Iraq PM open to Russian airstrikes on ISIS

FRANCE24 reports: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told FRANCE24 in an exclusive interview broadcast on Thursday that he is open to allowing Russia to carry out air strikes against Islamic State group militants in Iraq.

“Not yet. It is a possibility. If we get the offer, we will consider it,” Abadi told FRANCE24.

“It is in our interest to share information with Russia. Russia has a lot of information. The more information we gather the more I can protect the Iraqi people,” Abadi added. [Continue reading…]


Life in the ‘Islamic State’

In this five-part project, the Washington Post’s Kevin Sullivan reports on key aspects of daily life in the so-called “caliphate,” including the failing economy, the devastated education system, a justice system based on violence and fear, and the constant terror faced by women and girls.

Life in the ‘Islamic State’: Spoils for the rulers, terror for the ruled

The white vans come out at dinnertime, bringing hot meals to unmarried Islamic State fighters in the city of Hit in western Iraq.

A team of foreign women, who moved from Europe and throughout the Arab world to join the Islamic State, work in communal kitchens to cook the fighters’ dinners, which are delivered to homes confiscated from people who fled or were killed, according to the city’s former mayor.

The Islamic State has drawn tens of thousands of people from around the world by promising paradise in the Muslim homeland it has established on conquered territory in Syria and Iraq.

But in reality, the militants have created a brutal, two-tiered society, where daily life is starkly different for the occupiers and the occupied, according to interviews with more than three dozen people who are now living in, or have recently fled, the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

Women in the ‘Islamic State’: ‘Till martyrdom do us part’

Somewhere in Syrian territory controlled by Islamic State militants, a jihadist from the Netherlands posted a cheerful photo on Twitter, showing off an Oreo cheesecake that she had made.

It was a fizzy propaganda moment that she shared with others who might be thinking about traveling to Syria to join the cause. It also had a very Islamic State twist: The cheesecake was photographed next to a grenade.

About 200 miles to the south, in an oven-hot refugee camp in Jordan, Rudeina, 17, said her life under the Islamic State in northern Syria, which she fled in April, was miserable. She said she stayed inside her house near the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State capital, for more than a year, terrified that if she went outside she would be abducted and forced to marry a foreign fighter.

“They cut the Internet, but we didn’t even want it anymore,” she said. “If we looked at the Internet, we would see people living in the outside world. That made us sad. Seeing the outside world was just another sorrow.” [Continue reading…]

Justice in the ‘Islamic State’: A climate of fear and violence

Islamic State militants dragged the blindfolded man into the main square in a town near the city of Raqqa, their self-proclaimed capital in Syria. It was Friday, right after prayers, when the market was filled with people. The fighters loudly announced that the man was a government spy, and they pulled off his blindfold so that everyone could see his face.

Nabiha, a 42-year-old woman who fled the town in April and now lives in a refugee camp in Jordan, recalled her disgust as she watched the militants force the man down on a wooden block normally used to slaughter sheep, then raise a heavy butcher’s cleaver.

“It was just one swing,” said Nabiha, who asked that her last name not be used, fearing for her safety. “His body went one way, and his head went the other. I will never forget it.”

The Islamic State uses its brutal and often arbitrary justice system to control the millions of people who live in its territory. By publicly beheading and crucifying people suspected even of disloyalty, the militants have created a culture of horror and fear that has made it virtually impossible for people to rise up against them. [Continue reading…]

Economy in the ‘Islamic State’: Where the poor starve and the tax man carries a whip

Before the Islamic State captured Faten Humayda’s town in northern Syria nearly two years ago, a tank of propane gas for her stove cost the equivalent of 50 cents. But as the militants settled in, the cost shot up to $32, forcing Humayda, a 70-year-old grandmother, to cook over an open fire in the back yard.

“It used to be paradise,” she said, describing her former life along the Euphrates River, while sitting in a metal hut in the Azraq refu­gee camp in Jordan, where she arrived in May with the help of smugglers.

The Islamic State has tried to do what al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups never attempted: establish an actual state, with government institutions and a functioning economy. Although the militants have had some success at governing, millions of people under their control find food, fuel and other basics of daily life either impossible to come by or too expensive to afford. [Continue reading…]

Education in the ‘Islamic State’: For boys, God and guns; for girls, God and cooking

War closed most schools in Yahyah Hadidi’s home town in 2013, as battles raged between Syrian rebels and the government.

Hadidi, a recent college graduate with a passion for education, decided to do something about it. He started conducting impromptu classes in an abandoned school in his neighborhood, drawing more than 50 boys and girls each day.

