Siege looms over Aleppo as Assad’s regime gains ground

October 20, 2014 by Staff

The Syrian regime army has reportedly advanced in the rebel-held areas around Aleppo in a bid to fully besiege the northwestern city, opposition sources and activists reported Monday.

Sources said the army has managed to gain control over strategic posts in Aleppo suburbs with the help of Iranian, Lebanese and Afghan militias.

The town of al-Jubaila, along with a glass factory and a cement plant near Aleppo’s central prison, have fallen under the grip of Assad’s militias, sources added.

Activists said the Syrian regime’s recent gains indicate that the city of Aleppo, once the economic hub of Syria, could soon be subject to a dreadful siege.

Opposition fighters suggest the regime is gaining ground in the area by using toxic gases after failing to win over the armed opposition with conventional weapons.

Aleppo became a key battleground in the fight between Syrian rebels and government forces after the uprising against Assad erupted in 2011.


US airdrops arms to Kurds in Syrian town of Kobane

October 20, 2014 by AP

The US military said on Sunday it had airdropped weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to Kurdish forces defending the Syrian city of Kobane against Islamic State militants. 

The airdrops were the first of their kind and followed weeks of US and coalition air strikes in and near Kobane, near the Turkish border. The US said earlier on Sunday that it had launched 11 air strikes overnight in the Kobane area. 

In a statement US Central Command said US C-130 cargo planes made multiple drops of arms and supplies provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq. It said they were intended to enable continued resistance to Islamic State efforts to take full control of Kobane. 

The airdrops are almost certain to anger the Turkish government, which has said it would oppose any US arms transfers to the Kurdish rebels in Syria. Turkey views the main Kurdish group in Syria as an extension of the Turkish Kurd group known as the PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terror group by the US and by Nato. 

In a written statement, Central Command said its forces have conducted more than 135 air strikes against Islamic State forces in Kobane. 

Central Command said: “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.”

In a conference call with reporters after Central Command announced the airdrops, senior administration officials said three C-130 planes dropped 27 bundles of small arms, ammunition and medical supplies. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House. 

One official said that while the results of the mission are still being assessed, it appeared that “the vast majority” of the supplies reached the intended Kurdish fighters. 

The official also said the C-130s encountered no resistance from the ground in Syria during their flights in and out of Syrian airspace. 

As analysed by King’s College London for the Telegraph, airdrops provide a solution to the lack of an overland route from Iraqi Kurdistan to Kobane

Map showing proposed overland routes for Iraqi supplies to reach Kurdistan. As (1) has been ruled out by Turkey, and (2) would require transporting through Isil-held territory, the US has opted for airdrops

Turkey clears way for Kurdish reinforcements to battle Islamic State

ISIS desecrates grave of popular rebel leader

Beirut, October 20, 2014

The grave of one of Syria’s most popular rebel leaders has been desecrated by ISIS militants who object to tomb markings as a type of blasphemy, anti-regime activists said Sunday. The incident took place in the ISIS-controlled town of Jarablus in Aleppo province, the birthplace of Youssef Jader, known popularly as “Abu Furat.” Jader, a defected regime colonel, was killed by regime forces in December 2012. He achieved fame after several public statements in which he spoke out against sectarianism and expressed his sorrow when rebel forces killed regime troops, because he viewed them as fellow Syrians first and foremost. Tombstones in the entire graveyard in Jarablus were vandalized by the ISIS militants.

EU sanctions on Syria may target oil, weapons suppliers

October 20, 2014 by Bloomberg

The European Union will impose additional sanctions next week on the Syrian government and military officials, and may also act against suppliers of oil and weapons to President Bashar Assad’s regime, according to EU officials.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council will vote Oct. 20 in Brussels on proposals by the U.K. and France to target Syrian officials responsible for use of chemical weapons and Scud missiles, said two EU diplomats who asked not to be identified commenting on negotiations. Those weapons have been used indiscriminately by Syrian forces in attacks that have killed and injured civilians.

The sanctions are expected to take effect Oct. 21.

The proposals also include listing individuals and entities that facilitate and supply oil and weapons to the regime, similar to a U.S. Treasury action in May targeting Russia’s OAO Tempbank and Mikhail Gagloev, a senior bank executive, said the diplomats in Brussels.

The move seeks to protect civilians and curb the Assad regime’s aerial bombardments of opposition-held areas with chlorine gas and missiles.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a report last month that a fact-finding mission has found “compelling confirmation” that chlorine gas was used “systematically and repeatedly” as a weapon in villages in northern Syria.

The use of toxic chemical agents to cause death or harm is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined a year ago to avert airstrikes threatened by U.S. President Barack Obama after Syria used the nerve agent Sarin in attacks against rebel-controlled areas.

