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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Russia warns U.S. after downing of Syrian warplane

The New York Times reports: Russia on Monday condemned the American military’s downing of a Syrian warplane, suspending the use of a military hotline that Washington and Moscow have used to avoid collisions in Syrian airspace and threatening to target aircraft flown by the United States and its allies over Syria.

The moves were the most recent example of an intensifying clash of words and interests between the two powers, which support different sides in Syria’s civil war.

The Russian military has halted cooperation in the past — notably after President Trump ordered the launch of missiles against a Syrian air base in April — and it was not clear whether the latest action would be lasting.

Its announcement came in response to an American F/A-18 jet’s shooting down a Syrian government warplane south of the town of Tabqah on Sunday, after the Syrian aircraft dropped bombs near local ground forces supported by the United States. It was the first time the American military had downed a Syrian plane since the civil war began in the country in 2011.

The Russian Defense Ministry called American attacks against the Syrian forces “military aggression” and announced that it would suspend cooperation with the United States intended to prevent airborne accidents over Syria. [Continue reading…]

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A U.S. aircraft has shot down a Syrian government jet over northern Syria, Pentagon says

The Washington Post reports: A U.S. strike aircraft shot down a Syrian government fighter jet shortly after it bombed U.S.-backed Syrian fighters in North Syria, the Pentagon said in a statement Sunday.

The Pentagon said the shoot-down came hours after Syrian government-backed forces attacked U.S.-backed fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the village of Ja’Din. As the attack unfolded, the U.S. military used a deconfliction channel to communicate with the Syrian government to stop the skirmish, according to the Pentagon statement.

U.S.-led jets stopped the fighting by flying close to the ground and at low-speed in what is called a “show of force,” the Pentagon said.

Roughly two hours later, despite the called-for stand down and the U.S. presence overhead, a Syrian Su-22 jet attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces, dropping an unknown number of munitions on the U.S.-backed force. A U.S. F/A-18 promptly shot the Syrian aircraft down “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of coalition partnered forces,” the Pentagon statement said. [Continue reading…]

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White House officials want to expand war in Syria by pushing U.S. troops to confront Iranian-backed forces

Foreign Policy reports: A pair of top White House officials is pushing to broaden the war in Syria, viewing it as an opportunity to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground there, according to two sources familiar with the debate inside the Donald Trump administration.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor, want the United States to start going on the offensive in southern Syria, where, in recent weeks, the U.S. military has taken a handful of defensive actions against Iranian-backed forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has personally shot down their proposals more than once, the two sources said.

The situation in southern Syria has escalated in recent weeks, after a U.S. warplane shot down an Iranian-made drone that had attacked U.S. forces on patrol with Syrian allies near an American outpost at al-Tanf. The drone attack came after two U.S. airstrikes on Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which had moved too close to the Americans’ garrison.

Despite the more aggressive stance pushed by some White House officials, Mattis, military commanders, and top U.S. diplomats all oppose opening up a broader front against Iran and its proxies in southeastern Syria, viewing it as a risky move that could draw the United States into a dangerous confrontation with Iran, defense officials said. Such a clash could trigger retaliation against U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Syria, where Tehran has armed thousands of Shiite militia fighters and deployed hundreds of Revolutionary Guard officers.

Mattis, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Brett McGurk, the U.S. diplomat overseeing the anti-Islamic State coalition, all favor keeping the focus on pushing the Islamic State out of its remaining strongholds, including the southern Syrian city of Raqqa, officials said. “That’s the strategy they’ve signed off on and that’s where the effort is,” said one defense official.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The Pentagon has publicly asserted it has no intention to fight forces supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, unless provoked.

“The Coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime or pro-regime forces but remains ready to defend themselves if pro-regime forces refuse to vacate the de-confliction zone,” U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a June 6 statement.

It’s not the first time Mattis and Dunford have found themselves having to push back against White House proposals for aggressive action they consider ill-conceived and even reckless. Earlier, the two opposed a tentative idea that would have sent a large U.S. ground force into Syria to oust the Islamic State instead of relying on local Syrian Kurd and Arab fighters backed by U.S. commandos. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s newest flashpoint is bringing U.S. and Iran face to face

The Wall Street Journal reports: Southern Syria, once the quietest corner of the country’s multisided conflict, has unexpectedly become the most volatile flashpoint between America and Iran as the two countries vie for control.

