October 29, 2014, Idlib countryside. Aftermath of regime bombing…

October 29, 2014, Idlib countryside. Aftermath of regime bombing of a refugee camp

Syrian helicopter bombs displaced persons camp, many dead: residents

Beirut, October 29, 2014

A Syrian army helicopter dropped two barrel bombs on a displaced persons camp in the northern province of Idlib, camp residents said on Wednesday, and video footage appeared to show charred and dismembered bodies.

Footage posted on YouTube showed corpses of women, children and burning tents while people scrambled to save the wounded. “It’s a massacre of refugees,” a voice off camera said.

"Let the whole world see this, they are displaced people. Look at them, they are civilians, displaced civilians. They fled the bombardment," the man’s voice said.

A man in another video of the Abedin camp, which houses people who had escaped fighting in neighboring Hama province, said as many as 75 people had died.

Syrian state media did not mention the bombing. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence in the civil war, said 10 civilians died.

Reuters could not independently confirm the attack. Barrel bombs are crudely-made containers filled with nails, metal shrapnel and explosive which are dropped from helicopters.

Rights groups say they have been dropped by the army on densely populated neighborhoods in defiance of a U.N. Security Council resolution banning the indiscriminate explosives.

Nearly 10 million people have been displaced by Syria’s civil war, which started with pro-democracy protests but grew into an armed revolt when security forces cracked down on the demonstrations. More than 3 million refugees have fled the country and the conflict has killed close to 200,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Both the Syrian government and insurgent groups are accused by rights groups of killing civilians and destroying homes.

Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross Turkish border into Syria in battle against Isis

Kurds enter Turkey

 The convoy of Kurdish peshmerga fighters crosses the border into Turkey from Iraq. Photograph: Ilyas Akengin/AFP/Getty Images

Istanbul, October 29, 2014 by Constanze Letsch

zens of Iraqi Kurdish fighters have crossed the Turkish border to join fighters in Syria pushing back the attack by Islamic State militants on the border town of Kobani.

More than 80 peshmerga fighters who arrived at the Sanliurfa airport in the early hours of the morning have reached Kobani.

The remaining 70 – who set off from Irbil,the capital the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, on Tuesday – are still on the road in Turkey, driving in a convoy carrying heavy artillery and weapons along with armoured vehicles and ambulances. They crossed from Iraq into Turkey at Habur on Wednesday morning where they were met by enthusiastic crowds and Turkish security forces. The convoy is expected to arrive in Syria later on Wednesday.

Last week Turkey agreed to let the Iraqi-Kurdish fighters cross through its territory following international pressure to take greater action against the Islamic State (Isis) militants across its borders. The Turkish government said it would only allow peshmerga fighters to enter Kobani and not those affiliated with Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey and is listed as a terrorist group by both the US and the EU. Turkey views fighter from YPG (Syrian People’s Defence Corps) who ate currently fending off Isis militants as being loyal to the PKK.

Kobani officials have said that local YPG commanders were in close contact with the peshmerga fighters in order to coordinate their strategies.

According to Turkish media reports, the border crossing by peshmerga fighters is being overseen by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation instead of its military, which is in charge of border security. “The Turkish armed forces do not want to give the impression of being in charge of the peshmerga transit”, military sources told the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet.

Mustafa Sayid Qader, peshmerga affairs minister for the KRG, said the fighters sent to Kobani would fight under “the direct command of his ministry”, adding that they were well trained and armed with advanced weapons.

The US – which has repeatedly called on its Nato ally Turkey to provide more than humanitarian support to the Syrian Kurdish enclave, welcomed the peshmerga deployment – calling it a “step to degrade and ultimately defeat” Isis.

Damascus also welcomed the deployment.

“The Islamic State is the enemy of humanity and everyone else and we see sending the Peshmerga to Kobani as positive,. The Kurds need to support their brethren,” Ali Haidar, the Syrian national reconciliation minister, told the Iraqi-Kurdish news site Rudaw.

According to KRG officials, 150 peshmerga fighters in total will join Kurdish and Free Syrian Army fighters in defending Kobani against Isis, who have been laying siege to the town since mid-September, forcing an estimated 200,000 people to flee into Turkey.

Iran accuses Turkey of prolonging civil war in Syria

Ankara, October 28, 2014 by Reuters

Iran accused Turkey on Tuesday of prolonging the three-year conflict in neighboring Syria by insisting on President Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow and supporting “terrorist groups” in Syria, the official IRNA news agency reported.

