Turkey somehow secures release of 49 hostages held by ISIS

Not a shot fired, no ransom paid, no prisoners exchanged, but somehow Turkish intelligence (MİT) agents managed to escort 49 captives out of Syria and back to Turkey earlier today.

So far, the only clue on how Turkey managed to pull off this operation comes from Hurriyet Daily News reporting this: “there are indications of a kind of false flag, or deception operation by MİT. In answering such a question one ranking official said MİT ‘has tried every possible method and left no stone unturned’ to get the hostages alive.”

But the same report also describes ways in which the operation was coordinated with ISIS:

It was ISIL’s condition to give the hostages to Turkey at the border with Syria, “Because of their own security concerns due to their heavy clashes with Kurdish forces. They did not want to make the handover through the Kurdish region,” a security source told HDN.

The report also says: “One official source said ISIL might have ‘not wanted to get into a clash with Turkey’.”

As has widely been reported, a reluctance to put the lives of these hostages in jeopardy was one of Turkey’s main reasons for declining to join the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS — all the more reason to assume that ISIS must have believed that its interests would in some other way be served by releasing the hostages.

The PKK has called on Kurds in Turkey to join their comrades in Kobane, northern Syria, where they are fighting alone against ISIS. Perhaps Turkey threatened ISIS that if it did not free the hostages, Turkey would do nothing to prevent the flow of Kurdish recruits into Syria.

In spite of the suggestion that ISIS was deceived in some way, I’m inclined to believe that the group had reason to expect that it had more to gain by releasing its Turkish hostages than it could by holding on to them.

Slemani Times, an independent English language news publication, covering the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and the Middle East, in an unsourced tweet offers this explanation for how Turkey successfully negotiated the release of the hostages:

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About 60,000 Syrian Kurds flee to Turkey as ISIS advances

Reuters reports: About 60,000 Syrian Kurds have crossed into Turkey in the past 24 hours, a deputy prime minister said on Saturday, fleeing an advance by Islamic State militants who have seized dozens of villages close to the border and are advancing on a Syrian town.

Turkey opened a stretch of the frontier on Friday after Kurdish civilians fled their homes, fearing an imminent attack on the border town of Ayn al-Arab, which is also known as Kobani. Islamic State is now within 15 km (9 miles) of the town, a Kurdish commander on the ground said.

Islamic State’s advances in northern Syria have prompted calls for help by the region’s Kurds who fear a massacre in Kobani. The town sits in a strategic position on the border and has prevented the radical Sunni Muslim militants from consolidating their gains across northern Syria.

Lokman Isa, a 34-year-old farmer, said he had fled with his family and about 30 other families after heavily-armed Islamic State militants entered his village of Celebi. He said the Kurdish forces battling them had only light weapons. [Continue reading...]

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The PKK’s strategy for fighting ISIS

Jamil Bayek, the head of the PKK Leadership Committee, says in an interview appearing in As-Safir and translated by Al-Monitor: We have a clear strategy, the most important thing in it is that we do not view IS as an organization, but as a group of mercenaries and murderers who pose a threat to the region’s peoples, cultures and religions, even a threat to all humanity. Since the PKK is a humanitarian movement and in light of this brutal onslaught against the peoples of the region in general and [against] the will of our people in western Kurdistan in particular, we are determined to break the will of those mercenaries. Our directives are clear in this regard: we will attack IS wherever it is found, with all our capabilities. We will not allow it to advance and achieve its goals. And we will be ready to lead a joint struggle alongside all those who resist IS and who have a clear position toward it, in order to defeat these mercenaries, liquidate them, and obliterate them from existence.

As-Safir: What is your position regarding the international coalition led by the United States against the Islamic State?

Bayek: Humanity should be aware what IS is and how it arose. This group did not fall from the sky and did not appear accidentally or suddenly. Many analyses indicate that Middle Eastern and international powers used IS to achieve their interests. At the moment, we see that the US does not want IS to achieve progress that allows it to become a great Middle Eastern power, especially since it has reached a dangerous point.

There are objective and good American attempts to confront this danger. But the problem, in our view, is not limited to IS, as there is a structure upon which these mercenaries stand, launch from, and protect themselves with. Therefore, we see that there is a need to get rid of this structure by establishing a shared democracy and freedom among the peoples of the Middle East on the basis of fraternity and equality as a substitute for the authority of the nation-state. We believe that the basis of the solution starts from here. Regarding the US measures to address IS, they are good steps without a doubt. They may produce certain results at a certain time. As long as IS constitutes a threat, military measures remain necessary. But achieving the desired results requires a radical solution. It involves, as I said earlier, “democratizing” the Middle East and achieving freedom for its all peoples. [Continue reading...]

