Cold Winter Coming: Syria’s Fuel Crisis

October 13, 2014 by Aron Lund

“Heating oil has become the talk of the town. Gas stations are complaining, bus drivers are grieving, and citizens stand in bewilderment before winter’s gate, not knowing to whom they should direct their complaints and unsure of when their heating oil rations will be distributed,” wrote a columnist in the state-owned local daily al-Orouba on September 18, before launching into a tirade against the malpractices of Syria’s burgeoning black oil market and urging the government to accept that “the surgeon’s scalpel is painful, but it cures.”

Since August and September, both pro-opposition and pro-government media in Syria have complained about oil shortages, gas lines, and—most of all—the exorbitant prices charged by corrupt officials and traders. While the eyes of the world are glued to the U.S.-led intervention against the al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State, millions of Syrians suffer from a much more mundane but far more serious problem: they fear that they won’t be able to cook their food or keep the cold out of their homes this winter.

In its September 30 session, the Syrian parliament—a rubber stamp body run by the presidency—voted to raise the price of heating oil from 60 to 80 Syrian pounds and the price of gasoline from 120 to 140 Syrian pounds. (A liter of gasoline cost 40 Syrian pounds in early 2011.) The decision was implemented on October 2 by the Ministry of Internal Trade, which also intensified its crackdown against the black-market trading of fuel and changed the law to allow for oil imports by private industries. At that point, even the Syrian pro-regime daily al-Watan had acknowledged that gas stations were shutting down in Damascus and that drivers were going on strike—and the government’s failure to cope with the crisis was out in the open.

ELECTRICITY PRODUCTION FAILING

The main drivers of the price spike are the onset of winter and, more fundamentally, the failings of the national power supply infrastructure. Syria’s electric grid was never very reliable, but after years of war, blackouts are routine even in government-held areas. Some rebel-ruled towns remain plugged in to the government grid, but in large swathes of opposition-held Syria there is little or no electricity due to regime bombings, government-ordered cuts, and the rebels’ failure to manage local infrastructure. This has forced Syrian families to invest in diesel-powered generators, thereby increasing the demand for oil.

With industries now also dependent on diesel generators, the oil product price increase has had severe knock-on effects across the economy, and surging transport costs add to the price of food and other necessities. “Prices are skyrocketing,” a man in the rebel-controlled Shaar neighborhood in Aleppo recently told the online news site Al-Monitor. “I now need 30,000 Syrian pounds ($185.75) per month to feed my four children, while my salary does not exceed 40,000 Syrian pounds ($247).”

And now, as winter draws near, the millions of oil-fuelled stoves used for home heating by ordinary Syrian families are all going into action at once, putting further pressure on the market.

ECONOMIC LINKS ACROSS THE POLITICAL DIVIDE

Syria used to be an oil exporting country, but production was already dwindling in the mid-00s, while internal demand rose, well before the uprising of 2011. Since then, the pipelines running from oil fields in the northeastern Deir ez-Zor and Hasakah provinces to refineries in Homs and Baniyas have been blown up or fallen into disrepair, while the fields themselves have been captured by armed groups, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Islamic State.

Across Syria, a war economy has emerged where regime loyalists, rebel groups, conflict entrepreneurs, unscrupulous middlemen, and ordinary civilians are all trading and smuggling resources across the battle lines. While the country disintegrates, economic innovation thrives. Rebel groups have long been running oil fields on their own and local entrepreneurs have set up more or less advanced micro-refineries to compensate for the loss of access to Syria’s main refinery installations in government-held Homs and Baniyas. In addition, trade now flows unhindered across the former border between Iraq and Syria, and the Islamic State was recently reported to have opened a petrol station in Mosul where it sells gasoline from oil fields in eastern Syria.

Disruptions at one end of this vast unregulated market will quickly be felt on the other end. Since mid-September, the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State has focused particularly on destroying the cash-generating energy infrastructure controlled by the jihadis. Targets of the U.S. airstrikes have included numerousmakeshift refineries in northern and eastern Syria, as well as the large CONOCO gas plant in Deir ez-Zor, which—exemplifying the tangled economic relations of the Syrian civil war—supplies both rebel held areas in Deir ez-Zor and a regime-controlled power station south of Homs.

“Oil production has significantly decreased due to the targeting of wells and refineries by the alliance, not to mention that the workers, who fear for their lives, stopped working to extract, filter and transfer oil,” says Nizar, a small-time fuel merchant who recently traveled from Aleppo to the Islamic State-controlled Deir ez-Zor region to stock up on supplies, in an interview with Al-Monitor. And the result is inevitable: “Diesel prices have significantly increased as a result of high demand and the inability to meet the needs of the market.”

But Nizar’s explanation is not the only one. Syria’s fuel prices began to rise several weeks before the first U.S. strikes—and even if the U.S. attacks contribute to the problem, there are other and more fundamental reasons behind the shortages.