Then the Islamic State arrived in early 2014 and ordered all schools closed.

Hadidi was crushed, and he asked for permission to reopen his school, in the village of Manbij between the northern cities of Raqqa and Aleppo.

He said a large, bearded fighter from Saudi Arabia told him that if he wanted to teach, he could conduct religious education classes at the mosque, for boys only, under Islamic State supervision. [Continue reading…]


Foreign intervention escalates: Iranian troops arrive in Syria for ground offensive backed by Russia – sources

Reuters reports: Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria in the last 10 days and will soon join government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies in a major ground offensive backed by Russian air strikes, two Lebanese sources told Reuters.

“The (Russian) air strikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies,” said one of the sources familiar with political and military developments in the conflict.

“It is possible that the coming land operations will be focused in the Idlib and Hama countryside,” the source added.

The two sources said the operation would be aimed at recapturing territory lost by President Bashar al-Assad’s government to rebels.

It points to an emerging military alliance between Russia and Assad’s other main allies – Iran and Hezbollah – focused on recapturing areas of northwestern Syria that were seized by insurgents in rapid advances earlier this year.

“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisors … we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” the second source said. Iraqis would also take part in the operation, the source said. [Continue reading…]


The West cannot escape the effects of Middle East turmoil

Nouriel Roubini writes: With the US on the way to achieving energy independence, there is a risk that America and its Western allies will consider the Middle East less strategically important. That belief is wishful thinking: a burning Middle East can destabilize the world in many ways.

First, some of these conflicts may yet lead to an actual supply disruption, as in 1973, 1979, and 1990. Second, civil wars that turn millions of people into refugees will destabilize Europe economically and socially, which is bound to hit the global economy hard. And the economies and societies of frontline states like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, already under severe stress from absorbing millions of such refugees, face even greater risks.

Third, prolonged misery and hopelessness for millions of Arab young people will create a new generation of desperate jihadists who blame the West for their despair. Some will undoubtedly find their way to Europe and the US and stage terrorist attacks.

So, if the West ignores the Middle East or addresses the region’s problems only through military means (the US has spent $2 trillion in its Afghan and Iraqi wars, only to create more instability), rather than relying on diplomacy and financial resources to support growth and job creation, the region’s instability will only worsen. Such a choice would haunt the US and Europe – and thus the global economy – for decades to come. [Continue reading…]


The man who would be king of Kurdistan

Tanya Goudsouzian writes: By the time Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji declared himself king of Kurdistan in 1922, over an area that included the city of Sulaimania and its environs, he had already fought dozens of battles; some alongside the British against the Ottomans, others against the British alongside the Arabs, and then several more against the Arabs.

From March 1923 to mid-1924, the British retaliated against Sheikh Mahmud’s perceived insolence with aerial bombardment, and thus ended the Kurds’ first attempt at full-fledged sovereignty.

In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne had dealt a definitive blow to Kurdish aspirations for self-determination in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration. Three years earlier, the Treaty of Sevres stipulated that the oil-rich Mosul Vilayet be given to the Kurds. But at Lausanne, the British and the French changed their minds and drew up a very different map, which gave rise to the modern state of Iraq. [Continue reading…]


In Baghdad, Russia catches the U.S. by surprise — again

The New York Times reports: For the second time this month, Russia moved to expand its political and military influence in the Syria conflict and left the United States scrambling, this time by reaching an understanding, announced on Sunday, with Iraq, Syria and Iran to share intelligence about the Islamic State.

Like Russia’s earlier move to bolster the government of President Bashar al-Assad by deploying warplanes and tanks to a base near Latakia, Syria, the intelligence-sharing arrangement was sealed without notice to the United States. American officials knew that a group of Russian military officers were in Baghdad, but they were clearly surprised when the Iraqi military’s Joint Operations Command announced the intelligence sharing accord on Sunday.

It was another sign that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was moving ahead with a sharply different tack from that of the Obama administration in battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, by assembling a rival coalition that includes Iran and the Syrian government. [Continue reading…]


Russia’s move into Syria upends U.S. plans

The Washington Post reports: Russia’s expanding military intervention in Syria has the potential to tilt the course of the war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, leaving U.S. policies aimed at securing his departure in tatters and setting the stage for a new phase in the four-year-old conflict.

Exactly what Russia intends with its rapidly growing deployment of troops, tanks and combat aircraft in the Assad family heartland on Syria’s northern coast is difficult to discern, according to military experts and U.S. officials, who say they were not consulted on the Russian moves and were caught off guard by the intervention.