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How oil is smuggled from Syria into Turkey

Fehim Taştekin reports: From Ezmerin [a village in Syria], about 500 illegal oil pipelines, small-diameter plastic pipes normally used for irrigation, extend to the Turkish side of the Asi River. On the Turkish side, they are buried under agricultural fields to reach the village. Just like the village’s underground water distribution lines, oil pipelines crisscross under streets to reach the back yards of private houses. Diesel fuel pumped from a tanker on the Syrian side fills the private tanks. Simple “pump” and “stop” commands are given over cellular phones.

Consumers come to the houses of sellers and buy the diesel for 1.25 Turkish lira per liter ($0.56). This is how the system worked for a long time.

The state began to intervene only after the international media started to question whether Turkey was supporting IS and whether IS oil was being sold in Turkey. At the end of March, soldiers that had until then been watching the goings on from a hilltop about 100 meters from the river began digging up the pipes from the fields and cutting the ones that lay visible in the streets. Checkpoints were established to prevent the diesel from leaving Hacipasa. But the smugglers always found ways to bypass the gendarmerie, the latest being shipping the fuel in barrels. [Continue reading...]

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The root cause of extremism among British Muslims is alienation

Afua Hirsch writes: Britain has a problem with terrorism. Nothing focuses the mind more than the image of an apparently British man addressing the world in high definition as he brutally beheads a fellow Brit. But while the numbers of violent extremists are, by all accounts, relatively small, the issues underlying their reasons for turning towards terrorism are widespread.

I’ve been talking to young Muslims for a documentary on the root causes of extremism, and it’s clear there are a series of common complaints. Primarily, even though David Cameron may have said the killers of David Haines “are not Muslims, they are monsters”, young Muslims still have a profound and consistent sense of being demonised by society, and as creating a source of fear.

Further, many people still fail to distinguish between the different motivations for Brits travelling to the Middle East. It struck me how many young Muslims want to travel to Syria to help with the desperate humanitarian situation, or to join rebels trying to bring down President Assad – a goal that until recently was in line with Britain’s own foreign policy. However, the people I spoke to fully expected to be welcomed back to the UK by being arrested, slapped with a TPim and stripped of their passport.

For a passionate teenager, watching the suffering in Syria and believing that they are barred from contributing because of double standards driven by Islamophobia can create extreme feelings of alienation. And for those who are converted to extremism, there are usually other factors: contact with a seductive and effective hate preacher, indifference towards or a desire for violence, a sense of purposelessness – in some cases the same factors that attract young people to criminal gangs.

For a generation of non-Arabic speaking Muslims for whom the complexities of their faith can be lost in translation, recruiters from groups such as Islamic State (Isis) can play on this vulnerability. [Continue reading...]

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‘Lend me your ears’ (and pay up) — an ISIS ransom note

john-cantlie

“After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?”

The question comes from a British journalist, John Cantlie, who has been a prisoner of ISIS for most of the last two years and who has now been compelled to become the organization’s spokesman.

In a newly released video he continues:

I’m going to show you the truth behind these systems and motivation of the Islamic State, and how the western media, the very organisation I used to work for can twist and manipulate that truth to the public back home.

There are two sides to every story – think you’re getting the whole picture? And I’ll show you the truth behind what happened when many European citizens were imprisoned and later released by the Islamic State and how the British and American governments thought they could do it differently to every other every other European country.

They negotiated with the Islamic state and got their people home while the British and Americans were left behind.

It’s very alarming to see where this is all headed and it looks like history repeating itself yet again. There is time to change this seemingly inevitable sequence of events, but only if you, the public act now. Join me for the next few programmes and I think you may be surprised by what you learn.

Stay tuned.

ISIS is frequently credited for its media sophistication, but its use of a prisoner to serve as a spokesman shows how impoverished the organization must be when from among its thousands of Western recruits apparently there aren’t any fit to represent and articulate the cause they are all fighting for. (Individuals like Moner Mohammad Abusalha from Florida might accurately represent the Western face of ISIS, but they also undermine the organization’s credibility.)

