The loss of a nation

Amman, October 23, 2014 

MANY of the 3m or so Syrian refugees now refer to their hometowns in the past tense. “There was Deraa and now there is no Deraa”, says Safara, a grandmother from the bombed southern Syrian town who now lives in the Jordanian city of Irbid. Now their nationality may become as elusive as their former hometowns. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says that hundreds of thousands of Syrians could become stateless as a result of the brutal three-and-a-half-year war. The number of refugees and the lengthy time they are likely to spend outside Syria, combined with tough nationality laws in host countries, put them at particular risk of adding to the 10m stateless people worldwide.

For many the problem is simply having no papers to prove they are Syrian since over more than three years of war, and as people fled, many identity documents have been lost or destroyed. For others, passports have expired (passports last for only two years for men who have not completed compulsory military service). They can only be replaced or renewed by returning to Syria or by applying at one of the semi-functional embassies abroad. In neighbouring countries, this requires a costly trip to Istanbul, Amman or Beirut, application fees and up to six-months processing time—as well as an uncertain result. Syrians who are wanted by the regime are loth to approach any Syrian authority. Those who have done so remotely say they have had their requests for documentation denied. To make things worse, of late the jihadist group calling itself Islamic State has started to destroy passports and legal records in Syria.

Children are disproportionately affected because many left Syria before ever obtaining a passport or identity card. An estimated 8,000 minors have crossed the borders without an adult, let alone documentation. The case for the some 51,000 Syrian children born in exile is yet more complex. Children born abroad can be recognised as Syrians if their birth is registered by host states, after which they can apply for nationality from the Syrian authorities. Syrian nationality is only conferred if the father is Syrian, so both Jordanian and Lebanese authorities require a valid marriage certificate for the parents before they will register a birth.

But a quarter of refugee families are headed by lone women, since many men have been killed, gone missing or remain in Syria. Refugees who have no nationality documents or expired passports cannot register their marriages outside the country. In addition, many children are born into underage or religious marriages that are not legally recognised. The problem is worsening as Syrian refugees have started to marry off their daughters at a younger age in the hope her new husband can support her. Save the Children, a charity, says one in four Syrian marriages in Jordan is illegal because the bride is underage while a recent UNHCR survey found that more than 75% of refugee babies born in Lebanon had not been properly registered.

None of Syria’s neighbouring states confer citizenship to Syrians simply because they are born on their soil so a refugee cannot easily obtain an alternative nationality. Without valid papers Syrians are denied residency in Lebanon and Turkey.Some undocumented Syrians have been refused entry to Turkey. In Lebanon, many Syrians live in fear of the police and are unable to pass checkpoints, work or rent housing. This has forced some people to make the perilous journey to Syria to obtain official documents, but new policies in Lebanon and Jordan restrict refugees who have returned to Syria from re-entering. A lucrative Syrian passport-forging trade has sprung up in Turkey. Some Syrians have paid huge bribes to Syrian officials to try to obtain documentation. Activists have launched an online campaign demanding that the opposition Syrian National Coalition, the main representative of the opposition, issue passports.

The global stateless population includes “bidoon” a miscellany of nomadic and ethnic groups, many of them Bedouins, never recognised by Gulf states and Rohingya Muslims denied citizenship in Myanmar. Prior to the conflict, Syria was home to an estimated 300,000 stateless people. Some were among the 500,000-strong Palestinian population. (They have struggled to find countries to flee to. Jordan has been criticised several times by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby, for turning back Syrian Palestinians at its borders.) But the majority were from Syria’s 2m Kurds, many of whom were denied citizenship and, paradoxically, registered as stateless “foreigners” by Syrian authorities. A decree in 2011 enabled some to reapply for citizenship, but others were ineligible or fled before doing so. A survey of Syrian Kurdish refugees in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan last year found that 10% were stateless. 

UNHCR is encouraging host-countries to simplify registration procedures for Syrian refugees. It suggests these governments ask for fewer documents to prove identity and marriage. It uses cartoons to tell some 3,000 illiterate refugees to safely preserve their legal documents and to register births, deaths and marriages. Every week a civil registry officer visits Jordan’s tightly-regulated Azraq camp, which currently receives around 97% of arrivals to the country from Syria. Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth, who runs UNHCR’s office in the camp, says thanks to this unregistered births have almost been eliminated. But reaching everyone, especially those living outside camps, is tricky.

Kurds reject Erdogan report of deal with Syrian rebels to aid besieged Kobani

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 24, 2014. REUTERS-Kai Pfaffenbach
Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province October 24, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH

A senior Syrian Kurdish official on Friday rejected a report from Turkey’s president that Syrian Kurds had agreed to let Free Syrian Army fighters enter the border town of Kobani to help them push back besieging Islamic State insurgents.

The Free Syrian Army is a term used to describe dozens of armed groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad but with little or no central command. They have been widely outgunned by Islamist insurgents such as Islamic State. 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is a leading opponent of Assad and has allowed his more secular, Western-backed opponents such as FSA fighters to use Turkey as a base and sanctuary.

Erdogan said on Friday said 1,300 FSA fighters would enter Kobani after the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) agreed on their passage, but his comments were swiftly denied by Saleh Moslem, co-chair of the PYD.

"We have already established a connection with FSA but no such agreement has been reached yet as Mr. Erdogan has mentioned," Moslem told Reuters by telephone from Brussels.

Turkey’s unwillingness to send its powerful army across the Syrian border to break the siege of Kobani has angered Kurds, and seems rooted in a concern not to strengthen Kurds who seek autonomy in adjoining regions of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. 

Ankara’s stance has also upset Western allies, as Islamic State’s capture of wide swathes of Syria and Iraq has caused international shock and U.S.-led air strikes began in August to try to halt and eventually reverse the jihadist advance. 