DISRUPTIONS IN THE OIL TANKER TRAFFIC

As previously described on Syria in Crisis by David Butter, a Middle East energy analyst and associate fellow at Chatham House, the government has been able to compensate for these losses only thanks to a generous Iranian credit line and crude oil imports from Iraq, Iran, and other sympathetic oil-producers. For example, in nine months in 2013, 17 million barrels of crude were sent from oil fields in Iraq and Iran to the Syrian regime-controlled refinery in Baniyas—all financed with Iranian letters of credit.

The output from the Baniyas refinery vastly outdoes anything that the Islamic State, YPG, or other non-state actors may produce in eastern Syria, but recently, the refinery hasn’t received its oil deliveries according to plan. Even the government acknowledges this, with Prime Minister Wael Nader al-Halqi claiming that the fuel crisis is due to a disruption in the tanker traffic. According to a report in al-Watan, Halqi stated that one oil tanker headed for Syria broke down due to mechanical failure, while another was attacked by pirates in the Red Sea. However, the prime minister assured Syrians that “four oil tankers will be arriving from friendly states to Syria starting on September 29” and that the government will soon address the problems with local electricity production.

Since the conflict began in early 2011, the value of the Syrian pound has dropped from trading at 47 pounds to a dollar to today’s 157 pounds per dollar, and the economy is in very bad shape. There may be many other reasons than piracy for why Syrian harbors aren’t receiving their oil cargo on schedule, including outstanding payments. But regardless of the cause, Butter—the energy expert—says Halqi is probably correct in pointing to tanker disruptions as a root cause of the fuel crisis, rather than the U.S. airstrikes.

“I don’t think the hit on refineries in the east would have had a big impact, and I suspect the talk about Baniyas may be credible,” he tells me by e-mail. “There hasn’t been much evidence of the Iranian line of credit being extended, and there could well be a hitch in this supply line.”

“THE GOVERNMENT HAS RUN OUT OF MONEY”

A well-connected Syrian businessman confirms this picture, telling me that the government had been “bringing in vessels from Belarus and Iran. For whatever reason, those have been delayed or they have stopped.”

In the Aleppo region, the situation is allegedly so bad that Province Governor Mohammed Wahid Akkad himself has to sign off on state deliveries to any factory that demands oil products at the official price. Accusations of corruption and political favoritism abound.

“This has led to a black market which trades at 200 Syrian pounds per liter,” explains the businessman, who keeps a close eye on the financial situation in Aleppo. “The government’s response was to allow private merchants to import oil products directly. While this will take time to reach stations and distributions channels, one would suspect that even when it does, the prices will be near 200 pounds if not higher.”

“In a nutshell, I think the government has run out of money to subsidize oil products at the current level. We always thought the government would last economically for three or four years. Well, we’re here.”

Escaping Assad’s Rape Prisons: A Survivor Tells Her Story

Gaziantep, October 28, 2014 by Jamie Dettmer

She wrestles with demons. The memories of her nine-month imprisonment and the beatings and abuse she suffered at the hands of a Syrian interrogator still burn inside her. Now that she’s in southern Turkey, she works as a journalist under an assumed name. And she prefers living with other women who understand the humiliation she went through. Others, as she knows only too well, suffered worse than she did under the harsh regime of Bashar al-Assad’s prisons and secret detention centers.

Rowaida Yousef, as she calls herself, used to be a math teacher and citizen journalist in Damascus. She has worked for the independent Syrian media outlet Radio Rozana since her release from Assad’s jails in March. The transition has been surreal.

When she was in prison, she says, “I was always trying to remember what I had told them during the interrogations so my lies would remain consistent.”

Now, she’s trying to extract truths from people who are too frightened to speak it—afraid not only of the regime that imprisoned them, but for their families when they are released.

Drawing on her own horrific firsthand experiences and what she witnessed, much of Yousef’s reporting has been focused on the impact on women of the four-year-long Syrian civil war—and especially on what happens to women inside Assad’s prisons.

Yousef is trying to map the sexual abuse and rape of women detainees, which she believes has happened more in the cities of Homs and Aleppo and less in the detention centers of Damascus. In the capital, the Assad regime has been more cautious. It may be afraid it will lose the support of urban, middle-class Sunni Muslims if its henchmen there in the capital are allowed to rape at will.

Rights groups can only estimate the overall number of detainees since the war started. The Syrian government has refused to give independent monitors access to detention sites, but over the summer the Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian monitoring group, recorded 52,674 detentions, of whom 1,477 were women and 55 were girls under the age of 18. More than 40,000 people still are being held.

Most observers suspect the numbers are higher and don’t include, for example, those who have been picked up by the thuggish pro-Assad militia, called Shabiha, the regime’s ultra-loyal enforcers. Some rights groups suspect the numbers exceed 200,000 prisoners, including women and children.

