Trump’s war against ISIS in Syria: Why Putin, Assad, and Iran are winning

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: In his inaugural address, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

To be fair, he’s had only about six months, but already the project is proving a little more complicated than he hoped. First, ISIS has been putting up a surprisingly hard fight against its myriad enemies (some of whom are also radical Islamic terrorists). The battle for Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, has concluded, but at enormous cost to Mosul’s civilians and the Iraqi army. Second, and more importantly, there is no agreement as to what will follow ISIS, particularly in eastern Syria. There, a new great game for post-ISIS control is taking place with increasing violence between the United States and Iran. Russia and a Kurdish-led militia are also key players. If Iran and Russia win out (and at this point they are far more committed than the U.S.), President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression and scorched earth paved the way for the ISIS takeover in the first place, may be handed back the territories he lost, now burnt and depopulated. The Syrian people, who rose in democratic revolution six years ago, are not being consulted.

The battle to drive ISIS from Raqqa—its Syrian stronghold—is underway. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by American advisers, are leading the fight. Civilians are paying the price. United Nations investigators lament a “staggering loss of life” caused by U.S.-led airstrikes on the city.

Though it’s a multiethnic force, the SDF is dominated by the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, whose parent organization is the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States (but of the leftist-nationalist rather than Islamist variety) and is currently at war with Turkey, America’s NATO ally. The United States has nevertheless made the SDF its preferred local partner, supplying weapons and providing air cover, much to the chagrin of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now add another layer of complexity. Russia also provides air cover to the SDF, not to fight ISIS, but when the mainly Kurdish force is seizing Arab-majority towns from the non-jihadi anti-Assad opposition. The SDF capture of Tel Rifaat and other opposition-held towns in 2016 helped Russia and the Assad regime to impose the final siege on Aleppo.

Eighty percent of Assad’s ground troops encircling Aleppo last December were not Syrian, but Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, all armed, funded and trained by Iran. That put the American-backed SDF and Iran in undeclared alliance.

But those who are allies one year may be enemies the next. Emboldened by a series of Russian-granted victories in the west of the country, Iran and Assad are racing east, seeking to dominate the post-ISIS order on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has almost achieved its aim of projecting its influence regionally and globally through a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In this new context, Assad and his backers are turning on the SDF. On June 18, pro-Assad forces attacked the SDF near Tabqa, west of Raqqa. When a regime warplane joined the attack, American forces shot it down. [Continue reading…]

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The Kremlin’s contradictory behavior in Syria

Anton Mardasov writes: The Kremlin is seeking to flesh out the idea of creating four de-escalation (“safe”) zones in western war-torn Syria while trying to help President Bashar al-Assad regain control of lost territories in the east. When it comes to the west, Moscow is talking about the de facto end of the civil war and aims to covertly weaken the Syrian opposition. As for eastern Syria, Russia is trying hard, though discreetly, to distance itself from the US-Iranian confrontation and preserve communication channels with Washington. It is also advocating decreasing the influence of both the United States and Kurds and urging pro-Kremlin oligarchs to help fix the economy.

Russia’s policy in Syria seems successful, and that appearance is meant to impress the Russian population ahead of the 2018 presidential election. In reality, however, Moscow is confronted with a range of problems as it proceeds with its purely tactical plans. Syrian government troops continue fighting in Daraa province, and the Southern Front — the rebel alliance that until recently had hardly opposed the regime — boycotted the fifth round of negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan, which resumed July 4.

Some Russian analysts, referencing their sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, argue that Russian military and political leaders are well aware that Iran and Assad intend to prevent the UN’s peace plan from succeeding. (The UN Security Council unanimously adopted the plan, Resolution 2254, in late 2015.) The analysts worry that Tehran and Damascus might try to convince Moscow to not cooperate as well. [Continue reading…]

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Mattis: After Raqqa, the Syrian battlefield will only get more complicated

The Washington Post reports: As the fight against the Islamic State moves beyond its de facto capital in Raqqa, the Pentagon is readying itself for an increasingly complex battlefield in northern Syria, where U.S.-backed forces, pro-Syrian government troops and Russian jets will likely all be fighting near one another.

