Iraqi PM rejects Turkish claim on Mosul campaign

The Associated Press reports: Tensions between Turkey and Iraq continued to escalate Wednesday as Iraq’s prime minister rejected Turkish claims that their forces must be included in an operation to retake the militant-held city of Mosul.

“We will liberate our land through the determination of our men and not by video calls,” Haider al-Abadi said late Tuesday night on his Twitter account, mocking the Turkish president’s nationally broadcast video call to a TV journalist amid a failed coup attempt in July.

Earlier Tuesday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish forces cannot be excluded from the long-awaited operation to retake Mosul, telling Iraq’s al-Abadi to “know his place.” [Continue reading…]


ISIS media output drops as military pressure rises

The New York Times reports: The vaunted propaganda operations of the Islamic State, which helped lure more than 30,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, have dropped off drastically as the extremist group has come under military pressure, according to a study by terrorism researchers at West Point.

In addition, the researchers found, there has been a striking shift away from publications and social media portraying a functioning state with competent bureaucrats, thriving businesses and happy citizens. The Islamic State, also called ISIS and ISIL, claims that it is building a new caliphate — or unified Muslim land — a claim that has become increasingly threadbare.

“It’s not just the numeric decline,” said Daniel Milton, director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and the author of the new report. “The caliphate was their big selling point. Now there’s an inability to say we’re doing the things that make us a state. And that was behind their broad appeal.”

At the peak of the Islamic State’s media output, in August 2015, the group released more than 700 items from official outlets in Syria and several other countries. During the month of August 2016, after a year of airstrikes and other assaults, that number had declined to under 200, according to the study.

Over the same period, the share of items devoted to military reports doubled to 70 percent, eclipsing attention to governance, commerce and other topics portraying civilian life. [Continue reading…]


Everything Donald Trump says about Syria is crazy, wrong, or both


Michael Weiss writes: Well, now I prefer the guy who didn’t know what Aleppo is.

In the second presidential debate, during which Hillary Clinton looked as if she could profit from her own no-fly zone against her menacingly hovering opponent, Donald Trump made a series of assertions about the five-year-old humanitarian catastrophe in Syria that no one with access to Google, much less classified intelligence, ever ought to make. That he managed to do this while both deferring to a theocratic—excuse me, Islamic terrorist—regime he claims to reprehend and also humiliating his own running-mate in the process was a masterstroke of Trumpist illogic and megalomania.

By way of reaffirming his faith in a better working relationship with the Kremlin (whose hacking of the Democratic National Committee he again doubted), Trump stated that “Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS.” He sees this as proof of absent American leadership, and is quite comfortable being on their side in a civilizational struggle, even though he hates the fact that Iran is richer and only able to war against the Sunni extremists thanks to Obama’s nuclear deal.

In point of fact, none of the parties Trump rattled off has demonstrated much of a keenness or willingness to fight ISIS in Syria, as a bevy of U.S. officials and independent monitors have repeatedly pointed out. [Continue reading…]


Amid Syrian chaos, Iran’s game plan emerges: A path to the Mediterranean

Martin Chulov reports: Not far from Mosul, a large military force is finalising plans for an advance that has been more than three decades in the making. The troops are Shia militiamen who have fought against the Islamic State, but they have not been given a direct role in the coming attack to free Iraq’s second city from its clutches.

Instead, while the Iraqi army attacks Mosul from the south, the militias will take up a blocking position to the west, stopping Isis forces from fleeing towards their last redoubt of Raqqa in Syria. Their absence is aimed at reassuring the Sunni Muslims of Mosul that the imminent recapture of the city is not a sectarian push against them. However, among Iraq’s Shia-dominated army the militia’s decision to remain aloof from the battle of Mosul is being seen as a rebuff.

Yet among the militias’ backers in Iran there is little concern. Since their inception, the Shia irregulars have made their name on the battlefields of Iraq, but they have always been central to Tehran’s ambitions elsewhere. By not helping to retake Mosul, the militias are free to drive one of its most coveted projects – securing an arc of influence across Iraq and Syria that would end at the Mediterranean Sea.

The strip of land to the west of Mosul in which the militias will operate is essential to that goal. After 12 years of conflict in Iraq and an even more savage conflict in Syria, Iran is now closer than ever to securing a land corridor that will anchor it in the region – and potentially transform the Islamic Republic’s presence on Arab lands. “They have been working extremely hard on this,” said a European official who has monitored Iran’s role in both wars for the past five years. “This is a matter of pride for them on one hand and pragmatism on the other. They will be able to move people and supplies between the Mediterranean and Tehran whenever they want, and they will do so along safe routes that are secured by their people, or their proxies.”