Erdogan told a news conference on a visit to Estonia that Ankara was working on details of the route of passage for the FSA fighters, indicating they would access Kobani via Turkey.

But Moslem said talks between FSA commander Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi and the armed wing of the Kurdish PYD were continuing about the possible role of FSA rebels. “There are already groups with links to the FSA in Kobani helping us,” he said.

The FSA, however, is little more than an acronym used to describe dozens of tenuously affiliated rebel groups who complain of a lack of arms and resources leaving them unable to effectively confront Assad and better-armed Islamist rebels.

Moslem said the FSA would be more helpful if it opened a second front against Islamic State elsewhere in Syria. “Politically we have no objections to FSA….But in my opinion, if they really would like to help, then their forces should open another front, such as from Tel Abyad or Jarablus,” he said.

He was referring to two nearby Syrian border towns captured by Islamic State as part of its lightning military campaign in which it has beheaded or crucified prisoners, massacred non-Sunni Muslim civilians in its path and declared a mediaeval-style caliphate spanning eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.

FSA commander Al-Oqaidi, speaking to Reuters in Suruc, a Turkish border town across from Kobani, said there had been an agreement to begin establishing a united defence force and initially 1,350 FSA fighters were to go to Kobani for help.

"These fighters will come in two or three days," he said.

"The fighters will come from the northern Syrian countryside. These fighters are not coming from the fighting fronts against the Assad regime. These are reserve fighters."

U.S. officials said on Thursday that Kobani, nestled in a valley overlooked by Turkish territory, seemed in less danger of falling to Islamic State after coalition air strikes and limited arms drops, but the threat remained.

Turkey has been loath to join the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State but, after mounting pressure from its Western allies, Erdogan said on Wednesday that some Kurdish peshmerga fighters from Iraq would be allowed to transit Turkey to Kobani.

CREDIBILITY TEST 

Although Turkish and U.S. officials acknowledge Kobani itself is not especially strategically important, the fate of the town has become a credibility test of the international coalition’s response to Islamic State.

Over the weekend, U.S. warplanes air-dropped small arms to Kobani’s defenders, against the wishes of Turkish authorities who have described them as terrorists because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long separatist insurgency in Turkey.

The PYD’s Moslem said he was disappointed with Turkey’s response so far. “When I conducted my meetings in Turkey, I was hoping the help would come in 24 hours. It’s been more than a month and we’re still waiting,” he said.

In a separate interview published in a pan-Arab newspaper, Moslem said that the battle for Kobani would turn into a war of attrition unless Kurds obtained arms that can repel tanks and armoured vehicles.

He told Asharq al-Awsat that Kurds had recently received information that Islamic State wanted to fire chemical weapons into Kobani using mortars, after having surrounded it with around 40 tanks.

"If we were to receive qualitative (stronger) weapons, we would be able to hit the tanks and armoured vehicles that they use - we may be able to bring a qualitative change in the battle," Moslem said.

The FSA’s al-Oqaidi echoed Moslem’s call for better weapons, saying that FSA fighters had only light arms. “Our main problem is not numbers of the fighters but the quality of weapons…The fighters in Kobani need good quality weapons too.” 

Elsewhere in Syria’s civil war, government forces retook a town on the highway linking Hama and Aleppo cities in the west of the country after months of battles with insurgents, Damascus state television and a monitoring group said.

The recapture of Morek, 30 km (19 miles) north of Hama, is part of Assad’s campaign to shore up control of territory in the west stretching north from Damascus while U.S.-led forces bomb Islamist militants in the north and east.

Syria’s Role in the Battle Against ISIS

October 22, 2014 by Frederic C. Hof

For over three years the Obama administration viewed the struggle for Syria as something well worth avoiding. Even as Assad-regime atrocities piled the bodies high and drove millions from their homes—enabling an aggressively murderous caliphate to arise in the east while Iran, Hezbollah, and their Syrian client solidified a grip on the west—the administration focused on money to mitigate the humanitarian abomination and rhetoric to make avoidance look like well-considered caution and containment. Yet those days are done. US forces are again at war in the Arab World and Syria is a vital theatre in that war. What is the significance of Syria in prosecuting the battle against the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS)? How can US policy toward Syria preserve a coalition formed to oppose it?

From the outset, President Barack Obama has defined the key to beating the caliph in Iraq as one of effective, inclusive Iraqi governance. Until very recently, he avoided saying the same thing about Syria, an omission he recently corrected at Andrews Joint Base. In Iraq, he knew that the precondition to begin the journey to decent governance was sidelining the abysmally sectarian and serially incompetent Nouri al-Maliki. Clearly, he knew that the same thing applied to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad: he had, after all, called on Assad to step aside in August 2011. He was aware of the intimate connection between the regime’s brutal sectarianism and the attraction to Syria of foreign fighters. The live-and-let-live relationship between the Islamic State and the Assad regime had not escaped his attention.

Yet, until and even (for a time) after the Syrian-based invasion of Iraq in June 2014, the default position of the administration was to pigeonhole Syria as a place where it would be great to have a negotiated political transition; where war was not the answer and Bashar al-Assad should awaken to the fact that he had lost all legitimacy. This whistling past the graveyard phase of US policy toward Syria seems to be over. But what will replace it?

Back to basics: if decent, inclusive governance in Iraq is what is needed to keep the Islamic State dead even after the caliph and his gang of cutthroats are eliminated, is this not also true of Syria? Can the objective articulated by President Obama—the destruction of the Islamic State—be accomplished with the Assad regime, borne aloft by Iran and its sectarian militiamen, retaining power in western Syria?

