As debate centers on Afghanistan, Russian forces challenge US troops in Syria

Deir al-Zour SyriaAs an intense debate rages in the United States about Moscow’s alleged subversion of American military goals in Afghanistan, sources warn that Russia is increasingly challenging Washington’s troops in Syria. Recent reports have alleged that the Kremlin has been offering financial rewards to Taliban fighters encouraging them to kill US troops in Afghanistan. The Russian government has denied these allegations, while the White House claims it was never briefed about this by the Intelligence Community.

Some experts suggest, however, that Russia’s growing involvement in Afghanistan may be part of a wider effort by Moscow to test the limits of American military presence in Asia. This can be seen as a predictable response by the Russians, given that US President Donald Trump has repeatedly indicated he is not a fan of substantial American military involvement abroad. According to a new report by Politico, Russia’s challenge can be observed, not only in Afghanistan, but also in Syria, where American and Russian troops have been present in the same battlespace for over five years now.

In the past, the two militaries have kept open lines of communication to ensure that they stay clear from each other, thus avoiding a major escalation between the two nuclear-armed nations. Consequently, despite supporting opposing sides in the war, Russian and American troops have not directly challenged each other, with very few exceptions. Presently Russian forces continue to support of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, while several hundred US forces are working closely with Kurdish fighters, who control territory in eastern Syria.

Despite the pullout of most American troops from the region in the past two years, the US maintains a force of nearly 1,000 soldiers in the Deir al-Zour region of eastern Syria. These are closely coordinating with Kurdish peshmerga, whose primary tasks include guarding the region’s lucrative oil fields, thus starving the government of President al-Assad of a major source of revenue. In the past, Russian troops have rarely ventured in the Kurdish-controlled region, in full knowledge of the US military presence there. Lately, however, brushes between American and Russian troops in Deir al-Zour have been “increasingly frequent”, according to Politico, which cited “two current US officials and one former US official” in its report. Read more of this post

Close American ally UAE is secretly training Syrian intelligence units, report claims

KBZACThe United Arab Emirates, one of the United States’ closest Arab allies, is training Syrian intelligence and military officers and is giving financial aid to government-owned civilian facilities in Damascus, a report claims. The UAE broke off diplomatic relations with Damascus at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. But relations between the two countries were restored in 2018, when the oil kingdom reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital.

According to an investigation by the French-language Arab-affairs publication Orient XXI, which was reported on by the Middle East Monitor, Abu Dhabi began providing logistical, technical and financial assistance to the Syrian government soon after the embassy of the Emirates was reopened in Damascus. Orient XXI said that Emirati instructors are currently training around 40 Syrian military intelligence officers. Of these, 31 are non-commissioned officers, while at least 8 more are information technology and communication systems engineers.

Another group of Emirati instructors are allegedly training members of the Syrian Arab Army’s general staff, including at least five Syrian fighter pilots. The pilots are currently attending an all-expenses paid course at the UAE Air Force’s Khalifa bin Zayed Air College (KBZAC) in Al Ain. Orient XXI reports that the duration of the courses range from 60 days to a year, and are supervised by the intelligence services of the Syrian government. The Syrian supervisory mission at the Khalifa bin Zayed Air College is reportedly headed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Lieutenant Colonel Jihad Barakat, who previously commanded Syrian paramilitary units. Washington has tried several times to kill Barakat.

The report by Orient XXI also alleges that the Emiratis have been providing substantial financial aid, medical provisions and food supplies to Syrian government-owned hospitals and welfare centers in Damascus and other regions of the country, which are controlled by al-Assad’s forces. The UAE has already helped rebuilt several public buildings, electric power stations and water plants in Damascus, which were damaged during the war, says Orient XXI. Read more of this post

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

US Special Forces secrets could fall into hands of Russians as Kurds side with Syria

Yekîneyên Antî Teror‎American defense officials with knowledge of Special Operations Forces activities in Syria are concerned that their secrets may fall into the hands of the Russians, as the Kurds switch their allegiance to the Moscow-backed Syrian government. Members of the United States Special Operations Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have had a presence in Kurdish-dominated northern Syria since at least 2012. Following the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, the Americans have worked closely with the Kurds in battling the Islamist group throughout the region.

