Kurds intent on carving new state out of Iraq after ISIS fight

Fox News reports: Kurdish fighters and leaders are intent on carving an independent state out of Northern Iraq after they wrest back vital territory from the Islamic State “whether the U.S. likes it or not,” according to American and international security forces on the ground.

Kurdish forces, whose commanders say they aren’t getting enough help from the U.S. and other allies, have been making headway against ISIS. But while re-taking Mosul from ISIS was seen as a key achievement by the U.S., the new focus is squarely on holding Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city claimed by many to be the cultural Kurdish capital.

“They are pushing hard in Kirkuk to hold Kirkuk and keep ISIS out and once that is done, they will move forward with plans for their country,” one operator on the ground with direct connections to Kurdish leaders told Fox News. Another source, who is directly advising Kurdish leaders, said “they have only one goal, whether the U.S. likes it or not.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkey will ‘never allow’ Kurdish state in Syria warns Erdogan

AFP reports: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey will never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in Syria after major gains by Kurdish fighters.

In a strong-worded warning late on Friday, Erdogan accused the Kurds of ethnically cleaning other communities from land they have taken after pushing back Islamic State forces from the Turkish border.

“I say to the international community that whatever price must be paid, we will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier in the north of Syria,” Erdogan was quoted by Turkish media as telling guests at a dinner to break the Ramadan fast. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS routed from stronghold

The Washington Post reports: The Islamic State was routed Monday from one of its key strongholds on Syria’s border with Turkey after its defenses crumbled and its fighters either defected or fled, raising new questions about the group’s vaunted military capabilities.

The fall of the town of Tal Abyad to a Kurdish-Syrian rebel force backed by U.S. airstrikes came after just two days of fighting during which the militants appeared to put up little resistance, focusing instead on escaping to their nearby self-styled capital of Raqqa or fleeing across the border to Turkey.

The force — led by Kurdish units of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and including local battalions of the rebel Free Syrian Army — pulled the Islamic State flag down from the border crossing with Turkey on Monday and by nightfall said it was in control of the town center.

There were reports of scattered fighting on the western outskirts of Tal Abyad, but the advancing force had already severed the militants’ escape route, closing in on the town Sunday in a pincer movement from the east, south and west.

It appeared the Islamic State had suffered a stunning defeat, its first major reversal since it was driven out of the Iraqi city of Tikrit in April, and one that could prove far more consequential. Tal Abyad commands the major trade and smuggling routes on which the Islamic State has relied for its supplies from the outside world and, most significant, the flow of foreign fighters to Raqqa, the first major city it conquered. [Continue reading…]

Cale Salih writes: The capture of the strategic northern border town of Tal Abyad from Islamic State (IS) is the latest in a string of gains by the dominant Kurdish militia in Syria, the YPG, and its political branch, the PYD, across the north of the country since 2011.

Last October, their fighters grabbed world attention when they drove IS out of Kobane, another border town further east.

Now, the YPG, working with some Free Syrian Army-aligned rebels, and backed by US-led coalition air strikes, have taken control of Tal Abyad, with its ethnically mixed population, that had been held by IS since last year.

The YPG’s victory in Kobane was symbolically significant, but Tal Abyad offers far more strategic value.

Long-term control of Tal Abyad would further the YPG’s goal of connecting the non-contiguous zones of territory it holds across northern Syria, which it organises into three “cantons”: Afrin (north-west of Aleppo); Kobane (west of Tal Abyad); and al-Jazira (north-east Hasakeh province). [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s scorched earth policy in Kobane

Massoud Hamed reports: Massive fires broke out In early June in the agricultural areas of this Kurdish-majority city, affecting wheat and barley crops and fruit trees. The Islamic State (IS) used heavy weaponry to target these areas following its late January defeat in Kobani at the hands of Kurdish forces and the international coalition.

Setting these fertile lands ablaze is one of the attempts by IS to intimidate the citizens who returned to Kobani after the group’s departure from the city.

“IS emptied the Kobani countryside and Tell Abyad of its original Kurdish residents through a systematic policy that has been applied since the beginning of the attack on these Kurdish cities in 2013,” Zara Misto, editor-in-chief of Welati Net and its office director in Kobani, told Al-Monitor. “This was done either through military tactics that converted the countryside into a military zone or through burning crops. Six thousand Kurdish families have been displaced from these areas. After the defeat of IS in Kobani and until now, the group’s bomb attacks and fires in many villages have hindered the return of residents to their towns. IS is even rigging children’s toys with explosives, resulting in only a very small number of residents returning — about 10% [of those who left]. This is because the return of residents and life to Kobani is akin to a monumental defeat to this terrorist organization.” [Continue reading…]

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Peshmerga vs. ISIS: The road to Mosul

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Turkey’s Syria policy won’t change

Aaron Stein writes: Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been an outspoken advocate for the use of military force to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Since severing ties with the Syrian regime in September 2011, Ankara has been a critical provider of military and humanitarian aid for a host of rebel groups operating throughout northern Syria.