Interviews during the past four months with regional officials, influential Iraqis and residents of northern Syria have established that the land corridor has slowly taken shape since 2014. It is a complex route that weaves across Arab Iraq, through the Kurdish north, into Kurdish north-eastern Syria and through the battlefields north of Aleppo, where Iran and its allies are prevailing on the ground. It has been assembled under the noses of friend and foe, the latter of which has begun to sound the alarm in recent weeks. Turkey has been especially opposed, fearful of what such a development means for Iran’s relationship with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ party), the restive Kurds in its midst, on whom much of the plan hinges. [Continue reading…]


U.S. set to open a climactic battle against ISIS in Mosul

The New York Times reports: As Iraqi and American troops prepare to try to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State, the Obama administration is describing the battle as the last major hurdle before declaring victory against the extremist Sunni militancy — in Iraq, at least.

But some former officials and humanitarian aid groups are worried that President Obama will run into the same problem that haunted his predecessor, George W. Bush: beginning a ground campaign without a comprehensive plan for what happens afterward.

“There’s an effort to proclaim mission accomplished, and obviously, getting back Mosul would be a momentous and symbolic defeat for ISIS,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, using another name for the Islamic State. But, he said, victory in Mosul without a detailed arrangement for how the city and the surrounding province will be governed “does nothing to prevent extremists from resurfacing again.”

Still, Obama administration officials are loath to further delay the operation, which they first envisioned two years ago, in order to sort out in advance the post-conflict political arrangements in and around Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The administration is taking the calculated risk that the future of a region populated by a welter of ethnic and religious groups can be worked out peacefully as the battle unfolds or even after the militants are defeated, with American officials serving as brokers when needed but not imposing a plan. [Continue reading…]


Islamic militant groups’ recruits likely to be well educated, study finds

The Guardian reports: Recruits to Islamic militant groups are likely to be well educated and relatively wealthy, with those aspiring to be suicide bombers among the best off, a study by the World Bank has found.

The research, based on internal records from the Islamic State group, will reinforce the growing conclusion among specialists that there is no obvious link between poverty or educational levels and radicalisation.

The data, leaked by a disaffected former member of Isis in March, includes basic information on 3,803 foreign recruits from all over the Islamic world and Europe who joined the organisation between early 2013 and late 2014, when the flow of volunteers to the organisation reached a peak.

Those arriving in Isis-controlled territory were vetted and interviewed. Data on country of residence, citizenship, marital status, skills, educational status, previous extremist experience and knowledge of Islamic law was recorded. [Continue reading…]


ISIS and Al Qaeda turf wars in Africa may push fragile states to breaking point

Jason Burke reports: It is a war within a war, fought across thousands of miles of desert, scrub and forest, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Indian Ocean coastline.

It pits the Islamic State (Isis), the Iraq and Syria-based group that has expanded deep into Africa since surging to international attention in 2014, against al-Qaida, the veteran extremist group, which has maintained a significant presence in much of the continent in recent years.

Both groups and their affiliates are also fighting an array of armies and counter-terrorist agencies: French soldiers, US special forces, British military trainers, as well as the local armies of a dozen states. Last week, it was revealed the US was building a $50m base for drones in Niger, which is at the very centre of the conflict zone.

But at the same time, the extremist groups are fighting each other. Such internecine struggles between militant groups may seem esoteric to casual observers. But the eventual result will have an enormous impact on the security of dozens of often fragile states in Africa and, more broadly, on the future of Islamic militancy.

Though they share many aims, al-Qaida and Isis have divergent strategic visions and favour dramatically different tactics. Al-Qaida has largely avoided attacks on other Muslims, including Shias, and has sought to build support from local communities. Though still committed to strikes in the west, it does not appear to see a terrorist campaign in Europe or the US as a priority. Isis, also known as Isil, has made other Muslims who do not share its beliefs a key target, often used violence to keep local communities in line, and launched bloody attacks in the west. [Continue reading…]


Baghdad bridles at Turkey’s military presence, warns of ‘regional war’

Reuters reports: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has warned Turkey that it risks triggering a regional war by keeping troops in Iraq, as each summoned the other’s ambassador in a growing row.

Relations between the two regional powers are already broadly strained by the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State militant group.

Turkey’s parliament voted last week to extend its military presence in Iraq for a further year to take on what it called “terrorist organizations” – a likely reference to Kurdish rebels as well as Islamic State.

Iraq’s parliament responded on Tuesday night by condemning the vote and calling for Turkey to pull its estimated 2,000 troops out of areas across northern Iraq.

