U.S. joins Turkish forces to launch push against ISIS in Syria

The Wall Street Journal reports: Turkish and American military forces launched a major offensive in northwestern Syria against Islamic State militants early Wednesday as they try to sever the extremist group’s vital supply routes and deter Kurdish fighters from seizing a key border town, according to officials from both countries.

Turkish special forces, aided by American military advisers, U.S. drones and Turkish artillery units, moved into northern Syria before dawn as part of the coordinated campaign to push Islamic State out of a strategic town on the Euphrates River, officials said.

Turkish jets bombed Islamic State forces inside Syria, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, in what are believed to be the first airstrikes by Turkey inside Syria since November, when Turkish pilots shot down a Russian warplane that briefly strayed into Turkish airspace. Turkish tanks also moved into Syria as the offensive gathered momentum early Wednesday, the news agency said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were massed at the border, poised to retake Jarabulus, one of Islamic State’s last remaining gateways used by the group to ferry reinforcements and supplies from Turkey into its de facto capital in Raqqa.

Turkish artillery units had been pounding Islamic State forces holding the Syrian town for two days as the military — shaken by last month’s thwarted coup attempt — looks to re-establish its role as a key player in the fight on its doorstep.

U.S. drones based at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey are carrying out surveillance missions over Jarabulus, and American special operations forces are working with Turkish military officers on the Turkish side of the border to plan the offensive, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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Aiding and abetting the Saudi slaughter in Yemen

Andrew Cockburn writes: Just a few short years ago, Yemen was judged to be among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 154th out of the 187 nations on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. One in every five Yemenis went hungry. Almost one in three was unemployed. Every year, 40,000 children died before their fifth birthday, and experts predicted the country would soon run out of water.

Such was the dire condition of the country before Saudi Arabia unleashed a bombing campaign in March 2015, which has destroyed warehouses, factories, power plants, ports, hospitals, water tanks, gas stations, and bridges, along with miscellaneous targets ranging from donkey carts to wedding parties to archaeological monuments. Thousands of civilians — no one knows how many — have been killed or wounded. Along with the bombing, the Saudis have enforced a blockade, cutting off supplies of food, fuel, and medicine. A year and a half into the war, the health system has largely broken down, and much of the country is on the brink of starvation.

This rain of destruction was made possible by the material and moral support of the United States, which supplied most of the bombers, bombs, and missiles required for the aerial onslaught. (Admittedly, the United Kingdom, France, and other NATO arms exporters eagerly did their bit.) U.S. Navy ships aided the blockade. But no one that I talked to in Washington suggested that the war was in any way necessary to our national security. The best answer I got came from Ted Lieu, a Democratic congressman from California who has been one of the few public officials to speak out about the devastation we were enabling far away. “Honestly,” he told me, “I think it’s because Saudi Arabia asked.” [Continue reading…]

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FBI investigates whether Russia hacked New York Times reporters

The Associated Press reports: The FBI is investigating cyber intrusions targeting reporters of the New York Times and is looking into whether Russian intelligence agencies are responsible for the acts, a US official said Tuesday.

The cyberattacks are believed to have targeted individual reporters, but investigators don’t believe the newspaper’s entire network was compromised, according to the official, who was briefed on the investigation but was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

CNN first reported the FBI’s investigation.

It was not immediately clear how many reporters may have been affected, nor how many email accounts were targeted. [Continue reading…]

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How corruption paved the way for the rise of ISIS and the failure of Iraq

Ken Silverstein writes: It is hard to overstate the devastating role that corruption has played in the failure of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. According to a report last March by the Iraqi parliament’s auditing committee, the country’s defense ministry has spent $150 billion on weapons during the past decade — but acquired only $20 billion worth of arms. Much of the equipment it did obtain was useless, 1970s-era matériel from former Soviet bloc states that was invoiced at up to four times its actual value. Late last year, well-placed sources tell me, the Pentagon delivered a shipment of new weapons to the Iraqi government, including .50-caliber sniper rifles, which were supposed to be sent to Sunni fighters in Anbar Province. Instead, corrupt officials in the Iraqi ministries of interior and defense sold the arms to ISIS, which is using them to kill Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

“The Kurds are still using equipment we gave them in 2003,” says a former CIA official who spends a good deal of time in Iraq. “They’re forced to buy ammo and weapons that the U.S. government gives to Baghdad from corrupt Iraqi government officials.”

Weapons aren’t the only target for corruption. When it comes to the vast sums of money that have flowed into Iraq for reconstruction and economic development, officials at every level of government have been more focused on lining their own pockets than rebuilding their ruined country. [Continue reading…]

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Turkish evidence for Gulen extradition pre-dates coup attempt

The Washington Post reports: Turkey’s request for U.S. extradition of self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen refers only to his alleged activities before last month’s failed coup attempt, for which the Turks have not yet provided any evidence of his involvement, a senior administration official said.