The U.S. military has moved mobile artillery-rocket launchers into southern Syria for the first time, as American troops in the area face increasing dangers from Iran-backed forces. Iran’s best-known military commander, meanwhile, was photographed praying with allied fighters in Syria, a visit seen by some U.S. officials as a public taunt by Tehran. Worried that the situation may spiral out of control, top U.S. military commanders are pressing Moscow to step in.

“This is rapidly developing, it’s not settled at all and I don’t even know that there’s a good direction determined yet,” one U.S. official said. “Everybody’s trying to figure out what to do here. It’s in nobody’s interest for us to get into an active fight with these pro-regime forces.”

For years, the U.S. military has focused its firepower in Syria on defeating Islamic State and largely avoided direct confrontations with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Iranian allies. But the risks of a combustive confrontation in southern Syria have unexpectedly increased as the U.S. has ramped up its operations against Islamic State.

The jostling is partly driven by a view among some U.S. officials that the vast desert could become a staging ground for Mr. Trump’s nascent efforts to counter Iranian influence in the region, including Tehran’s efforts to establish firm control over weapons supply routes running through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon.

Elite U.S. special operations forces have stepped up training and brought in more firepower to a small garrison known as al Tanf, near a key border crossing with Iraq. About 150 U.S. special operations forces are rotating in-and-out of the training base, U.S. officials said. In Syria’s north, more than 750 U.S. Marines and soldiers are using helicopters, artillery and airstrikes to help Syrian fighters push Islamic State from Raqqa, the extremist group’s largest remaining stronghold in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Trump sells Qatar $12 billion of U.S. weapons days after accusing it of funding terrorism

CBS News reports: While President Trump berates Qatar for sponsoring terrorism at the highest levels, he is simultaneously authorizing the country to purchase over $21 billion of U.S. weapons.

One part of the deal was inked on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., when Qatar’s Defense Minister met with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis.

“We are pleased to announce today the signing of the letter of offer and acceptance for the purchase of the F-15QA fighter jets, with an initial cost of $12 billion dollars,” read the Qatari Defense Minister’s statement on Wednesday afternoon. “We believe that this agreement will propel Qatar’s ability to provide for its own security while also reducing the burden placed upon the United States military in conducting operations against violent extremism.” [Continue reading…]

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‘Staggering’ civilian deaths from U.S.-led air strikes in Raqqa, says UN war crimes investigator

Reuters reports: Intensified coalition air strikes supporting an assault by U.S.-backed forces on Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa in Syria are causing a “staggering loss of civilian life”, United Nations war crimes investigators said on Wednesday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by a U.S.-led coalition, began to attack Raqqa a week ago to take it from the jihadists. The SDF, supported by heavy coalition air strikes, have taken territory to the west, east and north of the city.

“We note in particular that the intensification of air strikes, which have paved the ground for an SDF advance in Raqqa, has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced,” Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry told the Human Rights Council. [Continue reading…]

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How Russia targets the U.S. military

Politico reports: In the fall of 2013, Veterans Today, a fringe American news site that also offers former service members help finding jobs and paying medical bills, struck up a new partnership. It began posting content from New Eastern Outlook, a geopolitical journal published by the government-chartered Russian Academy of Sciences, and running headlines like “Ukraine’s Ku Klux Klan — NATO’s New Ally.” As the United States confronted Russian ally Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons against Syrian children this spring, the site trumpeted, “Proof: Turkey Did 2013 Sarin Attack and Did This One Too” and “Exclusive: Trump Apologized to Russia for Syria Attack.”

In recent years, intelligence experts say, Russia has dramatically increased its “active measures” — a form of political warfare that includes disinformation, propaganda and compromising leaders with bribes and blackmail — against the United States. Thus far, congressional committees, law enforcement investigations and press scrutiny have focused on Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s successful efforts to disrupt the American political process. But a review of the available evidence and the accounts of Kremlin watchers make clear that the Russian government is using the same playbook against other pillars of American society, foremost among them the military. Experts warn that effort, which has received far less attention, has the potential to hobble the ability of the armed forces to clearly assess Putin’s intentions and effectively counter future Russian aggression.

In addition to propaganda designed to influence service members and veterans, Russian state actors are friending service members on Facebook while posing as attractive young women to gather intelligence and targeting the Twitter accounts of Defense Department employees with highly customized “phishing” attacks. The same Russian military hacking group that breached the Democratic National Committee, “Fancy Bear,” was also responsible for publicly posting stolen Army data online while posing as supporters of the Islamic State in 2015, according to the findings of one cybersecurity firm. And the hacking group’s most common target for phishing attacks in the West has been military personnel, with service members’ spouses making up another prominent target demographic, according to another cybersecurity firm. [Continue reading…]

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As ISIS retreats in Syria and attacks Tehran, the U.S. and Iran scramble for control

The Washington Post reports: U.S. and Iran-backed forces are locked in a race to take Islamic State strongholds in southeastern Syria and seize a stretch of land that will either cement Tehran’s regional ambitions, or stifle them.

