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