Archives For Syria

An ISIS-Guided Tour Of Kobani

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 28 2014 @ 8:04pm

In a video, released last night, ISIS prisoner John Cantlie “reports” from Kobani, the northern Syrian Kurdish town that has been under siege by the militants for over a month, purporting to debunk the Western media narrative about the battle while promulgating ISIS’s own version of the story. “Perhaps what’s most odd about the video,” Adam Taylor comments, “is how much it apes the Western media it criticizes”:

The video begins with a logo “Inside ‘Ayn al Islam’ ” (a reference to what the Islamic State calls Kobane) and makes use of a number of relatively sophisticated graphics throughout. Cantlie, who may have been speaking under duress, brings to mind BBC correspondents in his presentation. The Islamic State also uses the video to give its cynical version of recent events, notably suggesting that “good old John Kerry” has been criticizing “Kurd-hating Turkish President Erdogan.” Cantlie also makes reference to the cost of American airstrikes in Kobane (“almost half a billion dollars in total”) and a U.S. airdrop that accidentally landed in the hands of the Islamic State. “The mujahideen is now being resupplied, by the hopeless U.S. Air Force, who parachuted two crates of weapons and ammunition straight into the outstretched arms of the mujahideen,” he says.

This new video is very different from previous propaganda items featuring Cantlie, which have shown him in prison garb, discussing his captivity. Jamie Dettmer wonders what’s up with that:

In the “Lend Me Your Ears” series, the British freelance photojournalist emphasizes that he is a prisoner of the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, and doesn’t know whether he will live or die. But in Monday night’s five-and-a-half minute clip, titled “Inside Ayn al-Islam” (the Arabic name for Kobani is Ayn al-Arab), the 43-year-old Cantlie makes no reference to his captivity, raising questions about whether he has crossed the line and is now a willing propagandist for the jihadists behind the camera.

Dan Murphy cautions us not to make too much of it, partly in order to avoid handing ISIS a propaganda victory:

Not that IS will care, but using captives as a propaganda prop – terrorized by the murder of fellow captives and the threat to their own lives – is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. To be sure, this crime seems minor when held up against their executions of helpless captives, enslaving of women and children for sexual and other purposes, and their stated goal of wiping out everyone on the planet who doesn’t practice their particular version of Islam. But the press needs to walk a careful line in not uncritically broadcasting the group’s propaganda, effectively rewarding them for their abuse of Cantlie.

Polly Mosendz highlights ISIS’s use of child soldiers:

As more and more children roam away from schools that are no longer operational, or not safe to attend, fighters offer increasing responsibility to young boys under the guise of a new educational system. In the past, fighters frowned upon to give a boy under 15 a rifle, but now, boys much younger than this carry automatic weapons. One fighter in Aleppo explained in the UN report that, “Often young boys are braver and cleverer than adult fighters.” The boys are trained to use the weapons in makeshift educational programs: recruitment masquerading as a replacement for their schools-turned-military bases.

The kids, some under the age of 8, but most commonly 14 to 15 years old, are sent to training camps where recruitment officers offer religious education alongside weapons training. The children, in turn, are paid for attending. However, when class is over and the camp ends, the children are not allowed to return home. Instead, they are sent into active combat zones and in some cases, on suicide bombing missions.

Kate Brannen takes a closer look at what these children experience:

On the front lines of Iraq and Syria, the boys who join or are abducted by the Islamic State are sent to various religious and military training camps, depending on their age. At the camps, they are taught everything from the Islamic State’s interpretation of sharia law to how to handle a gun. They are even trained in how to behead another human and given dolls on which to practice, Syria Deeply, a website devoted to covering the Syrian civil war, reported in September.

Children are also sent into battle, where they are used as human shields on the front lines and to provide blood transfusions for Islamic State soldiers, according to Shelly Whitman, the executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, an organization devoted to the eradication of the use of child soldiers. Eyewitnesses from the Iraqi towns of Mosul and Tal Afar told United Nations investigators they have seen young children, armed with weapons they could barely carry and dressed in Islamic State uniforms, conducting street patrols and arresting locals.

Is Kobani A Distraction?