Until now, AKP has managed to resist any changes to its policy owing to its outsize and repeated victories at the polls—even as the Syria conflict has spilled over the border in the form of terrorist attacks, lethal artillery fire, and downed Turkish aircraft. A driving force behind AKP decision-making has been the fear of seeing a semiautonomous Kurdish region spring up in Syria’s ungoverned north; specifically one ruled by the dominant, far-leftist Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Ironically, by trying to keep the PYD at bay, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan undercut his personal appeal in Turkey’s Kurdish majority southeast and undermined his former party’s efforts to continue to attract support from religiously-minded Kurds. This key constituency defected from the AKP in this past election, choosing instead to vote for Turkey’s fourth largest political party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). [Continue reading…]

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The Kurd-Shia war behind the war on ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: Behind Iraq’s front lines against the so-called Islamic State, Kurdish and Shia factions already are drawing a blueprint for what could be the region’s next major conflict.

In the city of Jalawla in Iraq’s Diyala province, near the Iranian border approximately 80 miles east of Baghdad, Kurdish forces have given the boot to the Shia militia they previously allied with to take the city from ISIS in a bloody November battle. Last month, the commanding Kurdish Peshmerga general in Jalawla threatened to start shooting if the Shia refused to leave the city immediately.

“This area is ours now, and that’s not changing,” Brig. Gen. Mahmoud Sangawi told The Daily Beast. He added that Jalawla, an abandoned city that previously had 83,000 people and was 80 percent Sunni Arab in 2003, would soon have a Kurdish mayor. Sangawi bragged that henceforth the city would also be called by its new Kurdish moniker, “Golala.”

Not so fast, say the Shia militias. They were recruited in the name of a fatwa from Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in June 2014, following the Iraqi army’s humiliating loss of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, virtually without a fight. Many are trained and advised by Iranians, and they have been the spearhead of Baghdad’s efforts to recover lost territory in the name of the national government. [Continue reading…]

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Can the Kurds stop Erdogan’s bid for total power?

Henri J. Barkey writes: The upcoming June 7 parliamentary elections may prove to be far more dramatic than any in Turkey’s recent past. No matter what the outcome, the country is likely to be heading into an unprecedented crisis.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has staked Turkey’s future constitutional order on the outcome of the vote. Erdogan, after 11 years as prime minister with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has assumed the largely ceremonial position of president. While the president is supposed to be impartial, he has been campaigning ferociously in support of his old party because he wants it to win a comfortable majority in parliament — more than 330 seats in the 550-seat parliament, to be precise. Such an outcome will enable him to lay the groundwork for a new political system, which would shift power from the prime minister to a French-style executive president.

Erdogan is a towering figure of Turkish politics. He dominates his party, which in principle is being run by his handpicked prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. He has also succeeded in neutralizing the once dominant force of Turkish politics, the armed forces. He is used to getting what he wants, and brooks no opposition — just ask his erstwhile ally, the religious leader Fethullah Gülen, whose powerful network of schools, media outlets, and business associations in Turkey are being dismantled piece by piece after a falling out with Erdogan.

Polling results have varied quite a bit in this election. The AKP is averaging support in the low 40s, while the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is polling in the mid- to high 20s and the nativist Nationalist Action Party seems likely to receive roughly 13 percent of the vote. It is unlikely, but possible, that the AKP will win fewer than 276 seats, which would force the formation of a coalition government. AKP supporters appear worried and have put together a very aggressive campaign — using state resources for the task, and crowding out the other parties from the airwaves.

What stands in the way of Erdogan and his 330 seats in parliament is the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which represents a significant majority of Turkey’s Kurdish population. [Continue reading…]

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The Iranian Kurdish ‘revolution’ the world doesn’t know is happening

IBT reports: Buildings are burning, protesters are bloodied, law enforcement vehicles are destroyed, hundreds of young men and women have been arrested and there is no end in sight. Iranian Kurdistan has been under what Iranian opposition called an “undeclared martial law” for the last week, and the Iranian regime has done all it can to keep it out of the media.

Thousands of Iranian Kurds have been demonstrating in the streets of roughly a dozen Iranian cities almost consistently for the past week. On Friday, protests turned violent as Iranian Kurdish political leaders called for an independent Kurdistan and democracy in Iran. It is one of the biggest Kurdish uprisings against the Iranian regime in years.

