The terror strategist: Secret files reveal the structure of ISIS

Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi aka Haji Bakr

Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi aka Haji Bakr

Christoph Reuter reports: Aloof. Polite. Cajoling. Extremely attentive. Restrained. Dishonest. Inscrutable. Malicious. The rebels from northern Syria, remembering encounters with him months later, recall completely different facets of the man. But they agree on one thing: “We never knew exactly who we were sitting across from.”

In fact, not even those who shot and killed him after a brief firefight in the town of Tal Rifaat on a January morning in 2014 knew the true identity of the tall man in his late fifties. They were unaware that they had killed the strategic head of the group calling itself “Islamic State” (IS). The fact that this could have happened at all was the result of a rare but fatal miscalculation by the brilliant planner. The local rebels placed the body into a refrigerator, in which they intended to bury him. Only later, when they realized how important the man was, did they lift his body out again.

Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi was the real name of the Iraqi, whose bony features were softened by a white beard. But no one knew him by that name. Even his best-known pseudonym, Haji Bakr, wasn’t widely known. But that was precisely part of the plan. The former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force had been secretly pulling the strings at IS for years. Former members of the group had repeatedly mentioned him as one of its leading figures. Still, it was never clear what exactly his role was.

But when the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated. SPIEGEL has gained exclusive access to the 31 pages, some consisting of several pages pasted together. They reveal a multilayered composition and directives for action, some already tested and others newly devised for the anarchical situation in Syria’s rebel-held territories. In a sense, the documents are the source code of the most successful terrorist army in recent history. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

The Revolutionary Guard — Iran’s deep state

Aaron Bastani writes: At the beginning of March a photo emerged of Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force (the extraterritorial element of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard), smiling as he despatched troops into Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and now a front line in the fight against Isis. Ben De Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, tweeted it alongside a similar photo, of a dozen men in desert fatigues and with smiles as wide as Suleimani’s, making victory signs to the camera. They were US marines in Tikrit in April 2003.


During that brief period of euphoric triumphalism in the White House and Downing Street, you’d have been laughed out of the room for suggesting that Tehran would gain the most from Saddam’s overthrow, and that within 12 years its sphere of influence would extend to four Arab capitals. More likely, the experts would have rejoined, that Iran would itself see regime change, by force if necessary.

Yet as Alireza Zakani, a member of parliament for Tehran, said last September, three Arab capitals – Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus – now ‘belong’ to the Islamic Revolution. The rise of Ansar Allah in recent months (the Zaidi Shia militias fighting in Yemen, often referred to as Houthis) means that Sana’a could be added to the list, though for how long is unclear.

The expansion of the Islamic Republic’s reach can’t be seen in isolation from the Arab Spring. Iran considers the uprisings the continuation of a historical movement it initiated. The former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati said in December that Iran supports the ‘rightful struggle’ of Ansar in Yemen, and considers the movement part of the ‘successful materialisation of the Islamic Awakening’ – Tehran’s name for the Arab Spring, which it views as evolving rather than defeated. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Horrifying videos shown at UN display carnage of suspected chlorine attacks in Syria

Vice News: Hours after doctors from Syria offered testimony about a chlorine gas attack in the country’s northwest to the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, reportedly bringing its members to tears, they informed VICE News that their hospital had just received victims of what appeared to be another chemical weapon strike.

At the meeting, the doctors showed council members footage taken by a field hospital in Sarmin, in Idlib Province, on the night of March 16. The video, which was provided to VICE News, depicted frenetic efforts to resuscitate three young children exhibiting symptoms of chemical exposure. The children were inside their basement home along with their parents and grandmother when a crude barrel bomb landed on the building’s air shaft, trapping them inside a cloud of toxic vapor. All members of the family died.

facebooktwittermail

The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming

Anders Lustgarten writes: In the desert, the smugglers lace their water with petrol so the smuggled won’t gulp it down and cost more. Sometimes the trucks they’re packed into stall crossing the Sahara; they have to jump out to push, and some are left behind when the trucks drive off again. In transit camps in Libya before the perilous venture across the Blue Desert, they play football, fight, and pool their scanty resources so an even poorer friend can pay his way. One man says his tiny wooden boat was flanked by dolphins as they made the journey, three on each side, like guardian angels, and this was what gave him hope.