Speaking to reporters on his way to Germany on Monday to meet with European allies, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis spoke broadly about the U.S. military’s future operations against the Islamic State in the Euphrates River Valley, adding that it will take “more precision” to stave off any incidents between the disparate forces operating there.

“You have to play this thing very carefully,” Mattis said. “The closer we get, the more complex it gets.”

Mattis also acknowledged that the U.S. would continue to supply Kurdish forces in the north with weapons despite objections by U.S. ally Turkey. “When they don’t need them anymore we’ll replace them with what they do need,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. is destroying whole neighborhoods in Raqqa

The Daily Beast reports: The U.S.-led bombing and shelling of Raqqa, the city claimed by the so-called Islamic State as its capital in eastern Syria, is destroying entire neighborhoods but doing nothing for desperate residents and those trying to flee for their lives, according to a well-known human rights group that reports on the situation there.

The assault began June 6 with the U.S. declaring its goal as the annihilation of ISIS extremists there. As of Tuesday, the U.S.-led Coalition had carried out 262 airstrikes against the city, with that onslaught augmented by heavy artillery barrages.

“The people of the city describe the situation as Doomsday,” the group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, reported on its web blog. The organization sometimes known by its initials, RIBSS or RBSS, has won worldwide renown for surreptitiously gathering reports on the plight of the mostly Arab civilian population suffering under the rule of the self-proclaimed “Caliphate.” ISIS has responded by hunting down and murdering RIBSS members, and today the group operates under cover.

“The population are in a state of chaos and don’t know which neighborhoods to go to for better protection,” it said in the posting one week ago. “Hundreds of shells and bombs fall on the city arbitrarily every day,” and heavy machine fire “reaches most of the neighborhoods” in the ISIS-held parts of the city. [Continue reading…]

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Syria troops position themselves at heart of war on ISIS

The Associated Press reports: Syrian government troops and their allies have steadily positioned themselves in key areas on the flanks of the U.S.-led coalition battle for the Islamic State’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

They are attempting to become an indispensable player in uprooting the extremists from Syria entirely.

That presents a major challenge for the coalition, which so far has shunned any cooperation with President Bashar Assad and has partnered instead with local Kurdish-led forces.

As the U.S. has intensified its fight against IS in Syria, Assad and his trusted allies of Russia and Iran are increasingly asserting themselves. A Syrian military offensive has unfolded on several fronts, coupled with Russian airstrikes and a show of force by Iran, which fired ballistic missiles on an IS stronghold this week and pushed militias that it sponsors deeper into the battlefield.

Damascus and its allies have long argued that they are the essential partner to any international effort in Syria, portraying all opposition forces as terrorist groups.

A close look at the map shows that pro-Assad troops have placed themselves in key locations in the anti-IS battle, while staying close to the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces who lead the ground offensive. The Syrian government forces and their allies have placed themselves south of Raqqa and on the outskirts of Deir el-Zour, the IS militants’ last refuge.

While government troops may be far from in control of that area and are unlikely to go after the city of Raqqa, Syria expert Sam Heller of the Century Foundation said the forces “have done enough to insert themselves that they’re now a fact on the ground.” [Continue reading…]

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Flynn’s Turkey connection is the case worth pursuing

Noah Feldman writes: What’s been missing so far in the scandals surrounding the Trump White House is a concrete act taken at the behest of foreign powers. Now there’s strong evidence of one: Michael Flynn reportedly stopped an attack on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa by Syrian Kurds, a military action strongly opposed by Turkey, after receiving more than $500,000 in payments from a Turkish source. The Kurds’ offensive had been greenlighted by Barack Obama’s administration, and is now back on track, reapproved by President Donald Trump sometime after Flynn was fired.

If this story proves accurate then it’s a game changer for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. It demonstrates that, at least while Flynn was national security adviser-designate and until he was fired after 24 days in office, U.S. government policy on a core matter of national security was open to the highest foreign bidder. That’s a form of bribery that could land Flynn in prison and, potentially, give Mueller leverage to get Flynn to testify about whatever else he knows. [Continue reading…]

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Flynn stopped military plan Turkey opposed – after being paid as its agent

McClatchy reports: One of the Trump administration’s first decisions about the fight against the Islamic State was made by Michael Flynn weeks before he was fired – and it conformed to the wishes of Turkey, whose interests, unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, he’d been paid more than $500,000 to represent.

The decision came 10 days before Donald Trump had been sworn in as president, in a conversation with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who had explained the Pentagon’s plan to retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces whom the Pentagon considered the U.S.’s most effective military partners. Obama’s national security team had decided to ask for Trump’s sign-off, since the plan would all but certainly be executed after Trump had become president.

Flynn didn’t hesitate. According to timelines distributed by members of Congress in the weeks since, Flynn told Rice to hold off, a move that would delay the military operation for months.

If Flynn explained his answer, that’s not recorded, and it’s not known whether he consulted anyone else on the transition team before rendering his verdict. But his position was consistent with the wishes of Turkey, which had long opposed the United States partnering with the Kurdish forces – and which was his undeclared client. [Continue reading…]

To refer to Flynn’s representation of Turkish interests as being “unbeknownst to anyone in Washington,” seems a bit premature. Trump’s unwillingness to fire Flynn, rather than being an expression of loyalty — not something Trump is famous for — may be an indication that whenever Flynn finally tells his own story, it’s going to destroy Trump.

So far, Trump’s ties to Flynn have largely been portrayed as an error in judgement. The real story, however, may reveal Trump’s complicity in Flynn’s corruption — that Flynn was far more transparent than we thus far know and that Trump and Pence with the hubris of victors thought they were immune from facing any repercussions.

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U.S. arms Kurds who are ISIS enemies, Turkey enemies, Assad friends

Citizen journalist Muhammad Noor (a pseudonym) writes from PKK-controlled Manbij: When Islamic State extremists captured Manbij three years ago, they forced the population to pray at mosque, ordered women to wear full chador and they beheaded their opponents in public.

But if you attended their religious courses and agreed to their rules you could get a job and earn enough to sustain your family.

That world turned upside down last August, when a Kurdish-led ground force with U.S. air support ousted ISIS from Manbij. Arabs were among the fighters in the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF, but it was Kurds from outside Syria who suddenly became our new masters.

Local Kurds, who comprise 10 per cent of the population of 100,000, became the privileged class. They now dominate local commerce and they get special treatment from the police. Religious observance shifted 180 degrees. Traditional practice such as covering women is forbidden—not by decree but in practice. Anyone who objects can be arrested and tortured. I know from personal experience.

Since August, all the key positions in the SDF and in the Manbij administration were taken over by Kurds from outside Syria—from the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK. We called them Qandilians, those trained in Qandil, Iraq, the PKK’s mountain stronghold.

You knew them from the cars they drive, festooned with posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the PKK, who’s now sitting in a Turkish jail near Istanbul. They didn’t use their real names; they operated behind the scenes.

Make no mistake. We were very happy to be rid of ISIS. But the new order became so oppressive that some Arabs spoke openly about the “good old days of ISIS.” They saw the new Kurdish masters as destroying the social fabric, spoiling centuries of good relations between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. [Continue reading…]

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Trump to arm Syrian Kurds, even as Turkey strongly objects

The New York Times reports: President Trump has approved a plan to provide Syrian Kurds with heavier weapons so they can participate in the battle to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.

American military commanders have long argued for arming the Y.P.G., a Kurdish militia that contains some of the most experienced fighters among the Syrian force that is battling the Islamic State.

But Turkey has vociferously objected to such a move, insisting that the Kurdish fighters are linked with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the P.K.K., which both it and the United States regard as a terrorist group.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is scheduled to meet with Mr. Trump in Washington this month, and the American decision on arming the Kurds is likely to figure prominently in the discussion. Mr. Erdogan is expected to press Mr. Trump to give Turkey and the Syrian rebels it backs a bigger supporting role in the assault on Raqqa. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon expands rebuke of Turkey over Iraq, Syria strikes

The Washington Post reports: The Turkish government gave the United States less than an hour’s notice before conducting strikes on partner forces in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military said on Wednesday, stepping up its criticism of airstrikes the United States said endangered American personnel.

Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman, said the lead time failed to provide adequate notice to reposition American forces or warn Kurdish groups with whom the United States is partnering against the Islamic States.

“That’s not enough time. And this was notification, certainly not coordination as you would expect from a partner and an ally in the fight against ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

American officials expressed indignation at the Turkish bombing, which killed as many as 20 Kurdish fighters in Syria and, according to the U.S. military, five Kurdish peshmerga troops in a coordinated attack across the border in northern Iraq. According to the Turkish government, both attacks targeted members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist group.

A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operations, described the assault as a “massive, highly coordinated attack” involving more than 25 strike aircraft.

In Syria, the Turkish jets targeted leadership sites used by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated force that has emerged as the United States’ primary military partner in Syria, according to a second U.S. official. Turkey has objected to that alliance because, it says, the SDF’s largest component, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is a PKK affiliate.

Despite the Turkish position, Dorrian signaled the United States would continue its support for the SDF, as it would for Iraqi government troops across the border.

“These are forces that have been integral in fighting ISIS. They’ve been reliable in making progress against ISIS fighters under very difficult and dangerous conditions,” he said. “They have made many, many sacrifices to help defeat ISIS and that keeps the whole world safer. So that is our position on that.” [Continue reading…]

Kom News reports: Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) spokeswoman, Nesrin Abdullah, has said that the group’s forces will withdraw from the operation to capture the Islamic State’s stronghold, Raqqa, if the US doesn’t take concrete action against Turkish airstrikes targeting Kurdish forces in Syria.

“The is unacceptable in international law. If the USA or coalition or the US [State Dept.] spokesperson can only say, ‘We are concerned or we are unhappy’ [about Turkey’s airstrikes] then we will not accept this. If this is the reaction, we do not accept it. It means they accept what was done to us,” Abdullah told Sputnik Turkish on Wednesday.

The spokeswoman for the all female YPJ, which is part of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a leading force in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that has encircled Raqqa, went on to say that unless the US gave a concrete response they would withdraw from the operation. [Continue reading…]

AFP reports: Fighting erupted on Wednesday along Syria’s northeastern border between Turkish forces and Kurdish militiamen, as tensions boiled over in the aftermath of deadly Turkish air strikes the previous day.

The strikes against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have thrown the complexity of Syria’s war into sharp relief and even sparked calls for a no-fly zone in the country’s north.

The skies over northern Syria are increasingly congested, with the Syrian government, Turkey, Russia and the US-led international coalition all carrying out bombing raids across the region. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: The hidden power of Iran

Joost Hiltermann writes: Despite his largely symbolic strike on a Syrian airfield in response to the April 4 nerve gas attack by the Assad regime, President Donald Trump has given no serious indication that he wants to make a broader intervention in Syria. As a candidate, and even as a president, Trump has pledged to leave the region to sort out its own troubles, apart from a stepped-up effort to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). He may quickly learn, though, that one-off military actions driven by domestic politics have a way of turning into something far more substantial.

Already, tensions with Syria’s close ally, Russia, have been escalating, with little sign that the US administration can bring about a change toward Damascus. Bashar al-Assad long ago learned he can operate with impunity. But even larger questions surround another Assad ally, Iran, which, though less conspicuous, has had a crucial part in the changing course of the war and in the overall balance of power in the region. While the Trump administration regards Iran as enemy, it has yet to articulate a clear policy toward it—or even to take account of its growing influence in Iraq and Syria.

If the Syrian leader ignores the warning conveyed by the Tomahawk missile strike, what will be Trump’s next move? Will he be able to resist the temptation to deepen US involvement in Syria to counter a resurgent Iran? How might this affect the battle against the Islamic State—a battle that has already created an intricate power struggle between the many parties hoping to enjoy the spoils?

Consider the array of forces now in play: in Syria, the war on ISIS has been led by Syrian Kurds affiliated with the PKK, the militant Kurdish party in Turkey, which has been in conflict with the Turkish state for the past 33 years—another US ally. In Iraq, there are the peshmerga, the fighters of a rival Kurdish party, who are competing both with the PKK and with Iraqi Shia militias for control over former ISIS territory. There is Turkey, an avowed enemy of Assad that is currently at war with the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, and has moved troops into both northern Syria and northern Iraq in order to thwart the PKK. There is Russia, which, in intervening on behalf of Assad, has created a major shift in the conflict.

And finally, there is Iran, which has made various alliances with Assad, Shia militias, and Kurdish groups in an effort to expand its control of Iraq and, together with Hezbollah, re-establish a dominant position in the Levant. Moreover, Iran has also benefited from another tactical, if unofficial, alliance—with the United States itself, in their efforts to defeat ISIS in neighboring Iraq.

Given all this, the US strike does nothing so much as complicate an already explosive situation. The loudest cheerleader of Trump’s action last week was Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been especially concerned as Iran and its ally Hezbollah benefit from their tactical military alliance with Russia to prop up the Syrian regime. But whatever advantages some may see in the recent US stand against Assad, it makes it even less likely that a stable postwar order can be achieved.

As my own trip to northern Iraq and northern Syria last month revealed, even as the international coalition makes major gains against the Islamic State, the region’s crises are multiplying. Worse, they are also, increasingly, intersecting, sucking in outside powers with a centripetal force that has proved impossible to withstand. [Continue reading…]

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With a show of Stars and Stripes, U.S. forces in Syria try to keep warring allies apart

The Washington Post reports: The U.S. military is getting drawn into a deepening struggle for control over areas liberated from the Islamic State that risks prolonging American involvement in wars in Syria and Iraq long after the militants are defeated.

In their first diversion from the task of fighting the Islamic State since the U.S. military’s involvement began in 2014, U.S. troops dispatched to Syria have headed in recent days to the northern town of Manbij, 85 miles northwest of the extremists’ capital, Raqqa, to protect their Kurdish and Arab allies against a threatened assault by other U.S. allies in a Turkish-backed force.

Russian troops have also shown up in Manbij under a separate deal that was negotiated without the input of the United States, according to U.S. officials. Under the deal, Syrian troops are to be deployed in the area, also in some form of peacekeeping role, setting up what is effectively a scramble by the armies of four nations to carve up a collection of mostly empty villages in a remote corner of Syria. [Continue reading…]

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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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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 both by 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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Iraqi Kurdistan slides toward autocracy

Akbar Shahid Ahmed reports: Most mornings this August, Wedad Hussein Ali, a 28-year-old Kurdish journalist with a trim beard and a penchant for spiking his hair, would get up early to drive his big brother, Sardar, to work. The trip from Kora, their leafy, ancient village in Iraqi Kurdistan’s mountains, to Dohuk, the nearest big town, took 30 minutes.

On Aug. 13, they reached Sardar’s construction site at 9:15 a.m. He got out of the car as usual. Ali drove on.

Minutes later, two unmarked cars cut off Ali. Three men got out. One pointed a gun to the journalist’s head. The others tied his wrists and placed a hood over his head. As witnesses watched, the men loudly announced that they had official business with Ali. They placed him in one of their cars and drove away.