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 27 2014 @ 3:00pm

Over the weekend, ISIS launched a new offensive on the Syrian-Turkish border town, where Kurdish fighters are still holding on after six weeks under siege. While others have called Kobani ISIS’s Stalingrad or its Waterloo, Mark Thompson relays concerns “that the focus on saving Kobani is giving ISIS free reign elsewhere in its self-declared caliphate—that the U.S., in essence, could end up winning the battle while losing the war”:

“The U.S. air campaign has turned into an unfocused mess,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote Friday. “The U.S. has shifted limited air strike resources to focus on Syria and a militarily meaningless and isolated small Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani at the expense of supporting Iraqi forces in Anbar and intensifying the air campaign against other Islamic State targets in Syria.”

Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., expressed frustration that the Obama Administration believes its latest fight against ISIS will yield success when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t. “We understand the definition of insanity: continue to do the same thing and expect something different to happen,” he said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. “If we can contain them there, leave them there, I don’t know what else to do. They’re intent on destroying each other, and they’ve been doing it for 1,400 years.” The chattering classes are likewise not impressed by the fight for Kobani and the overall U.S. strategy against ISIS.

But Drum isn’t sure that we can judge the success of that strategy just yet:

The flip side of this is the obvious one: have patience. “Here we are not three months into it and there are critics saying it’s falling apart; it’s failing; the strategy is not sound,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “The strategy is sound and it’s working and there’s no plans to deviate it from right now.” If we’re really engaged in a years-long battle against ISIS, then a few months here or there doesn’t matter much. And saving Kobani is not just a moral good, but can also demonstrate to others that ISIS is not some magical, unstoppable force destined to overrun Iraq. It’s just an ordinary group of guerrilla soldiers who can be defeated with determination and patience. Stay tuned.

Still, there are other battles going on. Dettmer calls attention to Aleppo, where commanders “from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army are calling on the United States to launch airstrikes that will help them halt Assad’s forces”:

Without such action, they fear, many of their surviving troops may be lured into the ranks of ISIS. The offensive has been building up since early October. Now, Syrian army units backed by Shia Muslim fighters from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iran are poised to cut the one remaining land route into Aleppo used by mainly Sunni rebels to resupply their forces, ferry in reinforcements, and evacuate their wounded. If the Assad regime severs the Castillo Road, which connects the rebels with the Syrian countryside and Turkey, it would set the stage for a full-scale siege of rebel-held districts in the city. …

Rebel commanders express deep frustration with the U.S.-led coalition focusing airstrikes on the defense of the Kurdish town of Kobani in a bid to lift a month-long assault by ISIS militants. They argue that a siege of Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub, risks even greater ramifications, not only for the Obama administration’s objective to “degrade and defeat” the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, but also for the course of the uprising against President Assad.

Meanwhile, fighting broke out over the weekend in northern Lebanon between the military and Sunni militants linked to ISIS:

The violence is the worst in months and has centered in Tripoli, an impoverished city of predominantly Sunni Muslims that has experienced regular unrest because of sectarian divisions over the three-year-old Syrian conflict. Ten soldiers and one civilian have been killed in the clashes, a Lebanese military spokesman confirmed in a text message, which also said soldiers had arrested 25 militants. The violence began Friday evening with militant attacks on army positions. More than a dozen troops also have been wounded in the fighting, and at least one has been reported kidnapped.

Tripoli’s Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods have served as a microcosm of the Syrian conflict’s sectarian dimension since the war began three years ago, playing host to frequent clashes. Walter Russell Mead stresses the human and social costs the Syrian war has imposed on Lebanon thus far. All things considered, it’s a bit of a miracle the country hasn’t fallen apart entirely:

In a country of less than 5 million, including some 500,000 Palestinian refugees, there are now 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees, with an unknown and possibly huge number of unregistered refugees. (Looking to hedge further exposure to the Syrian crisis and avoid a demographic disaster, Lebanon closed the border to refugees earlier this week.) To top it off, the alienation of Lebanon’s Sunnis has begun to affect even the national army, which has seen soldiers defect to join ISIS or al-Nusra. And even without the threat to morale that defections pose, the Lebanese army isn’t in the best of shape; it doesn’t have the financing to properly equip itself. … The small, poorly equipped, untested Lebanese army leaves Lebanon dangerously vulnerable to ISIS—and to the fast-growing threat from within its own borders.