The scramble for pole position in Deir al-Zour province is likely to be one of the most consequential fights against the extremist group in Syria, posing a regional test for President Trump as his administration turns up the rhetoric against Iran.

While the battle for the Islamic State’s most famous Syrian stronghold of Raqqa is heating up, there are signs that an offensive to seize Deir al-Zour will be tougher, and have greater consequences for the group’s long-term survival as a force holding significant territory.

On the Euphrates River between Raqqa and the Iraqi border, the city of Deir al-Zour is the largest urban center in eastern Syria. Victory for Syrian and Iran-backed forces there would give Tehran control of a large swath of the Syrian-Iraqi border, securing a land route through Iraq and southeast Syria to Damascus in the southwest, and on to its proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: At least 12 people were killed and 42 others wounded Wednesday morning in a pair of devastating attacks on two of Iran’s most potent symbols: the national Parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The Islamic State immediately claimed responsibility; if that is found to be true, the attacks would be the terrorist group’s first major assault within Iran’s borders. Suspicions in Tehran were also directed at Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis in the region, which has been newly emboldened by a supportive visit from President Trump last month.

In the view of many in Iran, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is inextricably linked to Saudi Arabia. Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst with ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said, “ISIS ideologically, financially and logistically is fully supported and sponsored by Saudi Arabia.”

“They are one and the same,” he added.

The attacks on Wednesday followed a familiar pattern of Islamic State assaults hitting more than one location. Assailants armed with assault rifles and suicide vests descended on the Parliament and on the Khomeini mausoleum. Six attackers were killed: four at the Parliament, and two at the mausoleum. [Continue reading…]

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Deadly bombing in Kabul is one of the Afghan war’s worst strikes

The New York Times reports: A truck bomb devastated a central area of Kabul near the presidential palace and foreign embassies on Wednesday, one of the deadliest strikes in the long Afghan war and a reminder of how the capital itself has become a lethal battlefield.

In one moment, more than 80 lives ended, hundreds of people were wounded and many more were traumatized, in the heart of a city defined by constant checkpoints and the densest concentration of Afghan and international forces.

President Ashraf Ghani, whose palace windows were shattered in the blast just as he had finished his morning briefing, called it “a crime against humanity.” President Trump called him to offer condolences.

The bombing happened just as the United States is weighing sending more troops, deepening its entanglement, to try to slow or reverse government losses to the Taliban insurgency this year. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump wants to fight Iran, he’ll soon get the chance in Syria

Bloomberg reports: Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in eastern Syria is surrounded by some of the world’s strongest military powers. Their forces are advancing on several fronts. The battlefield odds aren’t even close.

That’s why the commanders of those armies — in Washington, Moscow and Tehran, as well as Damascus and Ankara — are looking beyond the coming showdown with the jihadists. When they’re killed or driven out, who’ll take over? It’s an especially sharp dilemma for President Donald Trump. Because for the second time this century, the U.S. risks defeating one Middle Eastern enemy only to see another one, Iran, emerge as the big winner.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Iran’s bitter rival Saddam Hussein and replaced him with a sympathetic Shiite-led government. In Syria today, Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad has survived six years of civil war during which U.S. leaders repeatedly insisted that he had to go. His army, fighting alongside militias loyal to Tehran, is driving into Islamic State-held territory, setting up a race with U.S.-backed forces to liberate it. Even the areas where the Americans arrive first may eventually revert to Assad’s control.

That might not have been a problem for Trump the candidate. Before the election, he vowed to smash Islamic State without getting sucked into a wider war, and said he’d work with Russia, Assad’s other key backer. It could be a problem for the President Trump who told America’s regional allies last week that he’ll help roll back Iranian power — a promise that, in Syria at least, won’t be easy to keep. [Continue reading…]

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A military-heavy White House may overestimate the efficacy of hard power and provoke war with Iran

The Washington Post reports: The concentration of military officers is highest in the section of the NSC focused on the Middle East and Iran. For many of those officers, the defining experience of their career was service in Iraq, when President George W. Bush ordered a surge of more than 30,000 troops to stave off near-certain defeat.

It was the war’s most dramatic period, when a force of more than 160,000 U.S. troops was locked in a deadly battle with both Sunni insurgents and Iranian proxies for control of the country.

