Lebanon tells Syrian refugees ‘to return’ or go elsewhere

BBC News reports: Lebanon cannot accept any more refugees from war-torn Syria, Information Minister Ramzi Jreij has said.

He also urged existing refugees “to return to their countries, or go to other countries”.

Although he said those in exceptional circumstances could be accepted, the decision could deny refuge to tens of thousands of Syrians.

Lebanon has taken 1.1 million Syrians despite having a total population of just over four million.

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told the BBC that Lebanon’s decision “is not a surprise”.

“We can understand, we sit here responding to this enormous weight of refugees that is draining this community like nothing we have ever seen before,” she added. [Continue reading...]

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How America’s top military leader dragged Obama back into Iraq

Mark Perry writes: Apart from an occasional Thursday afternoon meeting between Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the White House, Gen. Martin Dempsey — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — rarely has opportunities to get face time with the president. So when he does, he presses his advantage. One of the few times this happened was during the early evening hours of Aug. 6, when Dempsey joined Obama in his limousine at the State Department, where the president had been attending a session of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The ride to the White House allowed Dempsey his first one-on-one with Obama in several weeks. As the two sat across from each other in the presidential limousine, Dempsey turned to his commander-in-chief.

“We have a crisis in Iraq, Mr. President,” Dempsey said, according to a senior Pentagon official who spoke with the chairman about his discussion with Obama that same day. “ISIS is a real threat,” he added, using an alternative acronym for the military group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. The senior Pentagon official with whom I spoke, and who paraphrased the Obama-Dempsey exchange, added that “Dempsey really leaned into him” on the crisis, saying it demanded “immediate attention.”

By that point, ISIL had overrun Mosul, a city of one million people in northern Iraq, seized stockpiles of heavy weapons from the hapless Iraqi military and was attacking thousands of ethnic Yazidis who had fled the conflict. According to the senior Pentagon official, the president listened carefully as Dempsey outlined the militants’ rapid military gains in western Iraq and warned that ISIL fighters were threatening Baghdad. “It’s that bad?” Obama asked, according to this person’s account. Dempsey was blunt. “Yes, sir,” he said, “it is.” (The White House, asked to characterize the president’s reaction, declined to comment.) [Continue reading...]

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ISIS keeps up Syrian oil flow despite U.S-led strikes

Reuters reports: Islamic State is still extracting and selling oil in Syria and has adapted its trading techniques despite a month of strikes by U.S.-led forces aimed at cutting off this major source of income for the group, residents, oil executives and traders say.

While the raids by U.S. and Arab forces have targeted some small makeshift oil refineries run by locals in eastern areas controlled by Islamic State, they have avoided the wells the group controls.

This has limited the effectiveness of the campaign and means the militants are able to profit from crude sales of up to $2 million a day, according to oil workers in Syria, former oil executives and energy experts.

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Cutting off ISIS’ cash flow

Charles Lister writes: The Islamic State (or ISIS) is “the best-funded terrorist organization we’ve confronted,” but “we have no silver bullet, no secret weapon to empty ISIS’ coffers overnight.” These were the words of David Cohen, the undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Department of the Treasury in a speech yesterday, in which he outlined the U.S. government’s assessment of ISIS finance and a strategy to counter it.

According to Cohen, ISIS’ principal source of finance is still derived from its control and sale of oil, which he assessed was still bringing in $1 million a day. Additional funds come from kidnap for ransom, extortion networks, criminal activities, and donations from external individuals, the latter being of least significance in terms of scale. In order to counter this broad base of financial incomes, Cohen explained that U.S. strategy is focused on disrupting ISIS revenue streams, restricting ISIS access to the international financial system, and targeting ISIS leaders, facilitators and supporters with sanctions.

