Video: The civilian toll from airstrikes against ISIS


U.S.-led air war on ISIS in Syria has little allied support

The New York Times reports: As the United States prepares to intensify airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the Arab allies who with great fanfare sent warplanes on the initial missions there a year ago have largely vanished from the campaign.

The Obama administration heralded the Arab air forces flying side by side with American fighter jets in the campaign’s early days as an important show of solidarity against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. Top commanders like Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees operations in Syria and Iraq, still laud the Arab countries’ contributions to the fight. But as the United States enters a critical phase of the war in Syria, ordering Special Operations troops to support rebel forces and sending two dozen attack planes to Turkey, the air campaign has evolved into a largely American effort.

Administration officials had sought to avoid the appearance of another American-dominated war, even as most leaders in the Persian Gulf seem more preoccupied with supporting rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Now, some of those officials note with resignation, the Arab partners have quietly left the United States to run the bulk of the air war in Syria — not the first time Washington has found allies wanting.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shifted most of their aircraft to their fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Jordan, reacting to the grisly execution of one of its pilots by the Islamic State, and in a show of solidarity with the Saudis, has also diverted combat flights to Yemen. Jets from Bahrain last struck targets in Syria in February, coalition officials said. Qatar is flying patrols over Syria, but its role has been modest. [Continue reading…]


ISIS suspected of using chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq

Reuters reports: Chemical weapons experts have determined that mustard gas was used in a Syrian town where Islamic State insurgents were battling another group, according to a report by an international watchdog seen by Reuters.

A confidential Oct. 29 report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a summary of which was shown to Reuters, concluded “with the utmost confidence that at least two people were exposed to sulphur mustard” in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo, on Aug. 21.

“It is very likely that the effects of sulphur mustard resulted in the death of a baby,” it said.

The findings provide the first official confirmation of use of sulphur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, in Syria since it agreed to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile, which included sulphur mustard.

The report did not mention Islamic State, as the fact-finding mission was not mandated to assign blame, but diplomatic sources said the chemical had been used in the clashes between Islamic State and another rebel group taking place in the town at the time.

“It raises the major question of where the sulphur mustard came from,” one source said. “Either they (IS) gained the ability to make it themselves, or it may have come from an undeclared stockpile overtaken by IS. Both are worrying options.”

Syria is supposed to have completely surrendered the toxic chemicals 18 months ago. Their use violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

The findings were part of three reports released to members of the OPCW last week. They add to a growing body of evidence that the Islamic State group has obtained, and is using, chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]


Refugees: ‘No one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land’

The New York Times reports: The rubber dinghy rolled perilously on the waves and twisted sideways, nearly flipping, as more than three dozen passengers wrapped in orange life vests screamed, wept and cried frantically to God and the volunteers waiting on the rocky beach.

Khalid Ahmed, 35, slipped over the side into the numbing waist-high water, struggled to shore and fell to his knees, bowing toward the eastern horizon and praying while tears poured into his salt-stiff beard.

“I know it is almost winter,” he said. “We knew the seas would be rough. But please, you must believe me, whatever will happen to us, it will be better than what we left behind.”

The great flood of humanity pouring out of Turkey from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other roiling nations shows little sign of stopping, despite the plummeting temperatures, the increasingly turbulent seas and the rising number of drownings along the coast.

If anything, there has been a greater gush of people in recent weeks, driven by increased fighting in their homelands — including the arrival of Russian airstrikes in Syria — and the gnawing fear that the path into the heart of Europe will snap shut as bickering governments tighten their borders.

“Coming in the winter like this is unprecedented,” said Alessandra Morelli, the director of emergency operations in Greece for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “But it makes sense if you understand the logic of ‘now or never.’ That is the logic that has taken hold among these people. They believe this opportunity will not come again, so they must risk it, despite the dangers.”

The surge means that countries throughout the Balkans and Central Europe already under intense logistical and political strain will not find relief — especially Germany, the destination of choice for many of the refugees.

Hopes that weather and diplomacy would ease the emergency are unfounded so far, putting more pressure on financially strapped and emotionally overwhelmed governments to quickly find more winterized shelter.

