US troops remain in Russian-dominated Syria with no clear goal, say insiders

Free Syrian ArmyAmerican forces remain in Syria without a clear goal in sight, as the conflict there nears its 10-year anniversary, and with Russia having emerged as the principal guarantor of security in the war-torn country, according to insiders. In an article published last week, Newsweek said American and American-supported Syrian officials feel disillusioned about America’s goals in the country. The website cited an anonymous senior United States intelligence official who described the US military mission there as “a clusterf**k”.

Officially, the goal of the US Department of Defense’s mission in Syria is to “ensure the enduring defeat” of the Islamic State. On the political level, the US seeks the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the departure of all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from the country. Last year, however, US President Donald Trump seemed to suddenly change the Pentagon’s mission, by telling reporters that the US military was in Syria only to secure access to the oil and natural gas fields that lay in the country’s northeast. He repeated that statement in August of this year.

This goal appears to have been adopted by the Pentagon as its new mission. Currently what remains of the US military presence in Syria is concentrated around a cluster of oil and gas fields in the northeastern part of the country. Sources told Newsweek that the US troops feel “stranded” and “forgotten” in Syria, and are virtually surrounded by numerically dominant Russian and Iranian forces. US allies in the area are shifting their alliances and looking to Russia, seeing Washington as a non-dependable actor.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Tehran have assumed leading roles in bringing rival forces to the table, while also fighting what is left of the Islamic State. Several meetings between representatives from rival factions, including the Assad government, pro-Turkish militias, and the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces, have taken place under Russian tutelage in the past year. The US has not participated in these negotiations, said Newsweek.

► Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 September 2020 | Permalink

Turkish spy agency hid Islamist views of candidates for CIA-funded Syrian rebel group

Free Syrian ArmyTurkey’s spy agency systematically downplayed the Islamist views of men seeking to join a Syrian rebel group, which was supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency on account of its moderate leanings. The United States began to fund and train the Free Syrian Army (FSA) soon after it was established in 2011. The group said its mission was to depose the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and institute a Western-style multiparty democracy in Syria.

By 2015, much of the recruitment and vetting for the FSA was taking place in Turkish regions bordering northern Syria, where thousands of opponents of al-Assad’s regime had fled with their families. The CIA relied on its Turkish counterpart, the National Intelligence Organization, known as MİT, to recruit and conduct initial vetting of FSA volunteers from Syrian refugee camps. The MİT was desperately short of personnel for such a large-scale operation, and reached out to the Turkish Special Forces Command for assistance. Eventually, Special Forces Command officers were put in charge of reaching out to potential FSA volunteers and vetting them. Successful candidates would then be forwarded to the CIA.

One such officer was Lt. Murat Aletirik, who vetted dozens of FSA volunteers in 2015 and 2016. However, he was arrested following the failed coup of July 15, 2016, and was tried for alleged participation in armed insurrection against the Turkish government. During his testimony in 2018, which was leaked this week, Lt. Aletirik told the court that he and his fellow officers were issued guidelines by the MİT on how to select fighters for the CIA-funded program.

According to Lt. Aletirik, the MİT guidelines centered on whether FSA candidates were “sympathetic towards the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as] PKK, the [Democratic Union Party, or] PYD, or offshoots of the PKK”. These groups support autonomy for the Kurds, a non-Turkish and non-Arab ethnic group in the Middle East. Turkey, along with the European Union and the United States, classify the Turkish-based PKK as a terrorist organization. Turkey claims that the PYD, which operates in Syria, is also a terrorist group. However, Washington supports and funds the PYD, and even worked with its militias in the war against the Islamic State.

According to Lt. Aletirik, the MİT guidelines had little to say about how to filter out potential FSA volunteers who were found to harbor sympathies for Salafi-Jihadist groups, such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, or al-Nusra. In fact, said Lt. Aletirik, he and his fellow officers had instructions to downplay such findings and forward candidates to the CIA, so long as they did not have pro-Kurdish sympathies. It is believed that, eventually, the CIA caught on to this, and began turning down hundreds of FSA candidates that had been vetted by the Turkish military. This slowed down the vetting process tremendously, with only a fraction —possibly fewer than 10 percent— of all candidates joining the CIA-run program.

In 2017, the United States shut down the program, reportedly after a direct order was issued by President Donald Trump. Today the FSA is almost completely supported and funded by the Turkish state. Locals often refer to it tongue-in-cheek as the “Free Syrian Turkish Army”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 July 2020 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outgoing CIA director acknowledges US killed ‘couple of hundred’ Russians in Syria

Mike PompeoThe outgoing director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, appeared on Thursday to confirm reports from last February that United States troops killed more than 200 Russian soldiers in Syria. According to sources from the US Pentagon, the armed confrontation took place on February 7, when a 500-strong Syrian government force crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria’s northeastern Deir al-Zour region. US-supported Kurdish forces in the area, which include embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the Syrian government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side estimated at the time that over 100 attackers had been left dead, with another 200-300 injured. The toll later rose to several hundred dead.

At a press conference held soon after the armed clash, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter, which he referred to as “perplexing”. Bloomberg said at the time that American officials were “in talks” with Russian counterparts “in search of an explanation for what happened”. On Thursday, however, Pompeo appeared to acknowledge that US troops killed hundreds of Russians in Deir al-Zour. The outgoing CIA director was speaking before a committee of the US Senate, during a hearing pertaining to his nomination to serve as the next US secretary of state. He was making the point that the administration of US President Donald Trump had maintained a hardline policy on Russia. After referring to the recent expulsions of 60 Russian diplomats from the US, Pompeo said: “in Syria, now, a handful of weeks ago the Russians met their match. A couple of hundred Russians were killed”.

Pompeo’s comments were seen by the media as an acknowledgement by a senior US government official of the incident in Deir al-Zour, which has remained shrouded in mystery since it happened. Later in his speech, Pompeo said that the Kremlin had “not yet gotten the full message about US determination to block aggression from Moscow. We need to continue to work at that”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 April 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

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