Iraqi Kurdish Lawmakers OK Fighters for Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria will not get resolution while the opposition bickers

October 22, 2014 by Hassan Hassan

During a meeting on the sidelines of last year’s World Economic Forum conference in Davos, former Syrian opposition chief Moaz Al Khatib was asked to speak to a group of senior diplomats about Syria. Instead of discussing the facts on the ground, he preached about the need for religious values.

Such stories are common among diplomats who have worked closely with the Syrian opposition. Several officials whose countries support the rebels spoke of incidents when opposition figures would bicker and backbite. “There might be five minutes left to discuss ideas,” one source said.

Because of the consistency of such behaviour, the source added, many in the international community have started meeting opposition figures “only out of courtesy”. According to official sources, Saudi Arabia and other key backers in the region have been left dissatisfied by infighting within the opposition.

Activists also complain that the political opposition rarely meet to brainstorm ideas, unless they are faced with a threat of political restructuring or when they have to choose a new leader.

In the past couple of weeks, the Syrian opposition seems to have reached a new low. As the United States assembled an international coalition to strike against ISIL inside Syria – potentially one of the most significant milestones for the Syrian rebellion – the opposition remained deeply divided over the appointment of Ahmed Touma as “prime minister” in the interim government, supposedly tasked with governing rebel-held areas. This is particularly bizarre, especially considering the position is meaningless, as four out of the five provinces outside the Assad regime’s control are held by either ISIL or Jabhat Al Nusra.

Also telling is the opposition’s attitude towards the fight between the Kurdish forces and ISIL in the Kurdish town of Kobani. The opposition, including prominent activists, have endorsed the Turkish position of essentially supporting the defeat of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) at the hands of ISIL.

Ironically, the opposition’s attacks against the Kurdish forces have echoed much of what the Al Assad regime has often used to attack the opposition itself.

For example, Bassam Jaara, the exiled opposition activist and senior member of the coordination committees, complained about the Free Syrian Army groups that have been fighting alongside the YPG: “When the Free Syrian Army fights with the YPG that has been killing the Syrian people, then it is not an army and it is not free.” This echoes what Bashar Al Assad said about the FSA two years ago. 

Others reduced the local Kurdish push against ISIL to a YPG fight, saying that the YPG should not be supported because it included extremists, which also echoes the regime’s propaganda. It is also not hard to discern a Baathist tone in most of the criticism of the Kurdish forces.

The opposition has allowed itself to be a proxy for regional countries, and the bickering with regard to both Kobani and the interim government is a timely reminder of that sad fact. As David Ignatius suggested in the Washington Post last week, the bickering over Mr Touma was part of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Also, the complaints about Kobani are hard to understand considering that ISIL brought the fight to Kobani and the Kurdish forces who had been present in that area for months, simply defended their town.

Until last week, the US-led coalition was very slow to strike against ISIL targets outside Kobani. If the international coalition chose to “liberate” a Kurdish area, as opposed to an Arab area, then complaints about the double standards can be justified. But that did not happen. Nowhere was the international coalition slower to block the advances of the ISIL than in the town of Kobani, betraying the fact that the campaign against the Kurdish forces in Kobani was nothing but a reflection of Turkish policy.

The story of how the Kurdish forces in Kobani and their FSA allies have defended the town should be told as a success story of brave men and women from Syria fighting against vicious jihadists. Instead, the opposition have given in to cynical instincts rooted in the very regime they are fighting. These views do not represent the interests of Syrians but those of other regional countries.

The opposition’s wrangling over the interim government and Kobani are only two examples of a long series of misguided policies and attitudes by the Syrian opposition. Instead of blaming outsiders for the protraction of the conflict and the rise of extremism, the Syrian opposition must recognise that such policies are a substantial factor behind the worsening situation.

Remember Our Syrian Allies

Airstrikes, reportedly by the U.S.-led coalition on ISIS positions, did heavy damage to the village of Kfar Derian in Aleppo Province. Credit: Sami Ali/Getty Images-Agence France-Presse

President Obama made the right decision to boost military aid to moderate Syrian rebels last year, but today America’s approach to attacking Islamic State fighters risks undermining the moderate opposition and alienating support among the Syrian public.