These are the people we are allowing to die in the Mediterranean. The EU’s de facto policy is to let migrants drown to stop others coming. Last year nearly four thousand bodies were recovered from the Med. Those are just the ones we found. The total number of arrivals in Italy in 2014 went up over 300% from the year before, to more than 170,000. And the EU’s response, driven by the cruellest British government in living memory, was to cut the main rescue operation, Mare Nostrum.

The inevitable result is that 500 people have already died this year. The figure for the equivalent period in 2014 was 15. There are half a million people in Libya waiting to make the crossing. How many more deaths can we stomach?

Migration illustrates one of the signal features of modern life, which is malice by proxy. Like drones and derivatives, migration policy allows the powerful to inflict horrors on the powerless without getting their hands dirty. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Jihad: How British Muslims have been drawn to Syria

Mary Anne Weaver writes: He was a dreamer, with Che Guevara looks — a jet-black beard and eyes — who built a new persona online, as a Muslim warrior riding into battle in the back of an open-bed truck, dressed in black, his long hair blowing in the breeze, with an AK-47 hanging from his shoulder, strapped to his back. He had just turned 22 — the product of British private schools, a computer aficionado working in customer service at Sky News — when he decided to turn his dream into reality.

In May 2013, Ifthekar Jaman left his comfortable home in Portsmouth, England, explaining to his parents, who emigrated years earlier from Bangladesh, that he wanted to learn Arabic in the Middle East. Instead, he booked a one-way ticket to Turkey. The next time his parents, Enu and Hena, heard from him, he had crossed the Turkish border into Syria and joined the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham — also known as ISIS or ISIL — the most brutal, and now the most powerful, of a dozen or so militant Sunni Islamist groups arrayed against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his equally brutal Alawite government.

Ifthekar was part of the first wave of foreign fighters, whose motives were primarily humanitarian. Everyone — not just Muslims — was outraged by the atrocities of the Assad regime. Both the U.S. and the British governments were calling for Assad to step down. So were France, and Turkey, and a number of nations in the Middle East.

The foreign fighters were arriving by the hundreds to join one of the various rebel groups challenging Assad’s military-backed dictatorship. Many were as naïve and inexperienced as Ifthekar was. Some recruits were fervent believers; others showed scant knowledge of Islam. Ifthekar was pious, though not doctrinaire. He embraced his Bengali traditions, but he appeared well integrated into British life and was popular among his classmates and his non-Muslim friends. As a boy, he spent hours immersed in the tales of “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings.” As a teenager, he played the guitar and was a member of the Portsmouth Dawah Team, which, on weekends, distributed free copies of the Quran. He had a cat, Bilai, that he adored and that, on occasion, would follow him to dawn prayers at the Portsmouth Jami mosque.

Dressed, as he’d planned, all in black, a long, Salafist beard framing his face, a black prayer cap on his head, Ifthekar set out for Syria alone — there were no established routes or support networks then, as there are now — following the dusty road from the Turkish border town Reyhanli to the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Syria. He was intent on joining Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, which was the pre-eminent Islamist group in the early stages of the anti-Assad campaign. The only problem was, he didn’t know how.

A chance encounter with a bearded man would provide the key: As he boarded a bus near the Turkish border, Ifthekar, still lacking any plan, quickly scanned the faces of his companions. “Turkey is a pretty secular country,” he would later explain, “and I only spotted one man with a beard.” Ifthekar approached the man and, as the bus careered down the road, offered him a small bottle of attar, an alcohol-free musk oil popular with Muslims. The two began to talk. The bearded man, a Syrian from Aleppo, asked Ifthekar if he was en route to Syria to do jihad. Ifthekar responded that he was. When the bus stopped on the other side of the border, the bearded man drove him, in his waiting car, to the recruitment office of Jabhat — also known as the Nusra Front.

Ifthekar was devastated when the group turned him down. He didn’t have the required letters of recommendation.

“I got teary,” he later recalled. “This is what I’d come for!” He pleaded with the Tunisian jihadist manning the recruitment desk, even offering to be held prisoner by the Nusra Front while it did a background check on him. It was all to no avail. Finally the Tunisian offered to help him join another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham. Ifthekar refused. He knew that Ahrar permitted smoking, of which he most strenuously disapproved.

And so it was that Ifthekar, after being vetted for a fortnight by the group, joined ISIS.

