Spy charges for journalists who claimed Turkey arms Syrian Islamists

Can Dündar Erdem GülTwo leading Turkish journalists, who claimed in a series of articles that Ankara has been arming militant Islamists in Syria, are facing espionage charges for “airing Turkish state secrets”. The two, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, work for Cumhuriyet, (The Republic), Turkey’s oldest newspaper, which typically voices staunchly secularist views representing the center-left of the political spectrum. Last year Dündar, who is the paper’s editor, and Gül, who serves as the paper’s bureau chief in Ankara, published a series of articles claiming that the Turkish government was secretly supporting Salafi Jihadist groups in Syria.

In the articles, Dündar and Gül alleged that a convoy of trucks had been intercepted on its way from Turkey to Syria. According to the two reporters, the trucks were transporting large quantities of weapons and ammunition to Syrian rebels as part of a secret operation conducted by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Turkey’s main spy agency. But the MİT had not shared details of the operation with Turkish police, which promptly stopped the vehicles, searched them and found them to be “loaded with weapons” and ammunition, according to Cumhuriyet. The paper also published video footage showing the alleged MİT trucks.

When the story was published, it caused major ripples in Turkish political life and prompted the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to issue official denials directed against the paper’s accusations. Government spokespeople claimed that the captured trucks contained humanitarian assistance, and not weapons. Later, however, Turkish officials admitted that the trucks were indeed carrying weapons, but that they were destined for Turkmen guerrillas operating in Syrian territory. President Erdoğan, however, was furious with Cumhuriyet and warned the paper’s investigative reporters that they would “pay a heavy price” for revealing state secrets.

The two reporters were arrested in November of last year and have since been held in detention. On Wednesday, state prosecutors charged Dündar and Gül with espionage, attempting to topple the Turkish government by force, and supporting terrorism. Interestingly, the main plaintiffs in the case are President Erdogan and Hakan Fidan, the director of MİT. If found guilty, the two Cumhuriyet journalists will face up to life in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 28 January 2016 | Permalink

Study: Who are the Americans fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

ISIS - JFMuch emphasis has been given to the Islamic State’s Western recruits, but there is almost nothing known about Westerners fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Last week, an investigative website published the first substantial study on the subject, focusing on volunteers who are citizens of the United States. Entitled “The Other Foreign Fighters”, the study focuses on those Americans who have voluntarily traveled to the Middle East to take up arms against the group, which is also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It was authored by Nathan Patin, an independent researcher who often publishes his work through Bellingcat, a website specializing in open-source investigations.

Patin reports that there are roughly 200 Americans who have either entered or attempted to enter Syria and Iraq in efforts to battle ISIS. Of those, at least 108 have spent time the region and enlisted in the various militias and armed groups that are fighting ISIS. Based on open sources, Patin claims that at least two thirds of the Americans fighting ISIS have previously served in the US Armed Forces, mostly in the Marine Corps and Army. Almost all of them are in their 20s and 30s and one of them is female. The majority have spent between one and four months on the battlefield in Iraq, Syria, or both. However, almost a third had little or no military experience prior to joining the war against ISIS. They included Keith Broomfield, 36, who died earlier this year while fighting ISIS in Kobani, Syria.

Almost half of the Americans tracked by Patin have fought for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. Others have enlisted in the peshmerga forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq, as well as in an assortment of Christian militias, including the Nineveh Plains Protection Units and the Dwekh Nawsha. There are major questions about the legality of the American volunteers’ actions, according to American law. The US Department of State does not include the YPG or the PUK in its official list of foreign terrorist organizations. But the PKK, which cooperates with both groups, is designated by Washington as a terrorist outfit. It is important to note, however that the Bellingcat study does not cover the legality of the American volunteers’ actions in Iraq and Syria. Finally, it is worth pointing out that almost nothing is known about several hundred Westerners from countries other than the US, who are also fighting against ISIS in the region. They include citizens of Finland, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and many other countries.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 December 2015 | Permalink

US Pentagon is secretly giving intelligence to Syria, claims journalist

PentagonThe United States Department of Defense has been secretly sharing intelligence with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad without authorization by the White House, according to an American journalist. Officially, the US government is opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus and has repeatedly stated that peace in Syria can only be achieved if the Assad family leaves power. But in a report published yesterday in The London Review of Books, the veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claims that America’s military leadership has been secretly aiding the Assad family’s efforts to defeat Islamist groups in Syria.