Arming The Enemy

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 22 2014 @ 2:21pm

An ISIS video released yesterday shows that one of the 28 bundles of arms the US airdropped to Kurdish fighters in Kobani early Monday fell into the militants’ hands:

Video footage released by Isis shows what appears to be one of its fighters for in desert scrubland with a stack of boxes attached to a parachute. The boxes are opened to show an array of weapons, some rusty, some new. A canister is broken out to reveal a hand grenade. … The seemingly bungled airdrop comes against a steady stream of US-supplied weapons being lost to Isis forces, mainly from the dysfunctional Iraqi army. Isis is reported to have stolen seven American M1 Abrams tanks from three Iraqi army bases in Anbar province last week.

Today, the Pentagon confirmed the story but downplayed its importance, saying that the accidental delivery would not give ISIS an advantage. Either way, the revelation prompted digs at the US from Moscow and Ankara, with Erdogan saying it proved that the airdrop operation had been a mistake. And weapons aren’t the only thing the US is unintentionally delivering to ISIS.

Earlier this week, Jamie Dettmer warned that humanitarian aid meant for displaced and starving Syrian civilians in ISIS-held territory ends up benefiting the jihadists themselves:

“The convoys have to be approved by ISIS and you have to pay them: The bribes are disguised and itemized as transportation costs,” says an aid coordinator who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition he not be identified in this article. The kickbacks are either paid by foreign or local nongovernmental organizations tasked with distributing the aid, or by the Turkish or Syrian transportation companies contracted to deliver it. And there are fears the aid itself isn’t carefully monitored enough, with some sold off on the black market or used by ISIS to win hearts and minds by feeding its fighters and its subjects. At a minimum, the aid means ISIS doesn’t have to divert cash from its war budget to help feed the local population or the displaced persons, allowing it to focus its resources exclusively on fighters and war-making, say critics of the aid.

In a column from last week, Fareed Zakaria recommends limiting our Syria strategy to containment, emphasizing the unlikelihood that American power can resolve the country’s civil war. He stresses the difficulty of finding reliable partners among the Syrian rebels, a topic the Dish has covered repeatedly. Fareed concludes:

The crucial, underlying reason for the violence in Iraq and Syria is a Sunni revolt against governments in Baghdad and Damascus that they view as hostile, apostate regimes. That revolt, in turn, has been fueled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, each supporting its own favorite Sunni groups, which has only added to the complexity. On the other side, Iran has supported the Shiite and Alawite regimes, ensuring that this sectarian struggle is also regional. The political solution, presumably, is some kind of power-sharing arrangement in those two capitals. But this is not something that the United States can engineer in Syria. It tried in Iraq, but despite 170,000 troops, tens of billions of dollars and David Petraeus’s skillful leadership, the deals Petraeus brokered started unraveling within months of his departure, well before American troops had left.

Pushing back on Fareed’s claims, Michael Weiss and Faysal Itani make a forceful argument for greater engagement with the Free Syrian Army, pointing out that containment is what the Obama administration is already doing – and it isn’t working. They contest the “longstanding and intellectually disingenuous complaint” that the Syrian opposition has been taken over by al-Qaeda affiliates, leaving few “moderates” for the US to support:

All too often, observers of the Syria conflict employ a shallow, decontextualized approach to appraising fighters on the ground. YouTube video proclamations designed to drum up badly needed funds from Gulf Arab states, to pressure or blackmail the West into offering adequate support, or to triangulate between and amongst competitive rebel interests, are given to be copper-bottom proof of a brigade or battalion’s permanent ideological coloration. In reality, fighters migrate fluidly to and from ideologically divergent camps; we have spoken with rebels who have gone from nationalist to Islamist to outright jihadist alignments, all based on the need for ammunition, food or money. ISIL, for instance, pays its fighters $400 per month; most FSA units pay theirs around $100, according to FSA spokesman Hussam al-Marie. As a matter of simple economy, this disparity could be altered overnight. The perception, too, of who is “winning” versus who is “losing” on the battlefield also drives recruitment efforts, which is why, following ISIL’s seizure of Mosul last June, its numbers skyrocketed.