Already, however, the Russian activity has thrown into disarray three years of U.S. policy planning on Syria, derailing calculations about how the conflict would play out that may never have come to fruition and now almost certainly won’t.

Foremost among those was the expectation, frequently expressed by officials in the Obama administration, that both Iran and Russia would eventually tire of supporting the embattled Syrian regime and come around to the American view that Assad should step down as part of a negotiated transition of power. The conclusion of the nuclear talks with Iran in July further raised hopes that Washington and Tehran would also find common ground on Syria.

Instead, the arrival of hundreds of Russian marines, sophisticated fighter jets and armor at a newly expanded air base in the province of Latakia appears to signal a convergence of interests between Moscow and Tehran in support of Assad.

The intervention has given the regime a much-needed boost at a time when government loyalists had been losing ground to the opposition, and it has been broadly welcomed by Syria, Iran and their allies. [Continue reading…]


Hezbollah joins Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq in ‘4+1 Alliance’

NOW reports: A leading pro-Hezbollah daily claimed on Tuesday that the party has joined a new counter-terror alliance with Moscow and that Russia will take part in military operations alongside the Syrian army and Hezbollah.

Al-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin wrote that secret talks between Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq had resulted in the birth of the new alliance, which he described as “the most important in the region and the world for many years.”

“The agreement to form the alliance includes administrative mechanisms for cooperation on [the issues of] politics and intelligence and [for] military [cooperation] on the battlefield in several parts of the Middle East, primarily in Syria and Iraq,” the commentator said, citing well-informed sources.

“The parties to the alliance are the states of Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq, with Lebanon’s Hezbollah as the fifth party,” he also said, adding that the joint-force would be called the “4+1 alliance” – a play on words referring to the P5+1 world powers that negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran.

The Al-Akhbar article came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly reached an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow over the latter country’s major military build-up in Syria. [Continue reading…]


Thousands enter Syria to join ISIS despite global efforts

The New York Times reports: Nearly 30,000 foreign recruits have now poured into Syria, many to join the Islamic State, a doubling of volunteers in just the past 12 months and stark evidence that an international effort to tighten borders, share intelligence and enforce antiterrorism laws is not diminishing the ranks of new militant fighters.

Among those who have entered or tried to enter the conflict in Iraq or Syria are more than 250 Americans, up from about 100 a year ago, according to intelligence and law enforcement officials.

President Obama will take stock of the international campaign to counter the Islamic State at the United Nations on Tuesday, a public accounting that comes as American intelligence analysts have been preparing a confidential assessment that concludes that nearly 30,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Iraq and Syria from more than 100 countries since 2011. A year ago, the same officials estimated that flow to be about 15,000 combatants from 80 countries, mostly to join the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]


Military analyst again raises red flags on ‘progress’ in Iraq

The New York Times reports: As the war in Iraq deteriorated, a senior American intelligence analyst went public in 2005 and criticized President George W. Bush’s administration for pushing “amateurish and unrealistic” plans for the invasion two years before.

Now that same man, Gregory Hooker, is at the center of an insurrection of United States Central Command intelligence analysts over America’s latest war in Iraq, and whether Congress, policy makers and the public are being given too rosy a picture of the situation.

As the senior Iraq analyst at Central Command, the military headquarters in Tampa that oversees American military operations across the Middle East and Central Asia, Mr. Hooker is the leader of a group of analysts that is accusing senior commanders of changing intelligence reports to paint an overly optimistic portrait of the American bombing campaign against the Islamic State. The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating.

Although the investigation became public weeks ago, the source of the allegations and Mr. Hooker’s role have not been previously known. Interviews with more than a dozen current and former intelligence officials place the dispute directly at the heart of Central Command, with Mr. Hooker and his team in a fight over what Americans should believe about the war. [Continue reading…]


With fight against the ISIS in Iraq stalled, U.S. looks to Syria for gains

The Washington Post reports: With the offensive to reclaim territory from the Islamic State largely stalled in Iraq, the Obama administration is laying plans for a more aggressive military campaign in Syria, where U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have made surprising gains in recent months.

The effort, which would begin by increasing pressure on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, marks an important shift in an administration strategy that for most of the past year has prioritized defeating the militant group in Iraq and viewed Syria as a place where there were few real prospects for battlefield success.

The White House’s top national security officials met last week and will convene again in the next few days to discuss ways to capi­tal­ize on recent and unexpected gains made by Syrian irregular forces. The administration is considering providing arms and ammunition to a wider array of rebel groups in Syria and relaxing vetting standards, effectively deepening America’s involvement in the ongoing civil war.