Washington, October 3, 2014 by Robert S. Ford

Last Friday, for the first time I can recall, opponents of the government of President Bashar al-Assad burned an American flag, and anti-American demonstrations mushroomed across opposition-held areas in Syria. These people have no love for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, but this means something went seriously wrong with our initial campaign of airstrikes.

The rebels were furious that the Americans had not targeted the Assad government, which has killed far more Syrian civilians than the Islamic State has. Syrians perceive, wrongly, that the Americans and regional allies don’t care about the government’s atrocities, and are concerned only with the Islamic State. Our targeting of terrorist elements attached to the Nusra Front — the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, which is fighting the Assad government — added to the rebels’ suspicion that the Americans were helping Mr. Assad as much as fighting the Islamic State.

Moderate armed opposition groups also looked foolish because the American side didn’t coordinate the strikes with them, even though we have worked with them before. An American journalist on the Turkish border told me last week that moderate rebels were briefed on the strikes only after most of us had already seen the video evidence via the Internet. We also made the moderate fighters appear naïve about working with us because the attacks didn’t much help their battles against the Islamic State in northern Syria.

With public distrust of American motives running high in Syria, we’re disempowering the very opposition we’re supposed to be helping. Leaders of the Free Syrian Army have demanded that attacks focus on “the forces of tyranny and the patrons of extremism represented by the Assad regime.” We need a swift tactical adjustment to reassure the Syrian opposition of our good intent.

The United States and its partners must supply more ammunition and equipment to moderate groups in northern and southern Syria. Since 2011, the moderates have been hampered by unreliable supply lines — to the benefit of government forces, as well as extremist opposition groups like the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. Moderate fighters near the northern city of Aleppo are in especially urgent need since they face the Islamic State on one front and government troops on another. Logistical support must be a more urgent priority than training programs, which will take months to bear fruit.

The United States has directly supported the moderate opposition for 18 months — help that long predates our actions against the Islamic State. We could do more to remind Syrians of this, both in public and in private.

The administration must also avoid the mistake we made before, with the Syrian armed opposition’s military command, when we and our regional friends funneled aid directly to myriad groups. We must support a unified Syrian command structure by channeling our assistance through it, and we need to insist that our Arab allies do the same. Otherwise, our actions will only help to fragment the moderate armed opposition.

We should be doing more to coordinate our attacks with opposition commanders. Obviously, we cannot risk compromising our operations and intelligence security, but we should be communicating better with moderate fighters so that they can exploit our airstrikes against the Islamic State and recommend targets. Longer-term strategic goals need to be part of these discussions, since this will be a long campaign.

Better communication also extends to an effort to reach Arabic media with information about whom we’re bombing and why. Our targeting of Nusra Front jihadis was a case in point: Nobody in Syria had ever heard of Khorasan. The message that these particular jihadis were planning attacks against Western targets was lost on a Syrian audience: To them, it simply looked as though we were targeting a force that was engaged in fighting Mr. Assad. Another example came when coalition aircraft blew up a grain silo in Islamic State-occupied northern Syria. In a country starved of food supplies, Syrians were outraged.

As we explain our actions, we have to avoid the mistakes made in Iraq. Military operations unfortunately carry the risk of civilian casualties. We need to ensure our targeting intelligence is as accurate as possible, but if operations cause civilian casualties, we must broadcast clear expressions of regret, not denials, to the Arabic-language media.

Headlines about the American military’s relaxing its guidelines for determining acceptable levels of risk to civilians only made this task harder. If we aim to deprive the Islamic State and the Nusra Front of popular support, that kind of message is counterproductive.

The way the administration talks about the moderate Syrian opposition is crucial. Top officials now say that boosting the capabilities of these rebels is vital to American strategy against the Islamic State, and that we will still press Mr. Assad to accept a transitional government. But even this year, in an effort to defend past hesitation about supporting the moderate rebels, officials have talked about them as some kind of civilian rabble. The moderate opposition and its fighters were never that, but if we’re still saying so, it undercuts confidence within Syria and the region about America’s commitment to implementing our policy now.