Iranian Kurds are “planning to carry out a comprehensive revolution and there are armed Iranian Kurdish political parties positioning themselves for the revolution,” said Sarkawt Kamal Ali, an Iraqi human rights lawyer familiar with the Kurdish situation.

On Friday, a recently formed coalition of Kurdish political parties, Kodar, threatened to deploy protesters and militia fighters to the Iranian capital of Tehran if the regime did not allow them to independently govern Iran’s Kurdish areas, according to Rudaw. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. strike in Syria blamed for scores of deaths linked to Arab-Kurd rivalry

McClatchy reports: Scores of Arab villagers died in airstrikes Thursday in northeast Syria, and local media activists charged Saturday that the U.S.-led coalition was responsible.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britian-based group that monitors violence in Syria, said 55 villagers died in what it condemned as a “massacre committed by the U.S.-led coalition under the pretext of targeting the Islamic State.”

McClatchy obtained a list with the names of 10 families that reportedly had lost 64 members in the strike.

And the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the Istanbul-based group once recognized by the United States as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, said the information it had received lent “credence to reports that it was a U.S.-led coalition strike that caused the civilian casualties.”

The U.S. Central Command could not immediately confirm that Bir Mahalli, which lies about 33 miles south of Kobani, had been targeted for airstrikes Thursday. A statement from Centcom said U.S. aircraft struck six targets between 8 a.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. Friday “near Kobani” – a description that previous reporting has shown could include a location 30 miles or more distant.

The reported deaths of the villagers also embroiled the United States in Syria’s fierce ethnic rivalries, with activists pointing out that the fishing and farming village of about 4,000 Arabs has had tense relations with Kurds living nearby – especially with the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” or YPG.

The Obama administration cooperated with the YPG in defense of Kobani, which Arabs call Ein al Arab, and there have been reports that the U.S.-led coalition continues to work with the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State.

But the activists said the YPG also is capturing villages inhabited by Arabs in an effort to pressure them to flee the area and has falsely accused Arabs in the area of supporting the Islamic State.

An activist from the area said local villagers were certain that the attack was by coalition aircraft because of the sound of the planes and the kind of bombs deployed. The activist, who spoke to McClatchy by Skype on condition of anonymity out of fear of both the YPG and the Islamic State, said the coalition may have received flawed intelligence about the target from its allies on the ground, a reference to YPG forces. [Continue reading…]

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Kobane still a ghost town, months after liberation from ISIS

The Associated Press reports: The battle for the Syrian border town of Kobani was a watershed in the war against the Islamic State group – Syrian Kurdish forces fought the militants in rubble-strewn streets for months as U.S. aircraft pounded the extremists from the skies until ultimately expelling them from the town earlier this year.

It was the Islamic State’s bloodiest defeat to date in Syria. But now, three months since Kobani was liberated, tens of thousands of its residents are still stranded in Turkey, reluctant to return to a wasteland of collapsed buildings and at a loss as to how and where to rebuild their lives.

The Kurdish town on the Turkish-Syrian border is still a haunting, apocalyptic vista of hollowed out facades and streets littered with unexploded ordnance – a testimony to the massive price that came with the victory over IS.

There is no electricity or clean water, nor any immediate plans to restore basic services and start rebuilding.

While grateful for the U.S. airstrikes that helped turn the tide in favor of the Kobani fighters and drive out IS militants, residents say their wretched situation underscores the lack of any serious follow-up by the international community in its war against IS. [Continue reading…]

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Kurdish fighter, Viyan Peyman, killed fighting ISIS


(Click “CC” for English subtitles.)

Viyan Peyman, a Kurdish woman fighter with the YPG/YPJ featured in an NBC News report from Kobane in November. This week she was killed in a battle with ISIS near Serekaniye, a town also known as Ras al-Ayn, in northern Syria.

Richard Engel writes: When I saw her lying on her stomach firing through a small hole in a wall in a snipers nest in the town of Kobani in northern Syria, I remember thinking she was one of the strongest and most dynamic women I’d ever met in the Middle East. Sitting among sandbags, the smell of spent rounds hanging in the room, Viyan Peyman told us she was fighting ISIS, but also for women’s rights in the Middle East.

“We stand and fight, especially here in the Middle East where women are treated as inferiors,” Peyman told us. “We stand here as symbols of strength for all the women of the region.”

Peyman wasn’t just a fighter. She was a poet and a singer, a voice of her movement. She sang a song for us about her fallen comrades from the YPG/YPJ, secular Kurdish groups battling ISIS in Syria and demanding greater rights for the Kurdish people.