Statistics are one thing, enduring the jailhouse ordeal another. Numbers don’t bring out the squalor and brutality of Assad’s detention centers, the inhumanity and abuse meted out to rebels and those suspected of being foes of the regime.

The commander wanted to know where she got the audio recorder and what she used it for, and she lied, until the beatings got worse. “I felt like my head would explode.”

Sitting in Radio Rozana’s makeshift studio in a nondescript office block in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep, Yousef recalls her own imprisonment, and at first deals almost mechanically with basic questions of when and why she was detained.

Her arrest came at a checkpoint in Damascus in June 2013, when soldiers spotted an audio recorder in her bag. That was enough to cast suspicion on her and have her thrust into the custody of a Syrian air force intelligence officer known to her as Commander Firas. His brother and cousin had been killed a week earlier, he told her. “He felt he was gaining revenge as he beat me,” she recalls haltingly, the mechanical responses long gone as she re-lives that first week at the Mazza military airport.

Yousef, a stocky 35-year-old woman with long black hair, looks away from me most of the time when she is describing the beatings. And she pauses as she remembers. The commander wanted to know where she got the audio recorder and what she used it for, and she lied, until the beatings got worse. “I felt like my head would explode.” During one session, the commander tied her legs apart and they beat a male detainee viciously in front of her with his head jammed between her spread legs.

Most of the time Commander Faris wouldn’t wait for her to respond to screamed questions and angry accusations. The week with him was meant to break her for others in Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya, or air force intelligence, so they could get the detailed information they wanted.

Yousef was transferred to the investigations branch at Mazza airport. She suffered no more beatings—just solitary confinement in an underground cell always dark and dank and cockroach-infested. “Their attitude was I would stay there forever until I told them the information they wanted to hear.”

Syrian air force intelligence isn’t the most brutal agency in Assad’s sprawling state security apparatus. Its operatives see themselves as a cut above Idarat al-Amn al-Siyasi, the political security directorate, Idarat al-Amn al-Amm, general security, or Shu’bat al-Mukhabarat al-‘Askariyya, military intelligence. The others can be even more vicious. And then there are the pro-regime militias, the Shabiha.

In Adraa prison, Yousef had the opportunity to hear the stories of more than a hundred women. “I heard many accounts of women being raped in Damascus by Shabiha after they had been picked up at checkpoints or at buildings they controlled, and before they were handed over to the security branches,” says Yousef. “But I didn’t hear accounts of rapes in the official security detention centers in Damascus.” The picture is different in Homs and Aleppo, she says.

Now she is using what she learned in her time in Adraa prison to piece together stories of abuse and sexual abuse of women, trying to unearth the stories of atrocity and rape that are buried. These are not easy stories to dig out. The stigma of sexual assault runs deep in Syrian culture as it does across the Middle East; rape is shaming and casts dishonor.

For human-rights organizations, rape allegations always pose a challenge. Combatants—from rebels to governments—often accuse opponents of rape, seeking to demonize their adversaries and gain a propaganda edge.

Assessing rape allegations gets still more challenging in the Middle East, where even the suspicion of rape can break families.

A psychologist from the Syrian town of Latakia recently told me she had counseled 15 women who had been released from detention. Three had been raped and all had been sexually abused to one degree or another. Four of the released detainees committed suicide, unable to cope with the severe depression prompted by their ordeals and the shame they felt.

“The families can often be very unsympathetic and some are getting divorced—their husbands demand it, blaming their wives for the dishonor and not believing them even when they have not been raped,” she told me.

For Yousef her mission is clear. She lived the experience of detention in Assad’s prisons and she is determined to give voice to as many stories as she can of the jailhouse experience of Syrian women. The dishonor should be for their captors, not for them.

Syria rebels plead for U.S. help as Nusra, a former friend, goes on the attack

Istanbul, October 29, 2014 by Roy Gutman and Mousab Alhamdee

Al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, which has long been viewed by that country’s rebels as an ally in the battle to topple President Bashar Assad, has turned on them in recent days, forcing the beleaguered rebels into a three-front war that they say they are sure to lose unless the United States changes policy and sends them more weapons.

Commanders warned Wednesday that assaults this week by Nusra could cause the collapse of rebel front lines, which already were under stress from fighting the Islamic State and the Assad government.

“We are defending our existence,” said Gen. Muhammad Hallak of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, one of the rebel groups. Without more assistance from the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State, “we will withdraw our forces from the front with the Islamic State and the regime and work only to save ourselves.”

Syria’s anti-Assad rebels have been staunch defenders of Nusra, which the United States declared a terrorist organization in late 2012, much to the dismay of the rebel leadership. In September, rebel leaders denounced the U.S. decision to launch airstrikes on eight Nusra encampments as part of the first attacks on the Islamic State inside Syria. 