While all 28 EU member states agree on sanctioning regime officials, divisions remain about how far Europe should go in pressuring the Assad government and its Russian supporters, the diplomats said.

Italy has opposed an additional element in the U.K. proposal, imposing a blanket ban on aviation fuel exports to the Syrian government, saying efforts need to focus on combating ISIS, according to one of the EU diplomats.

A spokesman for the Italian Foreign Ministry speaking under customary anonymity denied that Italy had opposed the measure.

The spokesman said his country was prepared to approve, along with the rest of the EU, a set of sanctions on Syria that include the ban on aviation fuel exports.

Germany, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Hungary and Greece oppose sanctioning Russian firms involved in financing and supplying weapons to the regime, citing concerns about the wider impact on EU relations with Russia, the diplomats said.

Aleppo: The remnants of life on Syria’s hotbed

One year and a half after the beginning of the battle, only one thing hasn’t changed here: Assad jets are so inaccurate that they never bomb the front line—they might miss the rebels, and hit the loyalists. And if the favorite target had once been Shifa Hospital — now that its walls are reduced to dust, its medical staff to bouquets of flowers and framed photos — the most dangerous places are the bread lines. Today, they are made up of only women and children. Two hundred, competing for a bunch of boxes with some olive oil, some rice, chickpeas. Sugar. They are missing fingers, missing ears; their eyes are red and wrinkled, and amid the wind needles of this winter’s remains, they are haggard and emaciated. They are barely covered in threadbare shirts and little else, their bones sculpting their skin like a bas-relief. Mothers notice you, notice a stranger, and try to give you their baby: “Take him with you,” they beg. “Save him.”

Aleppo is starving, swept away by a typhoid epidemic. In the streets people sell everything. It seems as if they have scattered their entire living rooms on the ground: teapots, TVs, phones, tablecloths, light switches, everything — to be precise: bits of everything — for Aleppo is only ruins, now. Someone sells you the stroller, someone else its wheels.

Ibtisam Ramdan is 25. She lives with her three children and tuberculosis in a slide of sewage under the riverbank. The door is made of chicken wire, the fireplace a can of paint. Three children, in the dark of a rancid corner, crying and coughing; they cough so loudly and they cry so desperately that they wheeze. On a scrap of cardboard, amid worms and some leftover rice, they don’t even have dishes. And anyway, here there is nothing edible. Like them are dozens of other families.

The entire riverbank is dotted with faults and hovels; they aren’t sheds, they aren’t caves, they are only bits of things—metal sheets, planks, plastic scraps—piles, piles of bits of things. At some point, you realize that you are in the midst of it, amid women, kids, old men, maimed and mute, these mouths empty of teeth. You walk, only one centimeter between you and them, and they don’t even look at you, blackened from the stove’s coal, their feet in the mud. They have only rainwater to drink, their skin dotted with infections. Even the cats, here, are sick.

The breadlinesThe breadlines in Aleppo

A jet, suddenly, snarls over your head. You move a shutter and you find a man who is dying from leukemia. You move another shutter and you find a man skinning a rat; another one, and only a girl, still and absent, empty, wearing on her body, unmistakable, the marks of rape. You try asking a question and your translator bursts into tears and says, “Excuse me, but I no longer have words, I no longer have words for all this.”

It’s so starving, Aleppo, it’s so exhausted, that missiles strike, and people continue to live amid the rubble. Like in Ard al-Hamra, 117 dead — seventeen of whom are still here, scattered under you. The living pop out from collapsed stairwells, collapsed ceilings, one by one, from crumbled pavements, pillar stumps, a carpet that hangs from the blades of a fan: their only possessions are the clothes on their backs. In the Nokia belonging to Fouad Zytoon, 36, is the picture of a head on a shelf; it is his daughter’s.

They insist on telling you everything in detail. “Do you want the names of the victims?” they ask you, “I have the complete list,” and you feel ashamed to say it, but no, you don’t need the names, the number is enough. And then it’s late, and Aleppo is thousands of stories and this is just a single line in your article, it’s late, really, and then you are tired, and dusty, and you are scared of this jet over your head that keeps on circling, circling and circling…the pilot who is selecting his target, who is perhaps selecting you and no: you really only need the number, thank you it’s enough, 117, seventeen never recovered from under your feet. And the guy who stares at you point-blank, says, “You see? Nothing remains, of our lives, not even a name.”

