“Ghost Ships” That Carry Live Souls

Last week, two separate ships packed full of Middle Eastern migrants were found floating off the Italian coast, having been abandoned by their crews:

The cargo ship Ezadeen, which set sail under a Sierra Leone flag from a Turkish port this week, was discovered drifting without a captain 40 nautical miles from the Italian coast. Italian coastguards were forced to intervene to prevent a disaster and possibly save the lives of the estimated 450 people on board, many of them thought to be Syrian refugees. … The Ezadeen was the second vessel in four days to be found sailing without a crew. Earlier in the week, 800 migrants on the Blue Sky M, a Moldovan-registered ship, were rescued by Italian coastguards when it was discovered sailing without an active crew five miles off the coast. The two incidents have left observers of migrant routes in the Mediterranean fearing that people-smugglers have found a new and ruthless way of working in the area despite a recent decision to scale back Italian rescue operations.

The plight of the Blue Sky M and Ezadeen point to a new tactic by migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean. It’s less awful than deliberately shipwrecking them, as smugglers did on one voyage in September, drowning hundreds of refugees. Still, these “ghost ships” underscore the danger of the Mediterranean crossing and the desperation of those who make it. Barbie Latza Nadeau revisits an interview from December with Moutassem Yazbek, a Syrian refugee who had made the crossing last year and explained how the smuggling system works:

In many cases, he says, the smuggler kingpins hire refugees with seafaring experience to work as crewmembers on the ships in exchange for discounted passage. They are not the actual traffickers, Yazbek says, so generally the other refugees protect their identity. On his boat that came into Sicily three weeks ago, Yazbek says the refugee “crew members” hired by the smugglers were never exposed. Instead the refugees told the authorities that they abandoned the ship at sea, when in reality the men who piloted the ship blended in and were treated no differently than the other refugees.

“We weren’t protecting the smugglers—we were protecting the poor people that helped the ship to reach that stage,” he says. “Those people are refugees who worked as a crew to save some money. In my opinion I think that the smugglers are real criminals. If not, they wouldn’t make the prices so high; they would accept a smaller margin. I think they are anything but heroes.” Frontex estimates that the smugglers on the two large cargo ships that arrived in Italy last week cleared more than $3 million after the price of the aging vessel was subtracted.

But Melanie McDonagh isn’t sure how much sympathy she has for these particular refugees:

The Syrians now arrived in Italy paid between $4,000 and $6,000 for their passage. Many of those on deck were young and seem relatively fit. We are not talking here about the huddled masses, the human debris of the Lebanese or Jordanian refugee camps, but the more prosperous of those displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Eritrea.

If we, Europe, were to take the neediest refugees it might not be these. And if their efforts are rewarded with permanent residency in Europe, ultimately with citizenship, and in the case of those who get to Sweden, with the right to bring their families with them, then the gamble will have paid off. They have jumped the queue ahead of those perhaps more deserving of refuge abroad. They made a rational calculation about the terrible risks of going to sea with criminal traffickers and, more fortunate than those who died during the year crossing the Mediterranean (an estimated 3,500), they got lucky.

Meanwhile, Patrick Kingsley notes that the “Arab Spring” has generated the world’s largest wave of migrations since World War II:

Wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq, severe repression in Eritrea, and spiralling instability across much of the Arab world have all contributed to the displacement of around 16.7 million refugees worldwide. A further 33.3 million people are “internally displaced” within their own war-torn countries, forcing many of those originally from the Middle East to cross the lesser evil of the Mediterranean in increasingly dangerous ways, all in the distant hope of a better life in Europe.

“These numbers are unprecedented,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration. “In terms of refugees and migrants, nothing has been seen like this since world war two, and even then [the flow of migration] was in the opposite direction.”