David Kenner focuses on the Syrian opposition coalition in exile in Turkey, which in theory would take responsibility for governing areas freed from both ISIS and the Assad regime. It’s currently having trouble holding itself together:

While the United States continues to describe the exiled Syrian opposition as a partner in its war against the Islamic State, former U.S. officials are more candid about the limits of its influence. Robert Ford, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said that his experience as a U.S. diplomat during the Iraq war made him skeptical of the exiled opposition body’s weight on the ground. “They need to get themselves out of Istanbul, and instead get themselves installed in Syria, with or without a no-fly zone,” he said. “And we’ve raised that with them.”

Other former U.S. officials, however, suggest the opposition’s ineffectiveness should have been expected after Syria’s long bout of authoritarianism. “Look, Syria and Syrians were coming out of a 50-plus-year political coma [when the opposition bodies were formed],” said Fred Hof, a former special advisor on Syria at the State Department and currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Did we really expect opposition politics to be characterized by trust, openness, loyalty, and selfless teamwork?”

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Despite recent gains by Kurdish fighters in and around Kobani, aided by the delivery of small arms and other supplies yesterday, Kiran Nazish reports that the situation in the area remains tenuous:

Firas Kharaba, the leader of a Kurdish group, has been coordinating and managing the return of many wounded fighters from Kobani into Turkey. With the help of spies that, he says, infiltrated ISIS, “we found the power hub. … After the U.S. hit that building, they [ISIS] suffered a full blow.” More than 30 top fighters and commanders were killed, he said. Recently the Islamic State has been bringing in new fighters, but many of themaccording to Firas’s sourcesare not professionally trained fighters, but mere managers, organizers, and account keepers, with little experience in the battle field.

The main concern for YPG fighters now, is their on-the-ground force. What they need even more than manpower, says Kobani government official Idris Nassan, are “weapons on the ground.”

U.S. intelligence has assisted them, says Nassan, but it is not a substitute for weaponry and ammunition. Despite this weekend’s air drop, “the coalition is not ready to send weapons on the ground,” says Tarek Doglu, a foreign affairs analyst based in Ankara. “No one wants to intervene the matters between Turkey and PKK. That is the basic complexity.”

Dettmer talks to some of the town’s few remaining doctors, who paint a harrowing picture of the humanitarian conditions:

Dr. Kurdo Abdi, gave me a first-hand account of the extraordinary demands that have been placed on the 15 doctors and nurses who remained in Kobani throughout the siege. They have struggled to provide rudimentary care for wounded fighters and civilians while dodging bombs, rockets and bullets. “The main hospital was destroyed ten days ago by rockets,” says Abdi. The ISIS militants bombed the hospital on purpose. “Since then we have been treating people in makeshift clinics in different parts of Kobani, mainly in apartments. We have very little medicines. We got a few re-supplies from some fighters and civilians who smuggled it across the border, but very little. The situation is very bad.”

ISIS’s recent retreat, he adds, has been oversold in the press:

Despite widespread media reports that the Islamic militants have left the town and are now just on the outskirts, that is not accurate. Both doctors say the jihadists have been pushed back on the West of the town but they are still inside parts of the center and that there is street fighting in the east and south.

Yusuf Sayman defends Turkey’s actions, pointing to its massive refugee relief effort, and laments that “refugees running from the war in Syria are stuck in the political war in Turkey”, between the government and Kurdish activists:

While the Turkish government wants to play the good guys by helping the refugees, the opposition — including the HDP, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party — refuses to allow them to reap the political benefits of this goodwill gesture. Some refugees now stay in camps run by the office of Suruc’s mayor, who is from the HDP, which act as a sort of Kurdish counterpoint to the camps run by AFAD [the Turkish government’s humanitarian relief agency].

Thus, the refugees find themselves on the front line in a propaganda battle. Hazal, a 24-year-old activist from Kobani volunteering as a health worker, speaks negatively about life in the HDP camps: She says their sanitary conditions are very bad, water-borne illnesses are widespread, and there is constant YPG propaganda. People are forced to refer to each other as “heval,” or comrade — a term used by both PKK and YPG fighters. She even recalls a YPG member telling her, “If you visit your relatives staying in the AFAD camp, we will consider you a traitor.”