Tehran and Ankara back opposing sides in the civil war, which pits rebel forces including radical Sunni Muslim fighters from the Islamic State against Assad, Tehran’s closest regional ally.

Turkey, which has called for Assad to step down, has been a main transit point for foreign militants crossing into Syria to fight his forces, while Iran has supported him both militarily and politically.

"Ankara’s interference in Syrian internal affairs has unfortunately resulted in prolonging the war and extensive deaths of innocent Syrian civilians," Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted a senior Foreign Ministry official as saying.

"The crisis in Syria could have ended three years ago if Turkish officials stopped demanding regime change and supporting terrorist groups in Syria," the official said.

The comments appeared to be a response to remarks by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who was quoted by Turkish media on Monday accusing Iran of playing on Syria’s sectarian divisions.

"When we have bilateral meetings with Iran, they agree on solving this issue together. When it comes to action, unfortunately, they have their own way of working," Erdogan was quoted by the Hurriyet newspaper as saying. 

The Syrian conflict has undermined what were once close ties between Iranian officials and Erdogan, whose Syria policy has put him at odds with Iran, Russia and, at times, the United States.

NATO-member Turkey has refused to join the U.S.-led military coalition against the Islamic State unless it also confronts Assad, a demand that Washington, which flies air missions over Syria without objection from Damascus, has so far rejected.

Iran and the United States have been arch-foes for decades but now share a strategic interest in reversing the territorial gains of IS that threaten to redraw the map of the Middle East.

The military gains by Islamic State fighters challenge Tehran’s strategy of projecting power from the Gulf to the Mediterranean through its mainly Shi’ite allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Tehran has blamed the West for the rise of Islamic State, which controls swathes of Syria and Iraq, but also suggested the need for common action in confronting the group.

Sectarian Wedge Pushes From Syria Into Lebanon

A member of a local patrol in the mainly Christian town of Ras Baalbek, Lebanon. Shiites and Christians in the valley are on edge. CreditDiego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Labweh, October 27, 2014 by Anne Barnard

Recent outbreaks of fighting and growing sectarian tensions in northern Lebanon have heightened fears that the civil war in neighboring Syria is spilling over with new momentum, threatening the country’s fragile stability.

Over the past several days, clashes have roiled the northern coastal city of Tripoli, as the Lebanese Army carried out its most intense operations in years against Sunni militants there. And danger is brewing in another area further inland with its own turbulent history, the Bekaa Valley, which is straining under newly intensified sectarian tensions along the Syrian border.

For three years, the northern Bekaa Valley, the birthplace of Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite paramilitary group, has been warding off ripples of war from Syria, just over the mountains. But in recent weeks, encroaching skirmishes have made the area feel more like a front line.

Even before the new violence in Tripoli, the northern Bekaa was on edge. Just up the hill from Labweh is the mainly Sunni town of Arsal, a Lebanese border enclave that has become a volatile outpost of the Syrian conflict jutting into Lebanon. Once a sleepy village, Arsal is now a crowded city of 90,000, its population trebled by overwhelmingly Sunni Syrian refugees.

Sunni insurgents mix easily there, periodically shelling the mostly Shiite towns in the valley below. Arsal’s leaders have openly supported the three-year insurgency against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who is closely allied with Hezbollah.

Fear and anger in Labweh and neighboring Shiite villages deepened in August, when open war erupted in Arsal between the Lebanese Army and insurgents, some from the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and others with the even more extreme Islamic State. The insurgents captured 30 soldiers and have since killed three, two of them Shiites and the other Sunni. Lately, insurgents have carried out probing attacks near previously quiet Shiite settlements.

Now the expanding border conflict threatens to engulf residents of Shiite, Christian and Sunni villages, testing their resolve to stay out of sectarian conflict — a resolve they see as the first line of defense holding Lebanon together.

Shiites and Christians are increasingly alarmed by extremists among the insurgents, sometimes describing the threat in sectarian terms. They are dusting off rifles and organizing volunteer security patrols. But for now, they say, they are heeding leaders in Hezbollah, in their towns and in the army, who say they must refrain from communal revenge, that sectarian violence in Lebanon is exactly what the enemy wants.

“As a Shiite I feel threatened,” said Fayyad, a skinny young man who sat recently at a shawarma shop in Labweh, keeping wary watch on gravel trucks rumbling down the road from Arsal.

Nodding toward the intersection where that road meets the highway to Beirut, he gave it an ominous name, one used for the dividing line between Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut during the civil war that tore Lebanon apart a generation ago. “It’s a Green Line,” he said.

Here in the northern Bekaa, Shiite, Christian and Sunni villages were intertwined, intermarrying and sharing schools and businesses, including smuggling and agriculture. Life was more enmeshed with the similarly diverse Syrian region around the city of Homs than the more distant Lebanese capital, Beirut.

But now, like others in Labweh, Fayyad views Arsal’s people as traitors.

“We can hurt those people, but we don’t want to,” he said, as a friend listened, a pistol tucked in his waistband. But restraint was getting harder, Fayyad added. Above the intersection hung portraits of two young men from Labweh, killed in a Nusra Front ambush of a Hezbollah observation post two weeks earlier outside the nearby Shiite village of Brital.

Buildings damaged during clashes between the Lebanese Army and Sunni militants in the northern port city of Tripoli. CreditBilal Hussein/Associated Press 

“It’s hard to see friends die,” Fayyad said, giving only his first name because of concerns about his safety. “We don’t have anything to lose. We are not ready to do anything individually, but we are waiting for orders.”

Labweh’s mayor, Ramez Amhaz, called his town Lebanon’s bulwark.

“Even if we lost 1,000 dead from Labweh, we will not fall into this internal conflict,” he said. “We in Labweh protected the civil peace of Lebanon. We preserved Arsal’s people. We didn’t let any villagers hurt them, although there was resentment from the people, because they hold the Arsalis accountable.”

Mr. Amhaz cooperates on security with Hezbollah, Lebanon’s strongest military and political force, but politically leans communist. He said he works hard to calm families of captured soldiers. Residents at times block roads, snarling major routes to protest the soldiers’ plight.

The mayor tells everyone not to blame all Arsal residents; that the town has an “honorable history” of sacrifices in conflicts with Israel, and has been “kidnapped” by insurgents.

But two men visiting his home interrupted, saying it is Sunnis who spur civil conflict, by harboring insurgents.

“We hate this sectarian language,” the mayor said with an apologetic shrug. “But we want to say things as they are.”

Critics of Hezbollah say its intervention in Syria dragged the area into war, while supporters say that without it, they might have already been invaded. Regardless, war feels closer lately.

Later that night, red illumination rounds lit the sky as shells crashed north of Labweh. Dozens of Hezbollah fighters massed in flak vests as one crew stopped unfamiliar cars, backing up the army against insurgents they said were trying to move.

Even by day, fearful soda truck drivers have stopped going to Arsal, where police and soldiers are absent. They leave crates in Labweh for Arsal’s shop owners to pick up. To the Labweh mayor’s wife, Linda, it seemed each village had closed in on itself.

“People have changed,” she said. “If I have common interests with you, we will be friends. If not, no.”

A 35-year-old Hezbollah fighter who briefly detained journalists during the night battle expressed sorrow that he could no longer visit the school in Arsal where he taught for years, adding, “It has gotten worse, the hatred.”

Brital, a Shiite town south of Labweh, suffered the biggest recent scare, showing how quickly things can escalate. Hearing of the attack on the Hezbollah post, hundreds of men rushed toward the border carrying the hunting rifles that most families keep.

Ghada Ismail was in her curtain shop watching two men quarrel outside when a car pulled up with news of the attack. The men stopped arguing and headed to fight. Ms. Ismail sent her 14-year-old son.

“If I don’t, who will defend us?” she said.

Another youth described crossing the barren hills, expecting to kill or be killed as he passed a cleft between striated cliffs where, he emphasized, some Shiites believe the Mahdi, a messianic figure, will reappear.

He had never shot a gun, he said, but “when you see all the people going, young and old, of course you go.”

The attack surprised the Hezbollah fighters, who, three residents said, were preparing a holiday dinner. Seven were killed. When the townspeople arrived, the militants were gone.

But Brital remains mobilized. Men declare themselves ready to fight, and women watch from windows for strange cars.

Ahmed Saleh, 64, a retired army sergeant, called residents steadfast “sons of Hussein,” a revered figure killed in early Islamic succession battles that prompted the Sunni-Shiite split.

“We were martyred 1,500 years ago and we are still martyrs,” he said.

As for Arsal, said his daughter Mariam, 27, “We hate them. They betrayed the people. They betrayed Lebanon.”

Syria conflict: Nusra Front rebels attack Idlib

Residents look for survivors under the rubble of collapsed buildings after what activists said was a vacuum bomb dropped by forces of Syria"s President Bashar al-Assad on Maarat Al-Nouman, south of Idlib September 18, 2014Idlib and Aleppo have been under heavy bombardment by government forces

October 28, 2014 
Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants and other Syrian rebel groups have attacked the government-held city of Idlib, briefly seizing several official buildings.

The Nusra Front said its fighters killed dozens of government soldiers before being pushed back.

The Syrian government has maintained control of Idlib city in the country’s north-west since it was briefly taken over by rebel groups in 2012.

Syria’s civil war, in its fourth year, has claimed more than 200,000 lives.

In other developments, a video believed to have been produced by Islamic State (IS) militants purports to show the abducted British journalist John Cantlie in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane.

In the video, Mr Cantlie refers to events from the last fortnight, including a US air drop of weapons and ammunition intended for Kurdish fighters in Kobane.

The US has been carrying out air strikes on Kobane to help Syrian Kurdish forces repel an IS advance.

Intense fighting has been reported in and around the town, which is close to the Turkish border. 

Turkey last week said it would allow Iraqi Kurdish forces to enter the town to support the Syrian Kurdish fighters. However, the deployment has yet to materialise, the AFP news agency reports.

Mustafa Qader, a senior Iraqi Kurdish official quoted by the agency, suggested that Turkey was responsible for the delay. 

"We are awaiting the stance of the state of Turkey and because of this have not sent any forces," he is quoted as saying.

Turkey, faced with a long insurgency by its own Kurds, has until recently barred access for Kurdish fighters to Syria.

IS seized a broad swathe of borderless territory across Iraq and Syria this summer.

Barrel bombs

Monday’s attack on Idlib began at dawn with rebel fighters attacking the town from all sides, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based group that gathers reports from a network of activists in Syria.

The rebels attacked checkpoints and briefly entered the governor’s office and a police headquarters before being repelled.

The SOHR quoted an activist as saying that most of the attacks took place on the southern edge of the city, near Mastoumeh Hill.

The rebels reportedly captured the hill, prompting the government to respond with helicopter gunships. Dozens of rebels and soldiers are said to have been killed.

Rebels in Idlib, March 2012Rebels briefly held Idlib during 2012, but later lost control of the city (file pic)

Much of Idlib province is under rebel control but the city that shares its name has remained in the hands of forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut says the Nusra Front and its allies have been making slow advances in the north-west and south of Syria, while global attention has been focused on the US air campaign against Islamic State (IS).

The SOHR says the Syrian air force has carried out 600 air strikes in the past week, including barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. About 180 civilians have died in the attacks, the group says.

President Assad’s government has been battling against an armed and increasingly fragmented uprising. As well as fighting the government, rebel groups such as the Nusra Front and IS have also been fighting among themselves.

Turkey sets conditions for helping West in Kobane crisis in Syria


Smoke billowing after a jet fighter hit Kobane on Tuesday Photo: AFP

October 28, 2014 by Colin Freeman

Turkey has named its price for co-operation in the West’s fight to end the Islamic State’s stranglehold on the Syrian border town of Kobane, saying the fight must be led by the Free Syrian Army rather than Kurdish “terrorists”. 

The country’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that any military operation to free Kobane must involve arming regular Syrian rebel groups rather than the Kurdish militants who have so far defended the town. Turkey has refused to help the Kurdish fighters so far, claiming that many of them belong to the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a separatist insurgency against the Turkish state. 

"Equip and train the Free Syrian Army so that if the Islamic State leaves, PKK terrorists should not come," Mr Davutoglu said, aiming his comments at the US.

Mr Davutoglu’s remarks, made in an interview with the BBC, follow mounting international criticism of Turkey for refusing to intervene in the seige of Kobane, where a small force of lightly-armed Kurdish fighters have spent the last month holding out against heavily-armed Islamic State militants. US air strikes have slowed the Islamic State’s advance, but failed to significantly loosen their grip, fuelling calls for Turkey to join the fray. So far, forces from the Turkish army - the second largest in Nato - have simply observed the seige of Kobane from just across the border. 

On Tuesday, Mr Davutoglu said that Turkish troops would only be sent into battle if the West committed ground forces into Syria as well, a prospect that Washington and Britain have already ruled out. 

"If they don’t want to send their ground troops, how can they expect Turkey to send Turkish ground troops with the same risks on our border," he told the BBC. 

He hinted, though, that Turkish air bases might be used for US-led airstrikes if American jets targeted the forces of the Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad as well hitting Islamic State fighters. The US has already asked to use Turkey’s air base at Incirlik for the strikes, which would be easier than carrying them out from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, but Turkey has so far refused. 

Mr Davutoglu, a noted opponent of Mr Assad, said: “We will help any forces, any coalition, through air bases (within Turkey) or through other means if we have a common understanding to have a new pluralistic, democratic Syria.”

A convoy of Kurdish peshmerga directed towards Kobane on Tuesday (Reuters)

As Mr Davutoglu spoke, a column of peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan began their journey towards Kobane, where they will act as back-up forces. Bowing to Western pressure, Ankara has reluctantly agreed to let the peshmerga forces go through after receiving assurances that they would seek only to fend off the Islamic State rather than seek any future cause with the PKK. 

The 40-vehicle column, carrying 80 fighters and armed with machineguns and artillery, was expected to cross into Turkey last night, Kurdish officials told the AFP news agency. A further 72 fighters were due to fly into Turkey early on Wednesday, also bound for Kobane, where yesterday palls of smoke rose over the town as Islamic State fighters set fire to tyres in a bid to prevent air strikes. 

Turkey and the West have become progressively more at loggerheads over how end the Syrian crisis, despite both sides being keen to see the back of President Assad. One of the most powerful countries in the Middle East, Turkey was quick to call for President Assad’s overthrow, a move initially hailed by the West as a welcome lead from an Islamic country. But Ankara has since been accused of helping more radical rebel groups to cross the borders into Syria, paving the way for the creation of extremist outfits like the Islamic State. 

Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (AFP)

Mr Davutoglu continued to paint a disdainful picture of Western nations either dithering or lacking the military appetite for a long-term solution to the Syrian crisis. Turkey, he said, “did not want to be part of the game for a few weeks or months just to satisfy American or European public opinion”. 

He also repeated his call for an internationally-backed no-fly zone over northern Syria, from where moderate rebel groups could operate free from President Assad’s jets. America has ruled out such a no-fly zone on the basis that enforcing it would force US jets to directly challenge President Assad’s air defence system.

Iraqi Kurdish Fighters Enter Turkey En Route to Syria to Battle Islamic State

A convoy of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters drive through Erbil after leaving a base in northern Iraq on their way to the Syrian town of Kobani on Tuesday. REUTERS

Istanbul, October 29, 2014 by Emre Peker and Ayla Albayrak

Iraqi Kurdish forces arrived early Wednesday in Turkey en route to reinforce a Kurdish militia battling Islamic State militants in the Syrian city of Kobani, a ground intervention that will be the first by a Western-backed foreign force since the Syrian conflict began.

The semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq sent some 160 fighters to Turkey on Tuesday, said Fuad Hussein, chief adviser to KRG President Massoud Barzani.

An elite guard of the Peshmerga—the Kurdish force that is also part of the Iraqi national army—will operate artillery and other heavy weaponry to help protect Syrian Kurds, who have been under siege by Islamic State for the past five weeks in Kobani on Turkey’s border. 

The peshmerga soldiers arrived by plane in the southern Turkish city of Sanliurfa at 1:15 a.m., while a convoy of 38 vehicles carrying heavy weaponry and supplies traveled over land to the border town of Suruc, Turkey’s state news agency reported. The force was expected to be deployed Wednesday.

Kurdish television channel Rudaw aired images of at least a dozen trucks packed with heavy weaponry and sand-colored military vehicles transporting fighters from the regional capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, to Turkey. Some Peshmerga units will arrive late Tuesday by plane to the southern Turkish province of Sanliurfa along the Syrian border, and then cross into Syria, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.

The U.S., Turkey and Syrian Kurds hailed the deployment as a critical move to repel the militants from Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The Peshmerga are poised to arrive in the besieged city, where Syrian Kurds have been fighting an urban guerrilla war against militants who are using hit-and-run tactics, suicide bombs and snipers. 

Hundreds of people from the Turkish town of Silopi and the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Zakho gathered on either side of a border crossing to greet the Peshmerga, cheering and honking horns.

“People are gathering because there is some hope that the Peshmerga will make a big difference in Kobani,” said Mehmet Demirhan, a local journalist who was at the crossing where the Peshmerga are expected to enter Turkey.

The deployment will add a second Kurdish fighting force to an already crowded battlefield in Syria’s multisided civil war. While the Iraqi Kurdish fighters won’t immediately turn the tide, they could enable Syrian Kurds to secure the city in “a couple of weeks,” said Idres Nassan, a senior Kurdish official in Kobani. 

“The heavy weaponry, modern artillery, and rockets, which we’ve been asking for since the beginning, are enough to make a crucial difference,” he said. 