When we are told that several European governments successfully negotiated with ISIS and “got their people home,” no mention is made of ransoms being paid.

While ISIS’s latest message tries to leverage antiwar sentiment in the West, no one should mistake this as a wise warning whose purpose is to forestall another military misadventure.

Put most simply the message is: hold fire, pay up, or John Cantlie will meet the same fate as James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines.

Other commentators have argued that ISIS’s use of beheading videos has been designed to bait the West — to draw the U.S. and its allies into another unwinnable war — but the latest video seems to confirm what I have said repeatedly: ISIS wants to consolidate and expand its caliphate since its success in doing that serves as a much potent magnet for recruits than the prospect of being targeted in U.S. airstrikes.

In response to the start of U.S. military operations in Iraq, ISIS seems to have focused most of its efforts beyond America’s current reach by making gains in Syria.

Even though President Obama says he is ready to order airstrikes in Syria, there seems little reason to believe that these are imminent, and ISIS wants to use the intervening period to its full advantage.

The Cantlie video is the second ISIS releases this week.

flames-of-war

“Fighting has just begun” declares the “trailer” for its Hollywood-style “Flame of War,” but as it did in its other video release this week, Alhayat Media Center is addressing the public, rather than Western governments, in an effort to increase war fears more than war fever.

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Obama’s recipe for endless war in Syria

Shortly before President Obama unveiled his strategy for defeating ISIS (aka Daesh), NotGeorgeSabra wrote: Obama is expected to announce a grand strategy to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh) one year after he sold Syria’s rebels down the river and betrayed his own self-imposed “red line.”

This strategy will be billed as comprehensive, encompassing all elements of American imperialism’s tremendous national power — military, economic, diplomatic, political — but there are unresolved contradictions with the Syrian aspect of this grand strategy that, taken together, will add up to the kind of strategic and political incoherence that Daesh will surely exploit to survive and persist in their Syrian safe haven for years, a safe haven created by Obama’s do-nothing-but-stupid-shit policies.

The central problem with Washington’s policy from the standpoint of ending Daesh is the U.S. goal of a negotiated settlement between the revolution and the counter-revolution in Syria, one that removes Bashar al-Assad from the presidency but preserves the state he and his father built intact.

Why is this a problem? Judge a policy by its results — a ruinous, intractable war that has resulted in the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the century, a weak and divided rebel movement starving for weapons and money, a militarily robust failed state in the making headed by a man who doesn’t hesitate to gas his own people, and Daesh, a fascist organization that wields state power in one-third of both Syria and Iraq whose thousands of veteran fighters have years of combat experience and Western passports!

How did America’s preference for a negotiated, peaceful settlement in Syria lead to endless war and bloodshed?

Simple: the U.S. (tandem with its regional allies) provided rebel forces with just enough weapons to keep fighting but not to win. [Continue reading...]

(H/t Scott Lucas)

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If Obama wanted to, he could help free thousands of enslaved Yazidi women in a single day

Matthew Barber writes: The plight of thousands of Yazidi women, kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS) during its August 3 attack on Iraq’s Sinjar mountains and in the following weeks, has received some media attention, but most people are unaware of just how far-reaching this disastrous phenomenon is. Boko Haram kidnapped girls in the hundreds, prompting international outcry and an online campaign demanding that they be freed; IS has kidnapped Yazidi women and girls in the thousands in a sexually-motivated campaign that has rent apart countless families and wrought unimaginable levels of pain and destruction.

During the Syria conflict there have been numerous allegations of forced jihadi marriages that have been difficult to confirm, and widely denied by IS supporters online. Many of those stories were dropped, lacking credible evidence. As the past few years in Syria have demonstrated, rumors run rampant in contexts of conflict, and the initially difficult-to-confirm cases of kidnapped Yazidi women of this summer have been treated with appropriate caution.

Despite this initial caution, the sheer scale of the kidnapping of Yazidi women and the firsthand reports of escaped survivors—and those still in captivity via telephone—have made details of the phenomenon, and its sexual motivations, certain.

Having stayed in northern Iraq all summer, I can confirm the assertions of the journalists who have written about the problem. I have worked directly with those involved in rescue efforts and have personally interacted with families whose daughters have been kidnapped and are now calling their relatives from captivity.

