ISIS militants destroy 2,000-year-old statue of lion at Palmyra

AFP reports: Islamic State jihadis have destroyed a 2,000-year-old statue of a lion outside the museum in the Syrian city of Palmyra, the country’s antiquities director has said.

Maamoun Abdelkarim said the statue, known as the Lion of al-Lat, was an irreplaceable piece. “IS members on Saturday destroyed the Lion of al-Lat, which is a unique piece that is three metres [10ft] tall and weighs 15 tonnes,” Abdelkarim told AFP. “It’s the most serious crime they have committed against Palmyra’s heritage.”

The limestone statue was discovered in 1977 by a Polish archaeological mission at the temple of al-Lat, a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess, and dated back to the 1st century BC.

Abdelkarim said the statue had been covered with a metal plate and sandbags to protect it from fighting, “but we never imagined that IS would come to the town to destroy it.” [Continue reading…]

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These two maps show ISIS’s big losses in Syria

Vox reports: ISIS is seeing some significant setbacks in Syria. Its de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa, is under serious threat from Kurdish (YPG) troops. ISIS “is barely surviving in Syria,” Yasir Abbas, an associate at the private research and consulting firm Caerus Associates, told me last week. “It is struggling to halt YPG advances and is out of low-hanging fruit [to seize].”

ISIS has recently lost some critical territory in northern Syria. To see how quickly that’s happened, first look at this map of the battle-lines in Syria, from the always-excellent Institute for the Study of War, in late May. [Continue reading…]

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Britain hints it may join U.S. campaign against ISIS in Syria

The New York Times reports: Jolted by the deaths of 30 British tourists in Tunisia at the hands of a gunman professing allegiance to the Islamic State, Prime Minister David Cameron is considering joining the United States in bombing the group’s forces in Syria.

Mr. Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, briefing reporters on Thursday, said that the prime minister wanted members of Parliament to “be thinking about” authorizing Britain to do “more in Syria.”

Ms. Bower said Mr. Cameron thought that “there has been and continues to be a case for doing more in Syria” against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Britain is already conducting bombing runs against the group in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Where ISIS has directed and inspired attacks around the world

The New York Times reports: Days after the Islamic State called for attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, terrorists targeted sites in France, Tunisia and Kuwait on June 26, leaving a bloody toll on three continents. The group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, claimed responsibility for the attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait, but it is unclear if the militants are also responsible for the attack in France.

The group’s declaration of a caliphate, or Islamic state, last June marked the launch of its global strategy, which has resulted in attacks or arrests in more than a dozen countries. ISIS is focused on three parallel tracks:

  • inciting regional conflict with attacks in Iraq and Syria;
  • building relationships with jihadist groups that can carry out military operations across the Middle East and North Africa;
  • and inspiring, and sometimes helping, ISIS sympathizers to conduct attacks in the West.

“The goal,” said Harleen Gambhir, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, “is that through these regional affiliates and through efforts to create chaos in the wider world, the organization will be able to expand, and perhaps incite a global apocalyptic war.”

Beginning last fall, ISIS made repeated calls for attacks on the West, especially to followers in countries taking part in the American-led airstrike campaign in Iraq and Syria. So-called lone wolves have responded to these calls with relatively low-tech assaults — shootings, hostage takings, hit-and-runs — that tend to get a lot of attention.

“Al Qaeda always wanted to do spectacular attacks, but ISIS has reversed it,” said Patrick M. Skinner, a former C.I.A. operations officer now with the Soufan Group. “They don’t do spectacular attacks. They do attacks that generate spectacular reaction.” [Continue reading…]

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Turkey plans to invade Syria, but to stop the Kurds, not ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is planning a military intervention into northern Syria to prevent Syrian Kurds from forming their own state there, despite concerns among his own generals and possible criticism from Washington and other NATO allies, according to reports in both pro- and anti-government media.

In a speech last Friday, Erdogan vowed that Turkey would not accept a move by Syrian Kurds to set up their own state in Syria following gains by Kurdish fighters against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, in recent weeks. “I am saying this to the whole world: We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria,” Erdogan said. “We will continue our fight in that respect whatever the cost may be.” He accused Syrian Kurds of ethnic cleansing in Syrian areas under their control.

