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

Analysis: US launches strikes against Syrian regime in major policy shift

Shayrat SyriaThe nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles that the United States fired at Syria in the early hours of Friday local time were not the first. Nor were they the first that struck a Syrian government installation. In September of 2016, for example, a United States airstrike hit a military base in the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, killing 62 and wounding over 100 government soldiers. However, the Pentagon claimed that the strike was in error and had been intended to hit Islamic State militants. In fact, the entirety of America’s previous military strikes on Syrian soil has been aimed at the Islamic State. The missiles that last night on the Syrian military airbase of Shayrat marked Washington’s first intentional attack on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Consequently, the US is now an official belligerent in one of our time’s most complex and intractable armed conflicts.

Since the missile attacks were confirmed, all eyes have concentrated on Russia, President Al-Assad’s primary supporter, without whom Damascus would now probably be run by a consortium of Sunni militias. There is no question that Shayrat hosts a significant contingent of Russian military personnel and large quantities of Russian-supplied military equipment, ranging from airplanes to radar facilities. Moscow’s response to the American attack will largely depend on whether any of its personnel are among the casualties in Shayrat. There is also concern about China’s response, given that Washington’s attack took place during the official visit to the United States by Xi Jinping, premier of China, another strong Syrian ally. Finally, it is worth considering possible Iranian responses to the US attack, especially if Iranian citizens end up on the casualty list.

The attention paid by observers to Russia, China and Iran is understandable given the clout of these countries on the world stage. But the most important response may come from Syria itself. According to the US Pentagon, the strike on the Shayrat airbase was intended “to deter the [Syrian] regime from using chemical weapons again”. But what if it does not? Last time Washington responded to rumors of a chemical attack in Syria, President Obama warned his counterpart in Damascus not to cross the red line of chemical warfare. Which, of course, was precisely what Mr. Assad did, successfully calling Washington’s bluff. He may do so again. Last night’s American attack may therefore result in an intensification of chemical warfare by the Syrian regime. At that point, US President Donald Trump will have no choice but to deepen America’s involvement in an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable war, where he will find Russia on the opposite side.

Few supporters of President Trump, who campaigned promising to disengage America from foreign wars and focus on domestic concerns, could have imagined even a month ago that the White House would be entering the Syrian Civil War. And yet this is precisely what is happening. The US now has over 500 troops stationed on Syrian soil, and has just attacked the country’s government with dozens of missiles. The reaction to that attack by the government in Damascus may draw Washington even deeper into the Syrian war. Many observers in America have suggested that the only way to truly evaluate the Trump administration will be by observing its performance during a major international crisis. It appears that they may soon get their wish.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 March 2017 | Permalink

Israel’s chief of staff says Hezbollah killed its own commander in Syria

Mustafa Amine BadreddineAn Israeli military official has repeated claims in the Arab media that the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah killed its own military commander in Syria, following a dispute with Iran. Mustafa Amine Badreddine, 55, an expert in explosives and former bomb-maker, was a senior military commander in the military wing of Hezbollah. He rose through the ranks of the organization to become a trusted adviser to Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah. In 2011, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up by the United Nations, charged Badreddine with organizing the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri was killed with over 20 other people in a massive bomb blast in Beirut, in February of 2005.

Soon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the leadership of Hezbollah dispatched Badreddine to the Syrian capital Damascus. His stated mission was to command thousands of Hezbollah troops, who fought under Iranian guidance in support of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But on May 13, 2016, Badreddine was reportedly killed in Damascus, causing observers to describe his death as the biggest setback for the Shiite militant group since the 2008 assassination of its leading commander, Imad Mughniyeh. Initial reports in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese media suggested that Badreddine might have been killed in an Israeli air attack. But a press statement issued later by Hezbollah said the commander had been killed as a result of an armed attack by Sunni rebels. However, on March 8 of this year, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab television network al-Arabiya said it had conducted its own investigation into Badreddine’s death, and had concluded that he was killed by Hezbollah itself. The network claimed that Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah had ordered Badreddine’s killing, after the Iranians demanded it. Apparently the Iranians wanted him killed because he disputed the authority of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is often credited with having saved the Syrian government from demise during the Civil War.

