French-Swiss firm allegedly bribed Islamic State to keep its factory working in Syria

LafargeHolcimThe world’s largest building materials manufacturer, LafargeHolcim, which is headquartered in France and Switzerland, allegedly bribed the Islamic State to keep its factory working in Syria, according to court witnesses. The company specializes in the manufacture of building materials such as cement, concrete and various byproducts. It was formed in 2015 by a merger of France-based Lafarge and Swiss-based Holcim, and currently employs an estimated 120,000 employees in nearly 100 countries around the world.

In 2011, soon after the Syrian Civil War broke out, various militant groups began operating in the area around one of LafargeHolcim’s plants, located in in north-central Syria, 10 miles south of the Syrian-Turkish border. In June of 2016, French newspaper Le Monde published allegations that LafargeHolcim’s subsidiary, Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS), which owns the plant, bribed various militias to stay away from its factory. According to the paper, at least €20,000 (approximately $24,000) went to the Islamic State, which eventually conquered the area around the LafargeHolcim plant. The article further claimed that LCS managers in Syria sent detailed emails to LafargeHolcim executives in Europe about their dealings with various militias, including the Islamic State. LafargeHolcim approved the use of funds to bribe the militias, said Le Monde, in order to allow the factory to remain operational and to avoid having their employees taken hostage.

The newspaper’s allegations prompted the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Paris to launch a preliminary investigation in October of the same year. Eventually, an official complaint was filed by the French Ministry of Finance, which argued that the activities of LCS may have constituted illicit financial relations between a French-owned company and a terrorist group. An official investigation was opened in June of 2017 into whether LafargeHolcim illegally financed terrorist groups through its subsidiaries, Lafarge and LCS. Investigators are also examining claims that the company presented the French government with forged accounting documents in order to hide the bribes it gave to various Syrian armed groups.

Last week, investigators heard from the first time from witnesses, three of whom were LCS employees in 2014, when the company first made contact with Islamic State militants. They allegedly told prosecutors that the French-Swiss company paid approximately $20,000 a month to various armed groups, including al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State. Prosecutors did not discuss details about the witnesses’ testimonies, but Le Monde said it spoke to individuals with direct knowledge of the investigation, who said that the witnesses’ testimonies were particularly damning for LafargeHolcim. The probe continues.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2017 | Permalink

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US troops in Syria battle anti-Assad rebels once funded by the CIA

US troops in SyriaAmerican troops deployed in Syria have exchanged fire with rebels that were until recently supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In 2013, soon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the then-US President Barack Obama instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. Acting on the president’s directive, the CIA promptly joined forces with spy agencies from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. At that time, Washington saw the Free Syrian Army and forces affiliated with it as ideologically moderate. It also agreed with the group’s main aim, which was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Under the project, which was codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, CIA personnel trained Free Syrian Army fighters in irregular warfare, while also providing them with light weaponry including machine guns, sniper rifles and off-road vehicles. But on July 19 of this year, US President Donald Trump abruptly ended the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”. It soon became apparent that many Free Syrian Army soldiers approached Turkey, seeking financial income and protection. By early August, there were reports from Syria that large groups of former Free Syrian Army troops were conducting raids in northern Syria in coordination with the Turkish military.

Early on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Combined Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve told reporters that US troops in Syria had come under fire by Turkish-commanded former Free Syrian Army units. The spokesman told reporters in Kuwait City that the rebels shot at US troops in the outskirts of Manbij, a northern Syrian city of about 70,000, located a few miles from the Turkish border. The American soldiers reportedly returned fire before seeking shelter from the assault. According to the US Pentagon, the Turkish government was promptly contacted by Inherent Resolve commanders, who described the incident as “not acceptable”. Washington alleges that its troops have come under fire “multiple times” in the past month. Some of the culprits are believed to be Turkish-controlled Syrian insurgents, including former members of the Free Syrian Army.

Turkey and the US are member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But the two countries do not follow a common policy on Syria. The US Pentagon supports Kurdish insurgents in Syria, which Turkey claims are connected with Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. Washington’s official position on Kurdish separatists is that they engage in terrorism against the Turkish state.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2017 | Permalink

CIA’s withdrawal from Syria could cause pro-US rebels to join Islamists, experts warn

Free Syrian ArmyThe decision by the White House to terminate American support for rebels in war-torn Syria could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations, according to experts. The United States’ support for the rebels began in secret in early 2013, after the then US President, Barack Obama, instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. The CIA then joined forces with spy agencies from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. At that time, Washington saw the Free Syrian Army and forces affiliated with it as ideologically moderate. It also agreed with the group’s main aim, which was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, the CIA program was designed to mirror a similar project run by the US military in support of local troops fighting the Islamic State. On the one hand, the White House wanted to use the CIA’s support for the FSA to weaken militarily the regime in Damascus. On the other hand, Washington hoped that the CIA’s involvement in the region would be able to control the influx of weapons, money and fighters that were streaming in from neighboring countries. Under TIMBER SYCAMORE, for over three years, CIA personnel trained Free Syrian Army fighters in irregular warfare, while also providing them with light weaponry including machine guns, sniper rifles and off-road vehicles.

