From truck driver to Uber driver to terror attack suspect

The New York Times reports: Sayfullo Saipov’s arrival in the United States in 2010 began unceremoniously in Ohio.

“My dad introduced him as, ‘He’s new to the United States, and he’s going to stay with us,’ ” said Bekhzod Abdusamatov, 22.

Mr. Saipov, the suspect in the terrorist attack in Lower Manhattan that killed eight people on Tuesday, arrived from Tashkent — the Uzbek capital and its largest city — knowing little English, Mr. Abdusamatov said.

He spent those early days in the United States looking for a job and trying to improve his English, Mr. Abdusamatov said. But he was also a late sleeper.

At one point, Mr. Saipov made his way to Fort Myers, Fla., where he met a fellow Uzbek immigrant, Kobiljon Matkarov, 37. Mr. Saipov was working as a truck driver at the time.

“He was a very good person when I knew him,” he said. “He liked the U.S. He seemed very lucky, and all the time he was happy and talking like everything is O.K. He did not seem like a terrorist, but I did not know him from the inside.”

As investigators began on Tuesday to look into Mr. Saipov’s history, it became clear that he had been on the radar of federal authorities. Three officials said he had come to their attention as a result of an unrelated investigation, but it was not clear whether that was because he was a friend, an associate or a family member of someone under scrutiny or because he had been the focus of an investigation. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish revolutionaries defeated ISIS in Raqqa. Will the U.S. soon abandon them?

Luke Mogelson reports: In August, in the living room of an abandoned house on the western outskirts of Raqqa, Syria, I met with Rojda Felat, one of four Kurdish commanders overseeing the campaign to wrest the city from the Islamic State, or isis. Wearing fatigues, a beaded head scarf, and turquoise socks, Felat sat cross-legged on the floor, eating a homemade meal that her mother had sent in a plastic container from Qamishli, four hours away, in the northeast of the country. In the kitchen, two young female fighters washed dishes and glanced surreptitiously at Felat with bright-eyed adoration. At forty years old, she affects a passive, stoic expression that transforms startlingly into one of unguarded felicity when she is amused—something that, while we spoke, happened often. She had reason to be in good spirits. Her forces had recently completed an encirclement of Raqqa, and victory appeared to be imminent.

The Raqqa offensive, which concluded in mid-October, marks the culmination of a dramatic rise both for Felat and for the Kurdish political movement to which she belongs. For decades, the Syrian state—officially, the Syrian Arab Republic—was hostile to Kurds. Tens of thousands were stripped of citizenship or dispossessed of land; cultural and political gatherings were banned; schools were forbidden to teach the Kurdish language.

Qamishli, Felat’s home town, has long been a center of Kurdish political activity. In 2004, during a soccer match, Arab fans of a visiting team threw stones at Kurds, causing a stampede; a riot ensued, during which Kurds toppled a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of Syria’s current President, Bashar. Government security forces subsequently killed more than thirty Kurds. Amid the crackdown, a new Kurdish opposition group, the Democratic Union Party, organized and recruited clandestinely.

In 2011, when anti-government protests began spreading throughout Syria, Felat was studying Arabic literature at Hasakah University. The daughter of a poor farmer, she’d begun her studies late, “for economic reasons,” she told me. Along with several dozen other students, Felat left the university and returned to Qamishli. Within a week, Felat, who’d harbored ambitions of attending Syria’s national military academy and becoming an Army officer, had joined the Democratic Union Party’s militia, the Y.P.G. After a day of training, she was issued a Kalashnikov.

Felat expected to fight the regime. But, as the anti-government demonstrations evolved into an armed rebellion and insurrections broke out in major cities, Assad withdrew nearly all the troops he had stationed in the predominantly Kurdish north. The Democratic Union Party allowed the regime to maintain control of an airport and of administrative offices in downtown Qamishli. Arab opposition groups decried the arrangement as part of a tacit alliance between Assad and the Kurds. Islamist rebels began launching attacks in northern Syria, and the Y.P.G. went to war against them. “Many Kurdish families brought their daughters to join,” Felat told me. “Many women signed up.” She described her female compatriots as “women who had joined to protect other women” from extremists and their sexist ideologies. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS jihadis have returned home by the thousands

Robin Wright writes: Over the past few months, as the size of the Islamic State’s caliphate rapidly shrunk, the Pentagon began citing the number of enemy dead as an important barometer of longer-term success. “We have killed, in conservative estimates, sixty thousand to seventy thousand,” General Raymond Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told the Aspen Security Forum, in July. “They declared an army, they put it on the battlefield, and we went to war with it.”