Citing “a former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs” of Staff (JCS), which comprises of the senior leadership of the Pentagon, Hersh says that the Pentagon is sharing intelligence with Damascus through “third nations”. These include Israel, Germany and even Russia, claims Hersh. The secret agreement is allegedly aimed at defeating the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria. It is important to note that Hersh claims that the White House, including US President Barack Obama, has not authorized the intelligence sharing and is not aware of the secret arrangement. However, the former JSC senior adviser said that was not surprising and that the Executive did not have to authorize every tactical decision made by the leadership of the Pentagon.

However, Hersh points out that if President Obama is indeed being kept in the dark about the Pentagon’s intelligence relationship with Damascus, the secret arrangement would amount to deliberate undermining of the Executive by the US military’s policies. It would also indicate a growing gap between the White House and the Pentagon in regards to America’s position toward the Syrian Civil War. Neither the Pentagon nor the White House responded to media inquiries about Hersh’s report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 December 2015 | Permalink

Israel silent after assassination of key Hezbollah figure in Damascus

Samir Kuntar Israel has refused comment following the death of a senior official of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, who was killed on Saturday in a missile strike in Syria. Samir Kuntar (also spelled Qantar) was a Druze who joined the Syrian-backed, Lebanese-based, Palestine Liberation Front (later Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command) at a young age. In 1979, Kuntar was jailed for an attack on an apartment block in Israel’s northern coastal town of Nahariya, which resulted in the death of four Israeli civilians and two of the attackers. However, he was freed after nearly three decades in prison in exchange for the bodies of two Israel Defense Force soldiers, who had been captured and executed by Hezbollah in 2006.

Since his high-profile release, Kuntar was believed to have risen in the ranks of Hezbollah, and to have become a major operational figure in the Lebanese militant group. In September of this year, the United States Department of State officially designated Kuntar a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. This designation, under US Executive Order 13224, denoted that Kuntar posed a significant and immediate terrorist threat to American interests. A statement issued by the US State Department at the time described Kuntar as one of Hezbollah’s “most visible and popular spokesmen”, and said he also had an operational role in the organization.

Kuntar was reportedly killed alongside eight other people when a barrage of missiles hit a residential building in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana. A statement by Hezbollah-controlled television station Al-Manar said four long-range missiles were fired by two “Israeli warplanes” that appeared to target the residential building. Based on footage aired by Al-Manar, the multi-story building appears completely destroyed. Moreover, at least one other Hezbollah senior commander, Farhan al-Shaalan, is said to have died in the strike.

Although Hezbollah officially accused “the Zionist entity” for the missile strikes, Israel has refused comment on Kuntar’s killing. When asked for a response by reporters on Sunday morning, Israeli Minister for Construction and Housing Yoav Gallant said he was happy that Kuntar was dead, but stopped short of confirming that Israel was behind the killing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 December 2015 | Permalink

ISIS now has the ability to issue official-looking Syrian passports

Syrian passportThe Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is now able to produce authentic-looking Syrian passports using machines that are typically available only to governments, according to an American intelligence report. The report was accessed by the New York-based station ABC News, which said it was issued by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative wing of the United States Department of Homeland Security. According to ABC News, the 17-page report was issued in early December to law enforcement departments across the US. It warns that ISIS is most likely able to print government-quality travel documents using Syrian passport templates.