Throughout that time, US Special Operations Forces have trained members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a political and military umbrella of anti-government Syrian groups, which is led by the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militias. Until recently, the SDF and the YPG were almost exclusively funded, trained and armed by the US through its Special Operations Forces units on the ground in northern Syria. US Special Operations Forces were also behind the creation in 2014 of the SDF’s most feared force, the Anti-Terror Units. Known in Kurdish as Yekîneyên Antî Teror‎, these units have been trained by the US in paramilitary operations and are tasked with targeting Islamic State sleeper cells.

As of this week, however, the SDF and all of its US-trained militias have switched their allegiance to the Russia-backed government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The dramatic move followed the decision of the White House earlier this month to pull its Special Operations Forces troops from norther Syria, effectively allowing the Turkish military to invade the region. According to the American defense news website Military Times, US Pentagon officials are now worried that the SDF may surrender to the Russians a long list of secrets relating to US Special Operations Forces’ “tactics, techniques, procedures, equipment, intelligence gathering and even potentially names of operators”.

One former US defense official told The Military Times that SDF “may be in survival mode and will need to cut deals with bad actors” by surrendering US secrets. Another source described this scenario as “super problematic” and a symptom of the absence of a genuine American strategy in the wider Middle East region. The website also cited US Marines Major Fred Galvin (ret.), who said that Special Operations Forces tend to reveal little about themselves and their capabilities when working with non-US actors. However, this is uncharted territory for them, said Galvin, since “we’ve never had a force completely defect to an opposition like this before”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 October 2019 | Permalink

Trump thought Erdoğan was “bluffing” about invading Syria, sources claim

Turkey SyriaSenior White House officials close to United States President Donald Trump believed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was bluffing when he threatened to invade northern Syria, according to sources. For over two years, most of northern Syria has been controlled by American-supported Kurdish militias, who were instrumental in helping Washington defeat the Islamic State. But the growing strength of the Kurdish forces alarmed Turkey, which views Kurdish nationalism as a bigger threat than the Islamic State.

Since 2016, Ankara repeatedly threatened to invade northern Syria and disarm the Kurdish groups, which it sees as terrorist. It had refrained from doing so due to the presence of American troops in the area. However, according to news website Axios, key officials in the Trump White House were convinced that Turkish President Erdoğan would not have his troops invade northern Syria even if the American forces pulled out. In making this claim, the website cites six unnamed sources “with direct knowledge of the situation”, some of whom were allegedly “in the room with the two leaders and had access to their phone calls going back several years.

In one of these phone calls, which took place in 2017, President Erdoğan allegedly informed the US leader of his government’s intention to “move in to take care of the Kurdish threat” in northern Syria. But President Trump cautioned him about making such a daring move. He reminded the Turkish leader that, by invading northern Syria, Turkey would become responsible for the tens of thousands of Islamic State supporters and their families who are kept in detention camps. Ankara would also face mass international condemnation and possible sanctions from the United States and Europe. Moreover, the US-trained and -supplied Kurdish forces would arguably create a military quagmire for Turkish troops in the region. At that point Turkey “would own” the problem and would not be able to “come to [the US] for help”, according to Trump.

The Axios report claims that, until last week, the White House thought that “Erdoğan would never actually go through with his long-threatened Syria invasion”, because doing so would be detrimental to Turkish interests in the region. Based on that conviction, President Trump finally decided to call Erdoğan’s bluff by pulling American Special Forces troops out of northern Syria, in the belief that Tukey’s response would amount to nothing further than a few airstrikes and small-scale cross-border incursions. That belief was behind the White House’s surprise decision to suddenly pull its troops from northern Syria, according to Axios’ sources.

The report did not mention whether the US Intelligence Community’s reports to the White House concurred with the US President’s conviction that Turkey would not invade northern Syria even in the absence of US troops. The question is, in other words, did Trump made up his mind about Erdoğan’s intentions to invade northern Syria because, or despite the conclusions of his own Intelligence Community?