But on July 19 of this year, US President Donald Trump abruptly ended the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”. Some observers argued that the termination of TIMBER SYCAMORE was an attempt by the Trump administration to come to an agreement with Russia on Syria. It is believed that America’s local allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are also terminating their clandestine support for the Free Syrian Army, not wishing to go against the White House. This development, therefore, may signal the effective termination of substantial foreign support for the most important anti-Assad rebel group in Syria.

What does that mean for the fate of the Free Syrian Army and its thousands of fighters? Some experts say that their fate is uncertain, and warn that some of them may turn against their former benefactors. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Taylor Luck, said earlier this week that the Free Syrian Army reported 50 defections of its fighters in July. Some of these fighters, says Luck, are joining the Pentagon’s program in support of forces fighting the Islamic State, and are currently heading to the eastern and northern battlefronts. But many others are being tempted to join al-Qaeda affiliated groups, who are still fighting President Assad’s forces. Many do so for financial reasons, after seeing their CIA income suddenly disappear. Others, says Luck, are feeling very emotional and bitter against what they see as a betrayal by Washington. “We lost our brothers, our sisters, our children”, says one of these fighters, before vowing to fight Assad until the end. According to Luck’s report, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to come up with ways to continue to pay the Free Syrian Army rebels, in an attempt to stop them from joining rival jihadist groups.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 August 2017 | Permalink

Dozens of Western ‘freelance fighters’ embedded with anti-ISIS forces in Syria

Kurdish YPG SyriaDozens of Western European and American citizens are participating in the ongoing takeover of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria, despite being prohibited from doing so by their own governments, according to recent news reports. Much has been written about foreign fighters who enter Iraq and Syria in order to join the ranks of the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that previously went by the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But relatively little attention has been paid to the thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to the region to join the war against ISIS.

In late 2015, independent researcher Nathan Patin published “The Other Foreign Fighters”, a rare examination of Americans who had joined the various armed groups fighting ISIS in the region. Patin found that at least 200 Americans had attempted to travel to the region in order to join the fight against ISIS as ‘freelance fighters’. Roughly half of those had managed to embed themselves with armed —primarily Kurdish— groups, and saw action on the ground. In 2016, three British and Irish anti-ISIS volunteers were jailed by Iraqi authorities while attempting to return to Europe after having fought for the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. The three were initially suspected of being foreign ISIS volunteers, but were released from prison in April of 2016, after the YPG verified their bona fides.

A recent report by The Los Angeles Times claims that there are still “several dozen” Western volunteers embedded with anti-ISIS militias in Syria. They are doing so in the face of warnings by European and American government agencies that freelance participation in the Syrian civil war is a potentially punishable offense. The Times cited “local estimates” and spoke to Daman Frat, a YPG commander stationed in the eastern outskirts of Raqqa, who said that “several foreign volunteers” were embedded in YPG units. Most, though certainly not all of them, said Frat, had prior military experience. According to the paper, at least three Western volunteers, one British and two American citizens, have died in recent days, as YPG forces are closing in on the de facto ISIS capital. The US Departments of State and Defense, which are tacitly in support of the YPG and other Kurdish groups operating in Syria, did not comment on The Los Angeles Times report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2017 | Permalink

French spy agencies conclude Assad government was behind Syria gas attack

Khan SheikhunA comprehensive report released yesterday by the French Intelligence Community concludes with certainty that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the April 4 sarin gas attack in northwestern Syria. The report, a “national evaluation” based on France’s own intelligence sources and scientific analysis of samples collected from the site of the attack, indicates that the poison gas used in the attack came from stockpiles that belong to the Syrian government.

The sarin gas attack targeted Khan Sheikhun, a town of approximately 50,000 people in the southern region of Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The city is located on the main highway that connects the Syrian capital Damascus with the city of Aleppo in the north of the country. The surprise attack killed nearly 100 people and drew near-universal condemnation from the international community. It also sparked a military attack by the United States, which launched a missile attack at a Syrian military base from where the sarin gas attack allegedly originated.

On Wednesday, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, announced the publication of a report, which, he said, proves conclusively that the Syrian government perpetrated the attack. The six-page declassified version of the report concludes that “the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians”. It alleges that the conclusion rests on “intelligence collected by our services”, which includes “samples from the scene of the attack”. The latter are reportedly identical with samples collected from sites of previous chemical attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government. Additionally, the French report concludes that the attack was conducted with the use of airplanes, which the Syrian rebel forces do not have.