His major complaint — which echoed the complaints of many of the foreigners who had come to these battlefields — was that of boredom. Weeks turned into months, and he and many of his fellow fighters had yet to wage jihad. Many manned roadblocks or checkpoints; others performed menial tasks. Ifthekar, whose father owned a takeout restaurant, had traveled to Syria, at considerable risk, to be drafted as a chef.

Then, in December 2013, seven months after he arrived, Ifthekar was finally sent into battle in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

He was killed almost immediately. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Why won’t Obama help my Syrian Christian family?

Hadil Kouki writes: In 2011, I was one of a group that dreamed about living under the shadow of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, a dream does not always come true. Mine turned into a nightmare, as I spent 40 days in prison because of a dream.

I was 19 years of age, a law student at the University of Aleppo. In early March 2011, before anyone had marched against the dictator in Syria, I was sneaking with my friends from one venue to another distributing flyers that called on Syrians to march in the street for their freedom. As a result, my freedom was taken a few hours after that. I was tortured and placed in solitary confinement. I had no access to a lawyer and denied the right of visitation. My family was almost mourning me until a Syrian Secret Service patrol forced me out of my cell to direct them to my apartment in Aleppo. There I made sure to be seen by a man who knew my family, who later told them that he saw me with the “Visitors of the Night,” as we call them in Syria.

In prison I was denied all of my basic needs. I was denied any products for hygiene, and the cell was rotten and full of rodents. I said to myself, “How foolish you are; freedom, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? Are you getting all of that in this cell now?” Yes, this is Syria. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

U.N. confirms new push for Syria talks, Iran to be invited

Reuters: The United Nations said on Tuesday that its Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura planned to consult Syrian factions and interested countries on a new round of peace talks, confirming a Reuters report.

“Starting in May … de Mistura will proceed with a series of in-depth, separate consultations with the Syrian stakeholders and regional/international actors to take stock of their views as of today,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

A U.N. spokesman in Geneva, Ahmad Fawzi, said de Mistura was “heavily engaged” in discussions on the process, which would be based on the Geneva communiqué, the June 2012 document that set out a path to peace and political transition but left unresolved the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

facebooktwittermail

Inside Yarmouk refugee camp

The Daily Beast reports: Bombs and shells from all sides continue to rain down on Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, as residents say the so-called Islamic States is taking ever-greater control. The jihadist assault that started April 1 has left residents trapped amid the rubble without medical aid or food while street fighting and heavy shelling by ISIS has overwhelmed Palestinian and Free Syrian Army forces trying to protect the camp. And to make matters works, the Syrian regime has been dropping barrel bombs and intensifying its own artillery barrages, raising fears it will invade with ground forces.

“It’s an absolute horror and I’m terrified,” says 27-year-old Tarek over Skype from near ISIS’s front lines. He is a longtime camp resident who became an activist in 2011 with the anti-regime protest movement. A human-rights organization put The Daily Beast in contact with him and he asked to be quoted only by a pseudonym for obvious security reasons.

Tarek worries that a regime ground invasion could trigger wide-scale massacres committed by the troops of President Bashar al Assad along with jihadist reprisal killings. He describes a situation of chaos in a camp — really a densely populated urban neighborhood — that has been increasingly crippled by the regime’s siege and bombardment since Free Syrian Army forces and Palestinian rebels rose up in December 2012.

“The streets are abandoned and filled with rubble as people hide in their homes,” Tarek says. Many residents have run out of food and water. There are desperate scenes as some of those come out to scour the area under sniper fire and shelling and look for wells. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

My missing family in Syria: Naming and shaming in Yarmouk

Ramzy Baroud writes: Members of my family in Syria’s Yarmouk went missing many months ago. We have no idea who is dead and who is alive. Unlike my other uncle and his children in Libya, who fled the NATO war and turned up alive but hiding in some desert a few months later, my uncle’s family in Syria disappeared completely as if ingested by a black hole, to a whole different dimension.

I chose the “black hole” analogy, as opposed to the one used by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – “the deepest circle of hell” – which he recently uttered in reference to the plight of Palestinians in Yarmouk following the advances made by the notorious Islamic State (IS) militias in early April. If there is any justice in the hereafter, no Palestinian refugee – even those who failed to pray five times a day or go to church every Sunday – deserves to be in any “circle of hell”, deep or shallow. The suffering they have endured in this world since the founding of Israel atop their towns and villages in Palestine some 66 years ago is enough to redeem their collective sins, past and present.