I have no trace of doubt that many women have been carried off and imprisoned; the question that remains is about the numbers. Restrained estimates have posited numbers of kidnapped Yazidi women in the hundreds. However, the reality is likely to be in the thousands. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS captures 21 Kurdish villages in northern Syria

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports: ISIS have taken over 21 villages inhabited by Kurdish civilians, in the western and eastern countrysides of Ein al-Arab “Kobane” after a massive attack using heavy artillery and tanks, confirmed reports of losses in both of YPG and ISIS sides, in addition to human losses in Kurdish civilians, the area is witnessing a migration of civilians into areas nearby, amid fears of committing massacres by ISIS in these areas in case it broke into it, the clashes continue between the two sides near these areas.

SOHR also reports: Reliable resources have confirmed to SOHR that 162 people have joined to IS military camps in the northern eastern and eastern countryside of Aleppo since September 10 and after the President Barack Obama’s speech where he has declared war on the Islamic States. Among those who have joined in the past seven days, 15 fighters from different Arab and foreign nationalities, including 4 Australian persons entered to Syria through Turkish territory and 147 ex- Syrian combatants of al Nusra Front and the Islamic battalions.

It is worth mentioning that reliable resources reported to SOHR that 6300 fighters joined to the training camps of the Islamic State in the two cities of Aleppo and Al Raqqa in the last July in 2014, where this is considered the widest process of recruiting fighters in the Islamic State’s ranks since the declaration of establishment in April/2013 in the city of Al Raqqa until it transferred to the Islamic State in the late of June/2014.

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British Muslim leaders unite to call on ISIS to release Alan Henning

The Independent reports: Over one hundred Muslim leaders today make an unprecedented joint appeal to the kidnappers of Alan Henning to release the aid worker unharmed or commit the “worst condemnable sin” against Islam.

The joint statement to The Independent has been signed by dozens of Imams from across the UK as well as community leaders and other prominent Muslims. It has been passed on to Mr Henning’s family.

Among those signing the letter are representatives of all strands of Islam from Shia to Sunni to Salafi, Sufi, and Deobandi.

The Muslim Council of Britain an umbrella body with over 500 affiliated national, regional and local organisations including mosques, charities and schools is also a signatory. [Continue reading...]

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Syria’s first responders  —  the last hope for civilians caught in the chaos

Matthieu Aikins writes: The dawn found them sprawled like corpses around the cramped station room, atop a collection of soiled floor mats and a metal bunk that listed heavily to one side. They lay close together, some still wearing their uniforms from the night before. On a typical day in Aleppo, they would soon be woken by the sound of helicopters and jets roaring in to drop the first bombs on the rebel-held side of the city, which the regime has sought to pound to dust. But it was quiet this morning, and so they slept.

Standing outside his office next door, Khaled Hajjo, leader of the Hanano Civil Defense team, dragged on the first of many Gitanes and surveyed his small domain. The one-story, cinderblock station house was set in the corner of a large concrete lot the size of a soccer pitch, its perimeter hemmed by a 12-foot stone wall. At the far end of the lot was a mass of stacked old tires and a broken-down lifting crane. It had once been a car impound, but like so many buildings in Aleppo it had been repurposed for the war.

The station wasn’t particularly sturdy. The neighborhood it was in, Hanano, was close to the front line and exposed not only to bombing but to artillery fire. Even a mortar round would probably cave in the roof, never mind the big howitzer shells that sometimes crashed into the lot. But the station had its advantages: It was set on a rise, with only a few low buildings surrounding it, and from here they could quickly spot the telltale smoke and dust pillars that mark the sites of bombs, and then rush to the rescue. They had been in this station since the very beginning, more than a year ago, when the team was first formed, and they had stayed in it through the long winter of massacres, through the worst times when the population had desperately fled the city, so that now Bashar al Assad’s bombs fell as often as not on abandoned buildings. This was their home. [Continue reading...]

In the video below, Aikins describes being inside a building when a bomb destroyed the building next door:

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Syrian opposition blasts reports it signed a truce with ISIS

The Daily Beast reports: Critics of President Obama’s latest pledge to arm the moderate Syrian rebels are trumpeting a report of a supposed deal between the opposition forces and ISIS, but Syrian opposition leaders are fighting back with what they say is overwhelming evidence that no truce exists.

The September 12 Agence France-Presse report stating that that moderate and Islamic rebel brigades in the southern Damascus suburbs had signed a “non-aggression” pact to focus efforts on fighting the Assad regime are not only false but are easily disproved by evidence that ISIS and the moderate rebels are still fighting each other in that region, according to rebel commanders on the ground and activists supporting the Syrian opposition.