While acknowledging Nusra’s al Qaida ties, rebel leaders have said that unlike the Islamic State, Nusra appears dedicated to the downfall of Assad. Previously, the groups have coordinated militarily with Nusra.

That appears to have changed in recent days, however. Rebel commanders said that for the past two months, Nusra has been moving forces into towns and cities held by more moderate rebels in western Syria. On Monday, Nusra fighters attacked seven villages in Jabal al Zawiya that were held by rebel forces in addition to launching a major assault on Almastuma, a regime base at the entrance to the city of Idlib.

Nusra also has attacked the U.S.-backed Hazm Movement in Aleppo this week, and it has launched assaults on major rebel-held cities such as Ma’arat al Numan.

“The (Nusra) operation in Idlib was a fake,” Hallak said, referring to the Monday attack on Almastuma, “and then they turned on the  Syrian Revolutionary Front.” The revolutionary front, which last January spearheaded a highly successful assault against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, is among a dozen rebel groups receiving U.S. aid through a covert CIA program.

Nusra on Wednesday issued a statement saying it was fighting a “war against corruption and the corrupt” and said other Islamist groups were with it. 

A second rebel commander warned that his forces may have to abandon the fight against the Islamic State north of Aleppo in the current adverse circumstances.

“We are the only group that has kept our fighters in full force on the front lines with the regime in the north of Hama,” said Capt. Mamoun Swaid, a military leader in the Haq front, which also receives U.S. support. “But the regime is already benefiting from Nusra’s war against the Free Syrian Army.”

Fierce government bombing raids Wednesday killed and wounded “many of our fighters.”

A third CIA-vetted commander said that the U.S.-led coalition had cut the flow of arms and ammunition to a trickle and painted a dire image of the outcome should this not change.

“We will fight with everything we have in our hands,” said this commander, who asked not to be identified by name to protect his relationship with the U.S.-led weapons suppliers. “If at the end we fail, we will leave the country to Jabhat al Nusra, to the Islamic State and to the regime… . If we don’t have weapons and ammunition, how can we fight?”

The fighting between Nusra and the rebel groups was a reminder that Syria remains a complex battlefield where at least two wars are being fought – the U.S.-led one against the Islamic State and the one to topple Assad.

At least 25 civilians died Wednesday and 20 were wounded, some seriously, when regime helicopters dropped two improvised explosive devices filled with shrapnel over a tent camp for the internally displaced in Abdin, a rural area south of Idlib, in northern Syria, the Smart News opposition network reported Wednesday. 

Meanwhile, a small contingent of Syrian rebels was reported to have arrived in Kobani on Wednesday to join the battle against the Islamic State there. The precise number of rebel fighters was unknown. A rebel who claimed to command the group, Abdul Jabbar al Akidi, told the Cumhuriyet newspaper in Turkey that 200 fighters had arrived from Aleppo and Idlib province to help the Kurdish defenders of Kobani fend off the Islamic State. 

The new arrivals drove into Kobani from Turkey and appear to be backed by the Turkish government.

Another 150 fighters from Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga militia, equipped with artillery and heavy machine guns, were reported to have arrived near the Syrian border after traveling through Turkey. They were expected to cross into Kobani late Wednesday and early Thursday.

Syria’s 3 ½-year conflict roiling the economy

Damascus, October 28, 2014 by Diaa Hadid

The middle-aged salesman sat glumly among an array of shorts, khaki leisure suits bedecked with gold belts and dresses with plunging necklines in the ancient Damascus bazaar — luxuries few can afford in today’s Syria.

He, like many traders, lost most of his customers when Syria’s uprising erupted in 2011 against the rule of President Bashar Assad, and his new clientele is far poorer: Syrians fleeing the fighting with barely any possessions.

Now, he fears there’s even worse to come, as the U.S.-led bombings of the Islamic State group target the country’s modest oil reserves under the militants’ control, sending oil and diesel prices soaring.

The effect is rippling through the economy, and traders fear they won’t be able to absorb the increased costs, pushing them out of business and unraveling yet another key sector of Syrian society, already badly frayed by conflict.

"We are hearing there’s unimaginable prices for the winter," said the 50-year-old clothing vendor, who gave only his first name Amin, referring to the wholesalers he purchases from. "We have been through struggles before, but not like this."

Like all traders who spoke to The Associated Press, he declined to provide his last name, for fear of being identified as criticizing the Syrian government.

Earlier this month, the government raised the subsidized price of diesel from 36 cents to 48 cents a liter just before a major Islamic holiday. The price of heating oil went from 73 cents a liter to 85 cents.

The increased prices were tied to the U.S. bombing of small oil wells, tankers and pumping stations under the control of the Islamic State group in the eastern Syrian provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hassakeh, which began in late September.