For now, however, justice remains elusive. The refugees of Yarmouk – whose population once exceeded 250,000, dwindling throughout the Syrian civil war to 18,000 – is a microcosm of the story of a whole nation, whose perpetual pain shames us all, none excluded.

Palestinian refugees (some displaced several times) who escaped the Syrian war to Lebanon, Jordan or are displaced within Syria itself, are experiencing the cruel reality under the harsh and inhospitable terrains of war and Arab regimes. Many of those who remained in Yarmouk were torn to shreds by the barrel bombs of the Syrian army, or victimised – and now beheaded – by the malicious, violent groupings that control the camp, including the al-Nusra Front, and as of late, IS. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

ISIS ‘withdraws from Yarmouk camp’

Channel 4 News: An activist inside Yarmouk camp in Damascus tells Channel 4 News that Islamic State militants have largely withdrawn from the centre of the camp and handed control to other jihadis.

They are still fighting Aknaf Beit al Maqdis, a local militia allied to Hamas, on the outskirts of Yarmouk.

“Today there are no more IS militants inside Yarmouk,” said “Mustafa Ahmed”, who uses a pseudonym to disguise his identity. “Most of the militants are at the frontline between IS and the Aknaf brigades in the south eastern part near the hospital.”

Last Wednesday night Syrian government aircraft dropped barrel bombs on the Palestine Hospital, the only functioning healthcare facility in Yarmouk, after IS militants started to use it as a base.

facebooktwittermail

Saudi Arabia, Turkey discussing unlikely alliance to oust Syria’s Assad

Huffington Post reports: Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two nations with a long history of rivalry, are in high-level talks with the goal of forming a military alliance to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

The talks are being brokered by Qatar. As the partnership is currently envisioned, Turkey would provide ground troops, supported by Saudi Arabian airstrikes, to assist moderate Syrian opposition fighters against Assad’s regime, according to one of the sources.

President Barack Obama was made aware of the talks in February by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al Thani, during the emir’s visit to the White House, one source said. A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

The administration has generally encouraged Persian Gulf countries to step up and do more on their own to promote regional security, particularly in Syria, but such talk has largely remained just talk. It’s unclear whether this case will be different, but Saudi Arabia’s recent intervention in Yemen indicates the nation is becoming bolder with its own forces, rather than relying on proxies.

Following his meeting with the emir of Qatar, Obama said that the two leaders had “shared ideas” for how to remove Assad.

“We both are deeply concerned about the situation in Syria,” Obama said. “We’ll continue to support the moderate opposition there and continue to believe that it will not be possible to fully stabilize that country until Mr. Assad, who has lost legitimacy in the country, is transitioned out.”

“How we get there obviously is a source of extraordinary challenge, and we shared ideas in terms of how that can be accomplished,” he added.

Since those remarks, the United States has continued daily airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and modest training programs for vetted members of the Syrian opposition — but has not publicly offered any strategy for how to negotiate an end to Assad’s rule. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

As many as 6,000 Europeans believed to be fighting with jihadist groups in Syria

AFP reports: The number of Europeans fighting with jihadist groups in Syria could exceed 6,000, a top EU official told a French newspaper Monday.

“At the European level, we estimate that 5,000-6,000 individuals have left for Syria,” EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jouriva told Le Figaro in an interview, adding the true number was likely to be far higher due to the difficulty of tracking foreign fighters in the conflict.

“At the time of the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, we decided not to allow ourselves to be guided by fear,” she said, referring to January’s twin Islamist attacks in the French capital and the subsequent deadly shootings on a cultural centre in Denmark.

Focusing on those seeking to leave for Syria to wage jihad, or those returning from the conflict, meant intervening “too late”, she said.

Jouriva said the EU instead wanted to promote prevention as a means of curtailing the steady flow of European nationals, looking at the diverse reasons of why people joined jihadist groups beyond simply religion.