“The only report we have received on anything resembling a ceasefire was that ISIS and Sons of Golan, an FSA brigade outside Damascus, halted fighting for 24 hours to collect bodies before hostilities resumed. However, this report also confirms that there is substantial fighting between the two groups that is leading to fatalities,” said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, director of government relations for the Syrian American Council, a Washington NGO that works with the Syrian opposition and the FSA. “It is fantastical to think that rebels outside Damascus would expend lives and resources to rout ISIS from the Damascus suburbs; besiege the group for over a month; wait until two days after Obama announces he will aid the rebels to fights ISIS; and then sign a deal with ISIS (the first ever) while the group was besieged in its last holdout.” [Continue reading...]

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Iraqi official briefs Syria’s Assad on campaign against ISIS

Reuters reports: Iraq’s national security adviser briefed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on efforts to counter Islamic State on Tuesday, Syrian state media reported, the first such meeting since the United States launched air strikes on the radical group in Iraq.

The United States and other Western governments have dismissed the idea of cooperating with Syria in the fight against Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria. Western governments see Assad as part of the problem and say he must leave power.

But the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, together with Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, have been important allies for Assad since the uprising against his rule erupted in 2011. Shi’ite Iraqi militias have fought on Assad’s side against the insurgency spearheaded by Sunni Islamists.

The meeting between Faleh al-Fayad, the Iraqi national security adviser, and Assad indicated that the Iraqi government aims to maintain those ties. It also points to the scope for possible indirect cooperation between Syria and the West in the fight against Islamic State via third parties such as Iraq. [Continue reading...]

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War on ISIS will be long and difficult, top defense officials tell Senate

McClatchy reports: In their first public briefing since President Barack Obama laid out his new strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the nation’s two top defense officials on Tuesday provided few details of their plans and no guarantees of success.

Instead, in response to questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out a litany of likely obstacles to the president’s plan that were daunting in their breadth.

There is no guarantee that Iraqi military forces can be reconstituted to become an effective force against the Islamic State, they said. There’s no certainty a U.S.-trained Syrian force will choose to fight the Islamic State ahead of the government of President Bashar Assad, they said.

Indeed, the chances of success are far less in Syria than in Iraq, Dempsey said, as Hagel nodded agreement. “Five thousand alone is not going to be able to turn the tide,” Hagel said, referring to the number of Syrian rebels likely to be trained under a proposed U.S. program.

Even the pledge that no American soldiers would engage in ground combat operations seemed tenuous. Dempsey said he could foresee circumstances where American advisers would join Iraqi troops, for example, if the Iraqis tried to recapture Mosul, in what he called “close combat advising.”

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey told the committee. [Continue reading...]

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Turkey considers buffer zone along its Iraq, Syria border

Daily Sabah reports: Turkey’s military is studying the prospect of establishing a buffer zone along its border with Syria and Iraq amid the escalating threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quoted as saying yesterday. The government will evaluate the plans and decide whether such a move is necessary, Turkish television stations quoted Erdoğan as telling reporters on his plane as he returned from an official visit to Qatar.

A presidency official confirmed that Erdoğan had made such remarks but did not specify where along the border the zone might be established and gave no further details. “The general staff is carrying out inspections on whether a buffer zone could be viable, but there is nothing concrete yet,” an official said on the condition of anonymity. Turkey, a NATO member and Washington’s key ally in the region, has been reluctant to take part in combat operations against ISIS, or allow the U.S.-led coalition to use its airbases for strikes against the extremists because the group is holding 49 Turkish nationals hostage, including diplomats and children. [Continue reading...]

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New reality for Israelis on Golan Heights: Islamists now control the other side

McClatchy reports: The green and white flag fluttering above a border checkpoint not far from the Ein Zivan kibbutz on a recent afternoon symbolized the new reality that has taken hold for Israelis who live on the Golan Heights: Islamist rebels now control areas of Syria on the very doorstep of Israeli-controlled land.

For now, the groups, which include al-Qaida’s Nusra Front, are focused on consolidating their positions and pushing toward the Syrian capital, Damascus. But there are worries in Israel that once the Islamist militants establish control, they will turn their guns toward the Israeli-held sector of the Golan.

“Right now it’s not on their agenda, but it’s inevitable,” said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University.