Such a move could lift some of the restrictions that have slowed the Pentagon’s troubled program to train Syrian fighters in Turkey and other sites outside Syria.

Rather than subjecting rebels to repeated rounds of screening before and during their training, U.S. officials might restrict vetting to unit leaders already in the fight. “The key thing is getting them some [expletive] bullets,” one U.S. official said. [Continue reading…]

Although this report leads by saying “the Obama administration is laying plans,” it sounds more like the military is laying down plans and lobbying by all means — including through the press — to win White House approval. Buried deep in the report is this caveat:

Officials stressed that no decisions have been made and that the White House may continue the current approach in Syria, which includes a mix of airstrikes, direct backing for U.S.-trained rebels and indirect support for other forces.


Some Iraqis ditch fight against ISIS for life in Europe

Reuters reports: Some Iraqi soldiers are abandoning their posts and joining a wave of civilian migrants headed to Europe, raising new doubts about the cohesion of the country’s Western-backed security forces in the fight against Islamic State militants.

Interviews with migrants and an analysis of social media activity show scores of fighters from the national army, police and special forces as well as Shi’ite militias and Kurdish peshmerga have left in recent months or plan to go soon.

They join more than 50,000 civilians who have left Iraq in the past three months, according to the United Nations, part of an even larger exodus from neighbouring Syria and other conflict zones across the Middle East.

The inability of Iraq to retain its soldiers threatens to further erode morale in a military that has partially collapsed twice in the past year in the face of the Islamic State militant group. [Continue reading…]


Human migration will be a defining issue of this century. How best to cope?

Alexander Betts writes: Throughout the crisis, a debate has been on whether it is a “migrant” or a “refugee” crisis. It has been important for the public to understand that most people coming to Europe have been from refugee-producing countries and that “refugees” have a particular set of rights under international law. Furthermore, people have a right to seek asylum, and have their claims to refugee status adjudicated.

However, the stark dichotomy between “refugee” and “economic migrant” masks a growing trend: that many people coming fall between those two extremes.

The modern global refugee regime was established at a particular juncture of history, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and at the start of the cold war. The 1951 convention on the status of refugees defines a refugee as someone fleeing “persecution”, based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group, or political opinion. The interpretation of that definition has adapted over time. But at its core was the idea of protecting people whose own governments were either out to get them or unable to prevent persecution by others. Today, the sources of cross-border displacement are increasingly complex, and many fit poorly with the 1951 convention.

Environmental change, food insecurity, and generalised violence, for example, represent emerging sources of human displacement. In strong states, the government can usually provide some kind of remedy or resolution to people affected by these types of crisis. However, much less so in fragile states. People who fall outside the internationally recognised definition of a refugee but are nevertheless fleeing very serious socio-economic rights deprivations might be called “survival migrants”.

In the contemporary world, a significant proportion of the people we attempt to describe as economic migrants fall into this category.

Survival migration has been an emerging challenge. Nearly a decade ago, Zimbabwean asylum seekers fleeing Robert Mugabe’s regime made up the largest group of asylum seekers in the world. Most British people would probably assume that at the height of the crisis between 2003 and 2009 the majority would have been refugees. However, in South Africa, to where the overwhelming proportion fled, only about 10% were recognised as refugees and up to 300,000 people a year were deported back to Zimbabwe. The reason for this was simple: they were not judged to fit the 1951 convention definition of a refugee. However, on ethical grounds, it was incontrovertibly cruel to deport people back to a country in a state of socio-economic and political collapse.

This example illustrates how current policy responses bypass engagement with long-term trends. The world as a whole lacks a vision for how to respond to the changing nature of displacement. So much of the current “crisis” is not a crisis of numbers but a crisis of politics. We need bold leadership that correctly and honestly articulates the causes of movement and outlines global solutions. [Continue reading…]


UN funding shortfalls and cuts in refugee aid fuel exodus to Europe

The New York Times reports: One of the prime reasons for the wave of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers washing into Europe is the deterioration of the conditions that Syrians face in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, a worsening largely caused by sharp falls in international funding from United Nations countries, officials and analysts say.

That shortfall in funding, in contrast with the greater resources provided by Europe, is prompting some to make the hazardous journey who might otherwise remain where they are. The United Nations Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, which groups a number of humanitarian agencies and covers development aid for the countries bordering Syria, had by the end of August received just 37 percent of the $4.5 billion appeal for needed funds this year.

