ISIS evolving into ‘effective clandestine organization’ US Pentagon warns

ISIS forces in RamadiA report from the United States Department of Defense warns that the Islamic State is swiftly returning to its insurgent roots, as observers in Iraq and Syria caution that the group is witnessing a revival. It has been four years since the Islamic State —known then as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS— conquered much of eastern Syria and more than a third of Iraq’s territory. But by the end of 2017, virtually the entirety of ISIS’ self-styled ‘caliphate’ had been obliterated by an ‘unholy alliance’ of US-backed Iraqi government forces, Iranian-supported Shiite militias, Kurdish guerillas and Western airpower.

However, experts warn that, despite its loss of territorial control, the Islamic State maintains an active force of as many as 30,000 armed fighters in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, a recent US government report argues that, having been driven out of nearly all of the territory that it once held, the Islamic State is promptly “returning to its insurgent roots”. The report, authored by analysts at the US Department of Defense, claims that the militant Sunni group is “re-emerging as a guerrilla force”. In the place of what used to be a de-facto state, an “effective clandestine ISIS organization appears to be taking hold”, it states. The Pentagon document, summarized in a Financial Times article on Thursday, appears to be backed by information from the ground in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi military sources told The Times that ISIS appears to have more fighters in its ranks than initially thought, and that the group’s organizational structure that helped it grow in the first place “has not been eliminated”.

Moreover, the group is “still well-funded” and its operations remain lethal, said the paper, especially in Iraq, where it continues to undermine the government’s efforts to improve the country’s security. Islamic State fighters are systematically targeting regional leaders, said The Times, in an effort to prevent the government from delivering economic development in Iraq’s Sunni-majority western regions. A similar pattern of activities is being observed in Syria, where a resurgence of ISIS activity has prolonged the deployment of around 2,000 US military personnel there. What is more, ISIS fighters frequently cross the Iraq-Syria border and spend much of their time in safe houses and other hideouts. The paper quotes Yahya Rasool, spokesperson for the Iraqi Army’s Joint Operations Command, who says that “our war on ISIS today is an intelligence war, not a military war. We are searching and raiding their hide-outs”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 December 2018 | Permalink

Advertisements

US delegation met secretly with Syrian intelligence chiefs, newspaper claims

Ali MamloukA delegation of senior American government officials met secretly with Syria’s spy chiefs in an effort to lay out the terms of a possible deal between Washington and Damascus, according to a Lebanese newspaper. Relations between the United States and Syria have been strained since the late 1950s, when Damascus blamed Washington for a failed coup and expelled America’s ambassador there. In 2012, the US shut down its embassy in the Syrian capital in response to the government’s violent suppression of protests. Since then, Washington has carried out missile strikes on Syrian soil at least twice, while openly supporting armed groups that are opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

But according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a group of senior American officials held a secret meeting in Damascus with Syrian spy chiefs. If true, the move could signify a major shift in US-Syrian relations. The paper, which supports the pro-Assad Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah, and is close to the Syrian government, published news of the alleged meeting on Tuesday. It said that the meeting took place in complete secrecy during the last week of June and that it was facilitated by intermediaries from Russia and the United Arab Emirates. The latter used a UAE government airplane to fly the US delegation —whose names Al-Akhbar did not reveal— to the Syrian capital. The visiting delegation, which according to the paper “included [senior] officers from many US intelligence and security agencies”, was transported to a secret Syrian government facility in the dead of night by “a huge procession of black SUVs”, said the paper. The Syrian delegation at the meeting was reportedly headed by Ali Mamlouk, special security adviser to President al-Assad and head of the National Security Bureau of the governing Ba’ath Party. Other participants from the Syrian side included Mohammed Dib Zeitoun, director of the General Security Directorate, and Muwaffaq Asaad, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian Armed Forces, said Al-Akhbar.

During the meeting, the two sides allegedly attempted to lay out the foundations of a possible post-civil war deal between Washington and Damascus. According to the Lebanese paper, the US delegation offered to withdraw American Special Forces from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. In return, they allegedly asked for the removal of Iranian troops from Syrian regions that are adjacent to the Israeli border. The two sides also discussed the resumption of intelligence sharing on matters relating to Sunni radicals operating in Syria. No decisions were taken during the meeting, said Al-Akhbar, but the two sides decided to continue to share proposals and ideas about a possible bilateral agreement.

The French news agency Agence France Presse said on Tuesday that it could not independently confirm Al-Akhbar’s claims, as its attempts to contact the US departments of State and Defense were not fruitful. It noted, however, that both Mamlk and Zeitoun feature on the US government’s list of sanctions against Syrian government officials that are believed to have directly participated in human-rights abuses against political opponents since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 August 2018 | Permalink

ISIS remains strong with 30,000 members in Iraq and Syria, experts warn

ISIS forces in RamadiThe Islamic State has recovered from some of its recent defeats in the battlefield and has as many as 30,000 committed members in Iraq and Syria, according to two reports by American and United Nations experts. Last month, the Iraqi government announced that the war against the group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been won. The statement was echoed by the United States President Donald Trump, who said that the war against the militant Sunni group was “98 percent” over. But now two new reports, one produced by the United States Department of Defense and the other by an expert UN panel, warn that both ISIS and al-Qaeda remain powerful, popular and dangerous in Iraq, Syria, and many other regions of the world.