British research had identified “a desire for adventure, boredom, dissatisfaction with their situation in life or a lack of prospects,” in those who had opted to leave their families behind and head for Syria, the commissioner said. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Selective outrage: The Palestinians of Yarmouk and the shameful silence when Israel is not to blame

Mehdi Hasan writes: Palestinian refugees are being starved, bombed and gunned down like animals. “If you want to feed your children, you need to take your funeral shroud with you,” one told Israeli news website Ynet. “There are snipers on every street, you are not safe anywhere.” This isn’t happening, however, in southern Lebanon, or even Gaza. And these particular Palestinians aren’t being killed or maimed by Israeli bombs and bullets. This is Yarmouk, a refugee camp on the edge of Damascus, just a few miles from the palace of Bashar al-Assad. Since 1 April, the camp has been overrun by Islamic State militants, who have begun a reign of terror: detentions, shootings, beheadings and the rest. Hundreds of refugees are believed to have been killed in what Ban Ki-moon has called the “deepest circle of hell”.

But this isn’t just about the depravity of Isis. The Palestinians of Yarmouk have been bombarded and besieged by Assad’s security forces since 2012. Water and electricity were cut off long ago, and of the 160,000 Palestinian refugees who once lived in the camp only 18,000 now remain. The Syrian regime has, according to Amnesty International, been “committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon”, forcing residents to “resort to eating cats and dogs”. Even as the throat-slitters took control, Assad’s pilots were continuing to drop barrel bombs on the refugees. “The sky of Yarmouk has barrel bombs instead of stars,” said Abdallah al-Khateeb, a political activist living inside the camp.

It is difficult to disagree with the verdict of the Palestinian League for Human Rights that the Palestinians of Syria are “the most untold story in the Syrian conflict”. There are 12 official Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, housing more than half a million people. Ninety per cent, estimates the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa), are in continuous need of humanitarian aid. In Yarmouk, throughout 2014, residents were forced to live on around 400 calories of food aid a day – fewer than a fifth of the UN’s recommended daily amount of 2,100 calories for civilians in war zones – because UNRWA aid workers had only limited access to the camp. Today, they have zero access.“To know what it is like in Yarmouk,” one of the camp’s residents is quoted as saying on the UNRWA website, “turn off your electricity, water, heating, eat once a day, live in the dark.” [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Assad regime offers to arm Palestinians in Yarmouk while dropping dozens of barrel bombs

Newsweek reports: The Assad regime has offered to arm Palestinians within the embattled Yarmouk refugee camp with weapons to beat back ISIS from the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to Palestinian officials.

The camp, where the Syrian and Palestinian population has shrunk from 150,000 to approximately 16,000 during the four-year-long Syrian civil war, was last week overrun by ISIS who took “large part” of the encampment, amid clashes with a Palestinian militia loyal to Hamas, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.

The Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, met with a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) delegation in the capital on Tuesday to extend the offer of assistance to the Palestinians fighting the radical Islamists.

Al Jazeera reports: the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees planned to undertake an “urgent mission” to Damascus on Saturday amid concerns over the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, most of which has been captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL].

Pierre Krahenbuhl, who heads the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, will discuss the situation in Yarmouk and meet with displaced refugees.

The visit is “prompted by UNRWA’s deepening concerns for the safety and protection of some 18,000 Palestinian and Syrian civilians, including 3,500 children” who remain in the Yarmouk camp, the agency said in a statement.

“Yarmouk remains under the control of armed groups, and civilian lives continue to be threatened by the effects of the armed conflict in the area,” it said.

On April 1, ISIL launched an assault on the Palestinian armed group Bait al-Maqdis, which is one of numerous factions that share control of the district.

After the government claimed that ISIL took over most of the camp – which has been denied by local activists – regime forces stepped up their shelling of the district, further worsening the area’s humanitarian crisis.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, reported on Thursday that since April 4, government helicopters have dropped 36 barrel bombs, which are highly indiscrimate and destructive explosives, on Yarmouk.

facebooktwittermail

Kurdish fighter, Viyan Peyman, killed fighting ISIS


(Click “CC” for English subtitles.)

Viyan Peyman, a Kurdish woman fighter with the YPG/YPJ featured in an NBC News report from Kobane in November. This week she was killed in a battle with ISIS near Serekaniye, a town also known as Ras al-Ayn, in northern Syria.

Richard Engel writes: When I saw her lying on her stomach firing through a small hole in a wall in a snipers nest in the town of Kobani in northern Syria, I remember thinking she was one of the strongest and most dynamic women I’d ever met in the Middle East. Sitting among sandbags, the smell of spent rounds hanging in the room, Viyan Peyman told us she was fighting ISIS, but also for women’s rights in the Middle East.