The influx also underscores the European Union’s failure to reach a unified solution to the crisis, leaving places like this, on the Greek island of Lesbos in the northern Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey, struggling to deal with huge numbers of desperate people and raising questions about what will happen not just this winter, but in the spring and beyond. [Continue reading…]


Iran’s Suleimani viewed Chalabi as ‘too liberal’

Following the death of Ahmed Chalabi, one of the leading proponents of the war in Iraq, The Guardian reports: In the past five years Chalabi’s relationship with Iran’s leaders and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the most powerful institution in Iran, came to define him almost as much as the invasion. Chalabi was one of a handful of senior Iraqis regarded as confidantes of the IRGC’s foreign relations arm, the Quds Force, and in particular its leader, Qassem Suleimani.

He actively promoted causes that were central to Iran’s interests, including making contacts with the opposition in Bahrain, which was almost exclusively Shia and at odds with the ruling Sunni establishment. In the early years of the Syrian war Chalabi was a regular visitor to Damascus, where he met often with the overlord of Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus, Mohammed Nassif. In Beirut, where Chalabi maintained a house, he was regularly received by the Shia resistance bloc Hezbollah.

Chalabi’s influence within Shia circles was evident when he stepped in to rescue the Guardian’s then Iraq correspondent, Rory Carroll, in late 2005, several days after Carroll had been kidnapped by Shia militiamen in Sadr City. Chalabi received Carroll at his farm in west Baghdad after contacting the hostage takers directly.

In mid-2014, with the Sunni jihadi group Isis on the doorstep of Baghdad, Chalabi made one final play for political power, lobbying vigorously to replace Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister after Maliki’s authority had been crippled. His allies, including Suleimani, regarded him as a liability; perhaps one of the greater ironies of Chalabi’s life, the Iranian general had marked him down for being, in his words, “too liberal”. [Continue reading…]


Ayatollah Sistani fears Iran is worsening sectarian divisions in Iraq

The New York Times reports: Last year, Ayatollah Sistani issued a widely heeded call for young men to take up arms against the Islamic State. But that fatwa resulted in a constellation of new militias, and the growth of existing ones that are controlled by Iran rather than the Iraqi state. The influence of Iran and its militias in Iraq has grown as they have become essential to the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Ayatollah Sistani has become increasingly concerned that those militias are a threat to the unity of Iraq, experts say, in part because many of the militia leaders and their affiliated politicians have challenged efforts by the government to reconcile with Iraq’s minority Sunnis, a priority for the clerical leader.

Jawad al-Khoei, the secretary general of his family’s Khoei Institute, a religious institute and charity in Najaf, said of Ayatollah Sistani: “This time it is very serious. He is an old man now and maybe he considers that this will be the last thing he does in his life.”

Analysts say that despite his concerns, Ayatollah Sistani is not opposed to an Iranian role in Iraq.

“He believes Iran’s presence is necessary in Iraq, but it needs to take wiser policies,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has studied at the seminary in Qom and has written extensively about Ayatollah Sistani.

Mr. Khalaji said that when it comes to Iran, Ayatollah Sistani is primarily worried about tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and Iran’s role in worsening sectarian divisions in Iraq.

But even as he moves to diminish Iranian influence in Iraq, he is mimicking the ways of the Iranian system.

One diplomat in Baghdad, referring to the Shiite holy cities from where instructions to politicians are given at Friday sermons, noted that in much the same way as Iranian political leaders look to Qom for guidance, “Every Friday we look to Karbala and Najaf.”

Here in Najaf, where Ayatollah Sistani, three other senior ayatollahs and countless clerics collectively represent the Shiite religious establishment, known as the marjaiya, there is a sense of regret for lending crucial support for Iraq’s Shiite political class in the years after the 2003 invasion.

The marjaiya’s support over the years lent crucial legitimacy to the Shiite religious parties that came to dominate politics and that are now the source of great anger for the masses that began protesting against Iraq’s government in August. [Continue reading…]


U.S.-supported victory over ISIS in Iraqi town results in praise for Iran

The Wall Street Journal reports: A big victory over Islamic State here provided fresh ammunition for the many Iraqi Shiites who prefer Iran as a battlefield partner over the U.S., despite indications that Washington could soon intensify its battle against the extremist militants.

Shiite militias and politicians backed by Iran have claimed much of the credit for the Iraqi recapture a little over a week ago of the city and oil refinery of Beiji, about 130 miles north of Baghdad. Militia fighters danced and posed for pictures on tanks and armored cars near the bombed-out shell of the massive refinery there, Iraq’s largest.

But U.S. officers say the Iran-backed proxy militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, played only a supporting role. The bulk of the fighting was by Iraqi federal police and elite counterterrorism units trained by the U.S., the American officers said.