Following the speech, several news outlets reported that the president and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had decided to send the Turkish army into Syria, a hugely significant move by NATO’s second biggest fighting force after the U.S. military. Both the daily Yeni Safak, a mouthpiece of the government, and the newspaper Sozcu, which is among Erdogan’s fiercest critics, ran stories saying the Turkish Army had received orders to send soldiers over the border. Several other media had similar stories, all quoting unnamed sources in Ankara. There has been no official confirmation or denial by the government. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS strikes back

Michael Weiss writes: ISIS last week committed one of the worst massacre of civilians since its so-called “caliphate” was established a year ago. Around 30 jihadists infiltrated the Syrian border town of Kobani, set off car bombs and waged gunfire attacks, killing at least 206 civilians, including women, children and the elderly.

Kobani, you’ll recall, was the site of one of the most intense sieges of the coalition’s war against ISIS; it lasted six months, it required American warplanes dropping thousands of pounds of ordnance, and it transformed the town into a virtually uninhabitable pile of rubble and ruin by the time ISIS was routed.

The jihadists’ return was therefore as demoralizing as it was deadly. But it had another motive, too: the old military strategy of divide and conquer. The ISIS attack was at least partially designed to exacerbate lingering sectarian tensions between the Arabs and Kurds who have lately been on an unimpeded sweep across eastern Syria, delivering defeat after defeat to the army of terror. [Continue reading…]

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Assad chemical threat mounts in Syria

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. intelligence agencies believe there is a strong possibility the Assad regime will use chemical weapons on a large scale as part of a last-ditch effort to protect key Syrian government strongholds if Islamist fighters and other rebels try to overrun them, U.S. officials said.

Analysts and policy makers have been poring over all available intelligence hoping to determine what types of chemical weapons the regime might be able to deploy and what event or events might trigger their use, according to officials briefed on the matter.

Last year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad let international inspectors oversee the removal of what President Barack Obama called the regime’s most deadly chemical weapons. The deal averted U.S. airstrikes that would have come in retaliation for an Aug. 21, 2013, sarin-gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people.

Since then, the U.S. officials said, the Assad regime has developed and deployed a new type of chemical bomb filled with chlorine, which Mr. Assad could now decide to use on a larger scale in key areas. U.S. officials also suspect the regime may have squirreled away at least a small reserve of the chemical precursors needed to make nerve agents sarin or VX. Use of those chemicals would raise greater international concerns because they are more deadly than chlorine and were supposed to have been eliminated.

The intelligence is “being taken very seriously because he’s getting desperate” and because of doubts within the U.S. intelligence community that Mr. Assad gave up all of his deadliest chemical weapons, a senior U.S. official said.

Syrian officials in Damascus and New York didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. The Syrian regime has denied using chemical weapons of any kind, disputing allegations made by the U.S. and other Western governments.

Any large-scale use of chemical weapons would exacerbate the dilemma the Syria conflict poses for the Obama administration. Mr. Obama has long called for Mr. Assad to step down, given his crackdown on opposition groups and the brutality of what became an all-encompassing civil war.

But U.S. officials say they don’t want his departure to create a security vacuum in areas controlled by the regime, allowing Sunni militants affiliated with Islamic State or the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front to seize more territory. The U.S. officials are concerned that chemical weapons could fall into militants’ hands.

A new intelligence analysis suggests Mr. Assad could use those chemicals as a weapon of last resort to protect key installations, or if the regime felt it had no other way to defend the core territory of its most reliable supporters, the Alawites.

The analysis underlines what U.S. officials describe as growing signs of the Assad regime’s desperation on the battlefield.

Islamic State militants and competing rebel forces, some aligned with al Qaeda and others backed by the Central Intelligence Agency, have been whittling away at territory controlled by the regime, leaving critical military bases and supply lines vulnerable, particularly in the country’s northeast and south.