ISIS: Once You’re In, You’re In

ISIS has executed around 2,000 people since June, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, including “116 foreign fighters for trying to flee to their home countries” and four others for “violations of the extremist group’s code”. Adam Taylor finds it remarkable that ISIS has been killing its own and points to the group’s dwindling power:

SOHR’s report seems to be further evidence that although some foreign fighters are no doubt fearsome, others are quite clearly not. In fact, a few may be quite some way from fearsome:

In November, the French newspaper Le Figaro carried an account of French Islamic State fighters complaining to their family back home about their broken iPods and the cold winter. Even hardier fighters may have had second thoughts as the Islamic State, facing U.S. airstrikes, began to lose its momentum late in the year. …

The Islamic State, which has built much of its reputation on the fierce loyalty of its fighters, would no doubt be aware of how damaging returning fighters could be, both in terms of publicity and because they could be of value to international intelligence agencies. According to a report from the Financial Times, the Islamic State recently formed a military police unit to crack down on fighters not reporting for duty. Executing fighters attempting to flee also would send a powerful message to other fighters having second thoughts.

In an interesting parallel, the Assad regime is having trouble filling the ranks of its own army and has resorted to stringent – though not quite as stringent – measures to stop desertions:

In recent weeks, the regime … began upping threats to dismiss and fine state employees who fail to fulfill military obligations, according to Syrian news Web sites and activists. In addition, they say, new restrictions imposed this fall have made it all but impossible for men in their 20s to leave the country.

Since the start of the uprising in 2011, Syrian authorities have used arrests and intimidation to halt desertions, defections and evasion of military service — but not to the extent seen recently, Syrians and analysts say. Men who are dragooned into the army appear to be deserting in larger numbers, they say, and the government’s crackdown is driving many of these men as well as more of the large number of draft-evaders to go into hiding or flee abroad.

Furthermore, the shortfall in pro-regime troops may also be due to the departure of foreign militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, who moved on to Iraq this summer to fight ISIS. So all in all, it sounds like going off to war in Syria is a pretty dismal experience whichever side you’re on.

More Bad News For Syrian Refugees


Back in September, the UN’s World Food Program warned that it was running out of money to feed the millions of Syrians both inside and outside the country who now rely on the agency for food. The warning was not heeded, pledged cash never turned up, and sure enough, the WFP announced yesterday that it was suspending a food voucher program that provides badly needed assistance to some 1.7 million Syrian refugees:

Under this programme, poor Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt have used vouchers to buy food in local shops. Without WFP vouchers, many families will go hungry. For refugees already struggling to survive the harsh winter, the consequences of halting this assistance will be devastating.

“A suspension of WFP food assistance will endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighbouring host countries,” said WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, in an appeal to donors. … Cousin said that WFP’s Syria emergency operations are now in critical need of funding.  Many donor commitments remain unfulfilled. WFP requires a total of US $64 million immediately to support Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries during the month of December.

Exactly which donor countries are skirting their commitments to the WFP is not entirely clear:

While WFP didn’t name which countries haven’t made good on their commitments, foreign ministers from Germany, Finland and Sweden told reporters in Copenhagen their countries could do more to fill the funding gap. “We have to strengthen our engagement and give humanitarian aid for the refugees and strengthen the structure of those countries who are hosting the refugees,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. … The United States, which has stumped up more than $3 billion for the Syrian people including some $935 million for the WFP since the start of the conflict, also voiced concern.

For refugees in Jordan the injury is compounded by the government’s announcement that it can no longer afford to provide free healthcare for Syrians. Worse still, Howard LaFranchi adds, Syria isn’t the only place where food aid agencies are being forced to cut corners:

Already last month, the [WFP] said that low supplies were forcing it to cut food rations for the half-million refugees from South Sudan and Somalia it feeds in camps in Kenya. Conflict in the Central African Republic and recent devastating floods in Somalia – which is barely recovering from decades of war – have left millions more with precarious food sources. In West Africa, the Ebola crisis is discouraging farmers in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone from tending fields and getting produce to markets. More than a million West Africans could soon face food shortages, humanitarian groups working there say.

The prospect of burgeoning food assistance needs is leading international governmental organizations like WFP to issue urgent calls for emergency funding, while non-governmental organizations are revising upward their prognostications for emergency assistance needs next year. As one example, the International Red Cross announced last week that in order to meet “vastly expanding needs” that in some cases are due to “new kinds of crises,” it has set a goal of raising nearly $1.7 billion for emergency assistance in 2015 – a full quarter more than what it sought to raise from donors for 2014.