Those who are unmoved by the regime’s grotesque, largely self-recorded criminality—whether they be Iranian and Russian officials or Western academics and media commentators—argue that the regime’s existence and the Islamic State’s defeat are in fact reconcilable. Indeed, the regime’s objective of liquidating its nationalist opposition so that it can confront Mr. Obama with the inescapable fact that the choice in Syria has boiled down to President Bashar versus Caliph Baghdadi is not one that offends the unmoved. As the tempo of regime barrel-bombing of residential neighborhoods escalates, the regime’s minister of information invents a military campaign against the Islamic State to substantiate the arguments of the apologists. Is there anything at all to the claim that the Assad regime can help beat the caliph?

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry think not. They see Assad and his policies as having opened the door to the Islamic State on many levels. Yet, it is not quite right to see the rise of this cancer in Syria as being a result of Sunni Arab political grievance; something parallel to Iraq. The uprising against the Assad regime was not sectarian. When a resurrected al-Qaeda in Iraq inserted itself into Syria, it was not at the invitation of Syrians. When these murderers attracted private Gulf financing and foreign jihadists to their ranks, it was not for the purpose of enfranchising Syrians or even confronting Assad, their top recruiting asset. Whatever voluntary support—tribes, Baathists, and the like—may exist for the caliph in Iraq, it is not replicated in Syria. Even young Syrians who signed up with the caliph did so largely for reasons having to do with weapons, ammunition, walking-around money, and breakfast: items that could have been provided to nationalist units by the West. Syria is not fertile ground for what Baghdadi has on offer. 

Indeed, Bashar al-Assad could vindicate the stated (if perhaps insincere) hopes of his foreign apologists by ending the bombing, shelling, and starvation besieging of residential neighborhoods; by releasing tens of thousands of prisoners undergoing starvation, torture, and sexual abuse; by declaring a unilateral ceasefire with respect to nationalist forces; and by stating his readiness to respect empowered local governance in all areas not under his control as a first step toward the reconvening of negotiations aimed at an overall political settlement. Such an initiative could open the way for unrestricted humanitarian relief and an all-Syrian battle against the Islamic State.

It will not happen. The man who lacked the moral backbone and political skill to handle the peaceful Deraa protests nonviolently in the beginning will not emerge as a statesman now. The man responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity documented by literally tons of paper—much of it smuggled out of regime archives—will not now act with malice toward none and with charity for all. His cynical objective is to present Barack Obama with a fait accompli: if you want to go beyond bombing runs against the Islamic State in Syria, it is me or no one.

If Assad alone is left standing to confront the Islamic State—assuming he and the caliph choose not to perpetuate their longstanding live-and-let-live relationship—what will be the effect on regional members of the coalition assembled by the United States? How likely is it that they will persist in the US-led battle against the caliph if Assad succeeds in imposing himself on them as an ally?

For reasons of coalition solidarity, if nothing else, Syria cannot be an afterthought to an Iraq-centric campaign. Yes, priority of near-term coalition military effort must go to Iraq. But a Syria policy characterized by an old expression from the American west—”a bad case of the slows”—can imperil the coalition that has been built. Keeping the nationalist opposition inside Syria alive through robust resupply of arms and equipment will not lessen the already microscopic possibility of the Assad regime acting with wisdom and generosity. Grounding the regime air force and establishing a protected zone for opposition governance to take root, in accordance with President Obama’s Andrews remarks, will neither abet the biggest crime wave nor worsen the worst humanitarian abomination of the still young twenty-first century. Doing both of these things—and quickly—will solidify the coalition.

Killing the Islamic State inside Syria will require bullets. Keeping it or an even more loathsome successor dead will require good governance. It goes without saying that the words “good governance” and “Assad regime” do not even belong in the same sentence. Unless the administration has reason to believe that Bashar al-Assad is finished torturing Syrians and is ready to begin edging toward the exits, it will move with dispatch to keep alive and well the nationalist forces fighting the caliph even as they resist the regime. A bad case of the slows—fatal in places like Tombstone, Arizona—might also kill a coalition trying to neutralize the lawless in Iraq and Syria alike.

Borders still open to refugees, UNHCR

Beirut, October 23, 2014 by Samya Kullab

Lebanese borders are still open to refugees, albeit in reduced numbers, UNHCR country representative Ninette Kelley said, and cooperation between the agency and the government over entry and exit is ongoing. In an interview with The Daily Star, Kelley clarified the UNHCR’s position on several points related to Lebanon’s changing policies toward Syrian refugees and hinted at the agency’s planning for next year.

Since early June, through decrees issued by individual ministries and recommendations made by the ministerial committee tasked with managing the refugee file, key policy changes were proposed, including revoking refugee status to Syrians who return home. Recently, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said Lebanon was denying access to Syrians unable to present exigent humanitarian reasons for entry.

“We have seen a very real reduction in the number of refugees who are able to get through and seek our assistance, but we are also seeing that there are cases where humanitarian exceptions are being made,” Kelley said. “So, the border hasn’t been completely closed, which the government has said, [and] that’s consistent with what we see.”

However, she said, the UNHCR has not, to date, received any details about the criteria employed by General Security to decide what constitutes a humanitarian case for entry.

Kelley said that “from the very beginning” General Security has provided the UNHCR with the names of persons who have gone back and forth to Syria.

“We have looked at those names and tried to determine what number of those names, because there are a lot of names, also matches our database, and then we have called people in … to interview them and find out the reasons for their going back,” she said. “And we have deregistered people for whom their going back to Syria has shown that they aren’t in need of international protection or assistance, and that’s something that we have done willingly with the government, recognizing that refugee status is for persons who have a well-founded fear of persecution and are fleeing civil unrest inside Syria.”

Since June, Kelley said 68,000 Syrians had their refugee status removed. That number includes Syrians who failed to keep in touch with the agency by not showing up to pick up aid, or who were deemed not to be in need of protection any longer, after a routine interview conducted annually prior to renewing refugee documents.