It looks normal, Aleppo. And the journalists have all left. War has become such a part and parcel of this city, so embedded in its flesh, that grass has grown amid the rubble. Taxi drivers notice the Nikon around your neck and they stop you, ask if you are a tourist, they ask you, “Want to go to the front line?” But then you bump into a child, and she salutes you, standing at attention. You bump into a garbage collector, in the street, into an electrician who is fixing an antenna, and you hear a whip crack. Suddenly, the body falling down; shot down: a sniper.

Then at the hospital entrance — while the jet disappears, appears, glides, gains altitude again — at the hospital entrance lie the corpses with no ID. People pass by. They lift the white sheet slightly, they make sure he isn’t a brother, a cousin. Then you walk into a playground, while perhaps he is selecting you, and there is a sleeping bag amid the swings, while perhaps it’s your turn, and in the sleeping bag there is a black-and-blue young man, a hole in his temple. Then you open a gate, and the walls that are all blood, while you listen to the fiercest minutes of the fighter jets circling overhead, you look around, and everywhere, worn out by artillery fire, these buildings stand that are one floor inhabited, one floor destroyed. A charred tricycle hangs upside down, a lamp swings in the wind. In the wait, a curtain, fossils of normal lives. Because it looks normal, Aleppo; then you enter a school, a classroom, and at mortar fire, the children don’t even turn their heads: only at the rain of Kalashnikov fire do they start to quarrel. “It’s a Doshka,” Ahmed, 6, says. “No it’s a Kalashnikov,” Omar, also 6, says, “You see? It’s lighter than a Draganov,” while perhaps it’s your turn, now, and you can only hug yourself, together with everything you didn’t say, in your life, the times you weren’t able to love, the times you weren’t able to dare, the words that got caught on your fingers, the times that now are late, now that it’s late for everything, and life shines with a raging beauty: now that perhaps your turn has come.

Until a man comes in the street, short of breath, announces: “Airstrike on Sheik Said.” And because it’s rough to admit it, but—it’s wild: it’s an infinite relief. Sheik Said: not you. An infinite relief. To know that somebody is dead. And because it’s like this war has robbed you not of your humanity exactly, but all of a sudden, and even more violently, that it has left you naked in front of the mirror, naked as you really are. Because you are the only one that matters, in your life. To admit it bleeds you, but this war hasn’t robbed you of anything; it is simply that your humanity, your diversity—they have never existed. You are the only one that matters. And what a life is that to live?

Old Aleppo in ruinsOld Aleppo in ruins

They have all left, the journalists—it looks normal, Aleppo. But the front line is still here; you realize it’s close when in the opposite direction, you start to see the line of Syrians fleeing away. Dozens of vans stand out against a sky burning with explosions, loaded with everything, and it isn’t exactly the image you’d associate with the word “liberation.” But because that’s the way the front line advances; town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood, it moves forward like a tsunami, and after its passage nothing is left standing; only children playing football amid the dust while the regime bombs elsewhere. They play as if nothing has happened. And on the other hand; to reassure people, the rebels roam around in pick-up trucks decorated with Doshkas: but it’s a placebo machine-gun. Its effect, against a jet, is tantamount to a peashooter. As Wael says, “The only anti-aircraft system, here, is rain. The only shelter is luck.” He is 8.

The unit of the Free Army we are embedded in is composed of thirteen men, two of whom are wearing flip-flops, while the others do not always have matching shoes. There used to be seventeen of them; three of them died while trying to recover the body of a fourth who still lies there, at the end of the street. Behind the corner, some of the regime’s snipers. They sit with a glass of tea in what once would have been a shop, engaged for over an hour in a lively debate about the best strategy to win Damascus. A woman, in the meantime, cautiously looks over; she needs to reach the other side. But nobody cares, and after a while, resigned, she simply crosses, alone, whispering verses from the Qur’an. Yet, even Wikipedia recommends it; it’s called “covering fire.” It’s two dollars per bullet and Fahdi looks scathingly at me, “Are you mad?”, and he goes back to planning the storming of Damascus. Reinforcements arrive in the afternoon jumping out of a jeep in the form of Ayman Haj Jaeed, 18. It’s his second day on the front line. “Write,” he says to me, “that Bashar is coming to an end.” And he runs across the street with his Kalashnikov, firing as fast as he can. “Write, write,” he shouts to me from the other side, “Another two months, and Aleppo will be free.” Only, he had been firing leftward. And the sniper, actually, was on his right.

Many Syrians oppose the regime, but also, more and more, they oppose the rebels. Charged of having dragged Aleppo into a war they weren’t ready to engage in, with their tuna cans turned into makeshift grenades. But now, charged with looting and extortion, too, and most of all, of consigning the country to al-Qaeda fighters. Coming from Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan. From Marseille, London; from the outskirts, the dumps of globalization. With their experience and their advanced weapons, they shifted the war’s balance and avoided a defeat that seemed certain: but they also shifted the balance of Syria, a secular state, in favor of their Islam.