“We have asked the Turkish side more than once not to intervene in Iraqi matters and I fear the Turkish adventure could turn into a regional war,” Abadi warned in comments broadcast on state TV on Wednesday. [Continue reading…]


Battle for ISIS stronghold could trigger a new crisis: A million displaced Iraqis

The Washington Post reports: The battle for the northern city of Mosul could force a million people to flee their homes. But even before it begins, aid agencies are struggling to shelter families displaced by the conflict against the Islamic State.

The United Nations says it is nowhere near ready to deal with the fallout from the U.S.-backed offensive to retake Mosul from the militants, which could begin in less than a month.

The camps in northern Iraq are full. Debaga camp, 40 miles southeast of Mosul on the edges of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, was built a year ago for 700 families. It now houses 10 times as many people, most of whom fled fighting as Iraqi forces retook territory south of the city.

Crowds gather around reporters, hoping they are aid workers bringing humanitarian assistance. “Register me! Register me!” they shout. They complain they don’t have mattresses, medicine, milk for their children or diapers.

Many don’t have tents, with 1,100 families here waiting for shelter. They bed down in the classrooms and yard of the camp’s school and in the hall of a mosque. Some have slung tarpaulins next to walls in an attempt to shield themselves from the sun. [Continue reading…]


Don’t defeat ISIS, yet

Ramzy Mardini writes: A military push to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the rest of Nineveh Province from the Islamic State is expected soon. Unfortunately, even if the campaign is successful, the liberation of Mosul will not stabilize the country. Nor will conquest resolve the underlying conditions that originally fueled the extremist insurgency.

Instead, the legacy of the Islamic State, or ISIS, will endure. Its rise and fall have altered the country’s society and politics in irreversible ways that threaten future cycles of conflict. Throughout history, victorious wars have often forged national identities, expanded state power and helped centralize political authority. But the war against the Islamic State is having the opposite effect: fragmentation.

In parts of Iraq recaptured from the militants where I’ve traveled, signs of any central authority are nonexistent. Instead, what has emerged from the conflict is a complex patchwork of ethnic, tribal and religious militias that claim fief over particular territories. [Continue reading…]


The once and future Mosul

Rasha al-Aqeedi writes: On August 30, General Joe Votel of the U.S. Central Command told Middle Eastern reporters via a video call from CENTCOM Tampa that coalition-backed Iraqi forces could take Mosul back from the Islamic State before the end of the year. “[A]s the Prime Minister has said, it’s his intention to try to get through Mosul by the end of the year. My assessment over the course of my visits is that they are on track to achieve that objective…. We are at the point here where we are now really into the heart of the caliphate,” Votel said. Coalition forces have already begun “shaping operations” in the outskirts of Mosul.

The liberation of the town where I was born and raised seems to be at hand. So why do I have such mixed feelings, looking on from Dubai these days, about what is likely to happen by year’s end? Because I fear that the effort to retake the town will destroy much of it, and because I am skeptical that a post-combat governance arrangement will be easy to put together. Most of all, I fear that other Iraqis and some select group of non-Iraqis who may have a hand in trying to control Mosul in 2017 may not understand what makes the place tick. Mosul is not just any city. It has its own character, wonders, and distempers. To govern it requires first that one really know it. The details matter, but, alas, details are often ignored.

The aftershocks of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq included not least an overthrowing of the balance — or rather imbalance — of sectarian power that had characterized the country since the onset of its modern history. A minority of Sunnis governed a plurality if not an outright majority of Shi‘a. The invasion shifted that status quo almost immediately. In late April 2003, barely a month after the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously pulled from its pedestal in Baghdad, Iraqi Shi‘a marked the pilgrimage to Karbala. More than one million devotees marched toward their spiritual sanctuary in a ritual that had been suppressed by the Ba‘ath regime for decades. They carried colorful banners that bore names sacred to all Muslims: Fatima, Ali, and Hussein. My hometown of Mosul, like most Sunni-majority cities, observed the event with a mix of confusion and apprehension: Was the new Iraq a place that celebrated and implicitly acknowledged the ascent of a set of customs and beliefs foreign to Sunnis? [Continue reading…]


Turkey wants to join U.S.-led operation against ISIS in Raqqa

Reuters reports: Turkey wants to join the United States in a military operation to push Islamic State from its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, as long as it excludes Kurdish rebel forces, President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying on Sunday.

NATO member Turkey, part of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State, is backing Arab and Turkmen Syrian rebels who seized the Syrian town of Jarablus from the jihadists a month ago in an operation it has dubbed “Euphrates Shield.”

But Ankara is wary of the U.S.-allied People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syrian Kurdish groups it sees as extensions of Kurdish militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency on its own soil. [Continue reading…]