A few hours later, a police officer called Ali’s family to say his body was at a local morgue. It had been transferred there after police in a neighboring village found it dumped by the side of a road, the police contact said. Ali had been cut, beaten and bruised, showing signs, one doctor said, of having been hit by a long object like a bat or a baton. To the family, it looked like he had suffered third-degree burns and beatings with electric cables. His eyes appeared to have been torn out with knives.

There were plenty of groups that could have killed Ali. The vicious Islamic State group maintains sleeper cells across Iraq, including in Kurdistan; Dohuk is just an hour’s drive from Mosul, the chief ISIS hub in the country. Iran-backed Shiite militias have tortured and terrorized thousands of their fellow Iraqis over the past decade, focusing their attention on people who follow the rival Sunni branch of Islam — which most Kurds do. And Iraqi Kurdistan has long hosted an internationally condemned Kurdish movement called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has issued harsh punishments, including executions, to Kurds who refuse to collaborate with it.

But Ali’s family doesn’t blame ISIS, Shiite militias or the PKK for his murder. They believe Iraqi Kurdistan’s U.S.-friendly leaders were responsible for his death.

Nine weeks after Ali’s murder, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, held a triumphant press conference. The day before, 4,000 Iraqi Kurdish fighters had begun moving toward Mosul. Scores of American advisers boosted their ranks, and American B-1 and F-15 jets provided air support.

The Kurds’ advance was sold as a key sign that the U.S. had rallied its partners in Iraq and prepared them to push ISIS out of the country for good. Brett McGurk, the top American managing the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, wished the Kurds and others “Godspeed” on Twitter. “We are proud to stand with you,” he added.

Since the U.S. and Kurdistan first began major cooperation against ISIS in August 2014, Barzani, an iconic former militia man who has been close to winning Time’s Person of the Year award, has pushed the region ever closer to autocracy.

But the Obama administration and President-elect Donald Trump have largely ignored warning signs — including Ali’s death — that point to a dark future for Kurdistan.

Parliament has not functioned since last October, because Barzani banned its speaker, an opposition politician, from entering the capital. Thousands of refugees who have sought sanctuary in the region have seen their freedoms restricted. Kurdish authorities have meted out particularly harsh treatment to Sunni Arabs, mimicking the Iraqi policies that provoked Sunni dissatisfaction and enabled the initial rise of ISIS. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have demolished the homes of Sunni Arabs in areas recaptured from ISIS. Kurdistan has subjected many of the Yazidis, the minority group whose genocide prompted U.S. action against ISIS, to painful shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine because of their affinity for the anti-Barzani PKK ― only strengthening the militant Kurdish group’s appeal. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-backed Syrian rebels declare attack on ISIS in Raqqa

Reuters reports: U.S.-backed rebels said on Sunday they were launching an operation to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State.

The attack ratchets up pressure on the militant group at a critical moment, with its fighters already battling an offensive by Iraqi security forces on their remaining Iraqi stronghold in the northern city of Mosul.

The U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab armed groups, first announced on Sunday that a campaign to retake Raqqa would begin within hours, with U.S. forces providing air cover. Soon afterwards, it said that the operation, called Euphrates Anger, had begun. [Continue reading…]

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Why the Middle East knows not to trust the United States

David Ignatius writes: When the United States fights its wars in the Middle East, it has a nasty habit of recruiting local forces as proxies and then jettisoning them when the going gets tough or regional politics intervene.

This pattern of “seduction and abandonment” is one of our least endearing characteristics. It’s one reason the United States is mistrusted in the Middle East. We don’t stick by the people who take risks on our behalf in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere. And now, I fear, this syndrome is happening again in Syria, as a Kurdish militia group known as the YPG, which has been the United States’ best ally against the Islamic State, gets pounded by the Turkish military. [Continue reading…]

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