The UN report was published on Monday by the organization’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which is tasked with monitoring the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions. The report recognizes that ISIS has suffered unprecedented military defeats in Iraq and Syria in the past year, and that many of its most hardened fighters are dead or have abandoned the conflict zones in the region. But it warns that the militant organization is now morphing into a “covert version” of its former self and that its organizational core remains mostly intact in both Iraq and Syria. What is more, ISIS’ center is backed by as many as 30,000 unreconstructed members, who are split roughly equally between the two countries. The US Pentagon report, which was delivered this week to Congress states that ISIS has as many as 17,100 fighters in Iraq and another 14,000 in Syria. Many of those surviving fighters are citizens of dozens of different countries around the world, according to the report. Some of them are still engaged in armed fighting, while others are “hiding out in sympathetic communities and urban areas”, mostly in Iraq, the UN report states.

There are also tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters in Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, and in several West African and Southeast Asian countries, according to the reports’ authors. These fighters are led by commanders who remain in contact with senior ISIS leaders and continue to revere Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s central figure. In addition to ISIS, al-Qaeda also remains strong and dangerous, according to the UN report. Its regional structure “continues to show resilience” and in some regions of the world it is far stronger than ISIS. These include several regions of Africa, including areas of Somalia and the Sahel, as well as in Yemen, where al-Qaeda is believed to command as many as 7,000 armed fighters at the moment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2018 | Permalink

Syrians accuse Israel of assassinating top missile scientist in Hama province

Syrian Scientific Studies and Research CenterOne of Syria’s leading pro-government newspapers has said that Israel was behind a bomb blast in Hama province that killed a senior scientist working for the country’s missile program. Aziz Azbar was reportedly a senior research director at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, known as CERS. The Damascus-based agency is thought to be at the center of the Syrian government’s formidable chemical weapons program. Last year, the United States Department of the Treasury imposed economic sanctions on nearly 300 CERS employees, after Washington accused them of being directly responsible for the Syrian government’s repeated use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. The European Union, as well as the French and British governments, also imposed sanctions on CERS and its staff.

According to Syrian media, Azbar specialized in developing and maintaining rocket systems in the city of Masyaf, located about 160 miles north of Damascus, where CERS maintains a research facility. He reportedly died last Saturday night when his car suddenly blew up. According to some reports, the blast originated from a bomb that had been placed in the headrest of his car seat and was detonated remotely. His driver was also killed in the blast, according to Syrian media reports. An insurgent group calling itself the Abu Amara Battalions, which is linked with the Sunni Levant Front in Syria’s Aleppo province, issued a statement claiming responsibility for Azbar’s killing. The Abu Amara Battalions have previously issued similar statements after reportedly assassinating Syrian government officials or militia commanders.

However, on Sunday Syria’s al-Watan newspaper said that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was responsible for Azbar’s death. The Syrian scientist was “a person of the utmost interest to Israel” said the paper, because of his direct connection to Damascus’ Russian- and North Korean-built Scud missile arsenal. However, officials in Israel refused to acknowledge that Tel Aviv had any connection with Azbar’s killing. “Every day in the Middle East there are hundreds of explosions and settling of scores”, said Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. “Every time they try to pin the blame on [Israel], so we won’t take this [latest accusation] too seriously”, he added. The Syrian government has not made any formal statements regarding Azbar’s death.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 August 2018 | Permalink

Judge rules that Trump’s tweet did not disclose top-secret CIA operation in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyA United States federal judge ruled on Monday that a tweet by President Donald Trump did not inadvertently disclose a top-secret program by the Central Intelligence Agency to aid rebel groups in Syria. The lawsuit, brought by The New York Times, centered on news reports published in 2017 by Reuters, The Washington Post, and others, claiming that the US president had terminated an extensive CIA program that provided assistance to rebel forces engaged in the Syrian Civil War. The program was reportedly initiated by US President Barack Obama, who in 2015 instructed the CIA to assist armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. Aside from training, the CIA assistance reportedly included the provision of light and heavy ammunition, such as antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

But President Trump allegedly terminated $1 billion program soon after he took office. Last July, the president openly disputed an account by The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous, which claimed that Trump had ended the program as a concession to Russia. In a tweet, Trump said: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad”. Shortly afterwards, another newspaper, The New York Times, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, arguing that the president’s tweet had effectively disclosed the existence of the covert CIA program and seeking full details from the government. But the CIA rejected the The New York Times’ rationale, at which point the paper took the case to court.