A high kill rate, which once misled the U.S. military about its prospects in Vietnam, has eased concerns in the U.S. today about future attempts at revenge from isis’s foreign fighters. “We’re not seeing a lot of flow out of the core caliphate, because most of those people are dead now,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, confidently told reporters this month. “They’re unable to manifest the former activities they did to try to pose themselves as a state.”

Yet the calculus is pivotal now that the isis pseudo-caliphate has collapsed: Just how many fighters have survived? Where are they? What threat do they pose? Between 2014 and 2016, the perpetrators of all but four of the forty-two terrorist attacks in the West had some connection to isis, the European Commission’s Radicalization Awareness Network said, in July.

A new report, to be released Tuesday by the Soufan Group and the Global Strategy Network, details some of the answers: At least fifty-six hundred people from thirty-three countries have already gone home—and most countries don’t yet have a head count. On average, twenty to thirty per cent of the foreign fighters from Europe have already returned there—though it’s fifty per cent in Britain, Denmark, and Sweden. Thousands more who fought for isis are stuck near the borders of Turkey, Jordan, or Iraq, and are believed to be trying to get back to their home countries. [Continue reading…]

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Kurds defeated, displaced and divided after Iraq reclaims oil-rich Kirkuk

Martin Chulov reports: When the guns fell silent on the Kirkuk-Erbil road, just after noon on Friday, a fresh border had been scythed through the oil-rich soil – and a new line of influence carved across northern Iraq.

Their gun barrels still hot, vanquished peshmerga forces began another withdrawal a few miles closer to the seat of government in the now shrunken boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. A few miles south, closer to Kirkuk, Iraqi forces were digging in, their conquest of the entire province complete, and their five-day sweep through the rest of the north having seized up to 14,000 sq km from the Kurds, with a minimum of bother.

Baghdad has now reasserted its authority over territory that the Kurds occupied outside their mandated borders, most of which they had claimed during the three-year fight against the Islamic State (Isis) terrorist group.

The extraordinary capitulation – which followed an indepedence referendum that was supposed to strengthen their hand – has not only shattered Kurdish ambitions for at least a generation; it has also laid bare an evolving power struggle in Iraq, and a regional dynamic that is fast taking shape in the wake of the shattered so-called caliphate declared by the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in mid-2014.

Lining up to claim the rout of the Kurds were Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and Iran’s omnipresent general, Qassem Suleimani, whose influence in the days before last weekend’s attack was key to shaping the aftermath even before a shot had been fired. [Continue reading…]

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Scores of bodies are found in Syrian town after ISIS retreats

The New York Times reports: As pro-government troops drove Islamic State fighters from a central Syrian town over the weekend, the retreating militants killed scores of civilians, dumping some bodies into wells and leaving others in the street, local residents and the Syrian state-run news media said on Monday.

The apparent mass killing is the latest example of the brutal reprisals that have taken place when territory changes hands in Syria’s multisided war, with civilians often bearing the brunt of the pain.

The carnage showed how the Islamic State can still spread havoc even as it loses major parts of its territory that once included large areas of Syria and Iraq.

At least 67 bodies had been identified in the town, Qaryatayn, northeast of Damascus, the capital, by Monday afternoon, according to local activists who posted an online list of the victims’ names. [Continue reading…]

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The tragic legacy of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently

David Remnick writes: Nearly two years ago, I met a group of young Syrian journalists at a dive bar around Times Square. We spoke for hours, and their stories of human cruelty were detailed and beyond appalling. These were all refugees from the city of Raqqa and, in concert with other young men and women who were still living in Syria, they formed the core of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a kind of underground reporting squadron, citizen journalists who, at tremendous risk to their lives, used every possible tool to smuggle out to the world words and images describing life under isis rule. Foreign journalists found that their reports were as reliable as they were sickening. On their Web site, the R.B.S.S. journalists posted reports of mass shootings, crucifixions, beheadings, sexual abuse, and other crimes. These brave reporters, who have been honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists and portrayed in Matthew Heineman’s excellent documentary, “City of Ghosts,” worked under constant threat of death; ten of their colleagues, friends and family members, both inside Raqqa and in Turkey, were hunted down by ISIS forces and executed for the crime of committing journalism.