The country representative said the UNHCR was still in negotiations with the government regarding to several issues, but said she “appreciated” and “understood” the justifications guiding Lebanon’s changing refugee policies – namely the burdens associated with hosting 1.2 million Syrian refugees.

As the UNHCR prepares to make its annual appeal to donors to finance next year’s Syria refugee response, Kelley said, planning for 2015 would focus on working with community-based organizations and enhancing delivery through local NGOs and grassroots organizations, as well as enhancing institutional capacities and providing support to host communities.

Last year’s record appeal of $1.89 billion for Lebanon, out of the $6.5 billion regional total, received just 38 percent of requested funds from donors.

Referring to the Arsal clashes in August, Kelley said the agency had long cautioned against the buildup of a large refugee population in the area due to its proximity to the border.

“In our experience in refugee situations around the world, this is a dangerous situation because armed elements can get purchase in refugee hosting areas and use that as a base for their activities, which was borne out in Arsal,” she said.

Touching on the government’s proposal to set up formal refugee camps along the border with Syria in Masnaa, Kelley reiterated the U.N.’s stance that the plan is “unadvisable.”

“We don’t think it’s advisable, but we recognize territorial sovereignty,” she said. “And should Lebanon decide to put a camp there, then that’s Lebanon’s decision to make, but it’s incumbent on us to provide our expert advice, and our expert advice is that could be a threat, not just to refugees but to Lebanon.”

Erdogan Says U.S. Arms for Kobani’s Kurd Defenders an Error

October 23, 2014 by Onur Ant and Selcan Hacaoglu

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the U.S. of ignoring his country’s concerns by airdropping weapons to Kurds defending a Syrian town against Islamic State. 

U.S. support for Kurdish forces fighting in Kobani, a Syrian community on the Turkish border, has opened a new rift between the NATO allies, with Turkey concerned that arming Kurds with separatist aims could imperil its own security. 

“The U.S. is delivering the aid in spite of Turkey,” Erdogan said today in televised remarks during a visit to Latvia, questioning why Kobani “is of strategic importance” to the U.S. “There are no civilians left in Kobani,” and some of the airdropped weapons were seized by Islamic State, he said. 

The Kurds fighting in Kobani include forces affiliated with Syria’s Democratic Union Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PYD. Turkey opposes arming the PYD because it is allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey since 1984 in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands. 

“Aid to the PYD is going to the terrorist organization,” Erdogan said in reference to the PKK. “There are senior PKK members within the PYD.” The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union. 

Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images. People observe smoke rising from the Syrian town of Kobani, also known as Ain al-Arab,…

U.S. Airdrops 

Kurdish fighters in Kobani have held off Islamic State militants for weeks. They’re receiving increased support from the U.S., which has struck militant positions in the town from the air as well as dropping weapons and other supplies for its defenders. The U.S. has vowed to destroy Islamic State, the al-Qaeda breakaway group that holds parts of Iraq and Syria. 

One of the 28 airdropped bundles probably fell into Islamic State hands, while another was destroyed before the militants could retrieve it, the Pentagon said yesterday. 

Erdogan said he had proposed to President Barack Obama that Kurdish fighters from Iraq, known as Peshmerga, should be sent to bolster Kobani. Turkey agreed this week to let the Peshmerga cross Turkish territory. 

“We said we would allow controlled passage of Peshmerga and PYD later accepted this,” Erdogan said. “There is now agreement for passage of 200 Peshmergas from northern Iraq.” 

‘Having Conversations’ 

Peshmerga forces would transit Turkey without weapons, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in televised remarks today, adding that timing and route of their passage would be clear today or tomorrow. Weapons for the Peshmerga forces would be trucked in separately, according to Turkish media. 

“We’re having conversations with the Turks about when this can start happening,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington yesterday. 

While Harf welcomed Turkey’s decision to allow passage to the Peshmerga fighters, she rejected Erdogan’s criticism of the Kobani airdrop, saying it was an effort “to make sure these people fighting ISIL on the ground have the supplies they need.” ISIL is an acronym for the terrorist group’s former name. 

Turkey has pushed for U.S. led military efforts in Syria to be directed at ousting President Bashar al-Assad as well as crushing Islamic State. 

“Although the current rift is unlikely to seriously strain ties between the allies, Turkey is disturbed with the lack of U.S. action to stop the Syrian regime’s massacres over the past three years,” Cagri Erhan, a professor of international relations at Ankara University, said by phone today. “Erdogan is giving the message that the PYD will remain a terrorist organization in Turkey’s eyes even if the U.S. supplies weapons to it.” 

Harf said the U.S. didn’t rule out repeating the arms delivery. “We may. We may not,” she said.

Syrians to be trained to defend territory, not take ground from jihadists, officials say

East of Kobani, Turkish town appreciates ‘peace’ brought by Islamic State

Turkish Kurds watch the smoke rises from Syrian town of Kobani near the Mursitpinar border crossing, on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Turkish Kurds watch the smoke rises from Syrian town of Kobani near the Mursitpinar border crossing, on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH

Akcakale, October 23, 2014 by Humeyra Pamuk

Residents of a Turkish border town, an hour’s drive from where Islamic State is battling for control of Kobani, appreciate the quiet they say the Sunni militants brought when they swiftly seized neighboring Syrian territory.

Months of infighting last year between Islamist groups and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group aiming to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, kept Akcakale residents on their toes with daily explosions and mortar shells.

But life has got easier in the southeastern Turkish town since Islamic State took charge over the border in Tel Abyad in January. Residents say they make better neighbors even though they have no sympathy for the militants’ cause. 

"No more gun fire, no more chaos. I know it will sound bizarre but I’d rather have Islamic State on the border than the Free Syrian Army (FSA)," Mustafa Kaymaz, 35, a shopkeeper in said as he pointed toward the border gate.