“It’s actually tied to allegations of certain alleged criminal activities that pre-date the coup,” the official said of the request now being examined by the Justice Department. “At this point, Turkish authorities have not put forward a formal extradition request based on evidence that he was involved in the coup” attempt.

Turkey has blamed Gulen’s followers for orchestrating the attempted toppling of the government, and has arrested tens of thousands of alleged sympathizers in purges of the military, the judiciary and the media, even as it has closed down hundreds of schools and business enterprises operated by alleged Gulen backers. Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, is a permanent U.S. resident. [Continue reading…]

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Climate change will mean the end of national parks as we know them

Oliver Milman writes: After a century of shooing away hunters, tending to trails and helping visitors enjoy the wonder of the natural world, the guardians of America’s most treasured places have been handed an almost unimaginable new job – slowing the all-out assault climate change is waging against national parks across the nation.

As the National Parks Service (NPS) has charted the loss of glaciers, sea level rise and increase in wildfires spurred by rising temperatures in recent years, the scale of the threat to US heritage across the 412 national parks and monuments has become starkly apparent.

As the National Parks Service turns 100 this week, their efforts to chart and stem the threat to the country’s history faces a daunting task. America’s grand symbols and painstakingly preserved archaeological sites are at risk of being winnowed away by the crashing waves, wildfires and erosion triggered by warming temperatures.

The Statue of Liberty is at “high exposure” risk from increasingly punishing storms. A national monument dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who will be enshrined on a new $20 note, could be eaten away by rising tides in Maryland. The land once walked by Pocahontas and Captain John Smith in Jamestown, the first English settlement in the US, is surrounded by waters rising at twice the global average and may be beyond rescue.

These threats are the latest in a pile of identified calamities to befall national parks and monuments due to climate change. Receding ice, extreme heat and acidifying oceans are morphing America’s landscapes and coasts at a faster pace than at any time in human history. [Continue reading…]

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Feds investigate Manafort firm as part of Ukraine probe

CNN reports: FBI and Justice Department prosecutors are conducting an investigation into possible US ties to alleged corruption of the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine, including the work of Paul Manafort’s firm, according to multiple US law enforcement officials.

The investigation is broad and is looking into whether US companies and the financial system were used to aid alleged corruption by the party of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort, who resigned as chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign Friday, has not been the focus of the probe, according to the law enforcement officials. The investigation is ongoing and prosecutors haven’t ruled anything out, the officials said.

The probe is also examining the work of other firms linked to the former Ukrainian government, including that of the Podesta Group, the lobbying and public relations company run by Tony Podesta, brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. scrambled jets to protect its ‘advisers’ in Syria

AFP reports: The US-led coalition scrambled fighters to protect US advisers working with Kurdish forces after Syrian regime jets bombed the area, in the latest escalation of Syria’s bloody conflict, the Pentagon said.

The air strikes took place on Thursday, conducted by two Syrian SU-24 attack planes targeting Kurdish forces undergoing training with US special operations advisers around the northeastern city of Hasakeh, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said.

The coalition scrambled its own jets to the area in a bid to intercept the Syrian jets, but the regime planes had left by the time they arrived. [Continue reading…]

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Inside the real U.S. ground war on ISIS

Mike Giglio reports: The Black Hawk helicopter pushed into ISIS territory through the pre-dawn sky. Joshua Wheeler, a veteran master sergeant with US special operations, was taking his men deep behind enemy lines. As the chopper descended on the ISIS stronghold of Hawija in northern Iraq, back in Washington, US president Barack Obama, who had been notified of the mission, waited for word of its fate.

Wheeler and his team were at the forefront of the hidden war US special operations troops are waging against ISIS. With him in the chopper were fellow members of the US Army’s elite Delta Force and some of the local commandos they had trained. Decked in desert camouflage and equipped with high-tech automatic weapons and night vision, the US and local soldiers looked almost identical.

Their mission, carried out on Oct. 22, was more dangerous than most. It called for the men to infiltrate a guarded compound that ISIS had converted into a prison and rescue dozens of men who, according to intelligence reports, were scheduled to be executed that day.

ISIS militants began firing on the helicopter as it lowered toward the compound. Wheeler shot back from the bay, recalled one of the local soldiers who was beside him, a captain with a specialized Kurdish force called the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU), which is run by the security council of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Then — as Wheeler often did, his Kurdish partners said — he led the way.

Wheeler hit the ground first, said the 29-year-old captain, the ranking CTU officer on the chopper. Gunshots and calls of “Allahu Akbar” rang out as the militants tried to repel the commandos, firing with everything they had. The captain said he and Wheeler advanced together, “fighting side by side.”

