US unable to trace $716 million worth of weapons given to Syrian rebels

Syrian Civil War rebelsThe United States government is unable to account for nearly $716 million in weapons it gave to various Syrian groups during the war against the Islamic State, according to a Department of Defense audit. The weapons were procured under the Counter Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Train and Equip Funds (CTEF) program, which was administered by the US Pentagon in 2017 and 2018. The CTEF program cost the US taxpayer a total of $930 million.

But now an audit by the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General, which was released to the public on Tuesday, shows that most of the CTEF weaponry’s whereabouts cannot be verified. The reason, according to the audit, is that officials with the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, failed to maintain detailed lists of all military equipment given to Washington’s allies in Syria between 2017 and 2018. Officials did not have a centralized depository facility for dispensing the equipment, and no documentation was kept during the operation, according to the audit. Consequently, thousands of weapons, weapons parts and other military hardware were exposed to “loss and theft”, says the Pentagon report.

There is no speculation in the report about where the missing weapons may have ended up, nor is there any indication that they may have fallen into the hands of the Syrian government, the Islamic State or Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitaries that are active in the region. However, the report notes that the Syrian battlefield is awash with American-manufactured weaponry. Much of the weaponry fell into the hands of pro-Syrian government militias, or the Islamic State, after US-trained rebel groups were defeated by them, joined them or simply surrendered.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 February 2020 | Permalink

ISIS is tenacious, well-funded and quickly reasserting itself, new UN report warns

Islamic State ISISThe Islamic State remains committed to its goals and continues to utilize ample funding sources, according to a new report by the United Nations. The report warns that the militant Sunni group, which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is quickly reasserting itself in the Middle East.

The report (.pdf) was authored by a committee of the UN’s Security Council that monitors the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions designed to weaken the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and groups aligned with them. It was completed on January 20 and submitted to the UN Security Council last week. Its authors state that the information used to compile it came from intelligence shared with the UN by its member states.

The report recognizes that the Islamic State has suffered significant defeats in the field of battle, which have shattered its once formidable military and logistical power. Despite these setbacks, however, the militant group remains “tenacious and well-funded”, with much of its financial income stemming from sound investing practices in business opportunities throughout the Middle East, says the report. Meanwhile, its armed units in Syria continue to sell protection and carry out extortion, now even during daylight hours, it adds. The group’s steady funding even allows it to continue to provide monthly pensions to close family members of its dead fighters.

Additionally, says the report, the Islamic State has learned to take advantage of the deficiencies of Syrian and Iraqi security forces, and is now carrying out progressively brazen armed attacks against a variety of military and civilian targets. Although it is operationally weak, it continues to aspire to launch attacks in Europe in the future. Additionally, its leaders continue to seek ways of freeing thousands of the group’s supporters from detention camps in Syria and Iraq.

The report concludes that the death of the group’s leader, Abu Bark al-Baghdadi, and his replacement by Amir al-Salbi (also known as Abdullah Qardash) is not expected to signal drastic changes in the Islamic State’s strategic direction. However, Qardash is not an Arab and may not stay at the group’s helm for long, as an Arab Emir would be more likely to be met with acceptance by the group’s wilayats, or provinces, the report adds.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 February 2020 | Permalink

In surprise move, Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs meet in Moscow

Turkey SyriaIn a move that surprised observers, the intelligence chiefs of Turkey and Syria —two bitter rivals in the ongoing Syrian civil war— met in Russia on Monday. The meeting was held in Moscow and was acknowledged by officials from both sides, making it the first explicit contact between Turkish and Syrian intelligence in over a decade.

The Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has openly called for the toppling of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. The Turkish strongman regularly refers to al-Assad as a “terrorist” and blames him for clandestinely supporting Kurdish paramilitaries, who have waged a war of secession against Ankara for several decades.

Regional dynamics shifted radically since early 2017, however, when the United States began withdrawing from the conflict. In the following months, Washington lifted its support for a collection of rebels fighting against the Syrian president. Last year, the US military left northern Syria and allowed Turkish troops to invade the region, with the aim of repelling armed Kurdish units from the Syrian-Turkish border.

Throughout this time, there have been rumors of intelligence coordination between Ankara and Damascus, but no official acknowledgement was ever issued. On Monday, however, Syria’s government-owned news agency, SANA, said that a meeting had taken place in Moscow between the heads of intelligence of Syria and Turkey. Shortly afterwards, a number of anonymous Turkish officials confirmed these reports to the Reuters news agency.