Sixty-five kilometers west across Turkey’s Syrian border, U.S. planes are pounding Islamic State positions around Kobani, helping Kurds to defend the town from the offensive that started over a month ago. Stray bullets and shells land on Turkish soil.

Having lived with the fear and noise of clashes across the border last year, Akcakale’s inhabitants are glad that Islamic State’s victory put an end to the fighting.

But inhabitants of the predominantly Sunni Muslim town say they do not agree with Islamic State’s severe interpretation of Sunni Islam, which has become known for mass killings and brutality.

"Perhaps the people of this town had some sympathy for Islamic State before as they seemed to be fighting against Assad but now that they are trying to kill Kurds, we have no sympathy left for them," said 28-year-old Ismail Balakan, sitting in the leafy garden of an empty teahouse in the center of Akcakale.

Nevertheless, they say they are not worried by their proximity — only half a kilometer of no man’s land, an old railway line and a barbed wire fence separate the Sunni insurgents and Turkey — to the group.

"Since (Islamic State) took over the other side of the border we have peace," said Ismail’s 42-year-old brother Yasin.

POROUS BORDERS

Cross border illegal activity has also dried up since Islamic State took over, according to locals.

"The FSA people used to seize the aid trucks and then sell back the goods to Turkish traders. Big-time frauds," said Yasin Balakan. 

But despite tighter Turkish border controls, those with Syrian papers are still able to cross legally into Islamic State territory, and the illicit movement of people also continues amidst the olive groves and farmland that stretch on either side of the town.

Turkey has come under mounting pressure from western partners to better control its 900km border with Syria, which has been a major access point for Europeans heading to join radical groups fighting in the Middle East. 

The Turkish government acknowledges the challenges of monitoring traffic along the frontier. 

Some Akcakale residents with Syrian papers still visit their relatives on the other side. Meanwhile Akcakale offers a direct route into Islamic State territory, and there are fears that this proximity is worsening security inside NATO member Turkey, as it struggles to control its porous borders.

Last week suspected Islamic State militants crossed into Turkey near Akcakale as part of an audacious failed bid to kidnap a high level Kurdish commander, The Washington Post reported.

Turkey’s critics also say that as refugees have flowed out of Syria, weapons and fighters have flowed in with Ankara’s blessing, some swelling the ranks of radical groups.

Turkish officials strongly deny that their desire to see Syria’s Assad toppled has led them to back extremists.

Turkey’s reluctance to intervene militarily to help the Kurdish defenders of Kobani has led to renewed international criticism but its reluctance to get sucked into the conflict raging across its Syria border is welcomed in Akcakale.

"I don’t understand why there is so much fuss about one particular town," Yasin Balakan said, referring to Kobani.

He has sympathy for the Kurds at Kobani, but for him the real enemy is Assad and not Islamic State.

"Assad used chemical weapons, killed hundreds of thousands of people and no one lifted a finger," he said. 

'LET US TRADE'

The blurry photograph of an Islamic State flag raised on a hill overlooking Kobani caught the attention of world media earlier this month, sending shockwaves to people in the neighboring Kurdish town of Suruc inside Turkey.

U.S.-led air strikes have helped stem the Islamists’ advance, and Turkey has agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters to join the fight, but the fate of the town still hangs in the balance, and fear is palpable throughout the streets of Suruc.

But in Akcakale, residents are not fearful, instead they are concerned about getting the border gate open for trade rather than just people, so they can sell their goods to their new neighbors in Syria. 

"Trade through the borders is our bread-winner. The shutdown of this gate is a major blow for us. I would urge the authorities to reopen it," said Mustafa Turan, 32, owner of a local teahouse.

Another local shopowner, who did not want to give his name, said he would not object to doing business with Islamic State.

"We haven’t seen any harm from them, so why not? I have to make a living, I have to feed my family. Plus I have friends in Raqqa and in Tel Abyad and they tell me that life under their rule is just fine, as long as you abide by their rules," he said.

Not everyone in Akcakale agrees. Mehmet Denli owns a grocery shop, and is one of the town’s Kurdish residents.

"I prefer neither the FSA nor ISIL. There is no lesser evil here, and I have no interest in getting any closer to those militants over there," he said.

Activists: Syria airstrikes toll over 500

Mursitpinar/Beirut, October 23, 2014 by Elana Becatoros and Bassem Mroue

U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on Syria have killed more than 500 people, mainly Islamic militants, since they began last month, activists said Thursday, as fighting flared in the northern Syrian border town of Kobani.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said 553 people have been killed since the airstrikes began on Sept. 23, including 32 civilians. The civilians included six children and five women.

The group said it has documented the deaths of 464 fighters with the Islamic State group, adding that the real number could be much higher. Another 57 fighters with the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front were killed in airstrikes on the northern province of Aleppo and Idlib, the Observatory said.

Many of the Islamic State fighters have been killed in or near Kobani, the target of a massive jihadi offensive since mid-September. IS fighters have captured dozens of surrounding Kurdish villages and forced more than 200,000 people to flee for safety in neighboring Turkey.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Central Command said its forces had conducted more than 135 airstrikes against Islamic State militants in and around Kobani, killing hundreds of fighters.

"Combined with continued resistance to ISIL on the ground, indications are that these strikes have slowed ISIL advances into the city, killed hundreds of their fighters and destroyed or damaged scores of pieces of ISIL combat equipment and fighting positions," Central Command said in a statement.

Also Thursday, Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff for Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, told The Associated Press that the Kurdish regional government plans to send some 150 peshmerga fighters to Kobani through Turkey over the next few days to support Syrian Kurds there defending against Islamic State militants.

Hussein said they will be taking light weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and that they will bring their weapons back with them once the operation is over.