Syrians speak again in low voices, in Aleppo. Again they walk with heads bowed. While again activists vanish. Because the regime of Bashar al-Assad has been merely replaced by a new regime. Even fiercer. At the beginning, there were the brigades of the Ahrar al-Sham, the Free Men of the Levant. Then Jabhat al-Nusra, the Support Front, appeared. And compared to them, the Ahrar al- Sham look like the good guys. Now it is the turn of ISIS, the initials for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and it’s pure terror. In an Aleppo forgotten by the world, Islamists take root day by day, by providing food and medicine — take root with bread, as usual, rather than with the Qur’an. But at their checkpoints, now, whoever happens to be deemed an infidel is simply executed. We distinguish between liberated and occupied streets, that is, regime-held streets; but it only means we choose between them and the snipers.

Old AleppoOld Aleppo

“We didn’t just lose the revolution,” Abu Maryam, the Friday demonstrations’ leader sums up, “We lost Syria.” He has been persecuted by the regime, beaten by the rebels, put on trial by the Islamists. Because jihadists, according to estimates, are only a minority, just ten percent: but they are the most highly-trained, the most organized — they are the ones who decide. In the streets under their control, it’s not uncommon to run into loyalists dragged by their hair, drenched in blood, their skin a map of tortures. “But Syria will be a democracy,” they assure you. Until the moment a mortar rains, suddenly. “We will respect everyone.” A second, a third blast; I slide into the first door I see. Only, they are all men, inside, and under the helmet, I wear no veil. “It will be a Syria of freedom and equality,” they repeat. For now, however, they leave me outside. 

Worn out, soul reduced to dust, you twist and turn amid the piled sandbags to escape the neverending snipers. “How long will it take?” you ask, your nerves crumbling, “How far is it?” and only now do you really realize what this war is, when, in the middle of nowhere, Alaa says: “It’s here.”

You are in the ancient souk of Aleppo. Once the most charming 4,000 square meters of the Middle East, the most famous postcard of Syria, a vertigo of voices and tales and colors, an overabundance of life—now this is all that remains: rubble. Powder and stones. Nothing else. But really nothing else. Rebels drag you around alley by alley, shop by shop; this is the cotton market, they explain to you, “…this is the gold market, on your right you find the spices, down there is the silver…” And they are only rubble. “…here is where brides come to buy their gowns,” and they point out the butt of something, “…here their wedding band—verbs,” in present tense, though you see only nothing. There’s not even a rat, here.

Iyad is 32, with a broken expression nestled in strong muscles. He was a carpenter. “My workshop is at the end of the corner,” he tells you, even though at the corner there is nothing but a fallen ceiling and the stump of a wall. Even though he is now a sniper, two hours a day, every day. He sleeps here, a mattress and a blanket next to the skeleton of a door. His brother died, his father died, his best friend died, everybody died; his two-year-old daughter died. In his Nokia he has a photo of her body covered in blood. And now he is a sniper, that’s all; two hours a day, shielded by sandbags. You look through the hole he shoots from, and the helmets of the last soldiers he hit are still there, in the street. Whatever your question is, the answer is the same. “But how did you feel,” you ask him, “the first time?” He shows you his daughter’s body, while a man wheezes, in your gun’s sights. He shows you his daughter’s body. You ask him: “But once all this is over, what will you do? And what kind of Syria will come?” But only his daughter’s body, only blood that trickles — until he says, “Anything else to know?” He puts his mobile away, and he goes back to shooting.

They are often just in their teens, and they have eyes so transparent, so empty, that you can look through them and see the rubble that is behind. They have been fighting here for eight months, the clock, on a wall, is stuck at 17:47. It was September 25th, and Aleppo was a pure Hell, a blast every few seconds when the old city, an UNESCO world heritage site, was overwhelmed by fire.

During and air strikeDuring an air strike in Aleppo

They roam around the storm’s spoils in t-shirts and Kalashnikovs, Bart Simpson socks under the military boots of one. They are the new lords of Aleppo, kids who barely have a diploma, barely have a job. And yet they have a Kalashnikov, now they have experienced power, and they won’t again be insignificant as they were under Assad. They squat here with their camping stove, their sleeping bags, as if on an InterRail holiday. Talking with them is pointless; you cannot extract any word, any emotion. They oversee every corner; every bit of wall here has its own checkpoint, its own bodyguard; they patrol the streets of an imaginary city. This is the best tailor in Aleppo, but it is only a stack of sharp metal sheets fallen under sniper fire. When you happen to bump into a swarm of flies, then, you who know Aleppo, you know: underneath, lie human remains. 