Still powerful Iraqi politicians and militia leaders have cited the yearlong operation to retake the city as evidence that Iraqis can combat Islamic State alone—or with help only of the Iran-backed militias. Some are now lobbying Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to rely less on the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State and more on the PMF.

“Iraqi people in general, not only us, have started to feel that the Americans are not serious at all about the fight against Islamic State,” said Moeen Al- Kadhimi, a spokesman for the Iran-backed Badr Corps militia. “Every victory that the PMF does without the help of the Americans is a big embarrassment for the Americans.”

Following the declaration of victory at Beiji, the U.S.-led coalition, which has been conducting an air campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for more than a year, published a list of airstrikes it conducted around the city.

“It’s easy to say after the fact that ‘we did this,’ ” said Maj. Michael Filanowski, an officer for the Combined Joint Task Force, which organizes operations of the U.S.-led coalition. “But if you look at the sequence of events, it was Iraqi security forces that did the assault operations.”

He called the militias a “hold force,” meaning they secured the territory after it fell to the Iraqi forces. [Continue reading…]


Taking stock of ISIS oil

Matthew M. Reed writes: The early estimate for ISIS oil revenues was $2-3 million a day. Media coverage ran with that number and so did U.S. officials for a time. However, the price/volume assumptions built into it were never clear. “It’s not an estimate that the U.S. intelligence community or the Pentagon is endorsing or has come up with,” a Pentagon spokesman said in September 2014.

The first official U.S. government estimate for ISIS oil revenue came in October last year. Then-Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen estimated that ISIS probably earned $1 million a day in June—before the anti-ISIS coalition intervened. That estimate held up until February 2015 when Cohen said ISIS revenues had fallen to just $2 million a week (or ~$300,000 a day). At that point, U.S. officials became convinced oil was not the top money maker for ISIS; instead the group relied more on taxation, tolls, ransom and theft. Official estimates came with big caveats but the U.S. government apparently believed it had cut down ISIS oil revenues by two-thirds.

That estimate lasted until July, when Treasury’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Daniel Glaser concluded that oil ranked third among ISIS revenue streams, but it was still significant. “Earlier this year ISIL made about $40 million in one month, off of the sale of oil. So if you want to extrapolate that out, you get to about $500 million in the course of a year,” he said. $500 million a year works out to almost $1.4 million a day, which is almost a five-fold increase from the lowball claim made in February. (FT estimates revenue at $1.5 million a day as well.) [Continue reading…]

See also Part Two of this report.


Map: ISIS areas of influence in Syria and Iraq

The following maps come from a recent Congressional Research Service report, “Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response.”

Iraq and Syria: ISIS’s Areas of Influence, August 2014 to August 2015
Source: Map and text produced by U.S. Department of Defense, September 2015.

Syria Conflict Map: Estimated Areas of Control as of October 1, 2015
Source: Tim Wallace, New York Times. Area of control data source is Carter Center, October 1, 2015.
Notes: All areas approximate. Yellow area of “Rebel Control” includes areas under Jabhat al Nusra (Al Qaeda affiliate) control, and includes
areas controlled by a wide variety of anti-Asad forces. White color denotes sparsely populated or unpopulated areas.


The other refugee crisis

Joshua Meservey writes: In 2012, Syrians fleeing their country’s brutal civil war began arriving in significant numbers in Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous enclave of ethnic Kurds in the north of the country. Two years later, ISIS vaulted out of northern Syria and swept across swathes of Iraq, scattering millions of Iraqis. Many of them, in addition to fleeing to Europe, made their way to the Kurdistan region and the protection of its military forces, the peshmerga, which have, for now at least, turned back ISIS’s attempts to overrun northern Iraq’s last sanctuary.

In contrast to many countries, the Kurdistan region has not hesitated to accept large flows of displaced people. Part of this is because nearly all of the Syrians who fled to Kurdistan are ethnic Kurds themselves. So too are members of several religious minorities sheltering in Kurdistan, such as the Kaka’i and the Yazidi, who faced annihilation last year at the hands of ISIS before escaping to Kurdistan.

However, the Kurds have also welcomed non-Kurds fleeing ISIS. Arab Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the latter considered heretics by ISIS, have found protection in the territory, as have the Turkmen, Shabaks, and Assyrian Christians, who have been virtually cleansed from their ancestral home in the Nineveh Plains region.