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U.S. military sidesteps red tape to coordinate with PKK

The Daily Beast reports: On the volatile front lines facing the so-called Islamic State outside the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, American military personnel have been coordinating with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), according to a local commander from the left-wing guerrilla group that is still on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Ageed Kalary commands a unit of about 30 PKK fighters positioned some 500 meters from the front. He claims that he has met with U.S. military personnel accompanying commanders from Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, whose soldiers are known as the Peshmerga, and which has strong, open American support. The last direct encounter, he said, was in December. But the coordination does not have to be face to face.

“The Americans tell us what they need and share information but there is no formal agreement,” he says about the U.S. military’s interaction with a group that earned its “terrorist” label for the tactics it employed in its 29-year armed struggle against Turkish rule. [Continue reading…]

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Kurds accuse Iran of sending 30,000 troops to fight in Iraq

Al Jazeera: Kurdish authorities in Iraq have accused Iran of sending 30,000 soldiers and military experts to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

Shakhawan Abdullah, the head of the Iraq’s parliamentary security and defence committee, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that Iranian soldiers were operating in a number of Iraqi cities and fighting on Iraqi soil.

Abdullah said Iran’s presence went beyond military advisers and experts, and that Iranians were fighting under the banner of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces is an umbrella organisation of Shia armed groups composed of around 100,000 fighters.

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Iraqi Kurds say ISIS used chlorine gas against them

Reuters: Iraqi Kurdish authorities said on Saturday they had evidence that Islamic State had used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon against their peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq in January.

The Security Council of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region said in a statement to Reuters that the peshmerga had taken soil and clothing samples after an Islamic State car bombing attempt on Jan. 23.

It said laboratory analysis showed “the samples contained levels of chlorine that suggested the substance was used in weaponized form.” The Kurdish allegation could not be independently confirmed.

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Unsettled at home, veterans volunteer to fight ISIS

The New York Times reports: In the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya, [Patrick] Maxwell [a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran from Austin, Texas] was greeted at the airport by the Kurdish lieutenant. Soon after, he befriended one of the few foreign volunteers there, a Canadian veteran named Dillon Hillier, who had served in Afghanistan.

“We both thought it was important to help, to not sit back and watch it happen,” Mr. Hillier said in a phone interview from his home in Ontario.

The pair ended up in a ragtag infantry battalion on the front lines near Kirkuk, eating meals of rice and flatbread, traveling in beat-up, sometimes bullet-pocked trucks and sleeping on the floors of shipping containers.

“This is just like back in Al Anbar Province,” Mr. Maxwell said with a laugh in a video he made while speeding to the front lines in the back of a Ford pickup, holding a belt-fed machine gun. “Except we have no safety gear, no medical support and no air support.”

Much of the time he was kept away from the fighting, providing security for pesh merga generals, while occasionally manning sniper positions on the front line.

Mr. Maxwell said fighting was rare during his time on the Kurdish lines. “It was more like a World War I standoff,” he said.

In the seven weeks he was in Iraq, he became disenchanted as he watched a procession of American outcasts come to volunteer, including a man kicked out of the Marines who had arrest warrants in the United States and a biker with lip piercings, implanted fangs and “necromancer” written across his black leather jacket.

“Guys who had nothing to live for and just wanted to lay down bodies,” Mr. Maxwell said.

His time with the pesh merga abruptly ended in mid-January, he said, when American Special Operations forces advising the Kurds spotted him at a base near Kirkuk and State Department officials told pesh merga leaders that American civilians should not be in combat.

Mr. Maxwell said that he was removed from the front and that a few days later he and Mr. Hillier flew home in frustration.

“There was no point being there,” he said. “Politics had gotten in the way.”

In January when Mr. Maxwell arrived at Kennedy International Airport in New York with more than 100 pounds of military gear, he assumed he might be detained and possibly charged for fighting with the pesh merga, but no one stopped him. [Continue reading..]

The Daily Beast spoke to another American volunteer, referred to as “Patrick” — not his real name: Patrick’s journey to Syria started when he contacted a recruiter affiliated with the Lions of Rojava Facebook page, which specializes in recruiting foreigners for the YPG. The YPG is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and is perhaps best known in the West for its defense of Kobani and the use of its all-female YPJ units. Though both are Kurdish and have at times fought together, the YPG and YPJ are not the Peshmerga of neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.

“I decided to join the fight against ISIS because…at a certain point in my life I made a promise to defend my nation against enemies foreign and domestic, and I decided that ISIS presents a clear threat not only to the people of Kurdistan, not only to the people of the Middle East, but eventually will threaten our national security at home,” Patrick said.