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

Concerns about mass breakouts of jailed ISIS fighters if Turkey invades northern Syria

Turkey ISISOfficials in the United States, Europe and the Middle East have warned that thousands of jailed members of the Islamic State could escape from Kurdish-controlled prisons in northern Syria if Turkey invades the region. For more than two years, the area has been controlled by American-supported Kurdish militias, who were instrumental in helping Washington defeat the Islamic State —also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. But the growing strength of the Kurdish forces has alarmed Turkey, which views Kurdish nationalism in the region as a bigger threat than Salafi jihadism. Ankara has repeatedly threatened to invade northern Syria and disarm the Kurdish groups, which it sees as terrorist.

The continuous presence of American troops in northern Syria has served to dissuade Turkey from invading. Yesterday, however, the White House surprised observers by announcing its sudden decision to pull its troops from northern Syria. Washington’s unexpected move drew criticism from Kurdish commanders who spoke of betrayal, as well as by members of both political parties in Congress. Security officials also expressed fears that Turkey’s focus on the Kurds could allow ISIS to regroup in northern Syria. A statement issued by the White House on Monday said that Turkey would assume control of over 10,000 captured ISIS fighters who are currently being held in Kurdish-administered prison camps in northern Syria. But experts said that the wider Kurdish-controlled region of northern Syria, which Turkey intends to capture, is home to dozens of prisons with over 60,000 captured ISIS supporters in them. What will be the fate of these prisoners under Turkish control?

Security observers have repeatedly accused Turkey in the past of turning a blind eye to ISIS, whose members fought a prolonged and bloody war against Iraqi and Syrian Kurds from 2016 to 2018. There are no guarantees that the Turks will not utilize a resurgent ISIS to suppress Kurdish nationalism in the region. In fact, some experts, including retired American generals, warned on Monday that a Turkish invasion of northern Syria would give ISIS “a golden chance to regroup”. There are concerns of mass breakouts of ISIS members from Kurdish-controlled prisons in Syria, amidst the widespread chaos caused by a Turkish military onslaught. Such breakouts have been encouraged by ISIS leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself. Escaped prisoners would most likely join the nearly 20,000 estimated ISIS fighters who are still at large in Iraq and Syria, thus contributing to a potentially catastrophic regeneration of the militant Sunni group, according to experts.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 October 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Al-Qaeda shifts strategic focus to Syria while still seeking to attack West

Jabhat al-NusraIn an effort to remain relevant, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic focus from Yemen to Syria but continues to pursue a globalist agenda by seeking ways to attack Western targets, according to an expert report. Following the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in 2014, al-Qaeda found it difficult to retain its title as the main representative of the worldwide Sunni insurgency. But in an argue published last week on the website of the RAND Corporation, two al-Qaeda experts argue that the militant group is rebounding.

The authors, Middle East Institute senior fellow Charles Listeris and RAND senior political scientist Colin Clarke, editorial that al-Qaeda followed a pragmatic and patient strategy after 2014. Specifically, the group remained on the margins and “deliberately let the Islamic State bear the brunt of the West’s counterterrorism campaign” they argue. At the same time, al-Qaeda has sought to remain relevant by shifting the center of its activity from Yemen to Syria. That decision appears to have been taken in 2014, when the group began to systematically transport assets and resources from its traditional strongholds of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Levant, the authors argue.

Observers are still evaluating the implications of al-Qaeda’s strategic shift. Listeris and Clarke note that counterterrorism experts have yet to fully understand them. What appears certain is that al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, “proved to be the most potent military actor on the battlefield” in the Levant. It did so by operating largely independently from al-Qaeda central, which allowed it to act with speed in pursuit of a strictly localized agenda that attracted many locals. At the same time, however, al-Nusra’s independence effectively separated it from its parent organization. Many al-Qaeda loyalists accused the group of abandoning al-Qaeda’s principles and left it when it rebranded itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Levantine Conquest Front) in 2016 and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) in 2017.

Al-Qaeda itself denounced Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in 2018 and today supports a number of smaller militias that operate on the ground in Syria. These smaller groups appear to be extremely professional and experienced, and are staffed by “veterans with decades of experience at al Qaeda’s highest levels”. What does this mean about al-Qaeda’s strategic priorities? Listeris and Clarke argue that Syria remains al-Qaeda’s priority. But the group remains focused on attacking the West while also pursuing guerrilla warfare in Syria, they say. This reflects al-Qaeda’s overarching narrative, namely to fight in local conflicts while pursuing the “far enemy” (the West), which it sees as a mortal enemy of Islam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 September 2019 | Permalink

ISIS could make bigger comeback than 2014 in Iraq and Syria, warns new report

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is capable of make a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain, according to a new report from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). The Washington-based think-tank’s report is based on the most recent data about the presence in the Middle East of the militant Islamist group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The 76-page report (.pdf) is titled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, and is written by ISW’s researchers Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou.