Attempted kidnapping in Turkey shows reach of the Islamic State

An explosion rocks Syrian city of Kobane during a reported suicide car bomb attack by the militants of Islamic State group on a People’s Protection Unit (YPG) position in the city center of Kobane, as seen from the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. (Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images)

Sanilurfa, October 22, 2014 by Liz Sly

The men who snatched Abu Issa from the streets of this southeastern city were Turkish gangsters, but their client was the Islamic State, and they had been promised good money to spirit the Syrian rebel commander across the Turkish border into Syria.

The effort ultimately failed, but the story of the brazen daylight kidnapping and its chaotic conclusion has raised troubling questions about the militant group’s growing reach into Turkey, as well as the capacity of the Turkish authorities to contain it.

Over the past year, this NATO ally has come under intense pressure from the Obama administration to do more to halt the flow of thousands of foreign fighters who have swarmed into the country to join the war in Syria. Turkey says it is trying, and strict new border procedures, along with reinforced patrols, barbed wire and watchtowers, are evident at all the major crossing points into Syria.

Yet as the abduction attempt in recent days illustrated, the Islamic State has already established deep roots within Turkey and among the more than 1 million Syrians who have taken refuge there. One indication of that was this month’s discovery in the southeastern city of Gaziantep of a vast quantity of explosives and more than 20 suicide vests that police said were thought to have been stockpiled by the Islamic State.

Moderate Syrian rebels and activists living in Turkey say they often recognize men whom they suspect of belonging to the extremist group on the streets or in cafes frequented by Syrians. One commander recently suggested relocating an interview with a reporter from a Sanliurfa cafe to a nearby hotel because he spotted an Islamic State “emir,” or prince, seated at a nearby table.

Turkish Kurds hold funerals for those killed by fighting against Islamic State militants in the Syrian town of Kobane. One of the mourners says the fighting “is almost a genocide.” (Reuters)

Sanliurfa’s proximity to the Syrian city of Raqqah, the self-styled capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate, has made it a hub for the group’s commanders, Syrians say. They come to this Turkish city to rest, visit their families, secure supplies — and now, many Syrians fear, to extend their campaign of persecution against activists and more-moderate rebels, such as Abu Issa.

“They have sleeper cells here, and they are armed,” said Khalaf Jurba, a veteran Syrian opposition activist and journalist living in Sanliurfa, also known as Urfa. “And now all of us are in danger because we are all on their list.”

Tourists also frequent the quaint and ancient city, where Nimrod is said to have hurled Abraham onto a burning pyre and where boutique hotels tucked in teeming bazaars offer glimpses of a bygone past. Americans were among those who showed up in tour groups in recent days. Journalists from around the world have converged on Sanliurfa to cover the fighting just across the border in the Syrian town of Kobane, where Kurdish militias aided by U.S. airstrikes are battling to repel the Islamic State.

The account of the attempted kidnapping of Abu Issa, given by friends and colleagues who helped him escape, reveals some of the dangers the Islamic State could pose far beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. The details could not be independently confirmed, but the accounts of four Syrians who spoke to him separately after the incident coincide.

Abu Issa, who uses a nom de guerre as other rebels do to protect relatives inside Syria, could not be reached for comment. He has returned to war-ravaged Syria, said Abu Shujaat, a rebel colleague and friend who helped him escape. “He feels safer there than in Turkey,” he said.

A popular Syrian fighter and former farmer who had earned renown for his persistence in confronting the Islamic State, Abu Issa had been fighting in Kobane before traveling to Sanliurfa a week before the incident to rest and consult with fellow rebels, according to Abu Shujaat.

The driver took a diversion from their usual route, telling Abu Issa he was using a shortcut as he drove down a deserted alley. A car suddenly pulled in front of them, blocking their path. Another appeared behind them. A dozen or more men swarmed their vehicle, and Abu Issa and his son tried to run away. The men pulled pistols, shooting Abu Issa in the stomach and his son in his leg.

As the abductors tried to force him into one of the vehicles, Abu Issa realized that one of the men pushing him was Abu Maher, his driver and supposed friend, Abu Shujaat said.

“He was a traitor. He was secretly working for the Islamic State,” he explained.