The militants had been selling the fuel at a cut-rate price — including some $1 billion to the Syrian government — and the proceeds amounted to one of the group’s main sources of income, according to a Mideast-based Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Syria has modest oil reserves. Before the conflict it was pumping 360,000 barrels a day; since the fighting it has only managed 16,000 barrels, said Syrian economy expert Abdul-Qader Azouz. That has made it reliant on imports, and militants selling back the country’s resources.

The knock-on effects of the latest fuel price hike and continued bombings have already impacted the price of bread, yogurt and milk. The price of a loaf of unsubsidized bread rose to 97 cents from 85 cents — more than four times the 21-cent price tag before the crisis. Milk rose to $1.13 from $1. Before the crisis it was 30 cents.

The prices of other goods are likely to rise in the next few weeks, said traders at the Damascus bazaar, known as the Hamidiyeh Souk, who are an important measure of the economy’s pulse.

One of Syria’s chief markets, it was once packed with tourists and visitors from around the country who shopped in its cavernous maze of arched alleyways and ancient Roman columns, snapping up everything from antiques to wispy lingerie and sweets — a rumble of chaotic crowds and pigeons flying overhead. Even amid the conflict, it’s still an important shopping spot for the country’s working classes.

Prices have already quadrupled over the past four years for most products in the market.

The printed leisure suit in Amin’s stall cost $6 pre-war; now it’s $21. While that appears cheap by Western standards, salaries are low in Syria: Most civil servants and soldiers are paid around $100 a month.

The price tag for a bottle of perfume at another stall was $4.30. Pre-conflict it was $1.50. “And at the lower price, we were making a better profit on it,” because of the increased cost of raw materials, said trader Hussam.

As he spoke, a Syrian government plane flew overhead, followed by the thud of a bomb dropping. Nobody flinched.

On a recent day, the busiest place was Bakdash, a century-old ice cream shop considered to make the finest gelato in Syria. But even here, the shop was only half full after prices quadrupled from 30 cents a cup to $1.20.

Azouz, the Syrian economy expert, said the government was trying to stave off more losses by appealing to Russia for fuel supplies and wheat. It was also asking Iran for guarantor credit lines of $3 billion for oil products and another $1 billion for other expenses, he said.

Azouz said resources were being diverted to ensure “the steadfastness” of the Syrian army — meaning soldiers had first access to fuel and food — and to cover payments for the families of soldiers killed in the fighting. The Syrian government has come under fire from its own loyalists for the staggering number of soldiers killed during the conflict, now in its fourth year.

The central bank has also intervened to ensure the Syrian pound doesn’t collapse, a policy Azouz said would continue.

Most of Syria’s impoverished have already hit rock bottom. One 20-year-old vendor, Mohammed, who works selling vegetables to try to cover his family’s $90 monthly rent, said his family was relying on food aid donated by the social ministry.

"It’s beans, sugar and oil," he said. "We are as you see us," he added, pointing to his shabby pants and jacket.

Another woman, who said her family was living off her son’s salary as a soldier and her husband’s pension, said they hadn’t bought diesel to heat their home in two years because it had become too expensive.

"We sit under blankets," said 45-year-old Umm Ahmad. "We don’t know luxuries anymore."

It wasn’t immediately clear how many Syrian businesses have shut down during the conflict.

Some have moved to neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, while others have closed because they were in active battle zones, or because they were bombed into rubble.

But even here, in the relatively safe Hamidiyeh area, about a quarter of the shops were closed.

A handbag trader said he wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold on if prices rose again, badly cutting into profits when sales were already so bad.

"The first year, the second year, those who had good work before the crisis and whose situation was middle class or better — they had a bit of money," said Firas. But now, traders were running out of cash to cover their continuous loses.

"The trader who could hold on for two or three years — I don’t think he can survive for five years," he said.

First Iraqi Kurdish fighters enter Isis-besieged Kobani

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces' weapons convoy arrives at Iraqi-Turkish borderIraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces arrive at Iraqi-Turkish border carrying heavy weapons requested by the Kurdish militia. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Istanbul, October 30, 2014 by Constanze Letsch

The first Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters have entered the besieged Syrian town of Kobani through the border crossing with Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The British-based monitoring group said 10 fighters moved in on Thursday and the others were expected to enter the town, which has been under attack by Islamic State (Isis) for more than a month, “within hours”.

A convoy of peshmerga fighters had arrived close to the Turkish town of Suruc on Wednesday night, meeting up with others who had flown in earlier in the day.

“About 10 members of the Kurdish peshmerga forces entered the town of Ayn al-Arab through the border crossing between the town and Turkish territory,” the Observatory said. Ayn al-Arab is the Arabic name for mainly Kurdish Kobani.

The Syrian foreign ministry condemned Turkey for allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria, describing the move as “blatant violation” of its sovereignty and a “disgraceful act”.

The new troops bring heavy weapons, the main request of the Kurdish militia who have kept their well-armed enemies at bay with a combination of assault rifles and occasional US air strikes.