The regime’s weakness was apparent during recent defeats in the northwest province of Idlib and the city of Palmyra. Regime forces withdrew quickly rather than fight a prolonged battle, according to rebel commanders and U.S. officials. The regime controls only about one-quarter of the country, with the rest held by Islamic State, various opposition rebels and Kurdish groups, according to monitoring groups and diplomats. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. currently training just 100 Syrians to fight ISIS

The Associated Press reports: Fewer than 100 Syrian rebels are currently being trained by the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State group, a tiny total for a sputtering program with a stated goal of producing 5,400 fighters a year.

The training effort is moving so slowly that critics question whether it can produce enough capable fighters quickly enough to make a difference. Military officials said last week that they still hope for 3,000 by year’s end. Privately, they acknowledge the trend is moving in the wrong direction.

On June 26, 2014, the White House said it was asking Congress for $500 million for a three-year train-and-equip program. It only got started in May, however.

That program, together with a more advanced but also troubled parallel effort to rebuild the Iraqi army, is central to the U.S.-led effort to create ground forces capable of fighting IS without involving U.S. ground combat troops. [Continue reading…]

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From Deep State to Islamic State by Jean-Pierre Filiu

Ian Black writes: “If you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been properly briefed”. Thus went the advice dispensed by the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in the wild south of the country in the mid-1980s. The same worldly-wise adage applies these days to the entire Arab region, wracked by collapsing states, terrorism, sectarianism, proxy wars and alliances of the strangest bedfellows.

It takes patience, clarity and perspective to explain the whole grim picture and the links between its constituent parts. These qualities are on impressive display in an important new book by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu. His particular skill is to describe the development, survival and resurgence of the Arab “deep state,” the security agencies that have kept it going and the “monster they helped create” – in its most extreme form the jihadis of the Islamic state (Isis).

Filiu traces how autocrats in Syria, Egypt and Yemen used their experience of managing internal dissent to unleash their own thugs – different names in different countries, same vicious methods – to enforce their will when the call went up to reform or change their regimes. Anyone who experienced the heady events of 2011 will recognise the bitter truth in his admission that the excitement of the Arab spring obscured the prospects of successful counter-revolution.

I thought I had seen it all from the Arab despots. Their perversity, their brutality, their voracity. But I was still underestimating their ferocity and their readiness to literally burn down their country in order to cling to absolute power.

Following the departure of Hosni Mubarak, counter-revolution triumphed in Egypt with the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, compared with the success of Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia, provided an instructive lesson, Filiu argues: Islamists who succeed at the ballot box, in complex and volatile circumstances, must not take their electoral victories as a “blank cheque.” To ignore that is to invite the backlash that brought Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to power and forged a reality even worse than under Mubarak. [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 carries out the second-largest massacre since the declaration of its ‘caliphate’

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports: “Islamic State” carries out the second- largest massacre since the declaration of its alleged “caliphate” and kills at least 146 civilians in the city of Ayn al- Arab and its countryside.

SOHR could document the death of at least 120 civilians in the last 24 hours in the city of Ayn al- Arab (Kobani), where local, medical and field sources informed SOHR that at least 120 citizens killed by gunshots fired by IS militants who attacked the city yesterday dawn after they could infiltrate to the city wearing uniforms of YPG and allied rebel brigade. The sources reported to SOHR that among the victims there are dozens of elderlies, children and women, where 72 civilians killed in Halnaj area while the rest died in the neighborhood of Maqtala in the city of Ayn al- Arab. About 200 other citizens were wounded too, some of them in critical situation. Information reported more victims killed by IS militants whose 28 of them killed in the clashes so far. Meanwhile, the clashes are still taking place with IS groups besieged by YPG inside the city. This massacre is considered the second- largest massacre committed by IS since the declaration of its alleged “caliphate” after the massacre carried out against al- Shaitat tribe where more than 930 people of the tribe executed by IS in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor. [Continue reading…]

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Families of American hostages held captive in Syria felt U.S. officials had abandoned them

Lawrence Wright writes: Five American families, each harboring a grave secret, took their seats around a vast dining table at the home of David Bradley, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who owns the media company that publishes The Atlantic. It was May 13, 2014, and in the garden beyond the French doors, where magnolias and dogwoods were in bloom, a tent had been erected for an event that Bradley’s wife, Katherine, was hosting the following evening. The Bradleys’ gracious Georgian town house, on Embassy Row, is one of the city’s salons: reporters and politicians cross paths at off-the-record dinners with Supreme Court Justices, software billionaires, and heads of state.

The families weren’t accustomed to great wealth or influence. Indeed, most of them had never been to Washington before. Until recently, they had not known of one another, or of the unexpected benefactor who had brought them together. They were the parents of five Americans who had been kidnapped in Syria. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had warned the families not to talk publicly about their missing children — and the captors had threatened to kill their hostages if word leaked out — so each family had been going to work and to church month after month and reassuring colleagues and neighbors and relatives that nothing was wrong, only to come home and face new threats and ransom demands. After hiding the truth for so long, the families were heartened to learn that others were going through the same ordeal, and they hoped that by working together they might bring their children home. [Continue reading…]

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British men who fought the Assad regime are now hiding from their own government

BuzzFeed reports: It was at the beginning of 2013 that Shaam decided he needed to fight in Syria. He was volunteering on the country’s border with Turkey in an aid convoy after finishing his university degree back home in the UK. The Syrian revolution had descended into civil war as a multitude of rebel groups took up arms to fight the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad. “After seeing [the regime] dropping barrel bombs and children crying in the streets,” Shaam tells BuzzFeed News, “I had to do something.”

A few months later, he says, he travelled from the UK to the outskirts of the city of Idlib to fight with a composite of militias at the frontline of what has become one of the most brutal wars in recent history.

But while he initially travelled with the hope of “toppling Assad” and paving the way for what he hoped would be “real freedom for the Syrian people”, little more than a month later he decided to return home, disillusioned with both the prospect of fighting the regime and, in the wake of violent Islamist movements, whether “moderate” opposition forces – such as the one he joined – could really succeed.

But while Shaam believes he’s adjusted back into British society, he says he’s not been able to speak about his experiences in Syria since returning. Furthermore, he’s living in hiding, fearful that the British government could arrest him under the belief that he is a terrorist threat – despite the fact that he fought against Assad’s regime. [Continue reading…]

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How Iranian oil tankers keep Syria’s war machine alive

Bloomberg reports: It’s no secret that Iran provides critical support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The trouble comes in trying to figure out how much Iran spends and what that support actually looks like.

Estimates of Iran’s largesse vary considerably depending on who you ask, as my Bloomberg View colleague Eli Lake reported earlier this month. The United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, believes Iran spends about $6 billion annually propping up the Assad regime. Others believe that when you factor in Iran’s support for Hezbollah, which provides fighters to Assad, the number gets closer to $15 billion or $20 billion a year.

No matter the monetary total, a key component of Iran’s support for Assad is crude oil shipments. Syria once had a surplus of crude and even exported small amounts from its oil fields in the east. The civil war that broke out in 2011 has ravaged Syria’s crude production, which fell from about 400,000 barrels a day to roughly 20,000 barrels, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS is begging for your attention — by killing people with rocket launchers

Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write: ISIS’s latest snuff video was shot with characteristically high production value and edited to more resemble a Michael Bay summer blockbuster than terrorist agitprop.

Three men in orange jumpsuits are marched into a sedan by two ISIS jihadists dressed in desert digital camouflage. The camera then shoots over the shoulder of another jihadist, this one in a balaclava, as he aims his rocket launcher at the sedan. The RPG tears clean through the steel frame of the car—captured from three different angles—setting the vehicle and its occupants on fire. The screams of the men inside are heard as the car burns.

It’s one of a series of intricately-choreographed mass murders, designed to shock the viewer to attention—and distract from the terror army’s monstrous rule over its self-proclaimed Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian Kurds, on offensive, seize military base from ISIS

Reuters reports: Kurdish-led forces said on Monday that they had captured a military base from Islamic State in Syria’s Raqqa province, advancing deeper into territory held by the group and showing new momentum after they seized a border crossing from the jihadists last week.

The Kurds, aided by U.S.-led air strikes and smaller Syrian rebel groups, pushed on Monday to within 7 km (4 miles) of Ain Issa, a town 50 km (30 miles) north of Islamic State’s de facto capital Raqqa city, said Redur Xelil, a spokesman for the Kurdish forces.

“They have been defeated,” YPG spokesman Redur Xelil told Reuters.

Islamic State had held the military base, Liwa 93, southwest of Ain Issa, since capturing it from the Syrian military last year. [Continue reading…]

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Three sisters, nine children, one dangerous journey to the heart of ISIS. What is the lure of the caliphate?

Hassan Hassan writes: A year after the establishment of the so-called caliphate by Islamic State, western governments are struggling for strategies to challenge sympathy among their citizens towards the militants. Foreigners continue to migrate to the territory in spite of substantial military, security and PR efforts and after Isis’s widely publicised military defeats in recent months.

And last week the process took a sinister new turn: three British sisters from Bradford left their husbands and travelled to Syria, taking with them their nine children, to live under Isis. Seven hundred Britons are now estimated to have made the difficult, dangerous and, to many, incomprehensible journey. Such incidents are hard to anticipate and to deal with and they arguably help Isis to bolster its claims of legitimacy and relevance.

A British official with a senior position in the effort to challenge the appeal of Isis to British Muslims told me that lessons were being drawn from the previous successes of al-Qaida. But this attitude, which is widespread, is one of the biggest mistakes officials and specialists make about the appeal of Isis. To apply knowledge about al-Qaida to understanding Isis is to build on previous failures – not least because al-Qaida still exists, though it is overshadowed by a more successful organisation. But more significantly, Isis bears greater resemblance to populist Islamist movements than to al-Qaida, notwithstanding their ideological proximity. Whereas al-Qaida is elitist and detached from ordinary Muslims, Isis tends to be more vernacular in the way it addresses its audience and their grievances and aspirations. It also appeals to a far wider demographic than those willing to join or publicly support its cause. David Cameron said as much on Friday when he warned of the dangers posed by members of communities and families that “quietly condone” the ideology of Isis.

Since the group’s rise last year, I have talked to dozens of members in Syria and Iraq. What emerges strongly is the expressed belief of many that Isis can be persuasive, liberating and empowering. Some members I interviewed echoed recent statements by British Muslims who joined the group. One of those is Abdelaziz Kuwan, a Bahraini teenager who rose through the Isis ranks to become a security official in charge of three towns in eastern Syria. I spoke to him over many months before he was shot dead in October 2014. In one conversation, he said: “I walk in the streets [of Bahrain] and I feel imprisoned. I feel tied up … This world means nothing to me. I want to be free.” His statement is eerily reminiscent of what Mohammed Emwazi, the Kuwaiti-born British national better known as “Jihadi John”, once wrote in an email: “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London.” [Continue reading…]

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Assad is losing his troops

Hassan Hassan writes: A quiet insurrection against the Assad regime has been building for the past year in the Syrian province of Sweida, home to the bulk of the country’s minority Druze population. The rebellion reached a crescendo this week when a prominent religious figure declared that the Druze were no long obliged to serve in the Syrian Arab Army — a development that poses a major threat to the teetering regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has long been losing soldiers to defections and desertions and more recently been losing ground to an increasingly more organized and effective rebel force.

Over the course of the Syrian civil war, religious minorities have proved instrumental to the resilience of the regime, which used the support of Alawites, Christians and Druze to bolster its claims of legitimacy inside and outside the country. While that remains true today, Druze seem to be pushing for a different reality than the one Assad imposed on minorities for his own survival. Depending on how the regime manages the situation, a mass Druze abandonment of the regime could prove pivotal in the how the war progresses from here.

The discontent in Sweida began in earnest during the sham presidential “election” held June 2014, when the regime sought to bolster its domestic support by cajoling minority groups to rally on its behalf. Clerics marched from the Ain al-Zaman shrine, one of the Druze’s most revered places of worship, to protest against the use of Druze religious imagery to promote Assad. The clerics asked for the sacking of the military security chief in the province and proclaimed that Druze represented only their sect and should not be labelled as backers of the regime. [Continue reading…]

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