Just how big a threat the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad are to Israel remains an open topic. Israel has tried to remain aloof from the war in Syria, except to blast Syrian government convoys from the air that Israeli officials feared were transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, Israel’s Lebanese nemesis. Israel’s reaction even to the beheading by the Islamic State of American journalist Steven Sotloff, who held Israeli citizenship, was muted; officials explained they didn’t want to become embroiled in the conflict.

But with the capture Aug. 27 of the Syrian side of the Quneitra border crossing, Islamist rebels now occupy land adjacent to the Israeli section of the strategic plateau, changing the calculus of concern. Despite attempts by the Syrian army to reassert control, the rebels have captured more villages near the Israeli-held Golan, raising the prospect that the frontier area will become a stronghold of Islamist groups. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. strikes in Syria won’t turn locals against ISIS

A columnist for Al-Monitor living in Aleppo writes: [T]he war against IS will be won and lost on the ground through hearts and minds, not through missiles and bombs. This is something I felt acutely while talking to the people of Al Bab, who almost unanimously sang the praises of the Islamic State’s administration and the services the group brought to the areas under its control after years of turmoil.

“My business had never been this good under the local rebels, some of whom were my relatives,” said Abu Riad. “They brought law and order; they went after the criminals and bandits and cleaned up the town. Under the rebels, it was chaos and lawlessness. Now I can be sure my merchandise is safe and I can transport it safely as no one dares steal here anymore,” he added. Even more extraordinary is that some of Aleppo’s industrialists and factory owners opted to move their machinery from the Sheikh Najjar industrial zone into IS territory in Al Bab, as they knew it would be safe from looting there.

Law and order aren’t the only advantages of being under IS rule. The group also provides many services, mostly free of charge. “They fixed roads and power lines; they gave out food to the needy. They have traffic police and free religious schools. The rebels never did that. All they did was steal and fight each other,” said Abu Raid. When I asked him about what hardships under the austere rule of IS, he said, “Yes, they have very strict laws, but they won’t harm or bother you unless you cross the red lines. For me, the only difficulty I had was not being able to smoke in public. The rest wasn’t too bad; we are a very conservative town, after all.” [Continue reading...]

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‘People in Raqqa have to deal with two evils, ISIS or Assad’

The Guardian reports: The city where the western hostages slain by the Islamic State (Isis) terror group were held is nervously preparing for an onslaught. Each night since Barack Obama said he would bomb Isis targets in Syria, residents of the eastern city of Raqqa – those who support the group and those who abhor it – have sat in fear waiting for the air strikes to begin.

Many believe that the city’s civilians will pay the price of a campaign to root out Isis, which after controlling Raqqa for more than a year is now well embedded in its ramshackle neighbourhoods and entwined into much of its social fabric.

Isis has run Raqqa with impunity since it ousted the Syrian regime in mid-2013, fearing no foe and ruthlessly imposing its worldview on a population that has been unwilling to confront them.

There is widespread revulsion at Isis’s brutal ways. Most know of the beheadings of the hostages. The same sort of summary slaughter takes place most days in the city’s main square – routine killings without hearing or mercy. Many families say they have stopped taking their children to public parks.

It is Raqqa’s silent, seething anti-Isis rump on whom the US and its regional partners will depend to eventually rise up. But before that happens, the spectre of a deadly air assault is terrifying many.

“I believe most of the casualties will be civilian,” said Abu Mohammed, 33, a shopkeeper. “The majority will be from Raqqa and very few from Isis. Many of our young men in the city have joined Isis either because of fear or because of the wages they give, which is $400 (£246) per month. This is a very good salary for us here.”

Abu Mohammed said he had adapted to the group’s hardline rule and saw Isis as a better option than the regime of Bashar al-Assad. “We are afraid that after the US air strikes, the regime will take control of the city. Assad is a criminal and his regime is brutal. We had bad experience with the Free Syria Army [FSA], they are corrupt and now we are getting used to Isis’s Islamic rules. Day after day, they are getting better with people.”

Abu Maya Al-Raqawi, 40, a media worker from the city, said: “Some people are already fleeing the city as they know that civilians are going to be the real victims for these air strikes. Raqqa will be completely destroyed. We all know that Isis are spreading themselves among civilians and they occupy the FSA and old regime headquarters, which are in civilian areas. People in Raqqa have to deal with two evils, Isis or Assad. Which one is better? I don’t know the answer.” [Continue reading...]

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