And in a burst of mortar, at some point, something golden still shines. It’s a chandelier. You lower your head, curious, you slip into the sandbags. You slide in: and you find yourself amid dozens of bullet-pierced copies of the Qur’an: it is the Great Mosque. Its remnants.

The walls have been defaced by artillery fire, the candleholders torn off. Engravings, decorations have been planed away. The shades of red on the carpet are now shades of blood. And from one pillar to the next, dark plastic sheets; the regime’s snipers are on the other side of the courtyard. For it is a war of the last century, this war of Aleppo; it is a trench war of rifle shots. Rebels and loyalists are so close that they scream at one another while they shoot. On the front line for the first time, you cannot believe it: the bayonets that you had once only seen in history books, and which you thought hadn’t been used since Napoleon’s time. Today, wars are now drone wars; here, instead, they fight meter by meter, with the blade tied to the barrel of the gun, covered in decaying blood. This war is fought street by street, in hand-to-hand combat, alley cats contending for a shinbone. Even though they are only praetorian guards of an empire of death. They are ready to offer you tea and cigarettes under the sun and fire while they welcome you with the victory sign, as if in front of the Colosseum for a photo souvenir. But instead they are in front of smashed minarets, briers of metal sheets where they take off their shoes, as in any mosque, where they stop the photographer, saying, “You cannot enter; this is the women’s area.” The women’s area is nothing more than a collection of the charred remains of objects. You no longer understand what objects are, while they keep their guard over pink elephants. Everything, here, amid the ghosts of brides, is more sacred than life. 

They seem like roads, the roads of Aleppo, though they more closely now resemble The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Even the muezzin, now, no longer calls to prayer. He calls, instead, for blood donors for the wounded from the last missile. And only a rain of Kalashnikov fire, suddenly, wakes you up — out there the shooting starts again. It is the only sign of life — out there, somebody dies. Somebody hasn’t died, yet.

The Meaning of Kobani

October 18, 2014 by Henri J. Barkey

The Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani has been under a relentless siege by the Islamic State (IS) for the past few weeks. Surprisingly its defenders have endured, defying the long odds. Whether it falls or survives, Kobani is likely to become for Syrian and Turkish Kurds what Halabja became for Iraqi Kurds in 1988: a defining moment of nationhood and identity.

Halabja helped propel and shape the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, now called the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In 1988, in the midst of the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on the sleepy Iraqi Kurdish town near the Iranian border, killing some 5,000, mostly civilians. Unnoticed at the time, Halabja became for much of the world a symbol of the larger campaign of mass extermination against the Kurds, as well as a quintessential example of a crime against humanity.

For the Kurds, it marked yet another time the world stood by and watched silently; theirs was an inconvenient predicament, a sacrifice at the altar of grander strategic purposes. Saddam Hussein enjoyed the support of the West precisely because he was locked in a duel with Iran, then a larger threat.

Fast forward to today: Until the U.S. Air Force began a systematic bombing campaign against IS positions around Kobani, the city had been left largely to fend for itself. Skittish and worried about Turkey’s reaction to support for Syrian Kurds, the Obama Administration initially hesitated but then committed itself to bombing the besieging IS forces after they had penetrated the city’s outer defenses.

Kobani will have two different effects on the region. First and foremost, it will be an important marker in the construction and consolidation of Kurdish nationhood. The exploits of Kobani’s defenders are quickly joining the lore of Kurdish fighting prowess. After all, the Iraqi Kurdish forces, not to mention the Iraqi army, folded in the face of a determined IS onslaught only a couple of months ago. The longer the city resists, the greater will be the reputational impact (although it is already assuming mythic proportions).

There is another, rather unique aspect of the resistance that is adding to its mythic character: the role of women in the fight. The juxtaposition of an Islamic State, which enslaves women or covers them from head to toe, with the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has large numbers of women fighting and dying alongside men, is particularly striking. Social and other media outlets have brimmed with stories of the heroism and sacrifice of these women. The fighting in Kobani, and especially the emergence of women fighters, has now entered the Kurdish lore and imagination.