“The thing that worries me most is that a lot of these officers really forged their view of the world and the Middle East at a particular moment in our occupation of Iraq,” said Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon and White House official who focused on the Middle East.

Today the United States faces a vastly different situation in the region. U.S. troop levels are a small fraction of their Iraq War peak, and chaos and civil war have spread throughout the region.

Kahl said the military-heavy White House could overestimate its ability to influence events in the region or needlessly provoke Iran, leading to more conflict and bloodshed.

It’s also possible that military officers, chastened by the losses in Iraq, will take a more cautious view.

“The conventional wisdom on this is probably wrong,” said Peter Feaver, a senior official in George W. Bush’s White House and professor at Duke University. “Empirically, the military is more reluctant to use force . . . but if force is used, then they want it to be used without restraint.” [Continue reading…]

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Michael Flynn misled Pentagon about his Russia ties, letter says

The New York Times reports: Michael T. Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, misled Pentagon investigators about his income from companies in Russia and contacts with officials there when he applied for a renewal of his top-secret security clearance last year, according to a letter released Monday by the top Democrat on the House oversight committee.

Mr. Flynn, who resigned 24 days into the Trump administration, told investigators in February 2016 that he had received no income from foreign companies and had only “insubstantial contact” with foreign nationals, according to the letter. In fact, Mr. Flynn had sat two months earlier beside President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia at a Moscow gala for RT, the Kremlin-financed television network, which paid Mr. Flynn more than $45,000 to attend the event and give a separate speech.

His failure to make those disclosures and his apparent attempt to mislead the Pentagon could put Mr. Flynn in further legal jeopardy. Intentionally lying to federal investigators is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Separately, he also faces legal questions over failing to properly register as a foreign agent for lobbying he did last year on behalf of Turkey while advising the Trump campaign, which is also a felony.

The House letter, written by Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, was made public hours after Mr. Flynn formally rejected a subpoena from senators investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and chose to instead invoke his right against self-incrimination, a person familiar with his decision said. [Continue reading…]

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Inside Russia’s social media cyberwar on America

Time reports: On March 2, a disturbing report hit the desks of U.S. counterintelligence officials in Washington. For months, American spy hunters had scrambled to uncover details of Russia’s influence operation against the 2016 presidential election. In offices in both D.C. and suburban Virginia, they had created massive wall charts to track the different players in Russia’s multipronged scheme. But the report in early March was something new.

It described how Russia had already moved on from the rudimentary email hacks against politicians it had used in 2016. Now the Russians were running a more sophisticated hack on Twitter. The report said the Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department. Depending on the interests of the targets, the messages offered links to stories on recent sporting events or the Oscars, which had taken place the previous weekend. When clicked, the links took users to a Russian-controlled server that downloaded a program allowing Moscow’s hackers to take control of the victim’s phone or computer–and Twitter account.

As they scrambled to contain the damage from the hack and regain control of any compromised devices, the spy hunters realized they faced a new kind of threat. In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect. Now counterintelligence officials wondered: What chaos could Moscow unleash with thousands of Twitter handles that spoke in real time with the authority of the armed forces of the United States? At any given moment, perhaps during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, Pentagon Twitter accounts might send out false information. As each tweet corroborated another, and covert Russian agents amplified the messages even further afield, the result could be panic and confusion.

For many Americans, Russian hacking remains a story about the 2016 election. But there is another story taking shape. Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion. The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces. “Using these technologies, it is possible to undermine democratic government, and it’s becoming easier every day,” says Rand Waltzman of the Rand Corp., who ran a major Pentagon research program to understand the propaganda threats posed by social media technology. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. strikes Syria militia threatening U.S.-backed forces

Reuters reports: The U.S. military carried out an air strike on Thursday against militia supported by the Syrian government that posed a threat to U.S. and U.S.-backed Syrian fighters in the country’s south, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday.

The militia, who numbered in the dozens and drove a tank and a small number of construction vehicles, ignored warning shots from U.S. aircraft and, according to a U.S.-led coalition statement, even “apparent Russian attempts to dissuade” their advance.

One of the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, speculated that the group might have been trying to establish a position near the garrison in Syria used by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces around the town of At Tanf.

“They were potentially probing to see how close they could get to At Tanf,” the official said.

A member of the U.S.-backed Syrian rebel forces told Reuters the convoy comprised Syrian and Iranian-backed militias and was headed toward the Tanf base when they clashed with some rebel forces. [Continue reading…]

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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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