Obama’s emerging de facto alliance with Assad

The Daily Beast reports: There’s a battle raging inside the Obama administration about whether the United States ought to push away from its goal of toppling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and into a de facto alliance with the Damascus regime to fight ISIS and other Sunni extremists in the region.

As President Obama slowly but surely increases the U.S. military presence on the ground in Iraq, his administration is grappling with the immediate need to stop the ISIS advance and push for a political solution in Baghdad. The 3 1/2-year grinding civil war is Syria has been put on a back burner for now. Some officials inside the administration are proposing that the drive to remove Assad from power, which Obama announced as U.S. policy in 2012, be set aside, too. The focus, these officials argue, should instead be on the region’s security and stability. Governments fighting for survival against extremists should be shored up, not undermined.

“Anyone calling for regime change in Syria is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq,” one senior Obama administration official who works on Iraq policy told The Daily Beast.

In effect, the American government has been in a limited partnership with the Assad regime for almost a year. The U.S., Russian, and Syrian governments made a deal last September to destroy Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons—and relied on Damascus to account for and transport those weapons, in effect legitimizing his claim to continued power.

As far back as last December, top White House officials, including Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, have suggested that the rising threat of extremism was creating a “convergence of interests” between the U.S., Russia, and its allies in the Iranian and the Syrian governments to come to a political deal before the Islamists became too powerful.

“The Russians have a profound interest in avoiding the emergence of an extremist Syria, a haven for extremist groups,” Blinken said at the time. “Many of Syria’s neighbors have the same incentive, and of course we have a strong reason to want to avoid that future.”

But the view that Assad can somehow be a partner of any kind is vigorously disputed by other senior U.S. officials, especially those who work or have worked on Syria policy. They say the problem of extremism in the region can only be solved by removing Assad from power. Not only is the Assad regime a magnet for terrorism, they argue, but Assad and the extremists inside Syria are working together.

“The people who think Bashar al Assad’s regime is the answer to containing and eventually eliminating the Islamic-based threat do not understand the historic relationship between the regime and ISIS. [They] don’t understand the current relationship between Assad and ISIS and how they are working on the ground together directly and indirectly inside Syria,” Robert Ford, the recently departed U.S. ambassador to Syria, told The Daily Beast. “The people who think Assad’s regime survival is essential have not explained how his survival would solve the problem of extremism in Syria.” [Continue reading...]

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A new window for diplomacy in Syria?

As the advance of ISIS continues to alarm governments across the Middle East and outside the region, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is probably viewing events with a certain amount of satisfaction. His counterterrorism narrative, long echoed by his closest allies, Iran and Russia, now resonates more widely.

So long as ISIS does not acquire aircraft and start dropping barrel bombs (in which event Assad would have the awkward task of differentiating his own use of random violence from that being used by “the terrorists”), in relationship to the most dangerous terrorist group in history it becomes increasingly easy to anticipate the reinvention of Assad as some kind of “moderate.”

No doubt he was never among the highest echelon of dictators. His fluent English and well-tailored suits suggested that if he held onto power for long enough, he might eventually be allowed back into the international club of moderates.

After all, Assad is more moderate than Pol Pot — though as the Cambodian leader illustrated, appearances can be deceptive.

David W. Lesch recently met with top Syrian officials in Beirut. He writes: Ever since it became clear that Assad was not going to fall anytime soon, the central question for any political settlement has been this: Can the Syrian regime give up enough power to satisfy at least the minimum requirements of a critical mass of the opposition? In the end, it may prove impossible to find a satisfactory formula, but it is certainly something worthy of careful exploration. War weariness has softened what had been a litany of hard-line positions by each side, creating a potential bargaining situation where the government’s political power can be traded between the provinces and Damascus. Much work remains on both sides, however, in terms of generating ideas that can potentially form the basis for compromise.