They travelled through Turkey after a US lobbying campaign broke down Ankara’s opposition to allowing military convoys into Kobani.

“The force is equipped with heavy guns including mortars, canons, rocket launchers, etc,” said Safeen Dizayee, spokesman for the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government, on Thursday. The troops were sent, he added, as a “moral, political and nationalistic duty”.

“This force will not engage in frontline combat but will have a support role,” he said, adding that Kurdish fighters in the city said they had enough troops, but needed weapons and ammunition. More peshmerga fighters could be sent if needed.

The troops’ arrival crowns a dramatic turnaround in the fate of Kobani, which just a few weeks ago seemed all but doomed to a painful capitulation, as tens of thousands of refugees fled across the border in panic ahead of a blitzkrieg-style Isis advance.

US officials ordered air strikes, then all but washed their hands of the town, with the US secretary of state, John Kerry, saying it was not a strategic objective and a Pentagon spokesman warning that bombs alone could not save it.

Kurdish forces’ skilful defence of the town led to hope that defeat might not be inevitable, and won time to mobilise support worldwide through reports about Isis atrocities and the heroism of the defenders.

Hagel wrote memo to White House criticizing Syria strategy

Washington, October 30, 2014 by Barbara Starr

Earlier this month, while on an trip to Latin America to discuss climate change, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sat down and wrote a highly private, and very blunt memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice about U.S. policy toward Syria.

It was a detailed analysis, crafted directly by Hagel “expressing concern about overall Syria strategy,” a senior U.S. official tells CNN. The official directly familiar with the contents declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The existence of the memo itself was first reported by the New York Times.

Hagel so far has not made his concerns public and is not likely to, according to the official. It comes at a time when the Pentagon is well aware there is growing, but anonymous chatter, that some White House officials are unhappy with Hagel’s performance. So far there is no indication the President Barack Obama shares those views.

The focus of the memo was “we need to have a sharper view of what to do about the Assad regime,” the official said. The official refused to provide additional details, but did not disagree with the notion that Hagel feels the U.S. is risking its gains in the war against ISIS if adjustments are not made.

Some analysts have pointed out US airstrikes in Syria against ISIS can benefit the Assad regime which also opposes ISIS. Hagel’s concerns are not related to the Pentagon effort to train and equip moderate Syrian forces, something he still strong supports the official said.

Time Is Running Out for Obama on Syria

October 30, 2014 by Jamie Dettmer

Only three days ago, President Barack Obama’s envoy to the Syrian rebels, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, explained confidently that the U.S. would help to train and equip Western-backed fighters to become a credible force that would compel the Assad regime to negotiate a political deal and end the four-year-long civil war.

Yeah. Right. The Obama administration’s plans have little or nothing to do with what is unfolding all too rapidly on the ground: Rebel brigades are demoralized, disintegrating, and fighting among themselves.

The Americans and their allies are carrying out a desultory air campaign in Syria that appears focused on support for the Kurds. Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces maintain a withering air offensive of their own on rebels and civilians alike in northern Syria.

Last week in a 36-hour period, Assad’s air force launched 210 airstrikes, according to generally reliable opposition activists. That’s more than the entire American-led coalition has mounted in both Iraq and Syria since Sept. 22.

Brigades of secular fighters and relatively moderate Islamists are nearly encircled and their supply lines are threatened in the country’s second largest city, Aleppo. Assad’s forces in the northern Syrian city of Idlib, meanwhile, are moving from defense to offense. On Monday, they recaptured the governor’s mansion and police headquarters.

The rebels are squabbling among themselves as suspicions rage about American designs and intentions.

Clashes erupted this week between Islamist brigades aligned with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra after the jihadists seized seven towns and villages in the Idlib countryside they previously controlled. And while U.S. officials may not shed a tear over the infighting between Islamists and jihadists—they have long urged rebel factions to distance themselves from the al Qaeda group—the infighting raises the risks that al Nusra may develop a rapprochement with rival ISIS militants, making it harder to “degrade and ultimately defeat” that group as Obama says he intends to do.

Al Nusra and ISIS, both spinoffs of al Qaeda, have been at war with each other since al Qaeda’s top leadership disavowed ISIS early this year. But there have been a series of meetings between al Nusra commanders and the leaders of other rebel groups to iron out differences, according to Abdul Rahman, a commander in the 3,000-strong Jaysh al-Mujahedeen or Army of Mujahedeen, an Islamist-leaning brigade that emerged from the villages and towns of the Aleppo countryside. “Al Nusra is particularly suspicious of the rebel brigades favored by the Americans who are getting weapons from Washington,” he says.

“We don’t have shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles, but the Islamic State does.”

That includes the mainly secular Harakat Hazm (The Steadfast Movement), which has received TOW anti-tank missiles from the Obama administration. According to a senior State Department official, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, it is the FSA-aligned militia most trusted by Washington.