The U.S. made its first airdrops of weapons and ammunition to the Syrian Kurdish militia in Kobani last week and has led airstrikes around Kobani to prevent the symbolically strategic city from falling to Islamic State. 

Washington has been urging Turkey to open a ground corridor for military and humanitarian aid to the city. Turkey wants the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State to broaden its mission to fight the Syrian regime as well.

“We welcome the deployment of Peshmerga fighters and weapons from the Kurdistan region to Kobani,” said Brett McGurk, the U.S. deputy special presidential envoy for the coalition against Islamic State. 

The operation coordinated by Turkey, Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Kurds marks a turning point. For Turkey, it expands a booming strategic partnership with Iraqi Kurdistan, adding a military component to a raft of economic and energy deals. For rival Kurdish factions in Iraq and Syria, the deployment demonstrates that the longtime rivals can set aside deep ideological rifts to jointly fight a common enemy.

“Today is an important day for the Kurdish relationship and very important for the Kurdish-Turkish relationship,” Mr. Hussein said. “We will stay in constant communication with our people, and when they start the campaign, they will need continuous support,” he added.

Turkish and Kurdish officials said lengthy negotiations, distrust, and political disagreements delayed the Peshmerga deployment to Kobani by at least a week.

Turkey has been wary about supporting Syrian Kurds, whom officials in Ankara accuse of pursuing a separatist agenda by not joining the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, which is fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian and Turkish Kurds, who are closely aligned, have shot back that Turkey is aiding Islamic State and exacerbated Kobani’s siege by delaying military aid and the transit of Iraqi Kurdish forces. The Turkish government denied the accusation.

Turkish officials reiterated Tuesday that Syrian Kurds were in talks to allow a significant FSA force to join the fight in Kobani, suggesting an alliance could help heal regional rifts. Syrian Kurds have previously rejected Ankara’s entreaties to fight alongside the FSA. 

“This event could be an important step,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “That these elements can reach an agreement among themselves…could work as a confidence-building measure.”

Kobani’s crisis has also roiled Turkey, triggering deadly clashes in the majority-Kurdish southeast and threatening to derail peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. 

The group known as the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S., long-standing allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 

The PKK’s Syrian affiliate has been at the forefront of the fight against Islamic State in Kobani, and Turkey criticized the U.S. airdrop of weapons to the Syrian Kurdish militia as aiding “terrorists.”

Iran Is Forcing Poor Afghans to Fight and Die in Syria

October 21, 2014 by Jassem al-Salami

“Come out, you donkey!” the Syrian rebel shouts in Arabic in the amateur video that appeared on the Internet in mid-October. Two other rebels are pulling something out of a pile of rubble. The outline of a human body appears from beneath dust and bricks.

The scene resembles something out of a movie—the aftermath of an entire building collapsing on the people inside. Only this is real. Twelve pro-regime fighters reportedly died in the destruction of this structure north of Aleppo in war-ravaged northern Syria.

Three soldiers survived. Islamic Front rebels pulled them from the wreckage and took them prisoner.

Islamic Front fighters are no angels, but their interrogation of the prisoners, which the rebels also recorded and posted online, is a surprisingly civil affair.

One of the captured fighters sits on a sofa, a bandage on his head. The rebel sitting beside him asks where he’s from. He answers in Dari. “Afghanistan,” he says.

This is not the first time Afghans have been caught fighting in Syria, for or against the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Some Afghan fighters joined Al Assad’s forces after rebels came close to capturing the shrine of Sayydah Zeynab in southern Damascus.

A number of Afghan Shias have been living around the shrine since the early 1990s, when the Taliban started massacring Shia Afghans, forcing many to flee the country.

In early 2012, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a bus stop near the shrine. Syrian security forces claimed the truck was heading to the holy shrine itself. The apparent near-miss enraged Afghans in Syria and back home.

In late 2012, the first Afghan members of the pro-regime Al Abbas Brigade appeared in pictures circulating in jihadist social media. Afghans were going to war in Syria. In early 2013, Afghan volunteers along with Pakistani, Azeri and other Asian fighters reorganized as the Fatemiyoun Brigade.

Fatemiyoun Brigade’s badge. Art via Mogavemoon. 
And soon, the motivations seemed to change for at least some of the Afghans.

Videotaped interrogations of two of the Afghans the rebels captured in Aleppo reveal that, for them at least, the war isn’t about ideology anymore.

The Afghan with bandaged head says he’s from Varamin, an impoverished town near Tehran. He’s an illegal immigrant. Iranian authorities had apprehended him and offered him a monthly payment of $600 to fight in Syria. If he had refused, they would have sent him back to Afghanistan—which for a Shia could mean death.

There are an estimated one million illegal immigrants from Afghanistan living in Iran. They and their children can’t enroll in universities or work regular jobs with standard benefits and pay. Afghan immigrants tend to work in construction or as farmers.

They live in the poorest neighborhoods, suburbs and villages. Afghan communities in Iran are prone to crime, mainly drug trafficking.

Seyyed Ahmad Torabi, an Afghan killed in Syria in November 2013. IBNA photo

It was the fall of 2013 when Afghan fighters in Syria first made headlines in Iran and Afghanistan. A large group of Afghan fighters tried to penetrate rebels lines outside Aleppo in order to help loyalist fighters trapped in the city. The rebels ambushed the infiltrators and killed 17 of them.

Pictures of the victims seemed to depict some very young men, possibly minors, although it was impossible to verify anyone’s actual age.

Considering the low living standards of Afghans in Iran, from the beginning the main assumption was that Iranian authorities had more or less forced these Afghans to fight in Syria, offering them modest pay and threatening extradition if they refused.

Afghan officials launched a formal investigation of Iran’s alleged recruitment efforts. Members of Afghanistan’s parliament including Shokriye Peykan have openly accused Iran of taking advantage of poor Afghan immigrants.

Hamed Eghtedar, an Afghan who has lived in Syria for more than six years, said he believes that while some of Afghans fight for money, there are still others who fight for ideological reasons.

Indeed, some Afghans—members of the Pashtun nationalist Mellat Party, in particular—have gone straight to Syria from Afghanistan to aid the regime, skipping Iran entirely.

Eghtedar, a correspondent for the Bokhdi news agency in Afghanistan, said he has seen Arab and Chechen fighters carrying Afghan passports while fighting for the rebels in Aleppo. They allegedly travel under Afghan aliases to avoid prosecution in their home countries.

Given the large number of Sunni Afghans fighting for the rebels, the Al Assad regime considers Afghans a possible threat. Regime troops even abducted Eghtedar and his wife near Aleppo. Al Assad’s forces tortured Eghtedar for 45 days before releasing the couple. The torturers’ usual technique was to bash his head against a wall.

Eghtedar and his wife fled Syria and and returned to Afghanistan by way of the human-smuggling route. Traffickers charge up to $1,000 to sneak a person out of Syria.In the other video of October’s Aleppo captives, the captured Afghan introduces himself as Ali Moradli. He says he’d been sentenced to six years in prison for dealing drugs in Iran. Again, authorities offered $600 per month to fight … or extradition.

The Iranians sent him to a five-day gun-familiarization course then flew him to Damascus on a civil passenger plane.

After two days in Damascus, his unit flew to Aleppo. They traveled one hour by road then hiked for eight hours to reach their front-line base. Combatants from a nearby Shia town guided Ali’s unit across the mountains and deserts north of Aleppo.

According to Moradli, the Afghan fighters numbered 450. They were organized as three 150-man battalions, each consisting of 10 squads of 15 fighters. Iranian officers lead the battalions.

Ali says his Iranian commander would have killed him if he had tried to run. But then the rebels attacked, killing the Iranian commander. The only Iranian known to have died in Syria in same time period is Brig. Gen. Jabbar Darisavi.

Darisavi’s funeral. Khouz News photo

Moradli says his squad commander was named Khalili, but Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps members usually use aliases in the field. Tehran announced that Darisavi died in the Handirat region north of Aleppo — the exact location of the ambush.

Darisavi, a battalion commander during the Iran-Iraq war, more recently served in the Karbala Intelligence Joint Headquarters in southern Iran.

Moradli’s inadequate training plus the fact that Iranian generals are leading indentured Afghan drug dealers is indicative of Tehran’s—and the Syrian regime’s—desperation.

When Islamic State invaded Iraq this summer, Iran diverted its Iraqi militias to defend Baghdad. Likewise, Hezbollah has had to pull out of Syria and return to Lebanon in order to defend against Syrian rebels pouring out of the Qalamun Mountains.

The pro-regime forces that remain in Syria are ill-prepared and thinly spread. If the Afghans’ capture in Syria tells us anything, it’s that the regime and its allies are running out of people.

Syrian youth worry about draft

Security personnel loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad stand guard at a checkpoint in Damascus, May 27, 2013.  (photo by REUTERS/ Alaa Al-Marjani)

Damascus, October 27, 2014 by Mustafa al-Haj/Trans: Joe Abboud

During the past few days, mortar fire and arbitrary detentions were not the main source of concern for Syrian youth. A new nightmare has emerged wherein Syrian authorities started a crackdown on youth who have performed their compulsory military service, and they are forcing them to join the Syrian army as “backup” forces. The authorities did not declare these measures out of fear that the youth would consequently flee or hide.

All those who are of age for compulsory backup service are afraid, especially after many young men in Damascus and other Syrian areas have been arrested by the Syrian security forces to perform this service. The only solution is to leave the country before one’s name is circulated between security personnel at military checkpoints as a wanted individual.

Oct. 14 was not a lucky day for 27-year-old Ayman. Ayman received a call from one of the military branches in Damascus and was told to immediately join the recruitment department that he belongs to in al-Midan area. Ayman, who works as a journalist, performed his military service in 2010. As soon as he received the call, he did not hesitate to pack his bags to flee the country.

“I do not want to die on one of the fronts. Traveling from here was my only option. I will be traveling to Lebanon and then to Turkey. I do not have any friends there. It might be very bad, but not as bad as joining the army again under these difficult circumstances,” he told Al-Monitor.

The checkpoints deployed in Damascus have increased their examination of people traveling on foot, by bus and those in public and private vehicles, especially people aged 24-35, the most appropriate age for the backup forces. On a public bus in Damascus, I noted these intensive examinations carried out by security forces at checkpoints; in the area of ​​Mezze some young men were made to get off the bus at a checkpoint to make sure they were not wanted for backup and security called one of the branches of the military police. The officer in charge then asked the driver to leave and the young men were detained.

The regime is periodically conducting raids in some neighborhoods of Damascus and other areas of Syria to arrest all those who meet the conditions to join the army. Marwan, 29, an employee at one of the state’s institutions, told Al-Monitor, “Security men raided a number of streets in the residential neighborhood of Barzah on Oct. 16 where I live, and they ‘brutally’ took some young men to join the army as ‘backup’ elements.”

Marwan said, “Currently, a large number of young state employees are afraid of being called up for military service as well, especially after rumors in the ranks of state employees about a civil servant who was accompanied from his workplace by military police to join the military.” He added that some young men changed their home addresses and went out of sight until raids subsided, while others preferred to flee to areas controlled by opposition fighters.

Osama, 28, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview, “I left my house in Rukn al-Din in central Damascus and headed to my uncle’s house deep in the Barzah neighborhood, north of Damascus, controlled by opposition fighters.” Osama added, “At least there, I will not be locked into a house and I can walk around freely in the region. I will be safe from members of the security services and the raids by military police.”

In the streets of the capital, even young men who are exempt from military service due to illness are not spared from the insults of security officers at the numerous checkpoints. Ziad, 30, who is HIV-positive, told Al-Monitor, “I am forced to carry the military service card wherever I go. I am often asked to show it, especially recently, when a campaign started to conscript young men to the reserve forces. When they are checking my military service card, the security member would read out loud in front of all the passengers on the public bus that I was exempt from military service because of having HIV. This makes me feel incredibly offended and embarrassed by the reactions of the passengers. Disgusted, the security men would often throw my military card at my face, saying, ‘May God save us. … Leave and never show me your face again.’ Sometimes I also heard some say, ‘You are a burden on the country.’”

“Security officers at checkpoints in Damascus treat civilian young men differently, depending on their external appearance and place of birth or registration number stated on their identity card. Young men born in Damascus, Latakia or Tartus are treated in a completely different way from young men hailing from Idlib and Aleppo,” Ahmed, 20, from Idlib who came to Damascus to pursue his university education, told Al-Monitor. “I find it difficult to pass the security checkpoints since I am often described as affiliated with the terrorists of the city of Idlib known for opposing Assad’s regime. Most of the times I am asked to step outside the bus so that security members can run an extensive check on my ID by contacting one of the security branches to make sure that I am not wanted for any reason,” he said. “This security check has increased more during this week after campaigns to conscript young men to the army reserve forces. This is why I make sure I carry my military service card stating that I am exempt until I finish my studies.”

The military service nightmare still haunts young men in Syria and does not seem likely to end soon. The dreams of many to enjoy stability, start a family and a job have started to fade. For young Syrian men, torn between hiding and fleeing the country, time has stopped and no hope can be found. Their life has turned into a tragedy of many chapters.

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