The claim that Badreddine was killed by Hezbollah was echoed on Tuesday by Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Speaking to the Associated Press, Lt Gen Eisenkot said that reports from Arab media that Badreddine was killed by his own forces agreed “with intelligence we have”, referring to the Israeli military. It is worth noting that Israeli officials rarely comment on intelligence operations, including assassination operations, choosing instead to adhere to a “refuse to confirm or deny” policy.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 March 2017 | Permalink

Trump administration instructs CIA to halt support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyThe White House has instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some believe that the move indicates a change in American policy under United States President Donald Trump. But Syrian rebel commanders say they believe the move is temporary, and that military aid will be restored. For several years, the CIA has provided training and other forms of assistance to rebel groups in Syria, such as the New Syrian Force, which operate under the umbrella of the FSA. Aside from training, the assistance has included light and heavy ammunition, including antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

However, it appears that the CIA was instructed nearly a month ago by the White House to freeze all assistance to these rebel groups. Correspondents from the Reuters news agency said they confirmed the change in policy by speaking to senior rebel commanders from five armed groups operating under the FSA. These commanders told Reuters that they had not been given any official reason for the sudden termination of all CIA assistance. The change coincided with the change of guard at the White House, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Some in Washington, as well as some members of rebel factions in Syria, are concerned that the change in the CIA’s stance might denote a broader policy shift in the White House. During his election campaign, Mr. Trump said repeatedly that he would end America’s overt and covert support for the FSA and would focus instead on defeating the Islamic State.

But the rebel commanders themselves told Reuters that the freeze in CIA support was due to a wave of renewed attacks against them by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a Sunni militant group that was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda. The rebels said that the CIA was concerned that weaponry provided to the FSA would end up in the hands of jihadist militants, so it temporarily halted its support until Jabhat Fateh al-Sham could be pushed back by FSA forces. Reuters published comments by two anonymous officials who were familiar with the CIA’s operations in Syria. They told the newspaper that the freeze of the CIA’s program had “nothing to do with US President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January”. Additionally, said Reuters, Mr. Trump’s policy in Syria remains unknown. Several newspapers and news agencies contacted the CIA asking for comments, but the agency declined all requests on Wednesday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 February 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: Turkey’s entry in Syrian war further-complicates a chaotic conflict

Syrian troopsEver since 2011, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, Turkey has refrained from directly intervening in the conflict, other than to provide material support to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The hope in Ankara was that Islamist and pro-Assad forces would exhaust each other. There is no evidence that Turkey was at any point seriously alarmed about the rise of Sunni militancy in Syria. Instead, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made no secret of its primary concern, which was the rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Syria.

However, a possible demise of the Islamic State may strengthen Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and could leave the al-Assad regime in place in Damascus. That would be the worst possible outcome for Turkey, which has always viewed the Syrian president a direct threat to its national security, surpassed only by Kurdish separatism. In a desperate effort to avoid such an outcome, Turkey is now increasingly intervening in the war. Its current goal is to have a strong say in how the region will look like once the Islamic State has been defeated.

With the exception of some pro-Turkish rebels, such as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, who openly welcome Ankara’s intervention, no rebel factions in Syria are especially elated by Turkey’s entry in the war. Most recognize that the sole reason for Turkey’s intervention is the protection of its own national interest, which centers on preventing a rise of an independent Kurdish state —either official or de facto— in northern Syria.

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war will further complicate the conflict and is likely to prolong it. The more international actors are involved in the war, the more convoluted it gets and the longer it will take for it to end. Currently we have the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel forces, the Islamic State, Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and several European powers involved in the war. The last thing this conflict needs is yet another foreign intervention, no matter where it comes from.

Moreover, Ankara’s overall role in the Syrian conflict has been inconsistent, as the country has at times sharply distanced itself from both Russian-led and American-led efforts in the region. President Erdogan’s policy on Syria —as on most other matters— has been spasmodic and haphazard, and has been primarily shaped by domestic concerns, as Turkey’s political strongman tries to solidify its rule inside the country. Consequently neither Moscow nor Washington have much faith in the reliance of the Turkish military contribution to the conflict.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States could further-complicate the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Turkey’s role in it. If a rapid rapprochement takes place between Washington and Moscow in 2017, Turkey will feel increasingly uneasy about its regional role. The Kurds, who have been working closely with Russia in Syria and with America in Iraq, will expect to be rewarded and compensated once the dust settles in the region. There have been voices in Moscow and Washington calling for the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Syria. If that happens, it will signal a massive setback for Turkey’s foreign policy and negatively affect its relations with Russia and possibly the United States.

Over a million people have now died in the Syrian civil war. Millions more have been displaced internally and abroad. Things could get immeasurably worse if Russian-led and American-led forces launch all-out attacks in Aleppo and Mosul respectively. There is no reason to believe at this point that the Islamic State and other rebel groups will abandon these cities, where over a million people remain trapped between the warring sides. We could be seeing the largest slaughter of civilians since World War II. At that point, there will be little that Ankara or anyone else can do to restore stability in that desperately troubled region.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2016 | Permalink

US Pentagon hires private intelligence contractor for Syria operations

PentagonThe United States Department of Defense has released details of an agreement with a private intelligence contractor, which experts believe involves the provision of services to American Special Forces working clandestinely inside Syria. The announcement, made on the Pentagon’s website, is believed to be the first public admission of the use of a private intelligence contractor by the US government in Syria. In the brief press release, the DoD identifies the contractor as Six3 Intelligence Solutions, a McLean, Virginia-headquartered company that specializes in intelligence, biometrics and security.

Six3 Intelligence Solutions is a subsidiary of CACI International Inc., one of the largest defense, security and intelligence contractors in the US. According to The Daily Beast, CACI purchased Six3 Intelligence Solutions in 2013 for $820 million, in what a CACI media statement said was “the biggest deal” in the company’s 50-year history. Public records indicate that Six3 Intelligence Solutions is already fulfilling a $30 million contract with the Pentagon, involving the provision of nondescript “intelligence services” to American troops stationed in Afghanistan. The latest contract, worth $9.5 million, was announced on July 27. It is a no-bid contract, otherwise known as a ‘sole source contract’, which means that the government believes that only one company can provide the services required. Thus, the process by which a no-bid contract is awarded is non-competitive.

The Pentagon’s July 27 announcement states that, under the contract, work by Six3 Intelligence Solutions personnel “will be performed in Germany, Italy, and Syria”. There is no mention of the precise nature of the work, though it is generally assumed that it will support the operations of US Special Forces troops that are currently stationed in Syria. American troops have been active in Syria for at least a year. Nearly 300 US Special Forces members are believed to be presently operational in the war-torn country, working with officers of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Daily Beast said it contacted CACI and the DoD about the recently announced contract, but received no responses.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2016 | Permalink

Countries using Eastern Europe to flood Syria with weapons, study finds

AK-47Unprecedented quantities of weapons and ammunition worth in nearly $1.5 billion have been procured from Eastern Europe and sent to Syria to arm nearly every side in the ongoing civil war, a study has found. The weapons are transported through the Balkans and sold legally to countries bordering Syria, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Once there, they are secretly transported to Syria for use in the bloody five-year civil war, which has so far killed or displaced millions. The revelation resulted from a year-long investigative project by the Serbia-based Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in Bosnia.

The probe found that the weapons transferred to the Middle East include heavy machine guns, rocket and mortar launchers and shells, anti-tank weapons, as well as thousands of assault rifles and rounds of ammunition. Many originate from Ukraine, Belarus and the former Yugoslavia and are procured by companies in eight Eastern European countries including Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, and Bosnia. The governments of these countries give the companies permission to sell weapons to Middle Eastern countries, even though it is informally understood that they will eventually end up in Syria, in contravention of international agreements.