“We stand and fight, especially here in the Middle East where women are treated as inferiors,” Peyman told us. “We stand here as symbols of strength for all the women of the region.”

Peyman wasn’t just a fighter. She was a poet and a singer, a voice of her movement. She sang a song for us about her fallen comrades from the YPG/YPJ, secular Kurdish groups battling ISIS in Syria and demanding greater rights for the Kurdish people.

facebooktwittermail

ISIS’s capture of Yarmouk could only have happened with Assad’s complicity

Qusai Zakarya writes: After Bashar al-Assad’s regime spent nearly two years massacring Palestinians in Yarmouk camp, after regime bombardments destroyed nearly 70 percent of the camp, after thousands were arrested and tortured to death, and after civilians were forced to resort to scavenging through trash and weeds to ward off starvation — after all this, the world is finally paying attention to the situation in this long-suffering southern Damascus neighborhood. And all they want to talk about is the Islamic State.

I think this is a disgrace. But since this is what the world wants to hear, I will tell them. You cannot understand the Islamic State’s assault on the camp or what it means unless you also consider how Bashar al-Assad, as a gift to the Palestinian people, turned a thriving neighborhood of hundreds of thousands of people into a desperate population of 18,000 waiting to die.

We cannot stop what happened in Yarmouk from repeating itself elsewhere unless we save the 600,000 besieged civilians whom Assad is starving to death.

Let me go back to the beginning, when the siege of Yarmouk began in late 2012. I was there at the time because, as a Syrian-Palestinian, I had many family members living in the camp. My brothers had pleaded with me for hours to join them on a trip to the camp, because they wanted me to move into my aunt’s house there. Yarmouk at the time seemed much safer than my nearby hometown of Moadamiya, a Damascus suburb southwest of the capital, where I was an opposition activist.

We arrived at the camp on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012, at a time when the Free Syrian Army and its Palestinian supporters were making rapid gains. As usual, Assad was responding by shelling innocent civilians at random. The shelling kept us up for much of the night, but eventually I drifted off to sleep. I woke up to the sound of a huge explosion close by.

It was the first attack on Yarmouk camp by a fighter jet. The regime’s target: Abdul-Qader Mosque, a place of worship that was packed with displaced people. Watching from my window, I saw scenes of panic and chaos, shrapnel and body parts lying everywhere. Tanks then moved in to surround the camp. When an announcement came ordering us to leave in three hours or not at all, we left. On our way out, we passed dozens of tanks and thousands of troops ready to march. The siege on Yarmouk had begun. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Airstrikes. Siege. Starvation. And now ISIS — welcome to Yarmouk

Anna Lekas Miller writes: “What do you think of my room?” Firas asks me in his apartment in Shatila refugee camp, one of the Palestinian refugee camps of Beirut. “The walls are so blank — at home, in Yarmouk I had so many pictures and posters.”

When Firas talks about his former home in Yarmouk, once the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, his emotions vary from minute to minute. One moment he’s laughing uproariously, recalling a fond memory or a funny story. The next he’s somber, overcome with a palpable sadness.

“So many emotions, it makes me so sad to think about this,” he says. “At the same time, it’s all I think about.”

One week ago, Islamic State (IS) militants stormed Yarmouk. All this week, Firas and his roommates — also Palestinian refugees from Syria— are preparing a series of events to draw attention to the plight of Yarmouk. Though pushed to action by IS’s invasion, their goal is to show that the humanitarian catastrophe in Yarmouk is nothing new — the world just hasn’t paid attention until now. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

U.S. military sidesteps red tape to coordinate with PKK

The Daily Beast reports: On the volatile front lines facing the so-called Islamic State outside the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, American military personnel have been coordinating with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), according to a local commander from the left-wing guerrilla group that is still on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Ageed Kalary commands a unit of about 30 PKK fighters positioned some 500 meters from the front. He claims that he has met with U.S. military personnel accompanying commanders from Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, whose soldiers are known as the Peshmerga, and which has strong, open American support. The last direct encounter, he said, was in December. But the coordination does not have to be face to face.

“The Americans tell us what they need and share information but there is no formal agreement,” he says about the U.S. military’s interaction with a group that earned its “terrorist” label for the tactics it employed in its 29-year armed struggle against Turkish rule. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail