How ISIS uses water as weapon of war

Walaa Hussein writes: The Middle East is facing a water crisis. As the region experiences conflicts over water and faces the continuous risk of war breaking out, experts on water predict that the Islamic State (IS) aims to exacerbate this water crisis, as evidenced by its efforts to seize rivers and dams in Syria and Iraq, starting in 2013.

The Arab League has worked since 2008 to establish a new Arab convention on water usage, which would establish parameters on how to deal with the water crisis. However, the final draft is still under review because of the reservations of some member states.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international consulting organization, has identified numerous regions where the water crisis threatens to transform into a global conflict. Turkey, Syria and Iraq are included on that list, due to the Turkish dams controlling the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Iran and Iraq are also witnessing a competition over the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, known as Shatt al-Arab. Also included is Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which are witnessing a conflict over the Nile. Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Chad and Niger are also experiencing a crisis in relation to an 800-meter (0.5-mile) deep underground water field and the Nubian sandstone aquifer. Libya wants to invest in this aquifer to extend an artificial river and supply its coastline with freshwater. [Continue reading…]


The Afghans fighting Assad’s war

Der Spiegel reports: His war only lasted from one dawn to the next. When the sun rose for the second time over the Syrian city of Aleppo, Murad, a farmer from Afghanistan, was still cowering on the second floor of the house he was supposed to defend to the death. That, at least, is what his Iranian officer had ordered him to do.

How, though, did he get to this war-torn city far away from his village in the mountains of Afghanistan? All he had wanted was an Iranian residence permit, he says. But at the end of his trip, he found himself fighting as a mercenary in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Bashar Assad regime.

On that morning in Aleppo, Murad didn’t know how many from his unit were still alive, nor did he know where he was or who he was fighting against. His four magazines had been empty for hours. When a violent explosion caused the house he was in to collapse, he found himself thinking about his daughters, he says. “I screamed and thought I was suffocating. And then, everything around me was quiet.”

Men arrived and pulled Murad, who was still screaming, out of the rubble. He was lucky, even if he didn’t see it that way at first. “I thought they would kill me immediately. But they bandaged me up and took me to their quarters. There was someone there who spoke a bit of Persian and he told me I didn’t need to be afraid.”

That was seven months ago. Since then, Murad and another Afghan have been sitting in a makeshift prison belonging to the al-Shamiya Front, one of Aleppo’s larger rebel formations. They are being held in a neon-lit basement, next to a roaring generator. The walls are crumbling, a product of the myriad explosions that have shaken the city. In addition to Afghans, Pakistanis and Iranians have also been taken prisoner by other rebel groups, all of them fighting on the front lines. [Continue reading…]


House arrest reports add to mystery surrounding fate of Syrian security chief

The Guardian: Mystery surrounds the fate of a senior Syrian security chief who is rumoured to have fallen foul of President Bashar al-Assad, against a background of recent rebel gains, growing Iranian influence and reports of intrigue and disarray in Damascus.

Lt Gen Ali Mamlouk, the head of the country’s national security council, was reported on Monday to be under house arrest in the Syrian capital following a rash of speculation about his whereabouts at a time of deepening crisis for the regime.

According to the Daily Telegraph, the 69-year-old was arrested on suspicion of planning a coup and talking to the opposition because he has qualms about Iran, Assad’s most loyal ally. Tehran is playing an increasingly pivotal role in Syria.


Has ISIS lost its head?

The Daily Beast reports: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader, has been moved from Iraq to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the terror army’s de facto capital, amid tight security two months after sustaining serious shrapnel wounds leaving his spine damaged and his left leg immobile, say jihadist defectors.

He is said to be mentally alert and able to issue orders, but his physical injuries are now prompting the so-called Islamic State’s governing Shura Council to make a final decision on a temporary stand-in leader who can move back and forth between front-lines in Syria and Iraq and is able to handle day-to-day leadership in the self-declared caliphate.

That leader will be, in effect, under al-Baghdadi, a super deputy to the caliph — in Arabic, na’ib al-malik, or viceroy. According to Islamic State defectors debriefed by opposition activists in neighboring Turkey, the election will pit two Iraqis and a Syrian against each other — all well-known figures within the terror army’s top leadership.

These sources say nine doctors to treat the infirm al-Baghdadi were also taken to Raqqa, including a senior physician from Mosul’s general hospital, but the entire al-Baghdadi caravan of attending medics, aides and body guards was split into separate convoys to avoid attracting attention from U.S. satellite surveillance and inviting a coalition airstrike or drone attack. At least one doctor didn’t know who his patient was when he arrived in Raqqa and was ordered brusquely to stop asking questions about the man’s identity. [Continue reading…]


Assad fires an intel chief

The Daily Beast reports: The sacking of yet another Syrian intelligence chief has raised suspicions that President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle is fraying under the pressure of recent battlefield losses to the rebels. Disputes over the out-sized role Iran is playing to prop up the beleaguered Damascus regime are thought to be central to these internal disputes.

Ali Mamlouk, the head of the country’s National Security Bureau, and considered a trusted security adviser to the Assad family since the 1970s, has been accused of plotting a coup and placed under house arrest, according to a report today in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. In the past few weeks two other spy chiefs have been removed or killed.

In April, Rustum Ghazaleh, head of the Political Security Directorate, died in hospital after he was beaten up on the orders of General Rafiq Shehadeh, his counterpart in military intelligence, who was in turn sacked. The two argued ]over the increasing power of Iranian advisers in Damascus. [Continue reading…]


Hassan Hassan: Understanding the historical context out of which ISIS arose

At the Woodrow Wilson Center on March 12, Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, talked about the rise and leadership of ISIS in the Middle East.


Weapons inspectors find undeclared sarin and VX traces in Syria – diplomats

Reuters: International inspectors have found traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at a military research site in Syria that had not been declared to the global chemical weapons watchdog, diplomatic sources said on Friday.

Samples taken by experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition and Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in December and January tested positive for chemical precursors needed to make the toxic agents, the sources told Reuters on the condition of anonymity because the information is confidential.

“This is a pretty strong indication they have been lying about what they did with sarin,” one diplomatic source said. “They have so far been unable to give a satisfactory explanation about this finding.”


Rise of Jaish al-Islam marks a turn in Syria conflict

Middle East Eye reports: The seizure of large swathes of Syria’s Idlib province by opposition fighters has signalled for many a change in the balance of power in Syria’s seemingly unending civil war.

While previously many had been predicting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was on the verge of reasserting his authority over the country, the loss of the cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur and the continuing consolidation of opposition control throughout the province have led to suggestions that Assad is being put on the backfoot.

Jaish al-Islam (JAI) has been one of the major groups involved in operations in Idlib, making up part of the Battle of Victory operations room that took the city of Jisr al-Shughur in later April, a group which also includes the al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

Abdurrahman Saleh, head of JAI’s international media office, was one of the group’s early devotees.

“I am from Aleppo – I was a member of a rebel group fighting the regime and we joined Jaish al-Islam to organise our work against the regime, to get what we want,” he told Middle East Eye.

“But our work with Jaish al-Islam does not mean we are seperated from Syrian society. We are part of the Syrian revolutionaries, we fight under the banner of Jaish al-Islam as a revolutionary Syrian group. Not for anything else.”

JAI formed after a merger involving around 60 groups, including Liwa al-Islam, and is itself one of the main components of the Islamic Front – a group of Gulf-backed fighting groups – and are thought to be second only to Ahrar al-Sham in terms of power and numbers.

The Islamic Front issued a charter in 2013 (prior to Jaish al-Islam’s joining) that laid its principles for the creation of an Islamic-rooted society in which Islam would be the “religion of the state, and it is the principal and only source of legislation.”

However, Islamic Front have been careful to position itself within a nationalist framework, rejecting the “near enemy/far enemy” internationalism of al-Qaeda and the state-building project of the Islamic State (IS).

For their part, JAI are thought by analysts to command as many as 60 battalions, with around 20,000 fighters – entirely made up of Syrians, according to Saleh, rather than foreign volunteer fighters. [Continue reading…]


Hassan Hassan answers questions about ISIS


After nine months of bombing ISIS targets, Pentagon admits killing two civilians

The Daily Beast reports: An internal military investigation has concluded that two civilians were killed in a U.S.-led coalition airstrike against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, two defense officials confirmed to The Daily Beast, marking the first time the U.S. military has acknowledged killing a civilian since the air campaign began nine months ago.

In that time, the U.S.-led coalition has conducted more than 3,500 strikes and either destroyed or damaged more than 6,000 targets, according to the Defense Department. Previously, the U.S. military had said it had no evidence that a civilian had ever been killed in the air campaign against ISIS, a claim that even military officials privately acknowledged was hard to believe, given the high odds of unintended mistakes.