Despite vastly underestimating ISIS’ potential in the months and years leading up to the organization’s 2014 offensives in Syria and Iraq, the Treasury’s, and by extension the U.S. government’s assessment of ISIS finance and how to combat it does seem largely in tune. It is indeed right that external financial donations are of minimal significance to ISIS. Since as early as 2005, ISIS predecessor organizations Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, and the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) all consistently sought to develop internal structures dedicated to maintaining financial self-sufficiency and an independence from potentially vulnerable external donors. In the current climate, however, a diminished capacity to earn from the sale of oil may elevate the importance of external sources of funding for ISIS to sustain its internal durability. [Continue reading...]

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FBI warns news outlets that group affiliated with ISIS is targeting journalists

The Washington Post reports: The FBI on Thursday warned news organizations that it had recently obtained “credible information” indicating that members of an Islamic State-affiliated group have been “tasked with kidnapping journalists” in the region and taking them to Syria.

The bureau noted that supporters of the terrorist group have called on members to retaliate against the United States and its allies for airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and have identified journalists as “desirable targets.”

The warning was released as a rare intelligence bulletin to news outlets so they could take security precautions. [Continue reading...]

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Jerusalem, the capital of apartheid, awaits the uprising

Gideon Levy writes: The terror attack in Jerusalem on Wednesday night should not have surprised anyone. After all, two nations live in the Pretoria of the State of Israel. Unlike the other occupied areas, there is supposed to be a certain equality between the two peoples: blue ID cards available for everybody, freedom of movement, property tax payable to the municipality, national insurance — Israelis all. But Jerusalem is engulfed by lies. It has become the Israeli capital of apartheid.

With the exception of Hebron, no place has such a blatant and brazen separation regime. And now the Israeli boot is coming down even harder in the capital, so the resistance in the ghetto-in-the-making is intensifying: battered and oppressed, neglected and poor, filled with feelings of hatred and an appetite for revenge.

The uprising is on the way. When the next wave of terror emerges from the alleys of East Jerusalem, Israelis will pretend to be astonished and furious. But the truth must be told: Despite Wednesday’s shocking incident, the Palestinians are turning out to be one of the most tolerant nations in history. Mass arrests, violent settlers, deprivation, expulsion, neglect, dispossession — and they remain silent, except for the recent protest of the stones.

There is no self-deception from which the city doesn’t suffer. The capital is a capital only in its own eyes; the united city is one of the most divided in the universe. The alleged equality is a joke and justice is trampled on. Free access to the holy sites is for Jews only (and yes, for elderly Muslims). And the right of return is reserved for Jews.

A Palestinian resident of Jerusalem is now in far greater danger of being lynched than a Jew in Paris. But here there’s nobody to raise hell. Unlike the Parisian Jew, the Palestinian can be expelled from Jerusalem. He can also be arrested with terrifying ease. After 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was burned to death, sparking a wave of protest, Israel arrested 760 Palestinians in the city, 260 of them children. [Continue reading...]

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As U.S. attacks ISIS, Syria steps up assaults on moderate rebels

The Washington Post reports: Syrian government forces have dramatically intensified air and ground assaults on areas held by moderate rebels, attempting to deliver crippling blows as world attention shifts to airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Since Monday, Syrian aircraft have targeted Aleppo in the north, the eastern suburbs of Damascus and southern areas near the Jordanian border, launching more than 210 airstrikes, said Rami Abdulrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the civil war.

Rebels in Aleppo say President Bashar al-Assad’s military has escalated attacks in northern areas of the city, trying to cut the supply lines of opposition fighters inside Aleppo.

“During the last three days, we have been hit by over 120 barrel bombs,” said Ahmed Abu Talal, a rebel belonging to the Islamic Front group, referring to particularly deadly high-explosive bombs that are often dropped by helicopter. [Continue reading...]

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Turkey’s president steps up criticism of U.S. airdrops to aid Kuridish fighters in Syria

The Washington Post reports: Turkey’s president sharpened criticism of U.S. airdrops to aid Syrian Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State, but promised on Thursday that Kurdish reinforcements would soon arrive in the embattled border town of Kobane.