Resistance in Kobani has also mobilized Kurds across the world, but especially in Turkey—notwithstanding the government’s earlier courageous attempt to initiate a peace process with its own Kurdish insurgent movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Turkish government faces a dilemma, however: a victory for the PYD, which is an ally, if not the creation, of the PKK, will not only strengthen the PKK’s bargaining position but will also potentially enable the Kurds to construct another Kurdish autonomous region on its borders after the KRG. That, in Ankara’s view, would be a strategic disaster, because it would naturally embolden Turkish Kurds to demand the same. In Turkey alone, some 36 people have already died in Kobani-related demonstrations.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s blandishments to the contrary, Turkey prefers to see a PYD defeat in Kobani, even if this, in the medium term, causes a spike in refugees streaming across the border. For Turkey, this was a Faustian choice. They lost. Moreover, by attempting to drive a hard if not impossible bargain with Washington, which demanded that it target Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as much as it was targeting IS, the Turks first and foremost alienated the Obama administration. This in turn has enabled the White House to finally ignore Ankara’s preferences and cooperate (at least in order to conduct bombing runs) with the PYD, an organization Turkey despises and sees as an enemy.

CENTCOM commander Lloyd Austin had high praise for the Kurds in Syria: “Kurdish fighters had managed to regain territory that had been lost previously, adding that they had done “a yeoman’s work in terms of standing their ground.” The American decision to help Syrian Kurds despite Turkish objections will also have serious repercussions in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the leaders had until recently closely aligned themselves with Turkey. Ankara has already gotten started on damage control: a Deputy Prime Minister disingenuously argued it was Turkey that convinced the U.S. to help the PYD in Kobani.

Fall or survive, Kobani has assumed an importance few could have anticipated, becoming the rallying cry for Syrian and Turkish Kurds as much as Halabja was for their Iraqi brethren. Moreover, Kobani’s plight has once again drawn the whole international community’s attention to the region’s Kurdish question.

Fierce fighting shakes Kobani, Syria, as IS steps up attack

A child, internally displaced due to fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, looks out of his tent window in Ekda village refugee camp, beside the Syrian-Turkish border in northern Aleppo. Fierce fighting once again gripped the border town of Kobani overnight. Photograph: Reuters

A child, internally displaced due to fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, looks out of his tent window in Ekda village refugee camp, beside the Syrian-Turkish border in northern Aleppo. Fierce fighting once again gripped the border town of Kobani overnight. Photograph: Reuters

October 19, 2014

The fiercest fighting in days shook the Syrian border town of Kobani overnight as Islamic State fighters attacked Kurdish defenders with mortars and car bombs, sources in the town and a monitoring group have said.

Islamic State, which controls much of Syria and Iraq, fired 44 mortars at Kurdish parts of the town yesterday and some of the shells fell inside nearby Turkey, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It said four more mortars were fired today.

The month-long battle for Kobani has ebbed and flowed. A week ago, Kurds said the town would soon fall. The United States and its coalition partners then stepped up air strikes on Islamic State, which wants to take Kobani in order to strengthen its position in northern Syria.

The coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq since August and extended the campaign to Syria in September after Islamic State, a group that espouses a rigid interpretation of Islam and initially fought Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces, made huge territorial gains.

Raids on Islamic State around Kobani have been stepped up, with the fate of the town seen as an important test for US president Barack Obama’s campaign against the Islamists.

Nato member Turkey, whose forces are ranged along the border overlooking Kobani, is reluctant to intervene. It insists the allies should also confront Mr Assad to end Syria’s civil war, which has killed close to 200,000 people since March 2011.

“We had the most intense clashes in days, perhaps a week, last night. (Islamic State) attacked from three different sides including the municipality building and the market place,” said Abdulrahman Gok, a journalist in Kobani.

“Clashes did not stop until the morning. We have had an early morning walk inside the city and have seen lots of damaged cars on the streets and unexploded mortar shells,” he said.

Car bombs

The Observatory reported two Islamic State car bombs hit Kurdish positions on yesterday evening, leading to casualties. A cloud of black smoke towered over Kobani on Sunday.

A fighter from one of the female units of the main Syrian Kurdish militia in Kobani, YPG, said Kurdish fighters were able to detonate the car bombs before they reached their targets.

“Last night there were clashes all across Kobani … this morning the clashes are still ongoing,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Observatory said 70 Islamic State fighters had been killed in the past two days, according to sources at the hospital in the nearby town of Tel Abyab, where Islamic State bodies are taken. These reports could not be independently confirmed due to security restrictions.

The Observatory said some Syrian Arab fighters from the Revolutionaries of Raqqa Brigade, who are fighting alongside Kurdish fighters, had executed two Islamic State captives.

“One was a child of around 15 years old. They shot them in the head,” he said.

Islamic State have also used executions throughout their campaigns in Syria and Iraq, killing hundreds of enemy combatants and civilians who oppose their cause, according to Islamic State videos and statements.

Welat Omer, a doctor caring for the few remaining civilians in Kobani, said he was looking after 15 patients, including children and the elderly.

“We need medicine, including antibiotics and milk for the children, and medicine for the elderly, who have heart conditions, diabetes and high blood pressure,” Mr Omer said.