According HSI, the militant group was first able to access passport-issuing technology when it conquered Raqqa, the Syrian city that today serves as the capital of the so-called Islamic State. The city has a passport office with at least one passport-issuing machine, said the report. A few months later, ISIS came in possession of a second passport-issuing machine when it captured the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. The HSI report states that the city’s passport office, which contained “boxes of blank passports” and at least one passport-printing machine, came into the hands of ISIS militants undamaged. Currently, the whereabouts of the Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor passport machines “remain fluid”, says the report, pointing out that both machines are believed to be portable.

The intelligence report goes on to state “with moderate confidence” that ISIS has issued authentic-looking Syrian passports to individuals, and that some of them may have traveled to Europe and the US. Further on, the report says that Syria is virtually awash with fake documents; it cites an unnamed source who says that high-quality fake Syrian passports can be purchased in the black market in Syria for less than $400, and that some government employees will backdate passport stamps in exchange for a fee. IntelNews readers will recall that two of the suicide bombers who attacked Paris in November were carrying fake Syrian passports.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 December 2015 | Permalink

US intel report says ISIS will spread worldwide unless defeated in Syria

ISIS - JFA report compiled by senior analysts in the United States Intelligence Community warns that the Islamic State will spread around the world unless it suffers significant territorial losses in Syria and Iraq. The eight-page report was commissioned by the White House and represents the combined views of analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and other members of the US Intelligence Community. According to The Daily Beast, which revealed the existence of the repot on Sunday, the document is “already spurring changes” in how Washington is responding to the growth of the Islamic State. The group is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier said the report, which was commissioned prior to the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, offered “a tacit admission” that efforts by the US, Russia, and other countries to thwart the growth of ISIS have failed. Over 60 nations are so far involved in broad efforts to destroy the Islamist group, mostly through air raids and material support for local militaries and militias. The US has also deployed 3,500 troops —including Special Forces— in the area. But this has done little to stop ISIS, which is believed to have attracted over 30,000 foreign recruits in the last 18 months alone.

Dozier said that, after US President Barack Obama was given the intelligence report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), he asked his senior advisors to come up with “new options” to defeat ISIS. These efforts are currently being led by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Marine General Joseph Dunford, who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of the first decisions taken by the White House in response to the ODNI report was the deployment of a 200-strong Special Forces group on the ground in Iraq and Syria. The group is believed to be conducting raids in association with local militias that are fighting ISIS.

The Daily Beast said it spoke to a spokesman from the ODNI, who confirmed the existence of the intelligence report, but refused to elaborate. Representatives from the White House and the US Department of Defense refused to comment on the subject.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 December 2015 | Permalink

Analysis: The real danger in Syria is not ISIS, but a war between major powers

Vladimir PutinThere are many unpredictable aspects of the Syrian conflict, but the downing of the Russian bomber by Turkish jets on Tuesday was not one of them. Indeed, given the simultaneous military campaigns taking place in a relatively small swath of territory by Russian, American, French, Syrian, Iranian, and other forces, it is surprising that such an incident did not happen earlier. Nevertheless, the downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkish jets marked the first attack on a Russian fighter aircraft by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state since 1953. Although this incident is not by itself sufficient to provoke an armed conflict between Turkey and Russia, it illustrates the main danger confronting the world in Syria: namely a conflagration between regional powers, many of which are armed with nuclear weapons.

In response to earlier incidents, Turkey had warned the Russian Air Force that it would not tolerate further violations of its air space by Russian jets conducting an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The message delivered to the Russian ambassador in Ankara was that Turkish pilots would be ordered to open fire next time. That was precisely what happened on Tuesday, when a Turkish F-16 jet brought down a Russian bomber aircraft with a single missile strike. By most accounts, the Russian airplane was barely two miles inside Turkish airspace, presented no immediate threat to Turkey’s national security, and would probably have returned to Syrian airspace within seconds. But that did not stop the Turkish F-16 from shooting down the Russian plane. Adding injury to insult, Turkish-backed rebels on the Syrian side of the border shot dead one of the plane’s two Russian pilots and opened fire on a Russian rescue team that tried to save the crew, killing at least one marine.