"The fight in Kobani is very important to us," he said. "We are fighting the same enemy. These are also Kurdish people in Syria. If Kobani gets taken by ISIS, then they will also take other Kurdish towns and areas close to the border."

Hussein’s comments came a day after lawmakers in Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region authorized the deployment of peshmerga forces to neighboring Syria.

An Associated Press journalist on the Turkish side of the border said heavy machine gun fire could be heard from Kobani, which is also known as Ayn Arab, on Thursday.

"The fighting has been ongoing since last night on the eastern and southern fronts. It is some of the longest clashes in Kobani," said Kurdish activist Farhad Shami by telephone from the town.

Shami said the Islamic State group launched an attack from three fronts late Wednesday but failed to advance. Still he said that Kurdish fighters withdrew from the Tel Shair hill that overlooks parts of Kobani.

The Observatory said Islamic State fighters captured the hill, closing in on the town from the west. It said Islamic State fighters are also trying to advance from the eastern side of the town, saying there were casualties on both sides.

The hill was captured by the Kurds from Islamic state fighters earlier this month.

Idris Nassan, deputy minister for foreign affairs in a Kurdish civil administration controlling Kobani, said that although Islamic State fighters moved onto Tel Shair hill, the heavy fighting there was ongoing.

"Kobani has been witnessing fierce clashes since last night. It was one of the bad nights," Nassan said.

Capturing Kobani would give the Islamic State group, which already rules a huge stretch of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border, a direct link between its positions in the Syrian province of Aleppo and its stronghold of Raqqa, to the east. It would also give the group full control of a large stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border.

NATO’s supreme military commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said in Turkey on Thursday that the alliance is ready to come to Turkey’s defense if the situation on its border with Syria deteriorates and it seeks help from the organization.

He said that NATO had already provided Turkey will a Patriot missile defense system that it had deployed on the border with Syria and was ready to help it face the Islamic State group if needed.

"If Turkey sees the need for NATO to be more involved in the land sense and comes to NATO and asks for those, NATO is ready," Breedlove said in an interview with the AP. "We will work together to face this challenge that we see on the border."

Lt. Gen. Frederick Hodges, the outgoing commander of NATO’s Land Command in Izmir, Turkey said returning fighters from Western Europe and North America pose a threat back home.

He said “thousands of these radicalized young men are coming from the United States and Canada as well as almost every country in Europe” to Syria to join the Islamic State group and get experienced.

"They bring that experience. That is a serious threat and I think every nation in the alliance is worried about that. It is something that needs to be dealt with," Hodges said.

The Observatory meanwhile reported four coalition airstrikes on oil wells in the Jafra field in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour late Wednesday. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, also reported the airstrikes in areas held by the Islamic State group.

The U.S.-led coalition has aggressively targeted IS-held oil facilities in Syria, which provide a key source of income for the militants. But such strikes also endanger civilians, which could undermine long-term efforts to destroy the militant group.

The attacks on the oil industry, including refineries, have also led to a sharp rise in the price of oil products in rebel-held areas of Syria.

Central Command said American forces conducted six airstrikes in Syria since Wednesday. It said four airstrikes near Kobani destroyed IS fighting positions and a vehicle as well as a command and control center. Two others destroyed Islamic State oil-holding tanks.

Winning Kobane, Losing Syria

Kobane explosion. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

An explosion rips through Kobane. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

October 23, 2014 by Michael Weiss

Within the space of a week, Kobane, the Syrian-Kurdish city on the lip of the Turkey that has been besieged for weeks by the Islamic State, has gone from being “not strategically vital” to “symbolically important,” to give the Wall Street Journals paraphrase of official U.S. government thinking on the subject. The number of airstrikes there has now far outstripped that of any other target in either Syria or Iraq. This includes Mount Sinjar, the site of ISIS’ first aspirational genocide of an ethnic minority population from which ISIS was temporarily expelled last August. Unfortunately, however, the jihadists are back there again, having completely encircled the barren mountain where tens of thousands of Yazidis were left stranded without food and water in August. Yazidi villages have been retaken, although this time US aerial interference seems far less exigent, in light of Kobane’s plight.

The about-face is extraordinary. Earlier in the month, both the Pentagon and Ankara announced that Kobane’s fall was imminent. US Secretary of State John Kerry was all torn up but coldly realistic: “As horrific as it is to watch in real time what’s happening in Kobani,” he said on October 8, “you have to step back and understand the strategic objective.” Now Kerry says this: “We cannot take our eyes off the prize here. It would be irresponsible of us, as well as morally very difficult, to turn your back on a community fighting [ISIS], as hard as it is, at this particular moment.”

Except that, as other US officials continue to insist, the “prize” isn’t Syria at all; it’s Iraq. ISIS is just so stupid that it has decided to throw the bulk of its manpower and its US-purloined heavy equipment at Kobane, which has thus become flypaper for terrorists. Some 400 ISIS fighters have been killed thus far, with serious losses in armaments and vehicles. US Central Command has dropped about 24 tons of medicine and weaponry onto the Kurdish citadel-city’s defenders, principally the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia run exclusively by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). It was these fighters who fought “valiantly,” according to Kerry, not just in Kobane but around Mount Sinjar last August, rescuing the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga who couldn’t hold out against the IS onslaught.

Here things got a little tricky for Washington because the PKK is a US-designated terrorist organization. Not to worry: White House and State Department lawyers cast a quick juridical eye over the problem and decided that the PYD is a legally distinct entity and therefore not subject to the same proscriptions on gun-running and military cooperation as the PKK, a fact which must have made PYD officials wiping their damp brows and laughing simultaneously given that they don’t deny being the Syrian branch of the PKK, and they openly consider Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK commander, their ideological godfather and hero — an assessment shared by Ankara for some 30 years.