Hundreds of thousands have fled Islamic State’s advance. Turkey hosts about 1.5 million Syrian refugees, including almost 200,000 Syrian Kurds from Kobani.

Ankara has refused to rearm beleaguered Kurdish fighters, who complain they are at huge disadvantage in the face of Islamic State’s weaponry, much of it seized from the Iraqi military when the militants took the city of Mosul in June.

Turkey views the YPG with suspicion for its long-standing links with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a 30-year armed campaign for self-rule in Turkey.

President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted in the Turkish media today as saying Ankara will never arm the YPG through its political wing, the PYD.

“There has been talk of arming the PYD to establish a front here against Islamic State. For us, the PYD is the same as the PKK, it’s a terrorist organisation,” he was quoted as saying.

This stance has sparked outrage among Turkey’s own Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the population. Riots in several cities earlier this month killed left than 35 people dead.

Syria’s ‘Moderate Rebels’ Say They Are Willing, But Need Weapons

Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, in June 2012. The U.S. is planning to train and arm the rebels, who have been outgunned on the battlefield.

Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, in June 2012. The U.S. is planning to train and arm the rebels, who have been outgunned on the battlefield. Khalil Hamra/AP

October 18, 2014 by Peter Kenyon

The American-led coalition opposing the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is starting to move toward vetting and training ground forces to do battle in both countries.

But it’s a slow process, and it comes after years of frustrations for veterans of the Free Syrian Army, or the FSA, who have gathered in southeastern Turkey, a place with a long history of epic battles and religious fights.

At a park in the shadow of the Urfa fortress, Ahmed Askar, a 29-year-old commander recounts his battle experience in Syria. Above him are cliffs that contain the ruins of the palace where legend has it that the pagan king Nimrod ordered the burning of the prophet Abraham. God, the story goes, had other plans, turning the fire into water and creating a lake, where families today come to feed swarming schools of carp.

Askar says his fighters successfully pushed the Islamic State out of the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, but were later overrun by the enemy’s superior firepower.

Askar brings a street-level commander’s perspective to the battle against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. He says if the coalition gathers the FSA units that earned hard-won battle scars fighting ISIS with only light weapons, in a matter of months they could open new fronts at three strategic border crossings with Turkey — Ras al-Ain, Tal Abyad, and al-Bab.

"If we start with a few thousand men on these three fronts, with real weapons, you would soon see success," he says. "Because there are also a lot of fighters inside ISIS-controlled territory, they’re waiting for a reason to get into the fight against ISIS."

Different Agendas

But as always with the Syrian opposition, it’s complicated. Judging by the images flashing around the world from the border town of Kobani, it would seem that the toughest fighters combating ISIS at the moment are the Syrian Kurds with the YPG, linked to Turkey’s Kurdish militants the PKK.

But Askar says in his opinion the unpopular decision by the Turkish government to oppose arming the Kurds is absolutely right, not just for Turkey, but for Syria as well.

"That’s right, because the (Kurds) want their own state, they don’t think about Syria as one state," he says. "If we win against ISIS, the Kurds will be no help in fighting the regime."

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs after attacking a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade during fighting in Aleppo, Syria, in September 2012. The rebels say they are willing to take on the Islamic State, but need more weapons.

A Free Syrian Army fighter runs after attacking a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade during fighting in Aleppo, Syria, in September 2012. The rebels say they are willing to take on the Islamic State, but need more weapons. Manu Brabo/AP

And the Arab-Kurdish divisions pale beside the conflicting agendas of some of the main regional players in the anti-ISIS coalition. President Obama’s envoy to the coalition, retired general John Allen, told reporters in Washington this week that the in-fighting that has plagued every phase of the effort to find and support a moderate Syrian opposition has to stop.

"They need to begin to build and begin to work together to create a coherent political superstructure," said Allen, adding that a unified political structure combined with a credible field force "creates the moderate Syrian opposition as the force to be dealt with in the long term, in the political outcome of Syria."

Allen emphasized “long term,” and said while Syria is important, Iraq has priority.

Askar says he’s not seeing any coming together among the regional powers in the coalition, just familiar names being recycled. He says every power seems to have its favorite Syrians, with the Qataris pushing one politician, the Saudis another, and the Americans yet another. He singles out past Syrian opposition coalition head Ahmad al-Jarba as one example.

"The Saudi guy in Syria is al-Jarba … a guy without any real experience," according to Askar. "But it seems the Saudis don’t care about competence, they just want people loyal to them."

What Askar doesn’t say is that the Turks and the Qataris are strong boosters of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, until now a strong and controversial presence in the FSA.

