Conflicting reports of Russian fighters killed by US forces in Syria

Kurdish SDF There are conflicting reports of Russian and Ukrainian fighters having been killed by American forces in northeastern Syria, with some sources claiming that up to 200 Russians and Ukrainians, most of them private contractors working for the Syrian government, were left dead in clashes last week. If such reports are accurate, they could point to the most lethal American-Russian confrontation since the end of World War II.

According to the United States Department of Defense, the armed confrontation took place on February 7. On that day, a 500-strong Syrian government force crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in northeastern Syria. A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Thomas F. Veale, told reporters last week that the pro-government forces crossed the Euphrates near the town of Khursham, in Syria’s Deir al-Zour region. The town is firmly held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish armed faction that is supported by the US. Veale said that the Syrian government forces advanced in a “battalion-sized formation supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars”. The SDF force in the area, which includes embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side estimates that over 100 attackers were left dead, with another 200-300 injured. There were allegedly no SDF fatalities during the clash.

On February 8, CBS News cited an unnamed US Pentagon official, who claimed that Russians were among the dead in Deir al-Zour. The BBC said that “at least two Russians” were killed in the attack, while The New York Times raised the toll to “perhaps dozens”. But US news network Bloomberg claimed that over 200 Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainian mercenaries were among the dead. Citing anonymously “three Russians [and] one US official […] familiar with the matter”, the network said that most of the fatalities were Russian and Ukrainian private contractors who were fighting in Syria in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. These reports mark the first known instance of Russian citizens killed by American forces in Syria. If the Bloomberg account is accurate, the Deir al-Zour clash could be the most extensive armed confrontation between Americans and Russians since the end of World War II.

Bloomberg said that it spoke by phone to one Russian military contractor who said that “dozens of his wounded men” were still receiving treatment at military hospitals in Russia. On February 8, the Syrian government accused Washington of carrying out a “brutal massacre” in Deir al-Zour, but said nothing about foreign fighters. A statement by the Russian Ministry of Defense said that 25 Syrian troops were hurt in the attack, but denied that Russian soldiers had participated in the February 7 clashes. Speaking on behalf of the Kremlin, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow only tracked casualty data about its official military forces stationed in Syria. He added that no Russian forces were stationed in Deir al-Zour. At a press conference last week, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter, which he referred to as “perplexing”. Bloomberg said that American officials were “in talks” with Russian counterparts “in search of an explanation for what happened”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 February 2018 | Research credit: N.L. | 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

Defector claims US agreed to let thousands of Islamic State fighters leave Raqqa

Islamic State convoy in SyriaA senior former commander of one of Syria’s largest Kurdish rebel groups, who recently defected to Turkey, has accused the United States of agreeing to let thousands of heavily armed Islamic State fighters escape from Raqqa in exchange for conquering the city without a fight. The Syrian city served as the de facto capital of the Islamic State from early 2014 until October of this year, when it was captured by a coalition of forces supported by the United States and other Western powers. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish militia, was among the groups that captured Raqqa. One of its spokesmen, Talal Silo, told Western media correspondents back in October that the Western-backed coalition had allowed fewer than 300 hardline fighters of the Islamic State to leave the war-ravaged city during the final stages of the battle.

But several news agencies reported at the time that a large convoy of vehicles was seen leaving Raqqa, composed of dozens of trucks, buses and over a hundred cars. The BBC reported on November 13 that the convoy was 4 miles long and was seen heading toward Deir ez-Sor, an Islamic State stronghold located two hours’ drive southeast of Raqqa. Coalition partners, including the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and France, denied that such a convoy existed. But the BBC’s claims have now been corroborated by Silo, the same SDF spokesman who last October rejected them as fictional. In October, Silo, who is a Syrian Turkoman, defected to Turkey and is now living in Ankara under heavy security protection. He told the Reuters news agency in a recent  interview that the BBC’s claims were correct, and that the number of Islamic State militants who were allowed to leave Raqqa with their weapons were in their thousands, not 300 as the SDF had originally claimed.

According to Silo, a secret agreement was reached between the Western-backed coalition and the Islamic State for the evacuation of “about 4,000 people” from Raqqa. Of those fewer than 500 were unarmed civilians, said Silo. He added that the convoy went to Deir ez-Sor, which at the time was still under the control of Islamic State. The SDF defector also told Reuters that the deal struck with the Islamic State was kept secret from media correspondents. The latter were told that they were not allowed to approach Raqqa due to heavy fighting, when the real goal was to prevent them from witnessing the peaceful departure of the Islamic State convoys. According to Silo, the deal was approved by all members of the Western-backed coalition, including the United States.

On Thursday, the SDF denied that Silo’s allegations were true and claimed that he was being pressured to make them by Turkey. The Turkish government accuses the SDF of being a Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), with which it is at war. American military officials also denied Silo’s claims, calling them “false and contrived”. The officials said that the US “does not make deals with terrorists”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 December 2017 | Permalink

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

Russian spy services raid bomb lab in Moscow, foil large-scale suicide plot

ISIS RussiaRussian intelligence services say they have foiled a large-scale bomb plot, after raiding an explosives laboratory belonging to the Islamic State and arresting four suspects. The four men were allegedly planning to target the Moscow Metro transit system and a busy shopping center in the Russian capital. In a statement released to the media this morning, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) did not specify the intended targets of the plotters. But it said it had arrested four people during an early morning raid at an explosives laboratory located in the Moscow suburbs. The FSB said that its officers confiscated large quantities of peroxide-based explosives that resemble the material used by the Islamic State in the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, and last May’s suicide bombing in Manchester.

One of the men arrested has been named by the FSB as Akbarzhon A. Dzhalilov, 22, a Kyrghyz-born Russian citizen. The other three men, who have not yet been named, are all from former Soviet Republics of Central Asia. Russian media reported that the Moscow cell was being commanded and directed by the Islamic State in Syria. Two Russian-speaking men from the Russian Caucasus, who are located in Syria, are thought to have been handling the cell’s activities. Russian intelligence services estimate that at least 2,500 Russian citizens have move to the Middle East to join jihadist groups in the past three years.

Had it been carried out, the attack would have been added to a growing list of terrorist incidents against Russia since 2015, which are related to the Kremlin’s decision to enter the Syrian Civil War. In October of that year, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268, a chartered commercial flight operated by Russian company Kogalymavia. The chartered airliner went down over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 217 passengers and crew on board —the worst disaster in Russian aviation history. In November of 2016, the FSB reportedly foiled another attack by five members of the Islamic State in Moscow. In February of this year, a seven-member Islamic State cell was busted in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, while it was planning attacks in several metropolitan areas, including Moscow and St. Petersburg. In April, the North Caucasus-based Imam Shamil Battalion claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in the St. Petersburg Metro transit system, which killed 15 train passengers. The group, whose existence was unknown before the St. Petersburgh attack, said it supported al-Qaeda and perpetrated the attack in retaliation for Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 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

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