Investigators say the smuggled weapons have been traced to various factions fighting in Syria, primarily the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But many have ended up in the hands of Islamist militias, including the Islamic State, Ansar al-Islam, and the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Some of the weapons have also surfaced in Yemen, in the hands of Sunni fighters there. According to the probe’s findings, Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, whose militaries use Western-made weaponry, were never large purchasers of Eastern European weapons. But that quickly changed in 2012, as the Syrian Civil War picked up pace.

According to British newspaper The Guardian, which published some of the findings of the BIRN-OCCRP report, the United States has used this weapons-smuggling channel as a way to arm Syrian opposition forces. The study found that, since December of last year, the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command has commissioned at least three cargo ships that left ports in the Black Sea for the Middle East carrying weapons for Syria. Regular intelNews readers will remember a report from November 2013, according to which the Greek authorities seized a ship that had left Ukraine heading for Syria or Libya, carrying 20,000 AK-47s, as well as explosives and ammunition. Two years later, in November 2015, we reported on allegations that Ukraine may be secretly arming the Islamic State in an effort to impair its regional foe, Russia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 July 2016 | Permalink

Islamic State has regular contact with Syrian government, files show

ISIS - JFThe two main warring parties in the Syrian Civil War, the government of Syria and the Islamic State, frequently contact one another in pursuit of commercial and military deals, according to internal Islamic State documents. British-based news agency Sky News said on Monday that it had acquired “secret Islamic State files”, which included handwritten orders to operatives sent directly from officials at the organization’s headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. The group said it received the documents from a regional branch of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a largely secular armed opposition group that was formed in 2011 by defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces. The FSA unit in Raqqa left the Syrian city once it was occupied by the Islamic State, and is currently based in Turkey. One of the group’s core preoccupations is assisting Islamic State defectors in their efforts to escape from Raqqa and reach Turkey. It was through these defectors, according to Sky News, that the secret Islamic State documents were acquired.

Among the revelations, said the British news agency, is that the militant Islamist group has been actively training foreign recruits to attack targets in the West “for much longer than security services had suspected”. The plan of the Islamic State seems to be to set up “sleeper cells” in what the group calls “specialized areas” across Europe, in order to carry out armed attacks. Another alleged revelation from the documents is that the Islamic State has operated “in direct coordination with the Syrian Armed Forces and even the Russian Airforce, which has been operating in Syria since September 2015. One of the documents appears to show that Syrian government forces allowed Islamic State troops to evacuate Palmyra along with their weapons, before Syrian and Russian troops entered the city. Yet another document describes a trade exchange between the Islamic State and the government of Syria, under which the Islamist militants gave Damascus oil in exchange for fertilizer.

When Sky News reporters asked Islamic State defectors in Turkey whether these exchanges between the Islamic State and the Syrian government were genuine, they replied “of course”, and added that such trade agreements between the two parties had “been going on for years”. Sky News has not yet released copies of the leased documents.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 May 2016 | Permalink

Are Russian engineers working at an ISIS-controlled gas facility?

Tuweinan SyriaSyrian and American media are reporting that Russian engineers, employed by a Moscow-based contractor with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are working at a Syrian gas plant under the control of the Islamic State. The facility in question is the so-called Tuweinan gas plant, which is located in central Syria, approximately 60 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of the city of Raqqa. The Islamic State declared Raqqa its capital shortly after occupying it, in June 2013, and the city has since served as the militant group’s administrative headquarters. The nearby Tuweinan gas plant is believed to be the largest of its kind in Syria. In 2013, it was occupied by an alliance of factions operating under the banner of the Al-Nusra Front, the primary al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. But in early 2014, Islamic State forces took control of the plant following a military offensive against Al-Nusra.

The plant was built by Russian construction company Stroytransgaz, which was awarded the contract in 2007 by the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It is important to note that Stroytransgaz is owned by Gennady Timchenko, a Russian oligarch who is believed to have close ties to President Putin. Following Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, the United States Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on the construction company, accusing it of having “direct links” with the inner circle of the Russian government. Since that time, a subcontractor of Stroytransgaz, known as Hesco, which is owned by George Haswani, a Russian national of Syrian descent, has been employed by the parent company to help in the completion of the Tuweinan plant. Haswani, who holds dual Russian and Syrian nationality, was recently singled out by the US Tresury for allegedly “brokering the transfer of oil” between the Assad regime in Damascus and the Islamic State.

In October 2014, the anti-Islamic State website Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that a group of Russian engineers employed by Stroytransgaz subcontractor Hesco had been given permission by the Islamic State to continue working at the plant. On Tuesday, US-based review Foreign Policy said it had spoken to “Turkish officials and Syrian rebels”, who claimed that the Russian engineers were still at the Tuweinan plant. The sources told Foreign Policy that the Russian engineers had been tasked with completing the construction of the facility, as promised in 2007, but this time with the permission of the Islamic State. The latter needs the plant to remain operational. Both Stroytransgaz and Hesco have denied the allegations. The Russian government has not commented on the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 February 2016 | Permalink

US Pentagon is secretly giving intelligence to Syria, claims journalist

PentagonThe United States Department of Defense has been secretly sharing intelligence with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad without authorization by the White House, according to an American journalist. Officially, the US government is opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus and has repeatedly stated that peace in Syria can only be achieved if the Assad family leaves power. But in a report published yesterday in The London Review of Books, the veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claims that America’s military leadership has been secretly aiding the Assad family’s efforts to defeat Islamist groups in Syria.

Citing “a former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs” of Staff (JCS), which comprises of the senior leadership of the Pentagon, Hersh says that the Pentagon is sharing intelligence with Damascus through “third nations”. These include Israel, Germany and even Russia, claims Hersh. The secret agreement is allegedly aimed at defeating the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria. It is important to note that Hersh claims that the White House, including US President Barack Obama, has not authorized the intelligence sharing and is not aware of the secret arrangement. However, the former JSC senior adviser said that was not surprising and that the Executive did not have to authorize every tactical decision made by the leadership of the Pentagon.

However, Hersh points out that if President Obama is indeed being kept in the dark about the Pentagon’s intelligence relationship with Damascus, the secret arrangement would amount to deliberate undermining of the Executive by the US military’s policies. It would also indicate a growing gap between the White House and the Pentagon in regards to America’s position toward the Syrian Civil War. Neither the Pentagon nor the White House responded to media inquiries about Hersh’s report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 December 2015 | Permalink

Israel silent after assassination of key Hezbollah figure in Damascus

Samir Kuntar Israel has refused comment following the death of a senior official of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, who was killed on Saturday in a missile strike in Syria. Samir Kuntar (also spelled Qantar) was a Druze who joined the Syrian-backed, Lebanese-based, Palestine Liberation Front (later Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command) at a young age. In 1979, Kuntar was jailed for an attack on an apartment block in Israel’s northern coastal town of Nahariya, which resulted in the death of four Israeli civilians and two of the attackers. However, he was freed after nearly three decades in prison in exchange for the bodies of two Israel Defense Force soldiers, who had been captured and executed by Hezbollah in 2006.

Since his high-profile release, Kuntar was believed to have risen in the ranks of Hezbollah, and to have become a major operational figure in the Lebanese militant group. In September of this year, the United States Department of State officially designated Kuntar a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. This designation, under US Executive Order 13224, denoted that Kuntar posed a significant and immediate terrorist threat to American interests. A statement issued by the US State Department at the time described Kuntar as one of Hezbollah’s “most visible and popular spokesmen”, and said he also had an operational role in the organization.

Kuntar was reportedly killed alongside eight other people when a barrage of missiles hit a residential building in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana. A statement by Hezbollah-controlled television station Al-Manar said four long-range missiles were fired by two “Israeli warplanes” that appeared to target the residential building. Based on footage aired by Al-Manar, the multi-story building appears completely destroyed. Moreover, at least one other Hezbollah senior commander, Farhan al-Shaalan, is said to have died in the strike.

Although Hezbollah officially accused “the Zionist entity” for the missile strikes, Israel has refused comment on Kuntar’s killing. When asked for a response by reporters on Sunday morning, Israeli Minister for Construction and Housing Yoav Gallant said he was happy that Kuntar was dead, but stopped short of confirming that Israel was behind the killing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 December 2015 | Permalink

Analysis: The real danger in Syria is not ISIS, but a war between major powers

Vladimir PutinThere are many unpredictable aspects of the Syrian conflict, but the downing of the Russian bomber by Turkish jets on Tuesday was not one of them. Indeed, given the simultaneous military campaigns taking place in a relatively small swath of territory by Russian, American, French, Syrian, Iranian, and other forces, it is surprising that such an incident did not happen earlier. Nevertheless, the downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkish jets marked the first attack on a Russian fighter aircraft by a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state since 1953. Although this incident is not by itself sufficient to provoke an armed conflict between Turkey and Russia, it illustrates the main danger confronting the world in Syria: namely a conflagration between regional powers, many of which are armed with nuclear weapons.

In response to earlier incidents, Turkey had warned the Russian Air Force that it would not tolerate further violations of its air space by Russian jets conducting an air campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The message delivered to the Russian ambassador in Ankara was that Turkish pilots would be ordered to open fire next time. That was precisely what happened on Tuesday, when a Turkish F-16 jet brought down a Russian bomber aircraft with a single missile strike. By most accounts, the Russian airplane was barely two miles inside Turkish airspace, presented no immediate threat to Turkey’s national security, and would probably have returned to Syrian airspace within seconds. But that did not stop the Turkish F-16 from shooting down the Russian plane. Adding injury to insult, Turkish-backed rebels on the Syrian side of the border shot dead one of the plane’s two Russian pilots and opened fire on a Russian rescue team that tried to save the crew, killing at least one marine.

Rather expectedly, a visibly furious Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not used to being challenged militarily, described the incident as “a stab in the back” by “accomplices to terrorists”, and warned Ankara of “serious consequences”. But why would Turkey provoke Russia in such a direct way? Like every other country involved directly or indirectly in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and Russia wish to see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Q Quotedestroyed. But they differ drastically on what should follow. The Kremlin is adamant that President al-Assad, whom it considers its strongest ally in the Middle East, should remain in power. The Turks, on the other hand, view the Syrian president as an existential threat, due to his support for Kurdish militancy throughout the region.

The roots of the animosity between the Turkish state and the al-Assad regime go back to 1978, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was established in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which was at the time occupied by Syria. The PKK is a Marxist militant organization that seeks to establish a Kurdish homeland in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. The group was actively trained, funded, armed and protected by Syria and the Soviet Union. The latter was actively interested in destabilizing Turkey, a NATO member, while Syria used the PKK to exercise pressure on its northern neighbor, with whom it was embroiled in a series of complex land- and water-rights disputes. In 1998, the al-Assad regime was forced to expel PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who was living in Damascus under Syrian protection, after Turkey threatened an all-out war if the Syrian intelligence services continued to shelter the PKK leadership.

Ankara saw the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 as an opportunity to get rid of the al-Assad regime, which it sees as a primary threat to regional stability. Along with the United States, Turkey has been funding, arming and training a host of Syrian rebel groups, while at the same time hosting over 2 million refugees from Syria. The subsequent rise of ISIS alarmed America and its Western allies; but in the eyes of Ankara, ISIS pales into insignificance in comparison to the resurgence of Kurdish nationalism, which has been fueled by the demise of Ba’ath in Iraq and the fragmentation of Syria. For Turkey, Kurdish separatism poses an existential threat to the survival of the Turkish Republic, and is the primary reason for its involvement in the Syrian conflict.

It follows that Russia’s entry in the Syrian Civil War strengthens President al-Assad and the PKK, and is thus regarded by Turkey as a direct threat to its national security. Ankara is also concerned about France’s efforts to build a broad anti-ISIS alliance that includes Russia, and fears that the West is now openly flirting with the possibility of allowing al-Assad to stay in power in Damascus. The deliberate downing of the Russian airplane, which was undoubtedly authorized by the most senior levels of government in Ankara, was aimed at disrupting France’s efforts to build an anti-ISIS coalition, while at the same time pushing back against Russia’s regional ambitions.

What will happen next? Theoretically, Turkey could invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which would compel member-states to rush to its assistance. In reality, however, such an eventuality is remote, especially given the expressed willingness of Western leaders to help deescalate the Turkish-Russian row. Following their closed-door meeting on Tuesday, French President FrancoisQ Quote Hollande and his American counterpart Barack Obama went out of their way to avoid mentioning the Russian plane incident, and briefly commented on it only after they were asked to do so by reporters. This does not mean that Russia will not respond; but it will most likely do so behind the scenes, probably by increasing its support for the PKK and other Kurdish separatist groups.

The downing of the Russian bomber highlights the immense contradictions and complica- tions that plague the anti-ISIS forces involved in the Syrian Civil War. It is clear that ISIS is now in a position to attack targets that are located far from its territory in Syria and Iraq, or in its wilayah (provinces) in Libya, Somalia, and elsewhere. However, the threat that ISIS currently poses to international peace and stability is at most marginal and symbolic. Of far more importance to the security of the world is the possibility of an armed conflagration between regional powers, which are being drawn into Syria by the vacuum created by the civil war. All of these regional powers, including Turkey, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, and the US, are heavily armed, many with nuclear weapons. Moreover, they radically disagree on what a post-ISIS Middle East should look like.

The possibility of a serious conflagration between heavily armed regional actors will be removed only if and when the Syrian Civil War ends, even if that results in the loss of land to the so-called Islamic State. That must be the immediate goal of the Combined Joint Task Force and every other regional actor that wishes to see the end of ISIS. It is only after peace has been achieved in Syria that ISIS can be dealt with effectively.

In change of policy, Russia and US begin sharing intelligence with France

Hollande and PutinThe United States and Russia, which have traditionally been cautious about sharing Middle East-related intelligence with France, have both announced that they will begin giving classified information to Paris. On Wednesday, France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a press conference that intelligence shared by the US had been instrumental in enabling the French Air Force to intensify its air campaign against the Islamic State. Asked to respond to Drian’s comments, US Department of Defense spokesman Peter Cook said that the US Armed Forces had indeed “increased intelligence-sharing with France”.

French officials described that development as a “change in the US position”. IntelNews readers will recall that the United States and France limited their intelligence cooperation last summer, after it emerged that the US had spied on the communications of three French presidents, from 1995 to 2012. Paris scaled back drastically its intelligence cooperation with Washington following subsequent revelations that the National Security Agency had targeted the personal cell phone of Francois Hollande, France’s current head of state.

Also on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the Russian Armed Forces stationed in Syria to treat their French counterparts “as allies”. Putin reportedly told the leadership of the Russian military in Syria that they “must establish direct contact with the French and work with them as with allies”. This is a significant development, given that Russia is one of the few countries that continues to maintain an active intelligence-collection program on the ground in Syria. Unlike the US, France, and most other Western states, Russia has not closed its embassy in Damascus and is thus able to run networks of human sources throughout the country. The news of increased Russian intelligence-sharing with France came as Moscow announced//announced// on Wednesday that it was stepping up intelligence-gathering throughout the Middle East, according to Andrei Kartapolov, a senior official in the Russian Army’s General Staff.

Meanwhile, an unnamed Moroccan security official told Reuters on Wednesday that intelligence shared by the Moroccan intelligence services with their French counterparts led to a raid in an apartment in Paris in connection with the November 13 attacks there. Two people were shot dead or committed suicide and seven others were arrested during Wednesday’s dramatic raid in the Paris suburb of St. Denis.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 November 2015 | Permalink

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