Faced with problematic benefactors all around, Askar and his Deir Ezzor fighters are going with the Turks for now. But they have few illusions that the effort to bring Syria a future dominated by neither radical Islam nor the Assad family dictatorship is if anything harder than ever.

Turkey will not cooperate in US support for Kurds in Syria, says Erdogan

kurdish refugees kobani

 A man attaches the Kurdish flag a bus that will transport Syrian refugees from Kobani to the Basirma refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Photograph: Bram Janssen/AP

Istanbul, October 19, 2014 by AP

Turkey would not agree to any US arms transfers to Kurdish fighters who are battling Islamic State (Isis) militants in Syria, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying on Sunday, as the extremist group fired more mortar rounds near the Syrian-Turkish border and fighting around the besieged town of Kobani intensified.

Turkey views the main Syrian Kurdish group, the PYD, and its military wing which is fighting Isis militants as an extension of the PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terror group by the US and Nato.

Washington has said recently that it has engaged in intelligence sharing with Kurdish fighters and officials have not ruled out future arms transfers to the Kurdish fighters.

“The PYD is for us, equal to the PKK. It is a terror organisation,” Erdogan told a group of reporters on his return from a visit to Afghanistan. “It would be wrong for the United States with whom we are friends and allies in Nato to talk openly and to expect us to say ‘yes’ to such a support to a terrorist organisation.”

Erdogan’s comments were reported by the state-run Anadolu agency on Sunday.

In Washington, the Texas senator Ted Cruz, a presumed candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, criticised President Barack Obama for not aiding the Kurdish fighters.

“We have dropped a bomb here and a missile there, but it has been a photo-op foreign policy,” Cruz said.

Turkey’s opposition to arms transfers to the Kurdish forces, meanwhile, is hampering the US-led coalition’s efforts to fight the extremists and further complicating relations between Turkey and Washington. The countries are involved in negotiations about Ankara’s role with the US and Nato allies fighting the Islamic State group, which is attempting to capture Kobani.

Turkey has demanded that the coalition widen its campaign against the militants by providing greater aid to Syrian rebels, who are battling both Isis and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Turkey has so far provided sanctuary to an estimated 200,000 Syrians fleeing Kobani, and recently agreed to train and equip moderate Syrian rebel fighters trying to remove Assad from power.

The White House said President Barack Obama spoke to Erdogan on Saturday about the situation in Kobani and steps that could be taken to counter Isis advances.

“The two leaders pledged to continue to work closely together to strengthen cooperation against [Isis],” a statement said.

Fighting between the militants and the Kurdish fighters defending Kobani continued on Sunday. Mortar strikes hit the town, sending plumes of smoke into the air. Three mortars also fell on the Turkish side of the border, landing in an open field where they caused no injuries. On Saturday and Sunday, Isis appeared to be targeting the border crossing area, potentially in a bid to hamper Kobani’s last link to the outside world.

Kobani Thick smoke and flames from a fire rises following a strike in Kobani. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

In an attempt to stave off the advance, a US-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes on Isis positions in and near the town, as well as in other parts of Syria, particularly in the oil-rich eastern province of Deir el-Zour, as well as in Iraq. Several air strikes hit Kobani on Saturday evening. US-led warplanes launched 11 air strikes near Kobani on Saturday and Sunday, US Central Command said.

The flow of migrants into Turkey has intensified since Isis’s push to take Kobani and cut access for Kurdish fighters to other areas of Syria they control. On Saturday, Isis fighters also weighed in on their attempts to take Kobani, arguing it was not a fight against the Kurds.

“We came to establish the laws of God not to fight the Kurds,” a fighter in army fatigues said on a video uploaded to YouTube. The video was uploaded by a user who appears to be embedded with the militants in Kobani. It appeared genuine and reflected Associated Press reporting.

But another fighter who appeared to be from a European country, judging from his accent in Arabic, described their aim “to liberate the land from the fifth of the apostates, the PKK and others”, referring to Kurdish secular fighters who are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim as apostates.

The fighter said the US-led coalition to fight the militant group was a sure sign of the justness of their cause.

“As for the planes that shell us 24 hours, day and night, by God we say: they increase our faith, assuredness and steadfastness. We know we are on the right path because all the [non-believers] of the world have gathered against us.”

The United Nations humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, visited one of the refugee camps set up in a school in the Turkish border town of Suruc. While 900,000 people have been registered as refugees in Turkey since the Syrian crisis began four years ago, “the reality is that the numbers are nearer to 1.6 million”, Amos said.

“Of course countries have concerns about security, and about the impact on their economies and on essential services like health and education. But it’s also a crisis with a huge human impact,” she said. 

“The international community has to continue to do all it can to find a political solution to this crisis.”

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