By the time the operation was over three hours later, around 20 ISIS militants had been killed and 69 prisoners had been saved. And Wheeler was dead, struck down by an ISIS bullet, making him the first US service member to lose his life in the ISIS fight.

When his death became public, US officials painted the combat role of the US commandos on the mission as an anomaly. The Pentagon’s press secretary called it “a unique circumstance.” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wheeler’s engagement with the enemy “wasn’t part of the plan.” These comments pushed Wheeler’s death into line with the narrative Obama had presented to the public when the new fight began. “I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done,” he said in August 2014 as US airstrikes against ISIS began. “And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”

But the Kurdish soldiers who worked with Wheeler tell a different story. They say that Wheeler intended from the start to be up front in the operation — and that elite US troops like him often lead the charge against ISIS on the ground. [Continue reading…]

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A former CIA asset has become a U.S. headache in Libya

The Washington Post reports: He’s a grandfather and longtime Washington suburbanite who now commands a powerful fighting force in northern Africa. He’s also a former CIA asset and anti-Islamist warrior who stands in the way of peace in Libya.

The United States and its allies can’t figure out what to do about Khalifa Hifter, the Libyan general whose refusal to support a fragile unity government has jeopardized hopes for stability in a country plagued by conflict.

Since he emerged as an important post-revolution figure in 2014, Western governments have struggled to define an effective policy to deal with Hifter, who has styled himself as an antidote to extremists while building his own power base and shunning the political process brokered by the United Nations.

“Hifter is threatening many of the Western-backed initiatives in Libya and the establishment of a recognized political power,” said Barak Barfi, a scholar at New America, a Washington think tank. “Hifter doesn’t have the strength on the battlefield to deliver on his promises to defeat Islamists, but he can act as a spoiler.”

Even as militia forces, backed by U.S. air power, make progress against the Islamic State in central Libya, Hifter looms as a primary impediment to White House hopes for restoring the democratic promise of the 2011 revolution that ended dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s long rule.

Hifter’s role in a much earlier, CIA-backed attempt to overthrow Gaddafi injects another element of complexity into American efforts to end Libya’s long crisis. [Continue reading…]

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Promises unfulfilled: How a State Department plan to stabilize Iraq broke apart

The Washington Post reports: A week before the last U.S. soldiers left his country in December 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Washington to meet the team that would help shape Iraq’s future once the troops and tanks were gone.

Over dinner at the Blair House, guest quarters for elite White House visitors since the 1940s, the dour Iraqi sipped tea while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of how her department’s civilian experts could help Iraqis avoid a return to terrorism and sectarian bloodshed.

Iraq would see a “robust civilian presence,” Clinton told reporters afterward, summing up the Obama administration’s pledges to Maliki. “We are working to achieve that,” she said.

Less than three years later, the relatively calm Iraq that Maliki had led in 2011 was gone. The country’s government was in crisis, its U.S.-trained army humiliated, and a third of its territory overrun by fighters from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, State Department programs aimed at helping Iraqis prevent such an outcome had been slashed or curtailed, and some had never materialized at all.

Clinton’s political foes would later seek to blame her, together with President Obama, for the Islamic State’s stunning takeover of western Iraq, saying the State Department failed to preserve fragile security gains achieved at great cost by U.S. troops. In a speech Monday on how he would deal with terrorist threats, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said, “The rise of ISIS is the direct result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.”

But an intensive review of the record during Clinton’s tenure presents a broader picture of missteps and miscalculations by multiple actors — including her State Department as well as the Maliki government, the White House and Congress — that left Iraqi security forces weakened and vulnerable to the Islamic State’s 2014 surge. [Continue reading…]

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Aid worker in Aleppo says joint U.S.-Russian airstrikes would be ‘diabolical’

The Intercept reports: A British aid worker based in rebel-held East Aleppo says that reported plans by the United States and Russia to conduct joint airstrikes against the city are “ludicrous and diabolical,” and, if carried out, would have a disastrous impact on civilians living there.

Tauqir Sharif, 29, speaking to The Intercept from a hospital in Aleppo, says that Russian and Syrian government airstrikes on the city are creating nightmarish conditions for ordinary people. The addition of American forces to the mix would compound the misery of civilians, while giving the impression that the United States was openly siding with the Assad government.

Last week an alliance of Syrian rebels and Islamist groups broke the longstanding government siege on the eastern half of the city. Sharif says that since then, the frequency and intensity of airstrikes has increased. “There has been an almost constant bombardment from strikes because the regime is very, very angry that a corridor has been opened into the city from the south,” Sharif says. “The siege in some ways is still in place because it is very difficult to bring aid in due to constant airstrikes on vehicles driving the routes to the city.” [Continue reading…]

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