Murtaza Hussain is furious that the US and our allies are spending millions of dollars a day dropping bombs on ISIS while aid programs fall short:

“Humanitarian intervention” in this context has come to be nothing more than a crude euphemism for the act of bombing. A far more impactful, less morally ambiguous, and incredibly cheaper form of “intervening” would be to provide desperately needed aid to a displaced civilian population facing a true humanitarian emergency. Instead, political and military figures continue to expend huge sums on munitions and military logistics based on the disingenuous claim that they are “helping” the population which is being bombed. Needless to say, if this intervention had anything to do with helping Syrians its overwhelming priority would be providing aid to refugees, and most crucially providing them asylum as well. But on both these counts, the United States and its coalition have been doing poorly.

(Photo: A Syrian refugee woman sells napkins with a disabled relative as she sits on the sidewalk in downtown Beirut on December 2, 2014. Aid workers fear a major humanitarian crisis for millions of Syrian refugees in the Middle East after funding gaps forced the United Nations to cut food assistance for 1.7 million people. The UN’s World Food Programme said it needed $64 million (51 million euros) to fund its food voucher programme for December alone, and that “many donor commitments remain unfulfilled”. By Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Why Was Kassig’s Death Different? Ctd

Tracy McNicoll suspects that the real purpose of the ISIS propaganda video showing Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig’s severed head was to feature its expanding cast of foreign fighters, some of whom are seen taking part in the synchronized beheading of 18 Syrian military personnel. One of the executioners has been identified as 22-year-old Frenchman Maxime Hauchard:

Hauchard is the first of the unmasked executioners in the ISIS video to be positively and publicly identified, although French authorities have said a second young French Muslim convert’s appearance may be authenticated shortly. As intelligence services around the world are working to identify any other foreign fighters among the band of killers in the gory new video, speculation also surfaced that another of the killers is 20-year-old Welsh jihadist Nasser Muthana, but that has yet to be confirmed.

Indeed, analysts agree one of the video’s key functions for ISIS is to illustrate how far the group’s seductive reach is extending globally. As France took in the shock news that one of its own sons may be a throat-slitting, decapitating terrorist, the Islamist specialist Romain Caillet told Le Monde, “In putting forward soldiers from the four corners of the world, Da’esh [as the French call the group, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS] is looking to create a ‘United Colors of Jihad’ effect. The message is simple: there are hundreds of Jihadi Johns.”

I’m still kinda agape at the idea of a 20 year old Welsh Jihadist. But I fail to be intimidated by that kind of ludicrous Western loser. They seem as evil as they are ridiculous. Simon Cottee reflects on why ISIS makes a point of showing off its beheadings:

The conventional wisdom holds that ISIS’s savagery will be its undoing—that it will alienate ordinary Muslims, and that without their support the group cannot succeed. But what this view overlooks is that ISIS’s jihad, as its progenitor Zarqawi well understood, isn’t about winning hearts and minds. It is about breaking hearts and minds. ISIS doesn’t want to convince its detractors and enemies. It wants to command them, if not destroy them altogether. And its strategy for achieving this goal seems to be based on destroying their will through intimate killing. This, in part, is what the group’s staged beheadings are about: They subliminally communicate ISIS’s proficiency in the art of the intimate kill. And this terrifies many people, because they sense just how hard it is to do.

Cottee’s analysis squares with a new UN report on the jihadists’ reign of terror, which also concludes that it serves a strategic purpose:

There’s a terrible logic at work here. “By publicizing its brutality,” the UN concludes, “the so-called ISIS seeks to convey its authority over its areas of control, to show its strength to attract recruits, and to threaten any individuals, groups or States that challenge its ideology.” Such violence isn’t rare in war zones. According to Stathis Kalyvas, a Yale professor who studies civil wars, rebel groups understand that civilian defection is an existential threat to their rule. Their violence is generally targeted to coerce civilian cooperation with the group — which is why ISIS labels the people it publicly executes as traitors. The message: defect to the government or a rebel group, and you’ll pay.