Indeed, with no U.S. soldiers on the ground to assess the damage inflicted by airstrikes, the coalition’s air campaign is built on U.S. intelligence collected from drones, satellites, and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as information from local troops.

The findings of two civilian deaths come as one human rights group has alleged that coalition airstrikes on April 30 in the Syrian village of Bir Mahli killed as many as 64 civilians. Bir Mahli sits in Aleppo Province, east of the Euphrates River, and about 30 miles south of the northern city of Kobani. The allegation, which the U.S. military said it has no evidence to corroborate, is the highest civilian death toll accusation leveled at the coalition.

The U.S. military’s claim of no civilian casualties in its campaign against ISIS, coupled with the lack of detailed accounting of what effect the strikes are having, has only underscored the opaque nature of the battle, fought largely from the air with uncertain outcomes. [Continue reading…]


Turkey holds prosecutors over spy agency’s Syria-bound truck

Reuters: Turkey on Wednesday arrested four prosecutors and a gendarme officer for trying to carry out a search of Syria-bound trucks belonging to the state intelligence agency that they suspected of illegally carrying arms for rebels fighting Syria’s government.

Local media said the arrests were part of a crackdown by President Tayyip Erdogan on followers, within the judiciary and police, of a U.S.-based Islamic cleric he accuses of trying to oust him. Seventeen army officers were held last month in the same case.


Saudi effort isn’t the beginning of the end of Assad

Hassan Hassan writes: Saudi Arabia’s role in the Syrian conflict has been the subject of much speculation. Are the recent rebel gains in northern, central and southern Syria part of an escalation against Iranian-backed forces? Do these gains mark the beginning of the end for Bashar Al Assad?

Saudi Arabia has previously supported large-scale operations against the Syrian regime but those operations lacked a strategy. High expectations during such operations often led to disappointment and played into the regime’s hands.

It is clear that this time is different. Conversations within policy circles in the Gulf indicate that the regime’s downfall is not necessarily the goal right now. Nor is it to compel the Assad regime to negotiate. Instead, the goal is simply to project power through the rebels against Iran’s allies.

There is also an intention to strengthen Sunni militias to build stability. Various political and military forces within the country will be working towards one goal despite their different allegiances. Beyond influence, opposition forces will be backed to potentially lead future Syria. To achieve these goals, Saudi Arabia is working closely with Turkey and Qatar.

However, the gains made by the rebels in the north have little to do with Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Qatar have provided financial support to their allies. For more than a year, aid to groups widely known to be supported by Turkey and Qatar was blocked because of resistance from the US and Saudi Arabia. That changed recently and the rebels have since gained momentum.

There have been other key factors. Rebels in the north are working with more harmony than ever before. Ideologically aligned forces also worked in separate groups but closely coordinated with others through separate operations rooms. [Continue reading…]


Why Assad is losing

Charles Lister writes: After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country. In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013.

However, while much of the subsequent commentary proclaimed this as the beginning of the end for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we are still a long way from that. In fact, the regime reacted to its dramatic losses in the north by carrying out hundreds of air strikes, barrel bombings, and chlorine attacks in rural Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. Regime ground offensives were launched in eastern Damascus, in areas of Homs, and in the mountains around Zabadani near the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, a major joint regime-Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun mountains now also looks imminent.

So what is happening in Syria? Recent events have clearly tipped the psychological scales back into the opposition’s favor: Losses in Idlib and the southern governorate of Deraa have placed great pressure on Assad, whose severe manpower shortages are becoming more evident by the day. Frustration, disaffection and even incidences of protest are rising across Assad’s most ardent areas of support on Syria’s coast — some of which are now under direct attack. Hezbollah is stretched thin and even Iranian forces have begun withdrawing to the areas of Syria deemed to be the most important for regime survival.

The regime is no longer militarily capable of launching definitively successful operations outside of its most valuable territories, while its capacity for defense against concerted attack now appears questionable at best. It also looks diplomatically weaker, as Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability. Meanwhile, Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the United States and its expected involvement in talks in Geneva convened by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may open the door for, at the very least, discussions of a negotiated solution in Syria.

However, diplomacy alone will be unlikely to provide a path out of Syria’s conflict. Even as a broad swathe of the international community talks behind closed doors about launching a major new diplomatic initiative on Syria, it will ultimately be military pressure inside Syria that will determine whether such an initiative has any chance of success. [Continue reading…]


$500-million program to train anti-ISIS fighters appears stalled

The Los Angeles Times reports: Eleven months after President Obama announced plans to arm opposition fighters to confront Islamic State militants in war-torn Syria, the $500-million program to train a proxy force has yet to begin, raising questions about its viability and effectiveness.