António Guterres, the high commissioner for refugees, recently said that his agency’s budget this year would be 10 percent smaller than in 2014, and that it could not keep up with the drastic increase in need from the long Syrian conflict, which includes shelter, water, sanitation, food, medical assistance and education. The United Nations refugee agency’s funding for Syria this year is only at 43 percent of budgeted requirements. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Najim Rahim says that when he looks around his neighborhood in the northern city of Kunduz now, “I feel lonely.”

His friend Ahmad Ulomi, who worked in the photo shop down the street, gave up his photography studies and left with five family members, striking out across the Iranian desert on the way to Europe. The shop’s owner, Khalid Ghaznawi, who was Mr. Ulomi’s teacher, decided to follow him with his family of eight, and he put his business up for sale. Mr. Rahim’s friend Atiqullah, who ran the local grocery shop, closed it and also left for Iran with his wife. Another neighbor, Feroz Ahmad, dropped out of college and last week called from Turkey to say he was on his way to Europe.

All of that happened in the past two weeks as people in Kunduz are rushing to seize what many see as a last chance to make it to Europe, just as others are doing throughout Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Thousands of migrants poured into Austria on Saturday after being bounced around countries overwhelmed by their arrival and insistent that they keep moving.

Hungary — which had taken the most draconian and visible measures to turn back the exodus, notably the construction of a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia — partly caved Friday evening. It grudgingly allowed at least 11,000 migrants to enter from Croatia, and then sent them by bus and train to processing centers along its border with Austria.

The Austrian authorities said that about 10,000 people entered the country on Saturday, from Slovenia and Hungary. [Continue reading…]


Intelligence chief: Iraq and Syria may not survive as states

The Associated Press reports: Iraq and Syria may have been permanently torn asunder by war and sectarian tensions, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency said Thursday in a frank assessment that is at odds with Obama administration policy.

“I’m having a tough time seeing it come back together,” Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart told an industry conference, speaking of Iraq and Syria, both of which have seen large chunks territory seized by the Islamic State.

On Iraq, Stewart said he is “wrestling with the idea that the Kurds will come back to a central government of Iraq,” suggesting he believed it was unlikely. On Syria, he added: “I can see a time in the future where Syria is fractured into two or three parts.”

That is not the U.S. goal, he said, but it’s looking increasingly likely. [Continue reading…]


Refugee crisis: Thousands may lose right of asylum under EU plans

The Guardian reports: European governments are aiming to deny the right of asylum to innumerable refugees by funding and building camps for them in Africa and elsewhere outside the European Union.

Under plans endorsed in Brussels on Monday evening, EU interior ministers agreed that once the proposed system of refugee camps outside the union was up and running, asylum claims from people in the camps would be inadmissible in Europe.

The emergency meeting of interior ministers was called to grapple with Europe’s worst modern refugee crisis. It broke up in acrimony amid failure to agree on a new system of binding quotas for refugees being shared across the EU and other decisions being deferred until next month.

The lacklustre response to a refugee emergency that is turning into a full-blown European crisis focussed on “Fortress Europe” policies aimed at excluding refugees and shifting the burden of responsibility on to third countries, either of transit or of origin. [Continue reading…]


Iran’s elite military is entangled in regional wars. Mission creep?

Christian Science Monitor reports: President Obama appears to have the votes to ensure congressional approval of the landmark nuclear deal with Iran, a key plank of which is an easing of economic sanctions. And one of the beneficiaries will be Iran’s primary tool for projecting power – the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and especially its elite Qods Force, which handles operations abroad.

But are Iran’s wizened generals, who mostly cut their military teeth in the 1980s as teenage volunteers during the brutal Iran-Iraq War, already in danger of overreach?

For decades, American military planners aimed to be capable of simultaneously fighting – and winning – two full-blown wars in different regions. It was a challenge, even for a superpower. Today, on a much smaller scale and with a sliver of the military means, Iran is attempting the same thing in the Middle East: It is deeply engaged in Syria and Iraq; waving the flag in Yemen; and very influential in Lebanon. [Continue reading…]


Russian flights over Iraq and Iran escalate tension with U.S.

The New York Times reports: Russia is using an air corridor over Iraq and Iran to fly military equipment and personnel to a new air hub in Syria, openly defying American efforts to block the shipments and significantly increasing tensions with Washington.

American officials disclosed Sunday that at least seven giant Russian Condor transport planes had taken off from a base in southern Russia during the past week to ferry equipment to Syria, all passing through Iranian and Iraqi airspace.

Their destination was an airfield south of Latakia, Syria, which could become the most significant new Russian military foothold in the Middle East in decades, American officials said. [Continue reading…]