There is certainly reason to doubt the sincerity of the regime’s feelers to Western contacts, as Damascus often pursues several options at once, in an effort to have its cake and eat it, too. And the regime will bargain hard in an excruciatingly tedious process wherein it will try to seem as if it is giving up power without actually doing so in a meaningful way. There is also still the question of finding — and meticulously developing — viable negotiating partners on the opposition side amid increasing opposition polarization. And a “new” Syria cannot just replicate sectarian authoritarianism in another form, as happened in Iraq. But what other realistic option is there for ending a conflict in a way that contributes to the Middle East’s stability, rather than simply watching the war add to the regional conflagration?

If a negotiation can eventually be organized, the devil will be in the details. The problem is that neither side has really been compelled to think about the substance of its preferred form of governance in a systematic, coordinated fashion. This will take time and perseverance, as international mediators shuttle between the sides, away from the Geneva-type grand-bargain spotlight. The initial steps are quite basic: Learn about the real interests of the stakeholders, especially those on the ground, and then work with both sides to develop options that hopefully begin to reconcile competing political interests and engender further discussion — perhaps within each side first before moving on to the bilateral level.

Assad is a key. Only he can convince regime hard-liners to realize this is the only way forward. Recent history suggests the Syrian president may not be willing or able to do this if it means him giving up power. According to a senior official in Ankara, a top Turkish official met with Assad early in the uprising in 2011 to encourage him to enact political reform. He told Assad that a Syrian president would have more legitimacy by winning 40 percent of the vote in a true pluralist democracy than the usual 98 percent of the vote in Syria’s typical single-candidate referendums. Assad reportedly reacted to this by saying, “Well, what happens if I lose?” The Turkish official responded, “Then you retire.”

To date, Assad has found the option of “retiring” at some point unacceptable. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS seizes Syria’s largest oil field

The Wall Street Journal reports: Militants from the Sunni extremist group that calls itself the Islamic State have captured Syria’s largest oil field and now hold nearly half of the northeastern province of Deir-Ezzour after monthslong battles with other rebel factions, according to opposition activists, rebels and local residents

The fighting has intensified in recent days on the back of gains in neighboring Iraq by the militants, who formerly called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

Videos posted on jihadist websites showed black-clad fighters who identified themselves as belonging to the Islamic State standing at the entrance of a facility leading to the Al-Omar oil field in eastern Syria.

“They fled like rats,” says one of the fighters, referring to members of its rival, the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which captured the field, considered the largest in Syria in terms of production, from regime forces in November.

Earlier, several Syrian opposition activists posted a video showing tribal elders in the town of Al-Ashara in Deir-Ezzour on Thursday submitting themselves to the rule of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose group on Sunday declared the creation of a caliphate governed by its militant interpretation of Islamic law. [Continue reading...]

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Iraqi Kurd officials lobbying for independence in Washington

The Wall Street Journal reports: Senior officials from the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan are in Washington laying the groundwork for a formal bid for independence, despite opposition from the Obama administration.

Key aides to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani have met staff from the State Department, White House and Congress over the past two days, describing what the Kurds say is the “new reality” in Iraq. Numerous territories in the west of the country have fallen in recent weeks to the militant group Islamic State, which recently changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

Mr. Barzani is moving to hold a referendum among Iraq’s Kurdish population, after which the government in the Kurdish capital of Erbil could seek to formally secede, his top aides told a gathering of reporters Thursday.

“If we can’t live together, we will go for divorce,” said Fuad Hussein, Mr. Barzani’s chief of staff, who met Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday. “It is now about a new reality.”

A move toward Kurdish independence would represent a repudiation of Obama administration policy, which seeks to maintain a united Iraq. U.S. officials worry that Kurdish independence could fuel secessionist bids by Kurdish territories in other parts of the Middle East, particularly Turkey and Syria. [Continue reading...]

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Syria rebels will ‘lay down arms’ if no aid to fight ISIS

AFP reports: Rebels from northern and eastern Syria on Wednesday threatened to lay down their arms in a week if the country’s exiled opposition does not help them fight the jihadist Islamic State (IS).