The lack of a reliable partner on the ground has restricted the U.S. ability to gather intelligence and to target airstrikes against Islamic State leaders in Syria. The Sunni Muslim extremist group continues to lure recruits, raise money and maintain strongholds despite the U.S.-led bombing effort that began in September.

Adding to the challenge, the four countries where the military training will take place — Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — sharply disagree with Washington on what the proposed proxy force should do. They want it to focus first on ousting Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the White House wants the fighters to target Islamic State.
Rebels in Aleppo, Syria
Rebel fighters battling Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces take position in the ruins of a building in Old Aleppo. (Salih Mahmud Leyla / Anadolu Agency)

The slow rollout and the competing objectives have caused friction between the U.S. and several key allies, and frustration for those in Syria who had hoped Obama’s plan would lead to more immediate U.S. assistance. [Continue reading…]


U.S. strike in Syria blamed for scores of deaths linked to Arab-Kurd rivalry

McClatchy reports: Scores of Arab villagers died in airstrikes Thursday in northeast Syria, and local media activists charged Saturday that the U.S.-led coalition was responsible.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britian-based group that monitors violence in Syria, said 55 villagers died in what it condemned as a “massacre committed by the U.S.-led coalition under the pretext of targeting the Islamic State.”

McClatchy obtained a list with the names of 10 families that reportedly had lost 64 members in the strike.

And the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the Istanbul-based group once recognized by the United States as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, said the information it had received lent “credence to reports that it was a U.S.-led coalition strike that caused the civilian casualties.”

The U.S. Central Command could not immediately confirm that Bir Mahalli, which lies about 33 miles south of Kobani, had been targeted for airstrikes Thursday. A statement from Centcom said U.S. aircraft struck six targets between 8 a.m. Thursday and 8 a.m. Friday “near Kobani” – a description that previous reporting has shown could include a location 30 miles or more distant.

The reported deaths of the villagers also embroiled the United States in Syria’s fierce ethnic rivalries, with activists pointing out that the fishing and farming village of about 4,000 Arabs has had tense relations with Kurds living nearby – especially with the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” or YPG.

The Obama administration cooperated with the YPG in defense of Kobani, which Arabs call Ein al Arab, and there have been reports that the U.S.-led coalition continues to work with the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State.

But the activists said the YPG also is capturing villages inhabited by Arabs in an effort to pressure them to flee the area and has falsely accused Arabs in the area of supporting the Islamic State.

An activist from the area said local villagers were certain that the attack was by coalition aircraft because of the sound of the planes and the kind of bombs deployed. The activist, who spoke to McClatchy by Skype on condition of anonymity out of fear of both the YPG and the Islamic State, said the coalition may have received flawed intelligence about the target from its allies on the ground, a reference to YPG forces. [Continue reading…]


‘We’ll die before they make us leave': Lebanese Christians are ready to face ISIS on Syria’s border

Vice News reports: The distant thud of rockets can be heard in the Lebanese border town of Ras Baalbek. Local Christian residents here fear that the spread of militant Islamist groups, who are simultaneously fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebel groups in Syria, could eventually spill over into Lebanon.

Militant Sunni groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, have made impressive gains throughout the last year, often slaughtering minorities along the way — including Christians, Shia, Alawites, and others.

This fear has prompted locals in Ras Baalbek to start stockpiling weapons, and hundreds of them have launched an armed volunteer group to patrol at night. The Lebanese military has also significantly bulked up its presence here and in other border areas.

Khalil al-Arish, a resident of the village, brings 15 years of military knowhow to the volunteer patrol. Today, he is a member of the Resistance Brigades, a Hezbollah militia designed for non-Shia Lebanese who support the political organization’s efforts to defend Lebanon’s soil.

“We have between 600 and 700 members in the village who volunteer to work the patrol without financial compensation,” Arish told VICE News, adding that it includes members of Lebanese political parties from across the spectrum. “Each night, around 100 people go out on patrol.” [Continue reading…]


Syria’s rebels on winning streak

The Daily Beast reports: The thumbs-up a top rebel commander flashes at me as he returns to this Turkish border town from the front-lines of northern Syria’s battlefields speaks volumes.