Meanwhile, Rodger Shanahan notices something odd about the timing of these videos:

Note that the latest video showing the beheading of Peter Kassig and Syrian military personnel was released a day or two after the fall of the town of Bayji to Iraqi government forces. … This is part of a broader pattern. A day after the Turkish parliament authorised military action against ISIS (not good news for ISIS), video of the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning was released. And if we hark back to the recapture of Mosul Dam by Kurdish forces backed by US air support in mid-August, the beheading of US journalist James Foley followed shortly after.

None of these actions are designed to dissuade Western military intervention in Iraq or Syria, or even to goad the West into becoming decisively committed on the ground, because ISIS understands this is unlikely to occur. Rather, it has a much more short-term aim: to get ISIS’s military and political setbacks out of the media cycle and replace them with bloody imagery that demonstrates ISIS is still a force.

But they somewhat detract from that message, don’t they? They seem desperate and the last one rushed.

Why Was Kassig’s Death Different?

Yesterday, ISIS released a video showing that they had beheaded 26-year-old American aid worker Abdul-Rahman (né Peter) Kassig:

In the clip released early Sunday, the Islamic State displays the head of Mr. Kassig, 26, at the feet of a man with a British accent who appeared in the previous beheading videos and has been nicknamed Jihadi John by the British news media. Unlike the earlier videos, which were staged with multiple cameras from different vantage points, and which show the hostages kneeling, then uttering their last words, the footage of Mr. Kassig’s death is curtailed — showing only the final scene.

One possible explanation is that Kassig, a former Army Ranger, resisted his captors at the end. We may never know what happened for sure. One thing that is for sure, however, is that Kassig’s embrace of Islam during his captivity didn’t spare his life.

As Terrence McCoy notes, other captives of Islamist militant groups who converted, such as James Foley, didn’t reap any benefit from doing so either. Fawaz Gerges stresses that killing a convert “is an extremely serious violation of the well-established consensus in the Islamic community on the sacredness of life for converts to the religion”. He sees Kassig’s sloppy killing as a sign that the group is on the defensive:

Abu Muhammed al-Maqdsi, a mentor to many al Qaeda leaders, had called for mercy — not only because Kassig was a convert to Islam, but because he had given up so much to move to Syria and help victims of the war. Militant Islamists in the country also went public with a request for mercy. They said Kassig, a trained medic, had treated them when they were injured in battles against Syrian government forces.

It was inevitable that these calls would fall on deaf ears. Beheading Western hostages is one of the only tools ISIS has at its disposal to retaliate against the American-led airstrikes that are beginning to land serious blows on the group. … While it is difficult to keep track of the latest developments on the ground, what we do know is this: The momentum, at least in Iraq, is shifting. The group’s leaders are being hunted down, and they’re feeling the pain.

Now, according to Shane Harris, the jihadists hold just one American prisoner: a young woman, the same age as Kassig, who also went to Syria as an aid worker and was kidnapped in August 2013:

U.S. officials and the woman’s family have requested that her name not be made public, fearing that further attention will put her in greater jeopardy. No news organization has published her name. But the general circumstances of her capture and captivity have been known and widely reported for more than a year now. ISIS’s intentions for its remaining American prisoner are unclear. But current and former U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that it was notable she doesn’t appear at the end of a video, released Sunday, that shows the aftermath of Kassig’s beheading. That breaks with ISIS’s pattern of showing the next hostage it intends to kill.

Reflecting on better days when he could interview Taliban leaders without fearing for his neck, Goldblog worries about these beheadings prompting journalists (and, one might add, humanitarians like Kassig) to think twice before heading to war zones:

Why have some groups rejected the notion of journalistic neutrality? For one thing, the extremists have become more extreme. Look at the fractious relationship between al-Qaeda and ISIS, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda but which has rejected criticism from Qaeda leaders about its particularly baroque application of violence. Another, more important, reason relates to the mechanisms of publicity itself. The extremists don’t need us anymore. Fourteen years ago, while I was staying at the Taliban madrasa, its administrators were launching a Web site. I remember being amused by this. I shouldn’t have been. There is no need for a middleman now. Journalists have been replaced by YouTube and Twitter. And when there is no need for us, we become targets. …

Today, even places that shouldn’t be dangerous for journalists are dangerous. Whole stretches of Muslim countries are becoming off-limits. This is a minor facet of a much larger calamity, but it has consequences: the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Syria and Iraq are not going away; our ability to see these problems, however, is becoming progressively more circumscribed.