But on Monday, US District Court Judge Andrew Carter Jr. dismissed the paper’s argument. In a 20-page decision, posted online by the US-based news website Politico, Judge Carter said that President Trump’s tweet had been too vague and ambiguous to be considered as effectively declassifying the secret CIA program. At no point did the US president “make an unequivocal statement, or any statement for that matter, indicating that he was declassifying information”, said the judge. Additionally, Trump’s tweet and other public statements on the matter did not undermine the legal authority of the US government to continue to keep details about the CIA program under wraps. According to Politico, which reported on Judge Carter’s decision, this development will make it difficult for other FOIA filers to use Trump’s tweets as justification for seeking information about secret government programs. Meanwhile, The New York Times said on Monday that it would seek to appeal Judge Carter’s decision.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 July 2018 | Permalink

Syria sought out and assassinated American journalist, former spy says

Marie ColvinThe Syrian government tracked down and killed American journalist Marie Colvin in order to stop her from reporting about the Syrian Civil War, according to a Syrian intelligence officer who has defected to Europe. Colvin was an experienced war correspondent who worked for The Sunday Times. The British newspaper sent her to Syria soon after the outbreak of the war. From there, she gave live interviews to media outlets such as CNN and the BBC. But on the morning of February 22, 2012, Colvin was killed along with French war photographer Remi Ochlik. Their death came when Syrian government forces repeatedly shelled a media center in the city of Homs, which housed the two reporters.

In 2016, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability filed a lawsuit against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, claiming that Colvin’s death was deliberate and wrongful. The lawsuit is supported by Colvin’s family in the United States. Court records unsealed on Monday include a sworn testament by a Syrian former intelligence officer who has defected and now lives under a new identity in an undisclosed European country. The defector, codenamed ULYSSES, said that Colvin was assassinated by the Assad government as part of a concerted effort to hunt down Western journalists and local media correspondents. The ultimate purpose of the plan was to hinder international reporting about the war. The plan was allegedly carried out by the Syrian military under the guidance of the country’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Many of the reporters targeted for assassination were reporting from the city of Homs, where Colvin was killed.

According to ULYSSES, Syrian government forces began targeting the Homs media center after they found out that foreign journalists had managed to enter the city’s western sector from nearby Lebanon. They then employed a mobile satellite interception system to capture the journalists’ communications, which in turn revealed their precise location. At that point, Syrian troops were ordered to fire several missiles at the building housing the journalists, in full knowledge that Colvin and Ochlik were inside. In his testimony, ULYSSES claimed that Syrian intelligence officials “celebrated” when they were told that Colvin had been killed. He identified eight senior Syrian officials who he said were involved in planning the American journalist’s alleged assassination. One of them, said ULYSSES, was Maher al-Assad, President Assad’s brother, who leads the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, considered as one of the staunchest pro-government parts of the Syrian military. Testimonies in the case continue this week.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 April 2018 | Permalink

Syrian rebels visit Washington to request resumption of CIA assistance

Free Syrian Army delegationA delegation of Syrian rebels is currently in Washington to ask that that United States President Donald Trump authorizes the Central Intelligence Agency to resume giving them military assistance. In 2013, the then-US President Barack Obama instructed the CIA to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. The CIA promptly began to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whose goal was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Under the project, which was codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, CIA personnel trained FSA fighters and gave them light weaponry. But in July of last year, President Trump abruptly terminated the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”.

Now the FSA has sent a delegation to Washington to argue that, if the CIA does not help them, Iranian-backed militias will dominate much of Syria. On Monday, the Reuters news agency quoted Mustafa Sejari, a senior representative of the FSA, who said that the Syrian delegation had met with US Congress members and White House officials. This week they were hoping to speak with representatives from the Departments of State and Defense, said Sejari. Members of the delegation, Sejari told Reuters, “asked for the resumption of aid and explained the dangers of leaving moderate FSA forces without support”. He added that, if the US “is serious about challenging growing Iranian influence in Syria” by Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, it should resume its support of the FSA. Sejari also described Mr. Trump’s decision to end TIMBER SYCAMORE as “damaging”. The FSA, he said “endorse[s] President Trump’s statements about the need to confront Iranian hegemony in the region. It is time to turn words into action”. We went on to claim that “until now on the ground it’s the Iranian militias that are expanding without serious resistance”.

Shortly after President Trump announced his decision to terminate CIA support for the FSA, some experts warned that the move could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations, if only to secure sources of income. In late August, it was reported that US troops deployed in Syria had exchanged fire with former FSA rebels that were now led by Turkish-trained commanders. In a related development, the government of Turkey dismissed on Monday plans by the US military to train members of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as “terror army” tactics. The US-led coalition in Syria said that it planned to train a 30,000-strong SDF force as a professional army that could maintain control of the territories captured last year from the Islamic State.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 January 2018 | Permalink