Kobane’s transformation from an unworthy sideshow to the Dunkirk of Operation Inherent Resolve was remarkably swift, easy and rather creative for a normally languorous and analytically cautious commander-in-chief. True, US officials, beginning with former State Department Syria policy coordinator Robert Ford, had been holding indirect or quiet talks with the PYD since 2013, but in reality, Obama didn’t hesitate to arm the affiliate of a US-blacklisted organization to stop another, far more brutal one. “[O]fficials were desperate for partners on the ground on the Syrian side of the border,” the Journal noted. “In recent days, the Kurdish fighters had made gains.”

First, CentCom Commander General Lloyd Austin showed the president a proposal for saving the city, which couldn’t be done without resupplying the YPG. That was Friday. Obama approved the decision there and then. By Sunday, Soviet-era weapons, such as AK-47s, procured by the United States from Albania for resupplying the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq were en route from Erbil to Kuwait, where they were stowed aboard C-130 cargo planes. The planes began dropping them to the YPG units on Monday, although one errant package filled with grenades, mortar rounds and such blew the wrong way in the wind and wound up in the hands of ISIS, which was quick to publicize the catch on YouTube. (The Pentagon has since confirmed the mishap, though it insisted that this was just one cargo of 28.)

A representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) elaborated on the supply-chain to me yesterday. “Weapons were collected by the peshmerga from Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Dohuk,” he said. This logistical workaround was what you might call both symbolically important and strategically vital. White House and State Department lawyers figured that the PYD/PKK fudge would matter less if the arms being sent to the YPG technically belonged to Kurdistan Regional Government, under the leadership of President Massoud Barzani, an open ally of the United States. Barzani’s peshmerga, according to Kurdish media reports, are now ready to deploy to Kobane to help finish ISIS off, in a rare show of pan-Kurdish unity, albeit complete with the customary intra-Kurdish disagreement over who’s really in charge of what.

The peshmerga’s mobilization is also likely a salve to Turkey, which was unimpressed by Washington’s ingenuity; Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on October 20 that Turkey had already been letting Kurdish fighters from Iraq into Kobane; now there is talk of a formal “corridor” for peshmerga convoys. Multilateral talks between and among the KRG, PYD, other Kurdish parties, Turkey and the US have taken place in Ankara and Dohuk. As ever, everyone came away with different interpretations as to what was agreed.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in remarks published on Sunday, after he returned from a one-day trip to Afghanistan: “There has been talk about forming a front against ISIL by giving the PYD arms. But the PYD, for us, is equal to the PKK; it is a terrorist organization.” But then Obama rang and told him arming the PYD was a fait accompli. (Hurriyet columnist Murat Yetkin parsed which came first: Erdogan’s denunciation or Obama’s call, based on the DC/Ankara time difference, and decides it was likely the former). What Erdogan does next is anyone’s guess, although I hope that, whatever it is, it’s broadcast on live television.

Perhaps not wanting to feel left out, the Assad regime, too, has also announced that it will “continue” to send “military aid… at the highest level” to Kobane, according to Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi, who may be lying just to rub it in further or distract from the fact that the Syrian Air Force has taken the coalition’s preoccupation with one city as license to pursue its own objectives of late. It has escalated its aerial assaults — especially with barrel bombs — on the Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front positions in Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, Damascus, Deraa and Quneitra. Under other circumstances, or in another news cycle, some of these pummeled forces might be considered “partners on the ground on the Syrian side of the border.”  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has claimed that the regime has conducted over 210 airstrikes in the last 36 hours alone, whereas its daily average is around 12 to 20. Kobane, then, matters to Assad, too: so long as the coalition is preternaturally fixated there, he can annihilate the rebels he hates most with impunity and very little media attention.

                                                ***

America’s fickle favoritism with its proxies has not gone unnoticed by the majority of aspirational ones. Just as the first airdrops were being conducted over Kobane, Jad Bantha, an Oxford-educated activist in Damascus, tweeted a series of observations and complaints on October 20 which, judging from my recent conversations with other erstwhile pro-American rebels, reflect growing sentiment among Syria’s majority population. “Obama sent 1 tonne of medical supplies & loads of military supplies to PYD kurds only, neglecting thousands of Syrians who have fought ISIS” ran one. “Obama & his admin lied to us so many times, I would rather trust ISIS than Obama & his jokers! The US admin again prove they are our enemies” ran another.

And on the same day Bantha’s tweets were published, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly explained to the world the victims not so fortune enough to be considered of strategic or symbolic value to the Obama administration. For three days in early August, Sly writes, IS psychopaths “shelled, beheaded, crucified and shot hundreds of members of the Shaitat tribe after they dared to rise up” against them in Abu Hamam, a village in Deir Ezzor. “By the time the killing stopped, 700 people were dead, activists and survivors say, making this the bloodiest single atrocity committed by the Islamic State in Syria since it declared its existence 18 months ago.” Men and boys older than 15 were summarily killed once IS took Abu Hamam. Then IS boasted of its savagery online:

A photo essay on an Islamic State blog boasted of the different ways tribesmen were killed, including beheadings, mass shootings and a crucifixion. A video shows how the militants lined up scores of captives on a road, their hands bound, then set about clumsily decapitating them, one by one. The executioners, speaking in Tunisian, Egyptian and Saudi accents, taunted those not yet dead by swinging severed heads in front of their faces and telling them, “It’s your turn next.”

Abu Salem, a Shaitat tribesman who survived this massacre, and who spoke to Sly in Turkey’s Reyhanli, said: “We saw what the Americans did to help the Yazidis and the Kurds. But they have done nothing to help the Sunnis against the Islamic State.”