Intra-Kurdish politics, Hannes Cerny observes, add another dimension of complexity:

[President of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud] Barzani is playing a long game, as he benefited for years from his status as the main Kurdish leader that the West could do business with. Dialogue now between the U.S. and the PYD/YPG threatens his position; the YPG could even become as indispensable in the war against IS in Syria as Barzani’s peshmerga are in Iraq. Furthermore, if the PYD holds off IS in Kobani and becomes the West’s new Syria partner in the process, it would strengthen the form of local autonomy that the PYD has been exercising in northeastern Syria over the past two years. This political model, an anarchist communalism of Kurdish confederations, poses a direct ideological challenge to the KRG.

(Image: a UN satellite photo shows details of the street fights between Islamic State militants and Kurdish fighters in Kobani. Via Rick Noack.)

Kobani: ISIS’s Stalingrad?

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 20 2014 @ 1:42pm

Syrian Kurds Battle IS To Retain Control Of Kobani

Last night, American military transport planes delivered weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies to the Kurdish fighters still holding the northern Syrian border town of Kobani against a lengthy siege by ISIS militants:

The supplies were not provided by the U.S., but instead came from other Kurdish forces outside of Kobani, the official told FP. U.S. aircraft merely facilitated the airdrops. American warplanes have been bombing Islamic State targets in and around the city for weeks, but the airdrops escalate that effort and mean that the U.S. is now facilitating direct assistance to the Kurdish fighters defending the city.

The defenders of Kobani welcomed the aid but warned that it would not be enough to decide the battle. Much still depends on how much help Turkey will allow across its border. Obama reportedly gave Erdogan advance notice of the drop on Saturday night, but Juan Cole interprets it as defiant of the Turks’ wishes. Since then, Ankara has been sending its usual mixed signals:

In comments published by Turkish media on Monday, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan equated the main Syrian Kurdish group, the PYD, with the PKK. “It is also a terrorist organization.

It will be very wrong for America with whom we are allied and who we are together with in NATO to expect us to say ‘yes’ (to supporting the PYD) after openly announcing such support for a terrorist organization,” Erdogan said. Also on Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey was facilitating the passage of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters to Kobani to aid Syrian Kurds defending the town against Islamic State militants. Cavusoglu, speaking at a news conference, did not provide details on the transfer of the fighters.

Looking at the big picture, Henri Barkey considers the battle of Kobani a seminal moment in the national history of the Kurds:

Kobani will have two different effects on the region. First and foremost, it will be an important marker in the construction and consolidation of Kurdish nationhood. The exploits of Kobani’s defenders are quickly joining the lore of Kurdish fighting prowess. After all, the Iraqi Kurdish forces, not to mention the Iraqi army, folded in the face of a determined IS onslaught only a couple of months ago. The longer the city resists, the greater will be the reputational impact (although it is already assuming mythic proportions).

There is another, rather unique aspect of the resistance that is adding to its mythic character: the role of women in the fight. The juxtaposition of an Islamic State, which enslaves women or covers them from head to toe, with the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has large numbers of women fighting and dying alongside men, is particularly striking. Social and other media outlets have brimmed with stories of the heroism and sacrifice of these women. The fighting in Kobani, and especially the emergence of women fighters, has now entered the Kurdish lore and imagination.

Paul Iddon also grasps the battle’s symbolic significance. He hopes it will prove to be the Islamic State’s Stalingrad:

The reason I stress the symbolic importance of this is because as was the case during the Battle of Stalingrad the name was of great significance to the invading Third Reich whose ruler saw destroying that city and killing all of those who resisted to be of great symbolic and psychological importance given the fact it was named after the dictator of the country they were attempting to conquer. Kobani for similar reasons has become a symbol of Kurdish defiance to IS and is the reason that group is pouring more resources into in order to try and break that towns spirit and the Syrian Kurds ability to resist and repel its advances. And like Stalingrad the locals there have shown they will fight building-to-building to the death before they let IS overrun their town.

(Photo: Heavy smoke from an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition planes rises in Kobani, Syria, October 20, 2014 as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. By Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)