Reuters reported that the two sides discussed the state of the ceasefire in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, and future steps aimed at coordinating against the presence of armed Kurdish separatists in northern Syrian regions. It quoted one Turkish official who said that the two intelligence agencies were exploring “the possibility of working together” against separatist Kurdish groups on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 January 2020 | Permalink

Al-Baghdadi’s ISIS hideout was equipped with frequently used internet connection

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiThe Islamic State’s Syrian hideout that housed the group’s leader until his demise on October 26, was equipped with a frequently used internet connection, according to Arab media reports. Abu Bakr al-Baghdaid, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, was killed by United States soldiers in Barisha,  a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border.

The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. Moreover, it is heavily monitored by several intelligence agencies that have been looking for al-Baghdadi for years. It has therefore been generally assumed that the Islamic State leader’s hideout was kept isolated from the outside world and that no digital telecommunications means were used by its inhabitants, out of fear that they would be monitored by the Syrian authorities, Turkey, the United States, or others.

But a new report from the Dubai-based Al-Aan TV claims that the hideout was equipped with a frequently used internet connection and that it was active almost up to the moment US troops stormed the compound. The exclusive report, which aired on Thursday, alleges that the internet connection was set up in February of this year, and that it was used almost daily. The last time it was active was just 12 hours prior to the raid that killed al-Baghdadi and several members of his family.

The bill for the internet connection was approximately $8.00 a month and was paid by Abu Muhammad al-Halabi, a Syrian smuggler whose name also appears on tax records as the owner of the property, according to Al-Aan. The report provides no information about the type of online activity that the internet connection at the Barisha compound was used for.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2019 | Permalink

Turks feared Russia might bomb Erdoğan’s palace in 2015, intelligence memo shows

Hmeimim AirbaseAuthorities in Turkey were concerned that Russia might bomb the presidential palace in Ankara in 2015, to retaliate against the downing of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish military, according to an intelligence report. On November 25 of that year, a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M attack bomber was shot down by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet over the Syrian-Turkish border. Ankara claimed that the Russian aircraft had violated Turkish airspace for longer than five minutes and had failed to respond to 10 warning messages communicated by radio. By the time the Russian plane was fired upon it was nearly 1.5 miles inside Turkish airspace, according to Turkey’s Ministry of Defense. But the Kremlin claimed that the downed aircraft had been flying a mile south of the Turkish border when it was shot down.

A few hours after the incident, Russian President Vladimir Putin described it as “a stab in the back by terrorist accomplices” and warned Ankara that Moscow would not tolerate such attacks on its armed forces. International observers expressed concern about a possible armed retaliation by Russia against the Turkish military. Now a formerly classified intelligence report suggests that Turkish authorities were concerned that Russia might bomb the country’s presidential palace in Ankara. The report was unearthed by the Nordic Research Monitoring Network (NRMN), a security-oriented research initiative staffed by Turkish experts who live in Europe and the United States.

The NRMN said the previously classified report was authored by Signals Intelligence Directorate of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, known as MİT. It describes an intercepted conversation that took place on December 3, 2015. The conversation involved a Syrian military officer, who was believed to be a brigadier general in the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The officer, identified in the document only as Adnan, was reportedly speaking with an unnamed Russian general, identified only as Sergei, and another unidentified senior officer in the Syrian armed forces. The discussion concerned an upcoming meeting between Syrian and Russian military officials at the Hmeimim Airbase, a Russian-operated military installation on the outskirts of Latakia.

The purpose of the meeting was for the Russian forces to officially notify the Syrians that their warplanes would be carrying a heavier payload in the future, and to explain why. At one point in the conversation the Russian general told the Syrians that part of the heavier payload would consist of “barrel bombs [that] will go to Erdoğan’s palace”. The MİT interpreted that to mean the Turkish Presidential Complex, which is located inside the Atatürk Forest Farm in the Beştepe neighborhood of Ankara. The ensuing intelligence report contains handwritten notes indicating that the information contained in it was communicated to the leadership of the Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish General Staff.

At the end no attack took place. In June of the following year President Erdoğan sent a letter to his Russian counterpart, in which he expressed his condolences for the family of the Russian pilots who were killed when their aircraft was shot down. Following the July 2016 coup, the two Turkish pilots who had shot down the Russian aircraft were arrested on suspicion of being involved in the attempt to topple Erdoğan. This, in association with the Turkish president’s letter of sympathy, were seen by Moscow as goodwill gestures from Ankara. Relations between the two countries were eventually restored.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 November 2019 | Permalink

Turkey’s arrest of al-Baghdadi’s sister is ‘intelligence goldmine’ says official

Rasmiya AwadA Turkish government official has described the arrest of the sister of the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as “an intelligence goldmine”. The official was referring to the arrest of Rasmiya Awad, an Iraqi citizen, who was reportedly arrested on Monday. Little is known about al-Baghdadi’s sister. She is believed to have been born in 1954, which makes her 65 years old this year.

Awad was arrested during a raid by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army at a makeshift refugee camp in the suburbs of Azaz, a city of 30,000 located approximately 20 miles northwest of Aleppo. The Aleppo province in northwestern Syria has been under Turkish military control since 2016. Since then, the Turkish military command has relied on the Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army and a selection of smaller pro-Turkish militia to control the region.

The Associated Press reported that Awad was detained along with her family, including her husband, her daughter-in-law, and her five children. Five other adults were arrested in the vicinity of the refugee camp, all of them Iraqi citizens, but there is no word yet on whether they are in any way connected with the Islamic State. Turkish officials told the Associated Press yesterday that Awad, her husband and her daughter-in-law were being interrogated.

The news agency quoted one Turkish government official as saying that Awad’s capture was “an intelligence goldmine. What she knows about [the Islamic State] can significantly expand our understanding of the group and help us catch more bad guys”, the official is reported to have told the Associated Press.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 November 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: ISIS leader’s hideout in Turkish-controlled part of Syria raises questions

Turkey SyriaIn 2011, the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad raised questions about Pakistan’s knowledge of his whereabouts. Today it is hardly controversial to suggest that at least some elements in the Pakistani government must have been aware of bin Laden’s location. Last week’s discovery of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a region of Syria controlled by Turkey inevitably raises similar questions about Ankara’s role in the Syrian conflict and its relationship with the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State was found hiding in Barisha, a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border. The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. The area north of Barisha has been under Turkish control since August of 2016, when Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield, a cross-border operation conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces in cooperation with Turkish-baked militias in Syria. In early 2018, Turkish and pro-Turkish forces extended their territorial control further south, capturing Barisha and all surrounding regions. They remain in control of the area to this day.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is often described as a “proto-state”. It is governed by a collection of local councils of Turkmens and Arabs, with some Kurds and Yazidis also present. These councils elect representatives to the self-proclaimed Syrian Interim Government, which was formed in Turkey by Turkish-backed Syrian exiles and is currently headquartered in Azaz, an Arab-majority city of 30,000 that is under direct Turkish military control. Azaz is also the headquarters of the Turkish-backed “Free Police”, a gendarmerie-style militia that is funded, trained and equipped by the Turkish government.

In addition to the Turkish troops, the region is controlled by the Turkish-funded Syrian National Army. The 25,000 troops of the SNA —which is jokingly referred to by the locals as the “Turkish Syrian National Army”— operate completely under Turkish command. A substantial portion of the SNA’s force consists of former Islamic State fighters who switched their allegiance to the SNA once they saw the writing on the wall. Others are former members of the group that used to call itself Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has become the most powerful Salafi-jihadist force in Syria after the demise of the Islamic State.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is also the base of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group consisting of over 20,000 fighters, which is not officially aligned with al-Qaeda, but has similar goals. Since at least 2017, Ahrar al-Sham has effectively operated as a Turkish proxy militia and is in charge of dozens of check points and observation posts throughout the region. Lastly, the area is home to Hurras al-Din, yet another Salafi-jihadist group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda —though its leaders deny it. The group is able to operate in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria with suspicious ease. It was this group, Hurras al-Din, that sheltered al-Baghdadi in Barisha in return for cash.

Given Turkey’s military and political control of Idlib province, the question arises of how the world’s most high-profile terrorist leader was able to enter the region and receive protection from a militia that operates there under the watchful eye of the Turkish military. The New York Times reports that al-Baghdadi had been living in Barisha for several months before last week’s raid, and that Washington had been aware of his hideout location since the summer. Was Turkish intelligence also aware of the Islamic State leader’s whereabouts? If not, how could that be? If yes, why did it take a Kurdish spy, handled by Syrian Kurdish intelligence, to locate him and provide information to the Untited States? More importantly, what exactly is the relationship between Turkey and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who seem to operate freely in Idlib and provide protection to senior Islamic State officials in exchange for cash?

There are clearly more questions than answers here. If the United States is serious about combating Islamist extremism in the Middle East, it must press Ankara on these questions as a matter of urgency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2019 | Permalink