main surviving suspect in that assault — served time in prison for breaking into a garage. The other had repeated brushes with the law for theft, drugs and weapons possession.

“You have a crossover between criminals and extremists,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert at the Swedish Defence University. “They are just as at ease with selling drugs, petty crime and dabbling in extremism.” [Continue reading…]

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After Berlin attack, Germans reject talk of ‘war’

AFP reports: The Berlin attack may have rattled nerves but, mindful of their own dark history, Germans are resisting calls for a security overhaul and reject any talk of being at war — setting the country apart from other jihadist-hit nations.

Long-held fears of a major attack on German soil became reality on Monday when an extremist rammed a truck into a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring dozens. The suspected attacker, 24-year-old Tunisian Anis Amri, was shot dead by police in Italy early Friday.

The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, horrified Germany, which had until now escaped the type of jihadist carnage seen in neighbouring France and Belgium.

But while the shock and grief are the same, there are no cries for a state of emergency and there is no question of flooding the streets with armed soldiers.

Chancellor Angela Merkel herself on Thursday said she was “very proud of how calmly most people reacted to the situation”.

Experts attribute the sang-froid in part to Germany’s past as an instigator of two world wars, making its citizens today deeply suspicious of any kind of heavy-handed security response. [Continue reading…]

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