The cost of caring for so many dispossessed people is straining Kurdistan’s modest resources. Its estimated 2013 GDP was $25 billion, compared to Europe’s 2014 GDP that was more than $16 trillion. Its oil-dependent finances were already being squeezed due to plunging global oil prices, and there is the cost of fighting a war along a more than 600-mile front. The regional government also accuses the Iraqi government of withholding for more than a year its federal budget share, which Baghdad had already slashed in February 2014. The Kurdistan region, with a native population of only 5.4 million, now hosts more than a million refugees — many of whom require shelter, food, and medical care. [Continue reading…]


Obama weighs moving U.S. troops closer to front lines in Syria, Iraq

The Washington Post reports: President Obama’s most senior national security advisers have recommended measures that would move U.S. troops closer to the front lines in Iraq and Syria, officials said, a sign of mounting White House dissatisfaction with progress against the Islamic State and a renewed Pentagon push to expand military involvement in long-running conflicts overseas.

The debate over the proposed steps, which would for the first time position a limited number of Special Operations forces on the ground in Syria and put U.S. advisers closer to the firefights in Iraq, comes as Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter presses the military to deliver new options for greater military involvement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The changes would represent a significant escalation of the American role in Iraq and Syria. They still require formal approval from Obama, who could make a decision as soon as this week and could decide not to alter the current course, said U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions are still ongoing. It’s unclear how many additional troops would be required to implement the changes being considered by the president, but the number for now is likely to be relatively small, these officials said. [Continue reading…]


Freed prisoners of ISIS describe beatings and torture

The New York Times reports: Muhammad Hassan Abdullah al-Jibouri had little hope that he would ever make it out of the Islamic State’s jail alive, and he had not even seen the sun in more than a month. Then, early last Thursday morning, he heard the helicopters overhead.

The 35-year-old police officer heard bursts of gunfire, and shouts in Kurdish and in English. Suddenly, the door to his cell was battered open.

“Who is there? Who is there?” a soldier yelled, first in Kurdish and then in Arabic.

“We are prisoners!” Mr. Jibouri’s cellmates yelled back.

Mr. Jibouri was one of 69 Arab prisoners of the Islamic State freed in a military raid near the northern Iraqi town of Hawija last week, the first in which American Special Operations forces were confirmed to have accompanied their Kurdish counterparts onto the battlefield.

On Tuesday, in their first interviews since being brought to the Kurdish autonomous region by American Chinook helicopters, four of the former prisoners described life under the thumb of the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]


The foundations of ISIS: How secular tyranny fostered religious zealotry in the Middle East

In a review of Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed, Kyle W. Orton writes: Kamel Sachet [one of Saddam Hussein’s favourite and most senior generals] came to religion in prison. In 1983, for no given reason, Sachet was thrown in Ar-Rashid Number One prison, where the only thing detainees were allowed to read was the Qur’an. While State radio was permitted, even State newspapers were banned. Sachet learned the Qur’an by rote, expressing regret he had not done so when he was young.

Sachet showed signs of a more Salafist view of Islam even at this early stage. Sachet told a prisoner he befriended that he wished his friend was not a Shi’a because the shrines were Islamically wrong. Sachet was deeply, personally offended by alcohol and the mixing of the sexes. Perhaps above all, Sachet was given to Islamic fatalism. “If I die … then it means that is the time for me to die,” Sachet said. This apolitical piety also counselled loyalty to the ruler.

In prison, under threat of death and daily torture, men began to take solace in the faith. This pattern of prisons as Islamist production facilities is repeated all throughout the region, notoriously in Syria.

In pondering why the monstrous apparatus of Saddam’s regime functioned — — why didn’t the population just rise as one and refuse any longer to be ruled in this way?  —  Steavenson mentions the Zimbardo prison experiment. It is a good analogy and it can be pushed further.

During the war with Iran, most Iraqi officers  —  with the straight choice of continuing to throw young men into an inferno or be tortured and murdered — resorted to a fatalism of their own: “What could I do?” (a phrase that recurs as Steavenson meets the old Ba’athists). At all levels, some Iraqis found solace in Dutch courage, some found solace in the promise of a life to follow this one.