The dual messages from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reflect the complicated political calculations for Turkey as part of the U.S.-led coalition seeking to cripple the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey is wary of the Syrian Kurds defending Kobane — just miles from the Turkish border — because of their ties to a Kurdish faction in Turkey that has waged a three-decade insurgency for greater rights. The U.S. airdrops of weapons and ammunition to Kobane is seen by Turkey as indirectly empowering the Turkish Kurdish rebels.

But NATO-member Turkey also is nervous that Kobane could fall to the Islamic State, which would gain another foothold along the Turkish border and possibly expand attacks on Turkish forces and targets. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS ascent in Syria and Iraq weakening Pakistani Taliban

The Guardian reports: The dramatic rise of Islamic State (Isis) in Syria and Iraq is helping to tear apart the Pakistani Taliban, the beleaguered militant group beset by infighting and splits.

Once the country’s largest and most feared militant coalition, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been on the ropes since a US drone strike killed its charismatic leader Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013, a blow followed this summer by the launch of a military onslaught against the group’s sanctuaries.

But the latest challenge to the TTP has come from the startling military successes of Isis and its demand that all Muslims pledge allegiance to the new caliphate it announced in June.

The claim to global Islamic leadership by the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi threatens to undermine the TTP, which draws considerable authority from the fact that its symbolic figurehead is Mullah Omar, the one-eyed village preacher who ruled the original Taliban “emirate” in Afghanistan prior to the US-led invasion of 2001.

This week the TTP’s beleaguered leadership announced it had sacked its spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, after the high profile militant announced he had pledged his personal allegiance to Baghdadi.

The statement published on the movement’s Facebook page said the spokesman had left the group some time before and reiterated that the TTP’s leader, Mullah Fazlullah, continued to back Mullah Omar, “the emir of believers”. [Continue reading...]

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As more U.S. airstrikes hit ISIS, Assad escalates bombing across Syria

BBC News reports: The Syrian military has stepped up air strikes on rebel areas dramatically, carrying out more than 200 in recent days, opposition activists say.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the raids took place mostly in western areas between midnight on Sunday and noon on Tuesday.

The UK-based group said there were many casualties, but did not give a figure.

The intensified strikes come as US-led forces continue to bomb Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria and Iraq.

US and Arab jets have been attacking IS positions in around the northern Syrian town of Kobane, where Kurdish fighters are under siege. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. cooperated secretly with Syrian Kurds in battle against ISIS

The Wall Street Journal reports: The U.S. has conferred newfound legitimacy on the Syrian Kurdish militia fighting in Kobani, which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in neighboring Turkey. The U.S. and Turkey both list the PKK as a terrorist group.

Washington’s decision to send in supplies by air to fighters loyal to the Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PYD, followed a U.S. assessment that the Syrian Kurdish defenders would run out of ammunition in as little as three days.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders told American officials they were considering sending reinforcements from their region to Kobani. To reach the town, they would have to pass through other parts of Syria. U.S. defense officials looked at the route and told the Kurds it would be a suicide mission.

The U.S. asked the Turkish government to let Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross through Turkish territory to reinforce Kobani. U.S. officials said Turkey agreed in principal and that Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, proposed sending a specially trained force of Syrian Kurdish refugees.

But events on the ground forced Washington’s hand. U.S. contacts in Kobani sent out an urgent SOS.

“We needed weaponry and fast,” said Idris Nassan, the deputy foreign minister of the Kobani regional government.

To tide the Kurds over until Turkey opens a land corridor, U.S. Gen. Lloyd Austin, who runs the air campaign against Islamic State, decided on a delicate plan: dropping supplies using C-130 cargo planes.

The U.S. didn’t think Islamic State fighters had sophisticated antiaircraft weapons, but the Pentagon decided out of caution to fly under cover of darkness.