The two captives were whisked toward the Turkish border town of Akcakale, adjoining the Syrian town of Tal Abiyad, which has been under Islamic State control for nearly a year. The kidnappers mostly spoke Turkish, though two also spoke Arabic, and they told Abu Issa they belonged to a Turkish mafia gang, Abu Shujaat said.

At the border, the abductors turned down a dirt road toward one of the many smuggling routes, nestled among cornfields and olive groves, through which Syrians sneak between their country and Turkey.

At a remote farmhouse just inside Turkey, the kidnappers made contact with their Islamic State counterparts waiting across the border. The militants demanded proof that the captive was Abu Issa, and the kidnappers took a video of him and sent it on a mobile phone. Abu Issa understood from the conversations that the two parties had reached a prior agreement that $500,000 was to be paid for delivering him to the extremists, Abu Shujaat said.

The Islamic State men did not intend to hand over the money, however. Without warning, a group of fighters surged across the border into Turkey and opened fire on the farmhouse, in an apparent bid to capture Abu Issa without paying.

Turkish border guards were alerted by the shooting and converged on the area. A helicopter with a searchlight appeared overhead, and a tank came into view. The Turkish gangsters scattered, as did the Islamic State fighters, and Abu Issa was left unguarded.

Barely conscious after bleeding for hours, he was rescued by a sympathetic local farmer who took him to the main road and helped him summon help from his rebel friends. They took him to a local hospital. Hours later, Abu Issa’s son, who was not the target, was let go.

The Syrians informed the Turkish authorities, who took statements and showed a great deal of interest in the identities of the Turkish gangsters, Abu Shujaat said. He added that they did not, however, pursue the allegedly complicit Syrian driver, Abu Maher, who has returned to his home in Sanliurfa.

Syria conflict: ‘200 air force strikes’ in 36 hours

Aftermath of what activists said were government air strikes in the Douma district of Damascus (20 October 2014)The Damascus suburb of Douma was among the areas targeted by Syrian government aircraft on Monday

October 22, 2014

The Syrian military has stepped up air strikes on rebel areas dramatically, carrying out more than 200 in recent days, opposition activists say.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the raids took place mostly in western areas between midnight on Sunday and noon on Tuesday.

The UK-based group said there were many casualties, but did not give a figure.

The intensified strikes come as US-led forces continue to bomb Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria and Iraq.

US and Arab jets have been attacking IS positions around the northern Syrian town of Kobane, where Kurdish fighters are under siege.

In an interview with the BBC, the US special envoy for the global coalition to counter IS defended the airdrops of military supplies into Kobane despite some of them ending up in the hands of the jihadist group.

John Allen said only one of 28 bundles of small arms, ammunition and other weapons supplied by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq might have ended up in the hands of the militants.

Shortly after he spoke, the Kurdistan Parliament approved the deployment of about 120 Peshmerga fighters to Kobane.

Turkey signalled on Monday that it would allow Peshmerga to cross its border with Syria. It has refused to allow Turkish Kurds to do so. 

The BBC’s Kasra Naji, who is on the Turkish side of the border, says it is unclear when the Peshmerga will arrive. Officials say they will bring heavy weapons - something Kurds in Kobane say they desperately need.

IS jets ‘destroyed’

The Syrian air force’s strikes targeted rebel-held areas in Quneitra, Deraa, the Damascus countryside, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory said. 

An injured child receives treatment at a field hospital after what activists said were air strikes in the Douma district of Damascus on 20 October 2014The Syrian Observatory said many people were killed and dozens wounded in the air strikes
Syrian rebels in a camouflaged lorry in the rebel-controlled area of al-Hajar al-Aswad, south of Damascus (19 October 2014)Analysts said the military might be trying to weaken rebels before they receive training from the US

The provinces stretch from the country’s south-west through the capital, Damascus, to the far north-west.

The eastern province of Deir al-Zour, where government forces have been battling IS militants, was also bombed over the same period.

At least eight people were also reportedly killed on Tuesday in an air raid on a rebel-held town along Syria’s southern border with Jordan. 

The Local Co-ordination Committees, an opposition activist network, said government planes had dropped explosives-laden canisters on Nassib. 