ISIS And Al-Qaeda, Together At Last?

The AP reported yesterday that leaders of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, have agreed to set aside their intra-jihadi feuds and cooperate against their enemies:

According to [a source], two decisions were reached: First, to halt infighting between Nusra and IS and second, for the groups together to open up fronts against Kurdish fighters in a couple of new areas of northern Syria.

Keating reads the cards:

This merger, along with growing signs that Washington is resigning itself to Bashar al-Assad’s long-term presence, could be an indication that the overlapping and intersecting battle lines in Syria are starting to clarify themselves. At the moment, the U.S., the Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, and—whether the Obama administration will admit it or not—the Syrian government are on one side, and ISIS and al-Qaida are on the other. The big loser in all of this is likely to be the U.S.-backed rebels.

In addition to ISIS and Nusra finding common cause, there are reports this week that the White House is considering revamping a Syria strategy many senior officials have come to see as unworkable. That strategy, which involved focusing primarily on rolling back ISIS in Iraq and didn’t involve strikes against Assad, never sat well with the rebels. A new one, which could involve a new diplomatic push for a cease-fire deal whose terms would likely be very disadvantageous to the Syrian opposition, would be even worse.

But Aymenn al-Tamimi recommends taking these reports with a grain of salt:

The rift between JN and IS is too great to heal at this point beyond the highly localized alliance between IS and JN in Qalamoun that reflects an exceptional situation where neither group can hold territory alone and both contingents are geographically isolated from members of their groups elsewhere in Syria, in addition to being preoccupied with constant fighting with regime forces and Hezbollah. At the broader level, IS still believes that JN is guilty of “defection” (‘inshiqāq) from IS in refusing to be subsumed under what was then the Islamic State of Iraq [ISI] to form the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS] back in April 2013. The zero-sum demands of IS have only solidified with the claimed Caliphate status since 29 June demanding the allegiance of all the world’s Muslims. In turn, JN refuses even to recognize IS’ claim to be an actual state, let alone a Caliphate.

In response to this and other recent developments, Gopal Ratnam hints that the Obama administration is “edging closer to establishing a safe zone in northern Syria” for our “moderate” rebel allies:

Setting up such safe zones inside Syria will also address a key demand by Turkey, which sees the Assad regime as a greater threat than the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and has been pushing the United States to set up such areas as a condition for fuller participation in the coalition against the Sunni militant group that is also known as ISIS and ISIL. “If these safe havens are not established in northern Syria, the rebels will be effectively squeezed out by the Assad regime in a short time,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So this is a last call to maintain and preserve rebel presence in northern Syria.”

Meanwhile, rumors that “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been injured or even killed in an airstrike were thrown into doubt with the release of a new audio recording of Baghdadi that refers to recent events:

The timing of the recording was unclear, but it referred to Barack Obama’s recent decision to send a further 1,500 US military advisers to train the Iraqi army and to a pledge of allegiance by Egyptian jihadis to the Islamic State last weekend.

In a triumphant survey of what he described as the group’s growing influence, the speaker also mentioned support from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. In Saudi Arabia, singled out in the message as the “head of the snake and stronghold of disease”, people were urged to “draw their swords” to fight and to kill Shia Muslims – referred to in pejorative sectarian terms as “rafidah”. Shia worshippers were indeed attacked in a terrorist shooting in the country’s Eastern Province 10 days ago.

Our Syrian Allies Are Dropping Like Flies

Our proxy war in Syria suffered a setback over the weekend when two of the main “moderate” rebel groups receiving arms from the West surrendered to the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra following an assault on their strongholds in Idlib province:

The US and its allies were relying on Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front to become part of a ground force that would attack the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). For the last six months the Hazm movement, and the SRF through them, had been receiving heavy weapons from the US-led coalition, including GRAD rockets and TOW anti-tank missiles. But on Saturday night Harakat Hazm surrendered military bases and weapons supplies to Jabhat al-Nusra, when the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria stormed villages they controlled in northern Idlib province. The development came a day after Jabhat al-Nusra dealt a final blow to the SRF, storming and capturing Deir Sinbal, home town of the group’s leader Jamal Marouf.