Gen. Austin presented the proposal to the White House on Friday. President Barack Obama approved it immediately, U.S. officials said.

Until recently, the White House wouldn’t even acknowledge U.S. contacts with the PYD because of its close ties to the PKK and the diplomatic sensitivities over that in Turkey. [Continue reading...]

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Young Tunisians think ISIS offers better life and reports on mass killings are ‘made up’

The New York Times reports: In interviews at cafes in and around Ettadhamen [a district in Tunis], dozens of young unemployed or working-class men expressed support for the extremists or saw the appeal of joining their ranks — convinced that it could offer a higher standard of living, a chance to erase arbitrary borders that have divided the Arab world for a century, or perhaps even the fulfillment of Quranic prophecies that Armageddon will begin with a battle in Syria.

“There are lots of signs that the end will be soon, according to the Quran,” said Aymen, 24, who was relaxing with friends at another cafe.

Bilal, an office worker who was at another cafe, applauded the Islamic State as the divine vehicle that would finally undo the Arab borders drawn by Britain and France at the end of World War I. “The division of the countries is European,” said Bilal, 27. “We want to make the region a proper Islamic state, and Syria is where it will start.”

Mourad, 28, who said he held a master’s degree in technology but could find work only in construction, called the Islamic State the only hope for “social justice,” because he said it would absorb the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies and redistribute their wealth. “It is the only way to give the people back their true rights, by giving the natural resources back to the people,” he said. “It is an obligation for every Muslim.”

Many insisted that friends who had joined the Islamic State had sent back reports over the Internet of their homes, salaries and even wives. “They live better than us!” said Walid, 24.

Wissam, 22, said a friend who left four months ago had told him that he was “leading a truly nice, comfortable life” under the Islamic State.

“I said: ‘Are there some pretty girls? Maybe I will go there and settle down,’ ” he recalled.

Leaders of Ennahda, the mainstream Islamist party that leads the Tunisian Parliament, said they had overestimated the power of democracy alone to tame violent extremism. Said Ferjani, an Ennahda leader who has often cited his own evolution from youthful militancy to peaceful politics, said in an interview that he now believed economic development would be just as important. “Without social development, I don’t think the democracy could survive,” he said. [Continue reading...]

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Has ISIS peaked as a military power?

Jacob Siegel writes: For a few months, the marauding jihadis of ISIS might have looked like an unstoppable army. That’s when they were moving at high speeds, their power blurred by hype and velocity. Slowed down by real resistance, a clearer picture takes shape and the limits of ISIS’s military power come into focus.

At the so-called caliphate’s edges, in areas like the Syrian border town of Kobani, ISIS’s march has stalled and its armor is starting to crack. We may be reaching the limits of ISIS as a conventional military force.

Facing a small Kurdish resistance and Western airpower, ISIS has been unable to take Kobani, despite surrounding and besieging it for months. That doesn’t mean the group is giving up, though, or anywhere close to defeat. The façade of ISIS’s power as a conquering army may be wearing off, but they can still revert to terrorist form and continue killing even if they can’t take ground.

Early on, ISIS leaders committed to a risky gambit: They decided to form a state, which put them in open conflict with other world powers. The group could have survived as a terrorist organization or a local insurgency as it had for years, but instead wagered on the caliphate. That decision provided an aura of authority that attracted new recruits and seemed to pay off in the short term. But it also transformed a regional threat into a global enemy that was easier to target in the areas it controlled. [Continue reading...]

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Will Turkey let Kobane fall to ISIS?

The BBC’s Steven Sackur yesterday spoke to Turkey’s ambassador to Nato, Mehmet Fatih Ceylan, about whether Ankara is doing enough to counter the threat posed by Islamic State on its border with Syria.

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Iraqi Kurds approve deploying forces to Syria’s Kobane

AFP reports: Iraqi Kurdish regional lawmakers Wednesday approved the deployment of security forces to the Syrian town of Kobane to help Kurds battling the Islamic State jihadist group, the parliament speaker said.

Massud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, had sent a letter asking its legislature to give him the approval needed for the deployment.

“The Kurdistan parliament decided to send forces to Kobane with the aim of supporting the fighters there and protecting Kobane,” Yusef Mohammed Sadeq said, according to footage of the session.

It was not immediately clear whether there would be any coordination between the Kurdish region and the federal government in Baghdad on intervening in Syria’s bloody and protracted civil war.

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Charles Glass on the ‘improving’ situation in Syria

Louis Proyect writes: The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has an article by Charles Glass titled “In the Syria We Don’t Know” that has been making the rounds on the Internet. I have seen links to it from Vijay Prashad on Twitter, on the Greenleft mailing list in Australia, and just this morning on ZNet. Apparently, those who link to it must have taken heart in Glass’s assurance that the Baathists were getting the upper hand:

As Bashar’s prospects improve with each American sortie against his enemies in the east of the country, Damascus and the populous towns to the north have been enjoying a respite of sorts from war. The Syrian Ministry of Education reported that, of the 22,000 schools in the country, more than 17,000 of them reopened on time in the middle of September. Needless to say, almost all of the functioning schools are in government-held areas. The souks in the old city of Damascus, unlike their more extensive and now destroyed counterparts in Aleppo, are open. Shops selling meat, vegetables, spices, and other basic items to the local population are doing well, although the tourist boutiques in and around the famous Souk Hamadieh have no customers apart from UN workers and a few remaining diplomats. At night, restaurants in most neighborhoods are, if not full, nearly so. Everything from wine to grilled chicken is plentiful, albeit at prices higher than before the war. Traffic remains heavy, although somewhat less obstructed since June when the government felt confident enough to remove many of its checkpoints. Electricity is intermittent, and those who can afford private generators use them in the off-hours.

So, any normal person — especially those who prefer RT.com to Aljazeera — would conclude that it was best for Assad to stay the course, no matter how many barrel bombs it takes to level Aleppo and other cities to the ground just as long as there is meat, vegetables, and spices for sale in Damascus.

I took note of Glass in an article titled “The Betrayal of the Intellectuals on Syria” that was rejected by the publishers of Critical Muslim because they feared it would run afoul of British libel laws. I post the relevant section below:

Arguably, the New York Review of Books and its counterpart the London Review of Books have served as latter day equivalents of Action Française, serving propaganda for a vicious dictatorship that has little connection to its self-flattering image as a beacon of human rights.

Even when the title of an NY Review article foreshadows a condemnation of the Ba‘athists, the content remains consistent with the “plague on both your houses” narrative that pervades this intellectual milieu. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS in desperate struggle to capture Kobane

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Syria tribal revolt against ISIS in August resulting in civilian massacre was ignored by U.S.

The Washington Post reports: The cost of turning against the Islamic State was made brutally apparent in the streets of a dusty backwater town in eastern Syria in early August. Over a three-day period, vengeful fighters shelled, beheaded, crucified and shot hundreds of members of the Shaitat tribe after they dared to rise up against the extremists.

By the time the killing stopped, 700 people were dead, activists and survivors say, making this the bloodiest single atrocity committed by the Islamic State in Syria since it declared its existence 18 months ago.

The little-publicized story of this failed tribal revolt in Abu Hamam, in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zour province, illuminates the challenges that will confront efforts to persuade those living under Islamic State rule — in Iraq as well as Syria — to join the fight against the jihadist group, something U.S. officials say is essential if the campaign against the militants is to succeed.

The Abu Hamam area has now been abandoned, and many of the bodies remain uncollected, offering a chilling reminder to residents elsewhere of the fate that awaits those who dare rebel.

Just as powerful a message for those living under the militants’ iron fist was the almost complete international silence on the bloodbath. [Continue reading...]

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