The authors claim that the Islamic State moved its forces undercover during the multinational military campaign that eventually sacked its self-proclaimed caliphate. They go on to explain that by “deliberately withdrawing and relocating may of its fighters and their families”, the group managed to preserve a large part of its fighting forces, which are “now dispersed across [Iraq and Syria] and are waging a capable insurgency”. The latter is funded through ISIS’ global finance network and armed with weapons and other war materiel that the group managed to hide in tunnel systems and other hidden facilities. Islamic State insurgents have thus been engaged in a broad and largely successful campaign to assassinate village and town elders across Iraq, and have even reestablished a sharia-based taxation system in some of Iraq’s predominantly Sunni areas. The group also retains a significant presence in Syria, where it continues to battle the Syrian regime, US-supported Kurdish forces, and other Sunni militant groups, including al-Qaeda, according to the report.

Through its widening insurgency, the Islamic State has managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce a semblance of stability and safety in areas previously conquered by the militant group. In fact, not only are government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both countries, the report warns. The report’s authors place much of the blame for ISIS’ resurgence at Washington’s door, describing America’s hasty military withdrawal from Iraq and Syria as “a critical mistake”. In its recommendations section, the report calls on the United States to develop and implement a long-term counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS, which will combine military and community-building measures. “Another limited [military] intervention will not be sufficient” to eliminate the threat, the report’s authors claim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 June 2019 | Permalink

Destabilization fears grow as hundreds of armed ISIS fighters enter Iraq from Syria

Islamic State ISISIntelligence officials warn that Iraq’s fragile stability may be at risk, following reports that as many as a thousand armed Islamic State fighters have entered Iraq from Syria in recent weeks. The organization calling itself the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq an Syria, or ISIS) is on its last legs in Baghouz, a Syrian village located on the banks of the Euphrates River near the Syrian-Iraqi border. Its fighters are report by a large number of American-backed forces led by Syrian Kurds, in what appears to be the Islamic State’s last territorial stronghold in the Middle East.

Many or the militant Sunni group’s fighters, however, have managed to slip past the American-led coalition’s offensive lines and are now making their way across the border into Iraq’s Sunni-majority northwestern provinces. To prevent this, the Shiite-led Iraqi army has reportedly deployed more than 20,000 soldiers across the 370-mile border with Syria. But the size of the border, as well as the region’s rugged and inhospitable terrain, are making it very difficult to police it. A major surrounded published by the Associated Press late last week claims that hundreds of Islamic State fighters are slipping across the border into Iraq at night, or using tunnels that were constructed by the Islamic State in 2013 and 2014. Others are making their way into Iraq disguised as women or local farmers. Most are armed, says the Associated Press, or know where to go to dig up weapons caches and money, which the Islamic State buried as it retreated into Syria last year under concerted attacks by the Iraqi army.

The Associated Press report quotes three Iraqi intelligence officials and a United States military official, who say that more than 1,000 ISIS fighters entered Iraq from Syria since last September. Iraqi intelligence sources allegedly estimate that between 5,000 and 7,000 armed ISIS fighters are now present in Iraq. Many of them remain in hiding, but others are engaged in systematic efforts to revitalize the group’s presence in Iraq’s Sunni-majority provinces. This was confirmed in a recent press briefing by a senior Iraqi Army spokesman, Brigadier General Yahya Rasoul, who warned that “ISIS is trying to assert itself in Iraq, because of the pressure it is under in Syria”. At least nine major ISIS attacks were recorded in Iraq in January, and several have taken place in February, including the recent killing of five fishermen in Najaf Province, which prompted officials to warn that ISIS may be making a comeback in the region. Iraqi intelligence officials told the Associated Press that the attacks are aimed at warning locals not to share intelligence with the Iraqi military, and to “restore the extortion rackets that financed the group’s rise to power six years ago”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 February 2019 | Permalink