Rather expectedly, a visibly furious Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not used to being challenged militarily, described the incident as “a stab in the back” by “accomplices to terrorists”, and warned Ankara of “serious consequences”. But why would Turkey provoke Russia in such a direct way? Like every other country involved directly or indirectly in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and Russia wish to see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Q Quotedestroyed. But they differ drastically on what should follow. The Kremlin is adamant that President al-Assad, whom it considers its strongest ally in the Middle East, should remain in power. The Turks, on the other hand, view the Syrian president as an existential threat, due to his support for Kurdish militancy throughout the region.

The roots of the animosity between the Turkish state and the al-Assad regime go back to 1978, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was established in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which was at the time occupied by Syria. The PKK is a Marxist militant organization that seeks to establish a Kurdish homeland in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. The group was actively trained, funded, armed and protected by Syria and the Soviet Union. The latter was actively interested in destabilizing Turkey, a NATO member, while Syria used the PKK to exercise pressure on its northern neighbor, with whom it was embroiled in a series of complex land- and water-rights disputes. In 1998, the al-Assad regime was forced to expel PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who was living in Damascus under Syrian protection, after Turkey threatened an all-out war if the Syrian intelligence services continued to shelter the PKK leadership.

Ankara saw the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 as an opportunity to get rid of the al-Assad regime, which it sees as a primary threat to regional stability. Along with the United States, Turkey has been funding, arming and training a host of Syrian rebel groups, while at the same time hosting over 2 million refugees from Syria. The subsequent rise of ISIS alarmed America and its Western allies; but in the eyes of Ankara, ISIS pales into insignificance in comparison to the resurgence of Kurdish nationalism, which has been fueled by the demise of Ba’ath in Iraq and the fragmentation of Syria. For Turkey, Kurdish separatism poses an existential threat to the survival of the Turkish Republic, and is the primary reason for its involvement in the Syrian conflict.

It follows that Russia’s entry in the Syrian Civil War strengthens President al-Assad and the PKK, and is thus regarded by Turkey as a direct threat to its national security. Ankara is also concerned about France’s efforts to build a broad anti-ISIS alliance that includes Russia, and fears that the West is now openly flirting with the possibility of allowing al-Assad to stay in power in Damascus. The deliberate downing of the Russian airplane, which was undoubtedly authorized by the most senior levels of government in Ankara, was aimed at disrupting France’s efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition, while at the same time pushing back against Russia’s regional ambitions.

What will happen next? Theoretically, Turkey could invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which would compel member-states to rush to its assistance. In reality, however, such an eventuality is remote, especially given the expressed willingness of Western leaders to help deescalate the Turkish-Russian row. Following their closed-door meeting on Tuesday, French President FrancoisQ Quote Hollande and his American counterpart Barack Obama went out of their way to avoid mentioning the Russian plane incident, and briefly commented on it only after they were asked to do so by reporters. This does not mean that Russia will not respond; but it will most likely do so behind the scenes, probably by increasing its support for the PKK and other Kurdish separatist groups.

The downing of the Russian bomber highlights the immense contradictions and complica- tions that plague the anti-ISIS forces involved in the Syrian Civil War. It is clear that ISIS is now in a position to attack targets that are located far from its territory in Syria and Iraq, or in its wilayah (provinces) in Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere. However, the threat that ISIS currently poses to international peace and stability is at most marginal and symbolic. Of far more importance to the security of the world is the possibility of an armed conflagration between regional powers, which are being drawn into Syria by the vacuum created by the civil war. All of these regional powers, including Turkey, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, and the US, are heavily armed, many with nuclear weapons. Moreover, they radically disagree on what a post-ISIS Middle East should look like.

The possibility of a serious conflagration between heavily armed regional actors will be removed only if and when the Syrian Civil War ends, even if that results in the loss of land to the so-called Islamic State. That must be the immediate goal of the Combined Joint Task Force and every other regional actor that wishes to see the end of ISIS. It is only after peace has been achieved in Syria that ISIS can be dealt with effectively.

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