Anyone can see why, during the horror of the Iran-Iraq War or one of Saddam’s prisons, Islam, with its calming rituals and promise of paradise, would have an appeal. But just look at Saddam’s Iraq. From 1980 through Kuwait 1990–91, then the “armed truce” and siege of the 1990s, Iraq was at war for very nearly twenty-five years. The conditions of political terror that went along with this in Saddam’s Iraq are notorious, and the breakdown of provisions and order in the 1990s was heaped on top. In short, Iraq under Saddam was one big prison with wartime conditions. Is it any wonder religion’s appeal increased in Iraq during Saddam’s rule? Or that the aftermath should resemble the disorder and brutality of a prison riot?

The “modern” ideologies — — pan-Arabism, Communism, Ba’athism  — failed; nobody could be convinced that the period of trauma was going to give way to a brighter tomorrow. People gave up on the promise of this life and instead sought to compensate the misery endured in the here-and-now with the promise of a blissful life to come. [Continue reading…]


Iraq: How Iranian-backed militias have become stronger than the government

Reuters reports: The Shi’ite militias, which dominate most frontlines, say they support the government and pose no threat to Iraq’s minority Sunni sect. The Popular Mobilisation Committee, or Hashid Shaabi, as the militias are collectively known, belongs “to the Iraqi government,” said Naim al-Aboudi, a spokesman for the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia. “The Hashid doesn’t represent a sect. It represents all Iraqis.”

But the militias make no secret of their independence from Baghdad. Militia leader Amiri warned in a televised interview last month that if the Shi’ite groups did not approve of U.S. military operations in Iraq, “We can go to Abadi and the government and … pressure them: ‘Either you will do this, or we will do that.’” Amiri did not specify what action his group would take.

A senior Iraqi government official close to the prime minister said the militias operate independently. He said their objectives only sometimes align with Abadi’s: They concentrate on defending areas that are strategically important for their sect.

“If they are not paid by the prime minister,” this official said, “they can do what they want.” [Continue reading…]


Canada to end airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, new prime minister Trudeau says

The Guardian reports: Canadian Liberal prime minister designate Justin Trudeau has confirmed that Canada will withdraw its fighter jets from the US-led mission against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In his first news conference following the sweeping majority Liberal victory in Canada’s federal election, the visibly fatigued leader said he had spoken with US president Barack Obama in a phone call during which he discussed his intention to pull Canada’s fighter jets out of the anti-Isis campaign.

“I committed that we would continue to engage in a responsible way that understands how important Canada’s role is to play in the fight against Isil, but he understands the commitments I’ve made about ending the combat mission,” Trudeau said. [Continue reading…]


Video: Will McCants and Hassan Hassan on the emergence and proliferation of ISIS

(Click the button to play — even though YouTube makes this look like a video that has been removed. And yes, I thought twice about sharing — seems like a good idea.)


Kurdistan’s slow rolling coup d’état

Luay Al Khatteeb writes: A capital city in Iraq is in turmoil. The government has been hit hard by collapsing oil prices and is under pressure from an array of activist groups to reveal the fate of missing oil revenues, and be far more transparent.

At the helm is a man many have long accused of intimidation and close links to one of the worst dictators of modern times. This government is seen by some as a primary ally in the war against the so called Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh).

In this troubled region, protesters clamour for change on the streets of major towns, with recent fatalities as the security services (including a secretive unit run by the ruling party) try to keep order. Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders and Human Rights Watch have all noted the intimidation of political opposition. Journalists have even been arrested and TV stations have been closed.

On the battlefields, an existential battle against genocidal terrorists is hampered by factionalism, with units failing to work together against the fanatical enemy, with the result that the front line has frozen in some places.

In parliament there is deadlock, while international oil companies complain they are owed vast sums of money. A leader clings to power, two years beyond his constitutional mandate, as national bankruptcy looms. Surely the above description refers to the beleaguered government in Baghdad?

Those who herald the story of astounding Kurdish success, like Thomas Friedman, should be shocked to find that the above description accurately relates to the government in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI). [Continue reading…]


ISIS confirms killing of number two in U.S. air strike

AFP reports: The Islamic State group’s spokesman confirmed on Tuesday the killing of the jihadist organisation’s second in command in a US air strike earlier this year.

“America is rejoicing over the killing of Abu Mutaz al-Qurashi and considers this a great victory,” Abu Mohamed al-Adnani said in an audio recording posted on jihadist websites.

“I will not mourn him… he whose only wish was to die in the name of Allah… he has raised men and left behind heroes who, God willing, are yet to harm America,” he added.

Adnani did not say, however, in what circumstances Qurashi died. [Continue reading…]