When news came this week that ISIS had been flushed out of Raqqa by coalition air strikes, I called Abdalaziz Alhamza, perhaps the most eloquent of the young men and women I met that night in Times Square. He and I came to know each other at other events, and it was immediately clear to me that he was feeling no sense of relief, gratitude, or liberation.

“How are you?”

“Pretty terrible,” he said. “This is a liberation in the media. Not in Raqqa.” Alhamza felt no immediate sense of relief or happiness. His city was in ruins. He and everyone he knew had lost friends and family. After speaking on the phone, we decided to have a conversation by e-mail and what follows are his responses to my questions, edited for clarity and space, about his life and about Raqqa, its tragedy, and its future. [Continue reading…]

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America has become dispensable in Iraq

Emma Sky writes: “When the fighting breaks out between Arabs and Kurds, whose side will the Americans be on?” This was the message that Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP), instructed his chief of staff to have me convey to senior U.S. officials in Baghdad in 2010. I was serving as the political adviser to General Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Nuri al-Maliki, then the prime minister of Iraq, and Barzani, concerned by rising tensions between Arabs and Kurds ahead of the 2010 national elections in Nineveh province, had asked General Odierno for help in preventing conflict. We had devised a system of joint check points to facilitate cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the U.S. forces, and to ensure all forces remained focused on defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq.

A key part of the plan was to ensure freedom of movement for Atheel Nujaifi, Nineveh’s Sunni Arab governor, who had been elected the previous year on an agenda to roll back the gains the Kurds had made in the province since 2005. Determined to test the new security arrangements at the earliest, Governor Nujaifi decided in early February 2010 to make a trip to the town of Tel Kaif, in a part of the province which the Kurds lay claim to. Over Kurdish objections, the U.S. forces decided that the visit should go ahead. In response, the Kurds brought down reinforcements and tried to prevent the trip from taking place. Crowds of Kurds gathered to block the governor’s convoy; in the resulting melee, shots were fired. The Iraqi police detained 11 Kurds for incitement, and on suspicion of attempting to assassinate Governor Nujaifi.

I was awakened at 2 a.m. by a phone call from Murat Ozcelik, the influential Turkish ambassador to Iraq. He had received a report from Ankara that the Kurds had invaded Mosul, the largest city in Nineveh province. I investigated and soon discovered that there had been no invasion; instead, Kurdish forces had kidnapped a number of Arabs in Nineveh in retaliation for the arrest of the Kurds. President Barzani was furious. Every time he turned on his television, he saw footage of American tanks in a Kurdish village, and F-16s flying overhead. The Kurds had been highly supportive of the United States—not a single U.S. soldier had been killed by a Kurd. So why, he asked, had the Americans behaved this way towards Kurds?

Back in 2010, we did not need to answer Barzani’s question. We could mediate a deal whereby the kidnapped Arabs were swapped for the Kurds accused of attempting to assassinate the Governor of Nineveh. We had close relations with the Turks, and convinced them to back off. For once, everyone seemed happy with this solution, and things calmed down. We were the indispensable ally.

And then we weren’t. And Iran was.

Iran increased its influence during the negotiations to form a government in Iraq after the tightly contested 2010 elections. Iraqiyya, led by Ayad Allawi, won 91 seats; Maliki’s bloc, the State of Law, came in second with 89 seats. After much heated internal debate, Vice President Joe Biden determined that Washington would support the incumbent, insisting that Maliki was “our man,” an Iraqi nationalist, and would permit a contingent of U.S. forces to remain in Iraq post-2011 when the security agreement expired. But despite considerable arm-twisting, the United States could not convince its allies to support a second term for Maliki. Sensing an opportunity, Qassim Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council, pressured Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential and anti-American Shia cleric, to support Maliki on the condition that all U.S. troops would pull out of Iraq and that Sadrists would be given government positions.

Thus it was that Iran ensured Maliki remained as Prime Minister. The Obama administration, in its rush for an exit from Iraq, gave up the American role of “balancer,” of moderator, of protector of the political process, withdrawing its soft power along with its hard.