On top of the American weapons now in the hands of the radical Islamist militia, the defeat of these two groups means that the Free Syrian Army has been almost completely driven out of northern Syria:

Idlib was the last of the northern Syrian provinces where the Free Syrian Army maintained a significant presence, and groups there had banded together in January to eject the Islamic State in the first instance in which Syrians had turned against the extremist radicals. Most of the rest of northern Syria is controlled by the Islamic State, apart from a small strip of territory around the city of Aleppo. There the rebels are fighting to hold at bay both the Islamic State and the forces of the Assad government, and the defeat in Idlib will further isolate those fighters.

Juan Cole responds to the news that some members of Marouf’s group defected to Jabhat al-Nusra:

The incident is disturbing because the Obama administration plans to train and arm fighters of the Syria Revolutionaries Front sort, on the theory that they are “moderates.” But a present Syrian moderate is all too often a future al-Qaeda member; many of these affiliations are not particularly ideological, but have to do with who is winning and who has more money. Last July, the Daoud Brigade of the Free Syrian Army joined ISIL.

Jamal Marouf’s group in any case had sometimes fought alongside Syria’s al-Qaeda and last April said al-Qaeda was the West’s problem, not his. (Ouch!) He complained that aside from a one time payment some time ago of $250,000, he hadn’t received any appreciable aid from the West. The loyalties of fighters may also have to do with which group is seen as more indigenous and which as foreign agents.

Larison knew this would happen:

In a saner political culture, this would be extremely bad news for the members of Congress that voted in favor of the administration’s plan to arm and train “moderate” and “vetted” rebels. The loss of weapons to an Al Qaeda affiliate is exactly the worst-case scenario that opponents of arming the “moderate” Syrian opposition imagined could happen, and now it has. Following the large loss of weapons and equipment to ISIS in Iraq, it was inexcusable to approve sending more weapons into Syria where they could be and now have been seized by jihadists, but the measure overwhelmingly passed both houses. A failure of this magnitude would normally be an indictment of the terrible judgment of the policy’s supporters, but we can expect that interventionists will quickly tell us that this would never have happened if only we had listened to them sooner.

Totten shrugs:

They were bad proxies anyway. The Syrian Revolutionary Front was an Islamist organization. Less deranged than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, sure, but it was still an Islamist organization. Harakat Hazm is more secular, but it consists of a measly 5,000 fighters while the Islamic State has as many as 100,000.

Syria is gone. The only portions of that former country that may still be salvageable are the Kurdish scraps in the north. The Kurds are good fighters and they may be able to hold on with our help, but there is no chance they will ever destroy the Assad regime or the Islamic State. They don’t have the strength or the numbers. So unless the United States decides to invade outright with ground forces—and fat chance of that happening any time soon—we’re going to have to accept that the geographic abstraction once known as Syria will be a terrorist factory for the foreseeable future.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s gains in northern Syria weren’t the only bad news this weekend. In Iraq, ISIS militants perpetrated a massacre against a Sunni tribe in Anbar province that had attempted to resist them, murdering more than 300 people:

 The Albu Nimr, also Sunni, had put up fierce resistance against Islamic State for weeks but finally ran low on ammunition, food and fuel last week as Islamic State fighters closed in on their village Zauiyat Albu Nimr. “The number of people killed by Islamic State from Albu Nimr tribe is 322. The bodies of 50 women and children have also been discovered dumped in a well,” the country’s Human Rights Ministry said on Sunday. One of the leaders of the tribe, Sheik Naeem al-Ga’oud, told Reuters that he had repeatedly asked the central government and army to provide his men with arms but no action was taken.

Iraqi security forces are now planning a spring offensive to recapture the territory lost to ISIS, with American assistance, but the plan requires the training of three new army divisions and doesn’t foresee retaking the captured areas until the end of next year.

An ISIS-Guided Tour Of Kobani

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.

The Caliphate’s Babes In Arms

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?

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.