Infighting has been a persistent problem in the FSA. In 2012 and 2013, jihadist groups emerged in northern Syria not least because their discipline attracted defections from both FSA and Islamist brigades.

In the absence of any over-arching rebel military leadership, there is no one to referee disputes before they get out of hand. The Supreme Military Command (SMC), which on paper is meant to oversee the FSA-aligned militias, is anything but supreme and rebel commanders on the ground ignore its orders.

Despite strenuous efforts by Washington and the Gulf States to try to boost the authority of the SMC, nothing has worked, much to the frustration of U.S. officials tasked with funneling aid and arms to more than 16 FSA-aligned brigades.

“We ignore the SMC,” a senior State Department official told The Daily Beast. “We would like to see a stronger SMC and a proper command structure. One that can act as a middleman on supplies so we don’t have to deal with commanders directly, which would help us to avoid being drawn into arguments.” But no such entity exists, so U.S. officials are inundated by grievances from rebel commanders, who complain this or that militia is getting more than they are.

The absence of command and control means there is only haphazard combat coordination on the ground. “There are hard-pressed commanders who are desperately in need of support and reinforcements and they can’t wait, but they don’t get help,” says the exasperated State Department official. “It’s the rebels’ job to fix this and to come to each other’s assistance promptly.”

While conceding their failure over the four-year-long civil war to fashion a coherent force, rebel commanders counter that U.S. neglect and Washington’s refusal to arm them with advanced weaponry deprived them of the leverage to discipline fighters and to keep them loyal and to halt defections to jihadist groups.

“Look,” said a commander with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, “we don’t have shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles, but the Islamic State does, thanks to the Iraqi army leaving them to be looted by the jihadists.”

Either way—rebel squabbling or U.S. neglect—the rebels the Obama administration wants to build up to be credible enough to force the Assad regime to the negotiating table look less convincing with each passing day.

US to train Syria rebels for political, not military solution: US official

October 27, 2014 by Reurers/Al-Akhbar

The United States does not expect Syrian rebels it plans to train to fight Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants to also take on Syrian Arab Army forces, but sees them as a crucial part of a political solution to end the war, a senior US official said.

The US, which is leading an international coalition bombing ISIS in Syria, has said it wants to train and equip so-called “moderate” rebels to fight the militant group which has seized tracts of land in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Asked whether those rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) units would ultimately go on to fight the Syrian army, John Allen, the US representative to the coalition, told the Asharq al-Awsat daily:

"No. What we would like to see is for the FSA and the forces that we will ultimately generate, train and equip to become the credible force that the Assad government ultimately has to acknowledge and recognize."

"There is not going to be a military solution here," he added, in comments published at the weekend on the newspaper’s English language website.

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

Rebel fighters have voiced frustration with the US-led approach to fighting ISIS. They say Washington and its Arab allies are too focused on quashing the militant group at the expense of confronting Syrian army, which many rebels still see as the ultimate “enemy.”

The Syrian air force has ramped up its own bombing campaign on insurgent-held areas since the US-led airstrikes began last month.

Political outcome

Allen said there was a need to build up the credibility of the “moderate” Syrian opposition at a political level.

"But the intent is not to create a field force to liberate Damascus – that is not the intent," Allen, a retired US general, told the newspaper.

"The intent is that in the political outcome, they must be a prominent – perhaps the preeminent voice – at the table to ultimately contribute to the political outcome that we seek," he said at the start of a Middle East tour.

US President Barack Obama said last month he wanted to train and equip FSA rebels to “strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to the extremists” and to prevent US troops from being dragged into another ground war.

"The outcome that we seek in Syria is akin to the (anti-ISIS) strategy that fits into a much larger regional strategy and that outcome is a political outcome that does not include Assad," Allen said.

The United Nations says more than 191,000 people have been killed since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011. Rights groups say the actual figure is higher.

New School Offers Free Education in Kafr Nabel

October 28, 2014 by Damascus Bureau

Hala has not been to school since civil war broke out in Syria three years ago. But during the summer she attended classes at the Ajyal Centre in Kafr Nabel.

Following the success of the summer program, the school is now teaching third grade children through the academic year until April 2015.

“The teachers here treat us better than those in public schools,” Hala told Damascus Bureau. “Studying is fun, I am never bored.”

Kafr Nabel, which is under opposition control, has a population of approximately 30,000, and is situated in the southern suburbs of Idlib.

According to the United Nation’s children’s charity, UNICEF, nearly half of Syria’s children have not been able to receive an education since hostilities broke out in 2011. In early 2013, UNICEF reported that the fighting had closed one in five schools across the country.

In Idlib, 60% of schools have been destroyed or are used for temporary housing for those uprooted by the fighting.

A total of 80 fourth grade children enrolled in the Ajyal Centre’s summer school.