There has been little for Syrian insurgents to cheer about in recent months. Even a few weeks ago this man was downcast and appeared adrift and unable to imagine an end to a war that has claimed the lives of 6,000 of his men.

But a new Islamist alliance of brigades backed by al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra is moving ahead aggressively against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the emboldened insurgents, fresh from two significant battlefield gains, say that the four-year-long civil war is entering a new and critical phase — one that didn’t appear likely, or even possible, as recently as February.

And as the gains pile up, talk is intensifying within Jabhat al Nusra, and especially among the group’s Syrian commanders and fighters, of breaking with al Qaeda — a move they hope might entice the West to support this offensive and impose a no-fly zone across northern Syria. [Continue reading…]

CNN reports: Analysts put this change in the dynamics down to both cooperation between rebel groups who once fought each other and also greater coordination between their Sunni and Gulf backers — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Elias Hanna, a former Lebanese army general who now teaches at the American University of Beirut, said, “Two years ago they were fighting each other, now they are fighting together. Moreover there is a major shift in the regional issue in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. I think they are preparing something and helping indirectly with weapons, training, and backing.”

Joshua Landis, associate professor in the School of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the change in regional postures was a result of the new King of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, deciding that Iran was a more pressing challenge to his state than the House of Saud’s other long-term foe, the Muslim Brotherhood.

“This allows him to coordinate with Turkey and Qatar taking down Assad, even if it means arming Nusra and other Islamist forces,” he said. Landis said he believes the U.S. has “acquiesced” to this new position. [Continue reading…]

Al-Hayat reports: US administration would support military escalation in Syria, but it wants a clear political-military plan for the post-Assad stage, according to Western diplomatic sources

Western diplomatic sources confirmed to al-Hayat that “the US administration does not mind supporting a military escalation in Syria, but it wants a clear political-military plan for the next stage (following the departure of President Bashar al-Assad)”.

The diplomatic sources said President Barack Obama’s administration listened to proposals from Turkish and Arab officials to “establish a buffer zones”, or provide air cover for troops that are trained and equipped in cooperation with the Pentagon. The Obama administration showed “openness towards the proposals”, but requested a “complete political-military plan for the post-Assad stage”. The sources noted that Washington would be willing to support its allies if they presented a plan that deals with “Assad’s departure while maintaining the structure of the Syrian institutions, ensuring the rights and protection of minorities while providing a political solution that prevents a long-term militia war in Syria, as is the case in Libya”.


UN diplomatic envoy for Syria has many critics

In a profile of Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy for Syria, the New York Times reports: Part Italian, part Swedish, Mr. de Mistura has worked with the United Nations for more than 40 years, but he is more widely known for his dapper style than for any diplomatic coups. Syria is by far the toughest assignment of his career — indeed, two of the organization’s most seasoned diplomats, Lakhdar Brahimi and Kofi Annan, tried to do the job and gave up — and critics have wondered aloud whether Mr. de Mistura is up to the task.

He served as a United Nations envoy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and before that in Lebanon, where a former minister recalled, with some scorn, that he spent many hours sunbathing at a private club in the hills above Beirut. Those who know him say he has a taste for fine suits and can sometimes speak too soon and too much, just as they point to his diplomatic missteps and hyperbole.

They cite, for instance, a news conference in October, when he raised the specter of Srebrenica, where thousands of Muslims were massacred in 1995 during the Balkans war, in warning that the Syrian border town of Kobani could fall to the Islamic State. In February, he was photographed at a party in Damascus, the Syrian capital, celebrating the anniversary of the Iranian revolution just as Syrian forces, aided by Iran, were pummeling rebel-held suburbs of Damascus; critics seized on that as evidence of his coziness with the government.

Mouin Rabbani, who served briefly as the head of Mr. de Mistura’s political affairs unit and has since emerged as one of his most outspoken critics, said Mr. de Mistura did not have the background necessary for the job. “This isn’t someone well known for his political vision or political imagination, and his closest confidants lack the requisite knowledge and experience,” Mr. Rabbani said.

As a deputy foreign minister in the Italian government, Mr. de Mistura was tasked in 2012 with freeing two Italian marines detained in India for shooting at Indian fishermen. He made 19 trips to India, to little effect. One marine was allowed to return to Italy for medical reasons; the other remains in India.

He said he initially turned down the Syria job when the United Nations secretary general approached him last August, only to change his mind the next day, after a sleepless, guilt-ridden night. [Continue reading…]