“We, the leaders of the brigades and battalions… give the National Coalition, the (opposition) interim government, the (rebel) Supreme Military Council and all the leading bodies of the Syrian revolution a week to send reinforcements and complete aid,” the statement said.

“Should our call not be heard, we will lay down our weapons and pull out our fighters,” it added.

The statement comes three days after IS declared the establishment of a “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq, referring to an Islamic system of rule that was abolished nearly 100 years ago

“Our popular revolution (against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad)… is today under threat because of the (Islamic State), especially after it announced a caliphate,” said the statement. [Continue reading...]

The former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford tells Channel 4 News, people who say it’s impossible to tell the between good and bad rebels in Syria are being “intellectually lazy.” “We should be supporting moderate groups,” he says.

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The ISIS threat: How great is it, who should respond, and how?

The crisis in Iraq can be resolved quite easily. All we have to do is master time-travel.

There are differences of opinion on whether or not history has to be reversed back to 2003 or 1914, but either way, the ability to go back into the past is key.

If time-travel can be accomplished through an act of will, we can remain hopeful that this great challenge will soon be surmounted. After all, there is a growing movement of people who clearly want to re-live the past, so maybe we can all soon get back there, reverse the mistakes which were made and reset history on a more reliable course.

Meanwhile, just in case the time-travel solution happens not to bear fruit, it might be worth considering some kind of Plan B.

Among young Americans — those whose interest in the future can be assumed to be far greater than their interest in the past — the World Cup is apparently almost twice as interesting as events in Iraq. Maybe the 2018 World Cup in Russia will be a game-changer on the geopolitical landscape.

Maybe the assessment that the danger posed to America by ISIS is now greater than that posed by Al Qaeda in the summer of 2001 is an overstatement. After all, while Al Qaeda’s focus was on provoking and challenging American power, ISIS is much more intent on establishing and expanding its caliphate than in seeking military engagement with the U.S..

The fact that ISIS has already drawn the support of hundreds of Westerners flooding initially to Syria, does not necessarily mean many of these individuals will be returning to their countries of origin to engage in terrorism. After all, one of their favorite ways of declaring their commitment to their Islamic state is to destroy their passports. With a measure of realism, they seem to be showing that they have already arrived in the place where they expect to fight and die.

Among critics of the war in Iraq there seems to be far greater concern about the danger of the U.S. once again becoming militarily engaged in Iraq, than there is concern about ISIS. Indeed, few seem to want to say much about the group other than assert that it wouldn’t have come into existence had it not been for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. True. But the invasion did happen and ISIS does now exist and is growing in strength — and the clock cannot be turned back.

Claims that ISIS poses a threat to the world may be viewed with some justified skepticism, but when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says that the group now threatens every state in the region, that sounds to me like an accurate assessment.

Iraq is a state on the brink of collapse. The Kurds are already constructing their own borders and there are no indications that a unifying government can be formed in Baghdad.

Military intervention by Russia and Iran might save Maliki yet destroy Iraq.

That an Iranian general has already promised to use “the same winning strategy used in Syria” sends a chilling message to Iraq’s Sunni population as a whole.

Americans who imagine that so long as our borders are secure, we can ignore what happens elsewhere in the world are living in denial about the interconnected planet on which we live.

Anti-interventionists who imagine that the only issue that matters in relation to Iraq is that the U.S. not get sucked in, are unwilling to confront the fact that ISIS will have to be confronted.

If you want to place your confidence in Russia and Iran, then remember Grozny and Aleppo and picture what might become of Mosul.

ISIS could not have advanced this far without the support of a wider Sunni insurgency and rather than the Russians, Iranians, Maliki’s security forces, Shia militias, or the U.S., it is the Sunnis who need expose the fact that this newly constructed Islamic state has no real foundations. But this isn’t going to happen without Iraq’s Sunni population receiving a tangible reward. The longer that takes to materialize, the less chance there is that it’s going to happen.

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ISIS’s rapid rise illustrates how far jihadism has evolved

Hassan Hassan writes: As the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant has declared its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi a caliph, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a couple of colleagues during my first year of university in Damascus in 2000. The school curriculum in Syria steered clear of almost all sensitive issues, and it was natural for new university students to find themselves exposed for the first time to “serious” issues such as the caliphate and sectarian divisions in the Muslim world. Such discussions were mostly hushed, often discussed in coded language among trusted colleagues or friends.

“Ana mubayi’,” or I have a pledge of fealty [to a caliph], said one of my colleagues. It was strange to hear such a sentence in a secular country like Syria. He added, with a smile that suggested a suddenly shaken certainty as to whether it was safe to have said it, that pledging allegiance to the caliph could be done without even meeting him because it would be deemed sinful if he didn’t declare allegiance. The supposed caliph was Mullah Omar, the Afghan spiritual leader of the Taliban.

That was around a year before the September 11 attacks in the US. This view of global jihadist groups was, I believe, pervasive within circles that were susceptible to foreign ideas and was being expressed at a time when satellite channels had just become popular in the region – especially Al Jazeera – that broadcast glimpses of jihadists in some mountains in Afghanistan, dressed in white and riding horses, reminiscent of a bygone period in Islamic history.

This story is relevant today, as some observers of jihadists in the region tend to play down the dangers of the ISIL announcement. The move is much more than whether the Islamic State, as it is known now, will hold on to the territories it currently controls or whether it will push into neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

A month ago, Barack Obama cited the weakening of “Al Qaeda central” as one of his administration’s achievements. Commentators then highlighted that while that may be true – a more dangerous trend has taken place during his presidency, the rise of local jihadi groups in many more countries than Al Qaeda ever operated. After the announcement of a caliph this week, the one thing Mr Obama bragged about has been rendered hollow, as the Islamic State has all but taken on Al Qaeda’s role as a leader of jihad. Some may celebrate the fact that the Islamic State has harmed Al Qaeda more than the war on terror has, but the only difference is that the Islamic State is the extreme of the extreme and is more invigorating for jihadists than Al Qaeda. [Continue reading...]

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Chechen in Syria a rising star in ISIS

The Associated Press reports: A young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders in the breakaway al-Qaida group that has overrun swaths of Iraq and Syria, illustrating the international nature of the movement.

Omar al-Shishani, one of hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, has emerged as the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appearing frequently in its online videos — in contrast to the group’s Iraqi leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who remains deep in hiding and has hardly ever been photographed.

In a video released by the group over the weekend, al-Shishani is shown standing next to the group’s spokesman among a group of fighters as they declare the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria. The video was released just hours before the extremist group announced the creation of a caliphate — or Islamic state — in the areas it controls.

“Our aim is clear and everyone knows why we are fighting. Our path is toward the caliphate,” the 28-year-old al-Shishani declares. “We will bring back the caliphate, and if God does not make it our fate to restore the caliphate, then we ask him to grant us martyrdom.” The video is consistent with other Associated Press reporting on al-Shishani.

Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. But he may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it — known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari — was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. The video identified al-Shishani as “the military commander” without specifying its Syria branch, suggesting he had been elevated to overall commander, though the group has not formally announced such a promotion. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS shows off SCUD missile as Caliph Ibrahim promises global conquest

EA Worldview: Trying to capitalize on its offensive in Iraq, the Islamic State held a military parade in Raqqa in northern Syria on Monday.

The Iraqi-led group, which has held Raqqa — the largest city outside regime control — since last year, showed off a SCUD missile and US-made howitzers captured in Iraq’s second city Mosul.

The ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who now wants to be known as “Caliph Ibrahim” — self-anointed ruler of the world — just gave a speech outlining the scope his ambitions:

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ISIS becomes ‘The Islamic State’ as it declares: Mission accomplished

If George Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech came to epitomize the hubris of the neoconservatives as they foolishly celebrated victory in Iraq, the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seems to have out-Bushed Bush in his arrogance this weekend as he anointed himself the new global leader of Muslims and head of “The Islamic State” (which has dropped the parochial limitations of “Iraq” and “Syria”).

ISIS becomes IS or TIS?

In the media, the struggle for acronym domination might continue between ISIS and ISIL, in large part because the White House remains an ISIL holdout (remember how long U.S. government agencies stubbornly insisted on inserting u-s-a into “Usama bin Laden”?) but I expect that “ISIS” will continue as the most widely used label.

The success of the ISIS marketing campaign can be credited in large part to the willingness of the media and many governments to overstate the strength of the jihadist organization, but the susceptibility of ISIS to be seduced by its own hype is evident in the speed with which it has declared the creation of its caliphate.

The Associated Press reports Abdel-Rahman al-Shami, a spokesman for the Army of Islam in Syria, pouring scorn on ISIS’s announcement.

“The gangs of al-Baghdadi are living in a fantasy world. They’re delusional. They want to establish a state but they don’t have the elements for it. You cannot establish a state through looting, sabotage and bombing.”

While most analysts are inclined to look at ISIS’s recent successes through an ill-defined prism of “jihadism,” what might be increasingly applicable is an understanding of the dynamics of cult psychology.

Cults derive their cohesive strength by maintaining rigid boundaries between insiders and outsiders, through the contempt with which they view the unenlightened, and by the unswerving obedience which each cult member displays towards the cult’s strict hierarchy and the absolute authority of the cult leader.

In the short term, these mechanisms of group cohesion solidify the power of the leader, but the exceptional level of solidarity found inside cults eventually becomes their undoing. They purge themselves of the homeostatic mechanisms which provide reality checks inside ordinary social groupings. An absolute intolerance for any form of dissent means that the cult leader becomes increasingly susceptible to miscalculations.

When al-Baghdadi declared himself the “caliph,” who could question his authority, his timing, or his judgement without risking their own life?

He might now relish the power he experiences in the doubt-free environment of his followers, but the throne upon which Baghdadi now thinks he sits, is, as the Army of Islam’s spokesman says, a product of fantasy.

The willingness of ISIS to trade in fantasies may explain some of its appeal to children.

A correspondent for Niqash reports:

The customers standing in Haj Hamdoun’s store in central Mosul watched as a masked child came into the shop, buy what he wanted without saying a word and then leave again, carrying a bag containing candies and milk in one hand and a heavy machine gun, that was just about as big as him, in the other.

This was Abdullah, who is apparently the city’s youngest volunteer with the Sunni extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, that took control of Mosul over two weeks ago.

Abdullah is not yet 11 years old. But his older brother and his father, who was a senior member of ISIS, were killed in fighting between the extremist group and Iraqi security forces in 2013. That’s why Abdullah joined ISIS.

The storeowner, Hamdoun, says he has actually become used to seeing Abdullah wandering around, carrying his big gun with both pride and difficulty. He has also seen the boy on guard duty together with other ISIS fighters in front of the new ISIS headquarters in Mosul, originally the home of a government official.

A curious bystander wanted to start a conversation with Abdullah. “I have a son your age but he’s not eager to carry arms,” the man said. “He spends most of his time on the computer.”

A tall, overweight gunman, who seemed to be responsible for the child, answered on Abdullah’s behalf. “Our children don’t waste time on electronic games or on watching cartoons,” he said. “They have a dream and their dream is to establish an Islamic state.”

The gunman patted Abdullah’s shoulder. “We have a lot of hope for Abdullah and other children his age,” the gunman continued. “We believe they will conquer all of Iraq and Persia and that they will liberate Jerusalem.”

While ISIS might be poised at the brink of self-destruction, imploding as a result of its own hubris, the United States could unwittingly save Baghdadi through an ill-judged intervention.

As J.M. Berger notes:

The prospect of a U.S. military intervention, most likely in the form of air strikes, was already problematic. While there are many who understandably favor hitting ISIS in order to deny it control of territory in Iraq, such a strike would bestow on ISIS the one thing it has until now been unable to definitively claim—legitimacy. A potential new line of jihadist argument then emerges: The caliphate was restored, but it was directly destroyed by the United States.

While President Obama has often been trigger-happy when it comes to the use of drone warfare, he is also a man who generally follows the path of least resistance.

At this juncture, with the mood across America being overwhelmingly opposed to intervention in Iraq, the risk of political gifts to ISIS coming in the form of Hellfire missiles is not as great as might otherwise be.

At the same time, to hear Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, deputy joint chief of staff of the armed forces and a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officer, say that Iran is ready to provide Iraq with “the same winning strategy used in Syria” offers reason to fear that ISIS’s enemies risk turning a crisis into a catastrophe.

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The shady Syrian oligarchs who keep the regime afloat

Le Monde (translated by Worldcrunch) reports: In Syria, it’s business as usual.

Despite the desolate landscape of destruction that loyalist troops leave behind and the sanctions imposed by Western countries, a few entrepreneurs in the power’s sphere of influence are still amassing profits, say experts of the Syrian regime. They are lifting the veil on part of this occult and predatory system that allows President Bashar al-Assad to keep the allegiance of his followers and to finance his war against the opposition.

Just as the government-controlled parts of the country took part in a pseudo-presidential election that have given al-Assad his third term in office, the systematic bleed of the country and Damascus’ dependency on its allies, particularly Iran, have never been so severe.

“There’s almost not a single dollar legally going into the state’s coffers,” says a former close friend of the al-Assad clan. “The oil wells are now under the control of the rebels or of the Kurds. People don’t pay their taxes anymore, nor their water or electricity bills. All the regime has left to pay the civil servants’ wages are its schemes and direct aid from Iran and Iraq.” [Continue reading...]

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Syrian rebels can play role in Iraq, says Kerry

AFP reports: The top US diplomat, who landed in the Red Sea city of Jeddah in the afternoon, also met Saudi King Abdullah a day after hosting urgent talks in Paris with the Saudi, Jordanian and UAE foreign ministers on the widening crisis in Iraq and Syria.

King Abdullah has consistently called for greater US military support for the Syrian rebels, whom the Sunni Gulf kingdom has long backed.

Following several signals in recent weeks by US President Barack Obama’s administration, the White House said Thursday it intends to “ramp up US support to the moderate Syrian opposition”.

The request is part of a $1.5-billion Regional Stabilisation Initiative to bolster stability in Syrian neighbours Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and to support communities hosting refugees.

Ahmad Jarba, leader of the Syrian National Coalition, welcomed the huge US boost to his forces, battling to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The situation is very grave and there are sectarian leaders ruling the country so we have to have greater efforts on the part of the US and regional powers to address the situation in Iraq,” Jarba said.

Kerry said “the moderate opposition in Syria… has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) ISIL’s presence… not just in Syria, but also in Iraq”.

“Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq. He knows people there, and his point of view and that of the Syrian opposition will be very important going forward.” [Continue reading...]

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Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, Assad, and the Syrian revolution

Rania Abouzeid writes: The eight men, beards trimmed, explosive belts fastened, pistols and grenades concealed in their clothing, waited until nightfall before stealing across the flat, porous Iraqi border. They navigated the berms and trenches along the frontier, traversing two-way smuggling routes used to ferry cigarettes, livestock, weapons — and jihadis to enter the northeastern Syrian province of Hasaka. It was August 2011, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and Syria was five months into a still largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Their leader was a Syrian emissary from the al Qaeda affiliate forged in the bloody conflict next door. He called himself Abu Mohammad al-Golani, and the young fighter, about whom little is known for sure except that he is a veteran of that war against the Americans in Iraq, had been authorized by his boss, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and al Qaeda’s central command to set up a Syrian offshoot of the notorious group. His mission, made clear in subsequent public statements, was nothing less than to bring down the Assad regime and establish an Islamic state in its place. No one knew it at the time, but that trip across the border would turn out to be a crucial turning point in the Syrian civil war, a key factor in the metastasizing of an internal conflict into a regional conflagration that now threatens the regime in Iraq as well as Syria.

Before Golani’s nighttime trek from Iraq into Syria, al Qaeda was looking increasingly like a spent force. Osama bin Laden had been killed a few months earlier. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had bin Laden’s passion but little of his charisma, and the Middle East was still in the throes of the so-called Arab Spring, experimenting with peaceful protests rather than violence as a means to bring about change.

But over the next few years, at times even aided by the cynical Assad regime, Golani would rejuvenate the al Qaeda brand and establish a firm base in Syria. His group, called Jabhat al-Nusra l’Ahl as-Sham (meaning Support Front for the People of the Sham, an Arabic term encompassing Damascus, Syria and the Levant), would create a whole new generation of jihadists from around the Islamic world, fighters who have become a crucial force in a Syrian civil war that has claimed well over 140,000 lives and displaced nine million Syrians, both internally and into neighboring countries.

Just as dangerously, Nusra’s very success would create a massive rift with its jihadist parent organization, the al Qaeda affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq. By April of 2013, that group would rebrand itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a new name that indicated its transnational ambitions. By this June, ISIL (also known as ISIS) had become so powerful that it would brazenly undertake a blitzkrieg-like advance across northern and western Iraq, rapidly capturing the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit and underscoring the seeming irrelevance of Zawahiri and the old al Qaeda leadership, somewhere in hiding off in South Asia, far from the newest jihadi battlefields.

Now, as a result of ISIL’s victories, U.S. President Barack Obama, a man who campaigned on extricating the United States from “dumb” wars in the Middle East, finds himself potentially embroiled in another one. He is sending a small contingent of special forces to work with the Iraqi military, but many in Washington are urging him to take more decisive action against the ISIL militants sweeping across Iraq, seizing territory and oil facilities and threatening to sow chaos in Baghdad and beyond.

This was not inevitable. The Syrian revolution—and the hesitant, confused international reaction to it—paved the way for the resurrection of a militant Islam that would turn vast regions of Iraq and Syria into borderless jihadi strongholds and inch closer to redrawing the map of the Middle East—in practical terms if not on paper. This is the story, pieced together over several trips into Syria and rare interviews with highly placed jihadi commanders on the front lines, of how it happened. [Continue reading...]

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Maliki welcomes Syrian air strikes on Iraq

The Guardian reports: The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on Thursday followed US officials in confirming that Syrian warplanes had bombed Sunni militant positions in Iraq.

The cross-border raids have deepened fears that the insurgency now spanning Syria and Iraq could become an even wider regional conflict. Maliki told the BBC he had not requested the air strikes but welcomed them.

The Syrian warplanes struck near the border crossing in the town of Qaim on Tuesday, US military officials told the Associated Press, hitting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), which seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across the Syria-Iraq border.

The White House spokesman Joshua Earnest said Washington had “no reason to dispute” the reports. Details are, however, sketchy. For its part, Syria’s state news agency denied that Damascus had carried out the attacks. It said its source “refuted allegations made by malicious media outlets who claimed that the Syrian air force shelled areas within the borders of Iraq”.

Syrian opposition activists have claimed that the al-Qaim strikes missed Isis’s main bases and killed 30 civilians. [Continue reading...]

Reuters reports: Online backers of the Sunni Islamist militants who seized swaths of Iraq this month have said that any U.S. air strikes on the fighters will lead to attacks on Americans.

U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American advisers to Iraq to help halt the advance by militants from al Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Washington has so far held off granting a request by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government for air strikes.

A Twitter account with 21,000 followers naming itself the “League of Supporters” called for ISIL sympathizers to post messages online on Friday warning the U.S. not to carry out any strikes.

“This campaign reflects the messages sent by all the Sunni people all over the world to the American people … (It’s) a threat to every American in the event of an American strike on Iraq,” the message read.

Among hundreds of supportive responses, one user posted, “As our martyred sheikh Osama bin Laden said, you need not consult anyone about killing Americans.”

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Barrel bombs in Syria: Weapons of mass civilian expulsion

Ryan O’Farrell writes: Over the past six to eight months, barrel bombs have become a major topic of discussion concerning the grinding civil war in Syria. Crude improvised explosive devices, barrel bombs initially took the form of oil drums filled with TNT, gasoline and shrapnel, detonated by a cigarette-lit detonation cord. These were indiscriminate, almost wholly inaccurate weapons, unable to target much of anything after being pushed out the back of transport helicopters, and often detonating long before or after they hit their targets, due to improper timing on the burning safety fuse. These seemed to be weapons of a desperate military, one unable to supply its air force with modern weapons for air strikes, and one resorting to transport helicopters for lack of ground-attack platforms.

But as the use of barrel bombs has expanded, and indeed massively so, their design has become standardized and their strategic value has become more clear. As their use has evolved, the use of barrel bombs has become one of the clearest illustrations of an important aspect of the Syrian government’s urban warfare strategy as it advances on the various rebel groups which had seemingly come so close to toppling it.

The Syrian military, while backed by formidable airpower, armor and even highly-adept foreign fighters from groups like Hezbollah, has a limited capacity for seizing urban areas. Rebels have often been able to turn built-up areas like Old Homs, Darraya, Jobar and eastern Aleppo city into nearly impenetrable fortresses. In such mazes of wrecked apartments, narrow alleyways and endless supply tunnels, rebels equipped with little more than light weapons have consistently been able to hold off major Syrian Arab Army advances almost indefinitely. For instance, Darayya, in the southern suburbs of Damascus, remains in rebel hands after more than two years of fighting, repeated offensives by the government, and virtually uncountable airstrikes and artillery barrages. Attacks on the almost entirely surrounded town have cost the government thousands of casualties, while the town remains in rebel control.

In response to this, the government began adopting different tactics, particularly in the suburbs of Damascus, in the Spring of 2013. Rather than attempting costly and largely ineffective assaults on fortified urban areas to seize them outright, the SAA instead began encircling them. Indeed, most of the southern suburbs of Damsascus, particularly those in the vicinity of the Sayyeda Zainab shrine and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, were surrounded and besieged by the end of last summer. Since then, starvation and blocking medical supplies has been a brutally effective weapon in winning the besieged districts’ submission. Several neighborhoods and towns in the Damascus suburbs, such as Moadamiyah, Qaboun, Barzeh, and Al-Qadam have reached ceasefire agreements with the government, usually in return for food and some level of autonomy where the former rebel fighters remain in control. It is in this context, encirclement, siege, starvation and finally ceasefire, that we must look at barrel bombs, and thus discern the principles behind their use. [Continue reading...] (H/t EA Worldview)

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Among Brits, ISIS is now more popular than the Army Reserve

Channel 4 News: “More than twice as many Brits have now signed up to wage jihad in Iraq and Syria as joined the army reserve here last year.”

ITN News: “Gun-toting children paraded through the streets of Mosul in Iraq yesterday. An ITV News video shows an ISIS convoy travelling through the city, with the militants showing off the weapons and vehicle they seized as the Iraqi army fled. The footage shows two small boys, one armed with an assault rifle, which has a telescopic sight attached. Humans Rights Watch says that in Syria, ISIS has already recruited young children as ‘snipers’ – this could be an indication that the Iraq conflict may see the same.”

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