Secure in his seat for a second term, Maliki pursued a series of sectarian policies. He accused Sunni politicians of being terrorists, forcing them to flee the country; he reneged on his promises to the Sunni Awakening leaders who had fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq; and he arrested Sunni protestors en masse. This created the conditions that enabled ISIS to rise from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq and proclaim itself the defender of Sunnis against the Iranian-backed sectarian regime of Maliki. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS is not beaten and will return

Shiraz Maher writes: Raqqa has crumbled far more quickly than anyone imagined. In just over four months, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with Western air support, have liberated most of the city from Islamic State (IS). The de facto capital of the so-called caliphate, Raqqa was tightly controlled by its rulers, but it was a bustling hub of activity and urban life. For the hordes of foreign fighters who joined IS, it was almost enough to make them forget the virtues of the afterlife.

The fall of the city to SDF forces is a particularly bitter blow to IS, coming so soon after it lost control of its other main base, Mosul, across the border in Iraq. Yet the Islamic State message remains as defiant as ever. The terror group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, released a 46-minute audio message in September lauding the efforts of his fighters in Mosul. Yes, they lost the city but, Baghdadi insisted, this was only after sacrificing their flesh and blood. “Thus, they were excused,” Baghdadi said.

He also pointed to the group’s ability to strike Western capitals with terrorist attacks. “The Americans, the Russians and the Europeans are living in terror in their countries,” said Baghdadi, “fearing the strikes of the mujahedin.” Direct addresses from Baghdadi have been rare. This latest speech signalled his need to rally supporters after a series of defeats. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-backed force claims capture of ISIS’s de facto Syrian capital Raqqa

The Washington Post reports: U.S. backed forces in Syria claimed full control of the Islamic State’s onetime capital of Raqqa on Tuesday, heralding an end to the militants’ presence in their most symbolically important stronghold and bringing closer the likelihood of their complete territorial demise.

Talo Silo, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, said that military operations had halted and that members of the joint Kurdish-Arab force were clearing the city of explosive devices and hunting for sleeping cells.

It was still unclear whether some Islamic State pockets remained, but the SDF portrayed the battle for Raqqa as effectively over.

Besieged and severely weakened, dozens of militants had launched a final stand from inside Raqqa’s main hospital and stadium. But hundreds of others surrendered during the final days of the battle after local officials brokered a controversial deal which could see many escape prosecution. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS fighters, having pledged to fight or die, surrender en masse

The New York Times reports: The prisoners were taken to a waiting room in groups of four, and were told to stand facing the concrete wall, their noses almost touching it, their hands bound behind their backs.

More than a thousand Islamic State fighters passed through that room this past week after they fled their crumbling Iraqi stronghold of Hawija. Instead of the martyrdom they had boasted was their only acceptable fate, they had voluntarily ended up here in the interrogation center of the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq.

For an extremist group that has made its reputation on its ferociousness, with fighters who would always choose suicide over surrender, the fall of Hawija has been a notable turning point. The group has suffered a string of humiliating defeats in Iraq and Syria, but the number of its shock troops who turned themselves in to Kurdish officials at the center in Dibis was unusually large, more than 1,000 since last Sunday. [Continue reading…]

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Russia may have saved the Assad regime. But its real ally has been terrorism

Faisal Al Yafai writes: The double suicide bomb attacks in Damascus on Monday were just the start of a long guerrilla war against the regime. ISIL and its competitors Hayat Tahrir Al Sham sense that the regime could yet crumble from within. The next stage in the war of ISIL and its offshoots will be to weaken Syria and seek to take over Damascus – as they once tried to take over Baghdad.

Terror attacks like the one last week will only increase, and it is there that the regime will face its most severe test. For all its protestations that the uprising was instigated by “terrorists”, the regime has very little experience dealing with the political and social consequences of terrorism. Part of the social contract of the regimes of the Al Assads has been stability; too many attacks will fray that contract.

A weakening of the regime and an emboldening of the terrorists – whichever group manages to win the internecine conflict for supremacy now taking place in Syria’s ungoverned spaces – will frighten neighbouring countries and those further afield, from where many of the recruits will come and in whose cities attacks may be staged. Security cooperation will become the thin end of the wedge that ultimately brings the regime international legitimacy.