He added that some of the foreign fighters he met had previous military experience, though he wouldn’t say whether he did. He said he doesn’t have an exact count of just how many foreigners are with the YPG but that it could be as many as 100-plus — now. When he initially arrived in Syria, the YPG was seeking to form all-Western units, but Patrick said these units were later broken apart to allow the YPG command to structure message control, and some of the foreigners even had their passports and phones taken away. Patrick said the YPG told the fighters this was because they feared ISIS might gain a propaganda victory if they killed or captured a foreigner and discovered their passport. He said he believed, however, it might have had just as much to do with ensuring the fighters couldn’t leave at will or speak to anyone on the outside without a YPG minder present.

From there, Patrick said, the foreigners were trained on the YPG’s aging weapons systems and occasionally manned checkpoints and went on patrols, but they never participated in any real battles.

“The Western fighters who spend time with YPG soon realize they’re not going to fight. I did not meet one single person, one single Westerner, that didn’t catch on to the fact that they were never intended to fight and they were being used as propaganda,” he said.

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At Kurdish front-line outpost, skepticism abounds about assault on Mosul

McClatchy reports: Major Deliar Shouki, the commander of a string of Kurdish fire bases less than 20 miles from Mosul, admitted he was skeptical when he’d heard the news last week that a U.S. official had told Pentagon reporters that 25,000 Iraqi troops would attack the Islamic State-held city perhaps as soon as April.

“There really is no Iraqi army, so I don’t know where they get the idea that they can train 25,000 soldiers in two months to fight house to house in Mosul,” he said on Friday as he gave a visiting journalist a tour of his men’s positions on the outskirts of the tiny hamlet of Sultan Abdullah, which lies about midway between Mosul and the Kurdish capital of Irbil.

Only a few hundred yards of open ground separates his troops from the Islamic State positions, with Shouki’s men dug in deeply on the tops of hills and the Islamic State fighters occupying the tiny village below. Nearly every night, the area is the scene World War I-style battles as the extremists attempt to storm the Kurdish trenches, only to be thrown back, with heavy casualties.

“It just seems to me like the Iraqi [Arabs] lack a certain morale to be soldiers, and I don’t want to directly accuse them of anything, but every time they fight Daash, they lose ground and equipment that ends up being used against us,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “It’s very suspicious and I don’t think they want to fight them.” [Continue reading…]

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The implications of Turkey’s withdrawal from Suleyman Shah in Syria

Aaron Stein and Michael Stephens write: Just days after finalizing an agreement to train a new rebel force inside Turkey to attack the Islamic State, Turkish forces moved into Syria to evacuate some 40 soldiers protecting the Suleyman Shah Tomb: a small Turkish enclave on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river, 30 kilometers from the Turkish border town of Karkamis. The operation included 39 tanks, 57 armored vehicles, and an estimated 572 military personnel. The soldiers removed the body of Suleyman Shah and transported his remains to an area just opposite the Turkish town of Esmeler.

In their analysis of the operation, Stein and Stephens come to these conclusions:

It is important to put this operation into perspective: Ankara launched a limited incursion to evacuate a tomb that had come under threat. The coalition, the Kurds, and the FSA did much of the heavy lifting. Turkey, however, has proven yet again that its role in the Syrian conflict must not be overlooked. It has links to all the main actors operating in northern Syria and is able to generally get its way with most of them, albeit with the occasional disagreement.

The biggest change appears to be Ankara’s approach to ISIS. Since 2013, Turkey had treated ISIS as an irritant, rather than a major security threat, but the Suleyman Shah operation is the clearest sign to date that this approach is changing. However, it is far too early to determine whether this will result in Turkey changing its approach to the coalition’s military operations. All signs indicate that Turkey will not agree to increase its role in the coalition by opening up Incirlik Air Force base for armed strikes, or by allowing its planes to bomb ISIS directly.

Turkey’s role will remain limited to the train and equip, intelligence sharing, and border enforcement, rather than engaging ISIS from the air. In fact one must consider that now that the potential embarrassment of an ISIS takeover of the Tomb has been avoided, Turkey will take a more relaxed stance to events south of its border, and it is unlikely that another Turkish military incursion will be repeated. It is more likely that Turkey will continue with the policy it has pursued thus far: border defense at airports, increased military deployments along certain areas of the border, and the training of the new rebel brigade with US assistance. This signals one key change: Turkey is now attacking ISIS through the use of proxies, which Ankara had previously rejected, in favor of focusing on Assad.

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