Equivalent courses normally cost in the region of 12,000 Syrian Pounds (about 75 US dollars) but the Ajyal Centre’s courses are free of charge.

“It’s relatively expensive considering the financial means of families, so we decided to launch a free course to assist parents in these troubled times,” Wassim al-Nayef, director of the Ajyal Centre, said.

The school also provides pupils with free stationery. Committed students who score well in class receive gifts to encourage them to study and continue with their schoolwork.

The Ajyal Centre was set up by the Union of Revolutionary Offices, a local volunteer organisation in Kafr Nabel. The organisation pays teachers’ salaries and has also committed to covering the rent for one year, as well as providing the teaching materials it needs.

The head of education and planning at the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, Oussama Mahmud al-Ahmad, credits the artist Rafiya Qadmany with helping to launch the school after she donated 6,000 US dollars.

“This amount enabled us to purchase equipment and furniture, from chairs and boards and tables to electricity generators,” Ahmad said.

The school is helping children catch up on the learning that they have missed over the last three years. Its teachers say that weekly evaluations have demonstrated students’ progress. However, teachers and pupils will both need to work hard to make up the lost ground.

“The students are currently below average,” Khaled Ahmad al-Othman, who teaches Arabic, said. “We have to work as hard as we can to bring these students up to standard.”

Parents have welcomed the courses. Ahmad Mohammad al-Bayyoush’s daughter is enrolled in the third grade course, which he described as “a wonderful step”.

“It really saved us, since the cost of similar courses in private institutions ranges from 10,000 to 12,000 SP and the financial situation of most parents is quite dire,” he said.

Other parents have urged the Ajyal Centre to expand its educational programme.

“This is a good step, but the centre should work with students from all grades because the school situation is going from bad to worse,” Abou Mohammad, the father of another student, said.

There are plans to expand to do this and Nayef is determined to accept more students in the future.

“We completed our three month [summer] course and said goodbye to the students,” he said. “We hope that this centre will receive more support to accommodate a larger number of students.”

Syrian rebels enter Kobani to help in fight against ISIS militants

People welcome Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces' military convoy, carrying heavy weapons as it crosses into Turkey from the Habur border crossing in Sirnak province of Turkey, on October 29, 2014. Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government  has sent its forces to fight alongside the armed groups against Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) militants in Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) within a special arrangement with Turkey.People welcome Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces’ military convoy, carrying heavy weapons as it crosses into Turkey from the Habur border crossing in Sirnak province of Turkey, on October 29, 2014. Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government has sent its forces to fight alongside the armed groups against Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) militants in Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) within a special arrangement with Turkey. Ahmet Bolat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Mursitpinar, October 29, 2014 by 

A small group of Syrian rebels entered the embattled border town of Kobani from Turkey on Wednesday on a mission to help Kurdish fighters battling Islamic State extremists in Syria, activists and Kurdish officials said.

The group of around 50 armed men is from the Free Syrian Army, and it’s separate from Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters who were also en route Wednesday to Kobani, along the Syrian-Turkish border.

The FSA is an umbrella group of mainstream rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. The political leadership of the Western-backed FSA is based in Turkey, where fighters often seek respite from the fighting.

READ MORE: Kurdish fighters arrive in Turkey en route to fight Islamic State militants

The 150 Iraqi peshmerga troops arrived in Turkey from Iraq early on Wednesday and were expected to cross into Syria later in the day. Their deployment came after Ankara agreed to allow the peshmerga troops to cross into Syria via Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the BBC that sending the peshmerga and the Free Syrian Army was “the only way to help Kobani, since other countries don’t want to use ground troops.”

A Kurdish journalist in Kobani and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed that a group of about 50 FSA fighters entered Kobani Wednesday.

After a rousing send-off from thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil, the peshmerga forces landed early Wednesday at the Sanliurfa airport in southeastern Turkey. They left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces and were expected to travel to Kobani also through Mursitpinar crossing.

The Islamic State group launched its offensive on Kobani and nearby Syrian villages in mid-September, killing more than 800 people, according to activists. The Sunni extremists captured dozens of Kurdish villages around Kobani and control parts of the town. More than 200,000 people have fled across the border into Turkey.

The U.S. is leading a coalition that has carried out dozens of airstrikes targeting the militants in and around Kobani.

The deployment of the 150 peshmerga fighters, who were authorized by the Iraqi Kurdish government to go to Kobani, underscores the sensitive political tensions in the region.

Turkey’s government views the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani as loyal to what Ankara regards as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. That group has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.

Under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants – from the West as well as from Kurds inside Turkey and Syria – the Turkish government agreed to let the fighters cross through its territory. But it only is allowing the peshmerga forces from Iraq, with whom it has a good relationship, and not those from the PKK.

The force will provide much-needed support for the Syrian Kurds, although it is not clear whether Turkey will allow the peshmerga fighters to carry enough weaponry to make an impact.

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