At the start of the uprising, the Assad regime, having carefully prepared for just such a challenge to its authority, cleverly empowered the extremists by releasing prisoners and avoiding the areas where ISIL was growing. In that way, their prophecy came true and terrorism really did grow out of the uprising. Now, once again, the fear of terrorism will come to the aid of the regime. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s war has deadliest month this year

BBC News reports: September has been the deadliest month in Syria’s civil war so far this year, a monitoring group has said.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said more than 3,300 people had died in September, including 995 civilians.

Of those civilian deaths, it said about 70% were caused by Russian, Syrian government, or coalition air strikes.
The group bases its casualty reports on information provided by a network of activists in Syria.

It counted 207 children among the civilian dead, along with some 790 pro-government fighters, more than 700 from so-called Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda affiliates, and some 550 rebels. [Continue reading…]

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Inside the ruins of Raqqa

Quentin Sommerville and Riam Dalati report: There is a moment in the journey into Raqqa when you leave the real world behind. After the bombed-out Samra bridge, any signs of normal life vanish.

Turn right at the shop that once sold gravestones – its owner is long gone – and you are inside the city.

Ahead lies nothing but destruction and grey dust and rubble.

This is a place drained of colour, of life, and of people. In six days inside Raqqa, I didn’t see a single civilian.

They are somewhere inside, trapped by the so-called Islamic State and the Western coalition’s bombing campaign.

IS uses them as human shields, and as bait, to lure out the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

It seems that not a single building has escaped the onslaught. Many have been crushed, flattened, or knocked to one side by the Western coalition’s air strikes and artillery.

It is a barrage that never ceases. More than two dozen air strikes a day, and hundreds of shells fall on the city.

Their target is the last men of the Islamic State. There may be as few as 400 left. [Continue reading…]

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A physicist who models ISIS and the alt-right

Natalie Wolchover writes: Neil Johnson used to study electrons as a buttoned-up professor of physics at the University of Oxford. Then, a decade ago, he decamped to the University of Miami — a young institution that he sees as unconstrained by rigid traditions or barriers between disciplines — and branched out. In recent years, the 55-year-old physicist has published research on financial markets, crowds, superconductivity, earthquake forecasting, light-matter interactions, bacterial photosynthesis, quantum information and computation, neuron firing patterns, heart attacks, tumor growth, contagion and urban disasters, not to mention his extensive body of work on terrorism and other forms of insurgent conflict.

Johnson models the extreme events and behaviors that can arise in complex systems. The author of two books on complexity, he has found that the same principles often apply, regardless of whether a system consists of interacting electrons, humans or anything else. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he began modeling extremism in human society. He had also spent time in Colombia during the war against the FARC guerrilla army, and grew up near London during the era of IRA bombings. “I started wondering what the patterns of attacks in the respective places might be telling us about how humans do terrorism,” he said. “Terrorism suddenly became, for me, an urgent problem that I might be able to help society understand, and perhaps even one day predict.”

The rise of ISIS has served as both an impetus and test case for Johnson’s models. Even more recently, he has begun using his models to study the growth of white nationalist groups in the United States.

Quanta Magazine caught up with Johnson to discuss his findings by phone in June, before he left to spend the summer working with collaborators in Bogota, Colombia. A condensed and edited version of that conversation, and a subsequent email exchange after the events in Charlottesville, follows. [Continue reading…]

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Path to radicalization winds through shame and loneliness

Elizabeth Charnock and Dounia Bouzar write: The problem of Islamist radicalization presents a grim challenge to France, and the forces that drive young people to join violent extremist groups remain poorly understood. Far more than the United States, the circumstances that drive average people to become violent affect a far larger proportion of the population.

Often, discussions of the subject devolve into simple platitudes. Radicals must be mentally unstable; religious fanatics; or victims of societal pressure —or all of the above. Grooming efforts by terrorist recruiters, playing on the personal vulnerabilities and shame of French citizens, appear to be the root cause of radicalization.

While there is much argument about the value of deradicalization programs, including their ability to stop attacks, these programs have immense value from an intelligence gathering perspective. They can offer a unique mechanism for intelligence gathering on the jihadist recruitment process. And France provides a useful case study for the self-destructive paths the radicalized take.

The number of French-speaking jihadists worldwide well exceeds that of any other Western language. So it is no surprise that their recruitment efforts are the most sophisticated in France, as observed by CPDSI [Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Excesses Linked to Islam] firsthand through extended interviews with more than 1,000 individuals. The CPDSI is a French government entity that works to intervene in the lives of citizens at risk of becoming radicalized.

In France, there is significant evidence that ISIS recruiters utilize standard case officer techniques to broaden their pool of potential recruits well beyond the Muslim population. These recruiters probe for vulnerabilities and opportunities to drive wedges between the recruit and French society.

The vulnerabilities can be along any axis: social, socioeconomic, political, cultural, ethnic, religious, or psychological. The mission of the recruiter is to transform the malaise into an adherence to jihadist ideology. The goal is to manipulate the recruit into believing that such adherence is the only possible escape from their malaise.

The motivations of the recruit depend on their recruiter, but most motivations are pedestrian and banal, rather than ideologically or religiously motivated. For example, the promise to women of a faithful, protective husband holds an alluring pull, as roughly 50 percent of the radicalization cases reported in France involved women. The most common threads all share one thing in common: they promise access to a better world, and perhaps a better self. [Continue reading…]

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How far could the dangerous endgame in eastern Syria go?

The Washington Post reports: The war against the Islamic State always promised to get messy in its final stages, as the militants retreat and rival forces converge from different directions. That moment has arrived.

World powers and their local allies are scrambling to control the remote desert province of Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, in an accelerating race that is being compared to the fall of Berlin in 1945.

Under Islamic State control since 2014, the province is three times the size of Lebanon and consists mostly of empty desert. It also happens to contain most of Syria’s oil resources. But much more is at stake: the future contours of postwar Syria; Kurdish aspirations to some form of autonomy; and the competition for influence in the Middle East among the United States, Iran and Russia.

On the ground the combatants fall into two camps: one backed by Russia and Iran, the other by the United States and its allies.

Advancing from the north are the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a Kurdish-led coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces that is expanding the boundaries of the autonomous area they have carved out farther north. They are accompanied by American Special Operations troops and backed by U.S. airstrikes.

Making rapid progress from the east are the Syrian government and its allies, accompanied by Russian and Iranian advisers and backed by Russian airstrikes. They’re fulfilling President Bashar al-Assad’s goal of reasserting Syrian sovereignty over every inch of Syria — and also making sure the United States stays out. [Continue reading…]

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With Assad’s fate secure, Russia sets its sights on ISIS fighters in Syria

The Guardian reports: The head of the Russian army in Syria has said the defeat of Islamic State in the country is imminent during a visit to a strategically located town recently recaptured from Isis by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

“All the conditions are in place for the final stage of defeating Isis in Syria,” said Lt Gen Alexander Lapin, standing amid heavy security outside the building of a former Isis sharia court, adorned with the extremist group’s black-and-white logo. “I can promise you that no Isis terrorist will ever set foot in this town again.”

Okeirbat was regained by forces loyal to the Syrian government on 2 September after a three-month assault amid intensive Russian airstrikes. Recapturing the town enabled government-backed forces to push forward towards breaking the long-standing siege on Deir ez-Zor, in the east of the country.

Russia entered the conflict on the side of Assad’s government in September 2015 at a time when the regime looked close to falling. Although Moscow’s stated goal has always been to defeat Isis, during the first year of engagement the majority of Russian airstrikes targeted other opposition groups, including those supported by western countries.

Russia’s long-standing policy in the Middle East has been that retaining the status quo, however unpleasant the regime may be, is always better than revolution, and the Russian intervention appeared designed to shore up the Assad regime at any cost. [Continue reading…]

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Moscow flaunts might against fading ISIS as it alters balance of power in Syria

The Guardian reports: “I recommend you to look in that direction,” said Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov with a smile, gesturing at the Mediterranean waters from aboard the Admiral Essen naval frigate.

Moments later, two whooshes of noise and smoke heralded the launch of seven cruise missiles by two submarines from Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

The Kalibr missiles, each with a half-tonne payload, hit Islamic State targets to the south-east of Deir ez-Zor around midday on Thursday, roughly an hour after launch, Konashenkov said. The town is a key strategic outpost in eastern Syria, where the Islamist fighters are in retreat. Opposition activists later said that at least 39 civilians were killed in airstrikes by Russian and US-backed coalition forces across the country.

Viewing the missile launch was the latest element of a tour for a group of Russian and foreign journalists, including the Guardian, of Russian activities in Syria, designed to show that Moscow is in control of both war and the peace in the country. [Continue reading…]

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