At this point, Sunni Arabs in Syria might consider shopping for a new faith or ethnicity if they want America’s attention. Barrel bombs, Scud missiles, gang-rapes, electrocutions, genital mutilations, chlorine and sarin gas attacks, all Holocaust-invoking revelations of systematic torture in Assad’s dungeons — sorry, but this is all quite boring. Where’s the symbolic importance? The strategic vitality? Yes, we know Syrian rebels fought and routed ISIS as well as the Kurds have, but that was in January and ISIS came back. And while it may be true that rebels have a better track record with keeping American-made weaponry out of the hands of ISIS than the US or Iraqi militaries have, we’re still not impressed. What have you done for us lately? 

Iraqi Kurdish Lawmakers OK Fighters for Syria

Irbil, October 22, 2014 by Brian Janssen and Zeina Karam

Lawmakers in Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region Wednesday authorized peshmerga forces to go to neighboring Syria and help fellow Kurds combat Islamic State militants in the key border town of Kobani, providing much-needed boots on the ground.

The unprecedented deployment will almost certainly depend on the support of Turkey, whose president criticized a U.S. airdrop of arms to Kurdish fighters after some of the weapons wound up in the hands of the extremists.

Turkey, which has riled Kurdish leaders and frustrated Washington by refusing to allow fighters or weapons into Kobani, said this week it would help Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross into Syria to help their brethren against the militants, who also are being attacked by a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes.

But it is not clear how many fighters will be allowed in or whether they will be allowed to carry enough weapons to make an impact.

The Kurds of Syria and Iraq have become a major focal point in the war against the Islamic State group, with Kurdish populations in both countries coming under significant threat by the militants’ lightning advance.

Lt. Gen. Frederick Hodges, the outgoing commander of NATO’s Land Command in Izmir, Turkey, said the Turks have agreed to open up “a land bridge of sorts” so that the peshmerga can get into Kobani to help with the fighting there.

"It seems to me that between the United States, Turkey and other countries, they are figuring out what is permissible to make sure that ISIL is not successful and that it is something that Turkey can live with," he added, using an acronym for the group.

Anwar Muslim, a Kobani-based senior Kurdish official, praised the parliament’s decision, saying “all help is welcome.” He said there seemed to be a solidifying international push to help Kobani combat the militants.

"The next days will show the seriousness" of the Turks, he said.

In August, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds took part in cross-border operations to help rescue tens of thousands of displaced people from the Yazidi minority group under threat by the IS militants in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains.

The fight in Kobani has also grabbed the world’s attention and raised sympathy for the outgunned Kurds.

The overwhelming vote in the Kurdish parliament to send fighters to Kobani underscored growing cooperation between Kurds in these countries and marked a first mission for the peshmerga outside Iraq.

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician and Iraq’s long-serving foreign minister, told Al-Arabiya TV the decision was “part of an understanding” reached between Kurdish, Turkish and U.S. officials to provide military aid to Kobani.

"This is a big turning point in Kurdish history," said Youssef Mohammed, the speaker of parliament. "Troops used to be sent to occupy Kurdish lands, but now we are sending soldiers to protect our Kurdish brothers abroad," he said.

There were few details about the fighting force, however, and Kurdish officials said they would be worked out later.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the United States made a mistake in airdropping weapons to Kurdish fighters in Kobani earlier this week because some of the weapons ended up in IS hands.

"It turns out that what was done was wrong," he said, according to Turkey’s private Dogan news agency.

The Turkish government is reluctant to aid the Syrian Kurdish forces — the People’s Protection Units, or YPG — because it views them as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.

The Pentagon confirmed that IS militants were able to seize one of the 28 bundles of weapons and medical supplies intended for Kurdish fighters. Col. Steve Warren said it appears the wind caused the parachute to go off-course, and that the weapons in the bundle were not enough to give the enemy any type of advantage.

A video uploaded by a media group loyal to the IS group showed the weapons seized included hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The caches were dropped early Monday to Kurds in embattled Kobani. Differences about how to defend Kobani have sparked tensions between Turkey and its NATO partners.

Turkey’s decision to give Kurds passage to fight in Syria marked a shift in position, even though Ankara in recent years has built friendly ties with the leadership of the largely autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region.

Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hekmat in Irbil said there is still a lot of uncertainty on the details of the deployment, including how many forces will be sent and when.

"We’re sending the peshmerga, not to become YPG but to fight alongside the YPG," Hekmat said. "We will send the peshmerga to do their job for as long as they’re needed and to come back after that."

Hekmat said Iraqi forces will also provide weapons, but he did not say what kind.

Turkey is under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — not only from the West but also from Kurds in Syria and Turkey who accuse Ankara of inaction while their people are slaughtered. Earlier this month across Turkey, widespread protests threatened to derail talks to end the PKK insurgency.

Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group, which has rampaged across Iraq and Syria, have been attacking Kobani for a month. The U.S. and its allies are assisting the Kurds with airstrikes targeting IS infrastructure in and around the town.

Meanwhile, Kurdish officials and doctors said they believed Islamic State militants had released some kind of toxic gas in a district in eastern Kobani.

Aysa Abdullah, a senior Kurdish official based in the town, said the attack took place late Tuesday, and that a number of people suffered symptoms that included dizziness and watery eyes. She and other officials said doctors lacked the equipment to determine what kinds of chemicals were used.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Kurdish officials have made similar allegations before.

Also Wednesday, Syria’s information minister said the country’s air force destroyed two of three fighter jets seized and reportedly test-flown over Aleppo by the Islamic State group last week.

Omran al-Zoubi told Syrian TV late Tuesday that Syrian aircraft bombed the jets on the runway as they landed at Jarrah air base.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that IS militants flew three MiG fighter jets with the help of former Iraqi air force pilots who were now members of the militant group. The report could not be independently confirmed, and U.S. officials said they had no reports of the militants flying jets.

The group is known to have seized warplanes from at least one air base captured from the Syrian army in Raqqa province earlier this year. Militant websites had posted photos of IS fighters with the warplanes, but it was unclear if they were operational.

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