The French intelligence report comes after a similar report from the United States concluded that Assad’s government was behind the attack on Khan Sheikhun. A few days after the attack, medical tests conducted on victims of the attack by Turkish experts showed that sarin gas had been used, but did not implicate a specific culprit. The Syrian and Russian governments deny all involvement in the attack and claim that it was carried out by al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 April 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: US launches strikes against Syrian regime in major policy shift

Shayrat SyriaThe nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles that the United States fired at Syria in the early hours of Friday local time were not the first. Nor were they the first that struck a Syrian government installation. In September of 2016, for example, a United States airstrike hit a military base in the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, killing 62 and wounding over 100 government soldiers. However, the Pentagon claimed that the strike was in error and had been intended to hit Islamic State militants. In fact, the entirety of America’s previous military strikes on Syrian soil has been aimed at the Islamic State. The missiles that last night on the Syrian military airbase of Shayrat marked Washington’s first intentional attack on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Consequently, the US is now an official belligerent in one of our time’s most complex and intractable armed conflicts.

Since the missile attacks were confirmed, all eyes have concentrated on Russia, President Al-Assad’s primary supporter, without whom Damascus would now probably be run by a consortium of Sunni militias. There is no question that Shayrat hosts a significant contingent of Russian military personnel and large quantities of Russian-supplied military equipment, ranging from airplanes to radar facilities. Moscow’s response to the American attack will largely depend on whether any of its personnel are among the casualties in Shayrat. There is also concern about China’s response, given that Washington’s attack took place during the official visit to the United States by Xi Jinping, premier of China, another strong Syrian ally. Finally, it is worth considering possible Iranian responses to the US attack, especially if Iranian citizens end up on the casualty list.

The attention paid by observers to Russia, China and Iran is understandable given the clout of these countries on the world stage. But the most important response may come from Syria itself. According to the US Pentagon, the strike on the Shayrat airbase was intended “to deter the [Syrian] regime from using chemical weapons again”. But what if it does not? Last time Washington responded to rumors of a chemical attack in Syria, President Obama warned his counterpart in Damascus not to cross the red line of chemical warfare. Which, of course, was precisely what Mr. Assad did, successfully calling Washington’s bluff. He may do so again. Last night’s American attack may therefore result in an intensification of chemical warfare by the Syrian regime. At that point, US President Donald Trump will have no choice but to deepen America’s involvement in an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable war, where he will find Russia on the opposite side.

Few supporters of President Trump, who campaigned promising to disengage America from foreign wars and focus on domestic concerns, could have imagined even a month ago that the White House would be entering the Syrian Civil War. And yet this is precisely what is happening. The US now has over 500 troops stationed on Syrian soil, and has just attacked the country’s government with dozens of missiles. The reaction to that attack by the government in Damascus may draw Washington even deeper into the Syrian war. Many observers in America have suggested that the only way to truly evaluate the Trump administration will be by observing its performance during a major international crisis. It appears that they may soon get their wish.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 March 2017 | Permalink

Israel’s chief of staff says Hezbollah killed its own commander in Syria

Mustafa Amine BadreddineAn Israeli military official has repeated claims in the Arab media that the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah killed its own military commander in Syria, following a dispute with Iran. Mustafa Amine Badreddine, 55, an expert in explosives and former bomb-maker, was a senior military commander in the military wing of Hezbollah. He rose through the ranks of the organization to become a trusted adviser to Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah. In 2011, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up by the United Nations, charged Badreddine with organizing the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri was killed with over 20 other people in a massive bomb blast in Beirut, in February of 2005.

Soon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the leadership of Hezbollah dispatched Badreddine to the Syrian capital Damascus. His stated mission was to command thousands of Hezbollah troops, who fought under Iranian guidance in support of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But on May 13, 2016, Badreddine was reportedly killed in Damascus, causing observers to describe his death as the biggest setback for the Shiite militant group since the 2008 assassination of its leading commander, Imad Mughniyeh. Initial reports in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese media suggested that Badreddine might have been killed in an Israeli air attack. But a press statement issued later by Hezbollah said the commander had been killed as a result of an armed attack by Sunni rebels. However, on March 8 of this year, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab television network al-Arabiya said it had conducted its own investigation into Badreddine’s death, and had concluded that he was killed by Hezbollah itself. The network claimed that Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah had ordered Badreddine’s killing, after the Iranians demanded it. Apparently the Iranians wanted him killed because he disputed the authority of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is often credited with having saved the Syrian government from demise during the Civil War.

The claim that Badreddine was killed by Hezbollah was echoed on Tuesday by Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Speaking to the Associated Press, Lt Gen Eisenkot said that reports from Arab media that Badreddine was killed by his own forces agreed “with intelligence we have”, referring to the Israeli military. It is worth noting that Israeli officials rarely comment on intelligence operations, including assassination operations, choosing instead to adhere to a “refuse to confirm or deny” policy.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 March 2017 | Permalink