On Wednesday, warplanes carried out 10 strikes on the towns of Murak and Kafr Zaita, in Hama province, the Observatory said.

The Syrian Observatory says the air force carries out 12 to 20 strikes a day on average so the 210 that took place over 36 hours represent a rapid increase.

Analysts said the military might be stepping up its air campaign in an effort to weaken rebel groups before they began receiving training and equipment from the US and its allies so that they can take the fight to IS on the ground in Syria.

Air strikes

In a separate development, Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the Syrian air force had destroyed two of three fighter jets seized by IS.

The jets were bombed as they landed on the runway of the Jarrah air base in the eastern Aleppo countryside, Mr Zoubi told Syrian TV late on Tuesday. The air force was searching for the third jet, he added.

On Friday, activists said IS militants had flown the jets over Aleppo with the help of former Iraqi air force pilots.

Mr Zoubi also said Syrian army and air force had been providing military and logistical support to the Kurdish fighters in Kobane, despite not being part of the international coalition fighting IS.

Assad pursues withering campaign against rebels

 Beirut, October 21, 2014 by Zeina Karam

Syrian President Bashar Assad is taking advantage of the U.S.-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State group to pursue a withering air and ground campaign against more mainstream rebels elsewhere in the country, trying to recapture areas considered more crucial to the survival of his government.

As U.S. and allied jets swoop freely over towns and cities under control of extremists in northern Syria, the Syrian army has scaled back its air activity over areas of IS control, doing as little as possible there to avoid confrontation. Instead, Assad’s troops are now focusing their energies on the country’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

"Whereas previously the Syrian regime had some interest or some level of obligation to take direct action against ISIS, to the extent that the American military is now doing this, the Syrians don’t have to do it," said Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

While few people think the American and Syrian militaries are actively cooperating or coordinating their operations, there appears to be a tacit alliance, ensuring at the very least that Syrian military operations would not come into conflict or friction with any American or allied aircraft.

The overall strategic picture of the war has hardly changed since the coalition strikes began in Syria and neighboring Iraq. Syrian rebels have intensified their operations in some areas, particularly south of Damascus, making noteworthy advances in Daraa and Quneitra provinces. But at least for now, Assad is successfully hanging on to areas where it counts for his survival, and rebels fighting to topple him are increasingly demoralized and mistrustful of U.S. pledges of support.

The U.S. on Monday airdropped weapons and other assistance over the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani — something it hasn’t done for other Syrian rebels, some of whom are fighting Assad and IS at the same time.

Activists say the Syrian military has meanwhile escalated its attacks against more mainstream rebels — a mix of moderate and more Islamic factions.

On Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented more than 200 government airstrikes — including deadly barrel bombings — in the past 36 hours, most of them targeting rebel-held areas of Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and southern Syria.

"Every day there is a massacre in eastern Ghouta," said activist Hassan Taqieldeen, referring to the sprawling eastern suburb of Damascus that includes Douma. "The regime carries out at least 20 air raids on any given day," said Taqieldeen, who is based in the town of Douma.

Harmer said there is no doubt the Syrian government is trying to exploit the international focus on the Islamic State group to energize its fight elsewhere.

"If ever there was a time when the Syrian regime had everything lined up for them to do so, this is it," he said. "It is in a very favorable position and it’s got the opportunity to execute major offensives around Damascus and Aleppo. I just don’t think they have the resources to do it successfully."

On the ground, the army has made some progress, but its successes have been incremental and are subject to the constant ebb and flow of battle lines.

Last month, with all eyes on Kobani, Syrian government troops victoriously entered the northeastern Damascus suburb of Adra, days after they captured the nearby Adra industrial zone. Troops also broke into part of the capital’s district of Jobar on the edge of the city after pummeling it to bits, but the rebels are so entrenched there that entire neighborhoods are connected by underground tunnels reaching into the heart of the capital.

Earlier this month, government forces advanced in northern Aleppo province, laying claim to a cluster of villages, including the strategic region of Handarat. The capture tightens government control of areas linking the contested city of Aleppo with other parts of the province.

"The Assad regime has intensified its campaign of airstrikes on mostly residential areas across Syria, and particularly in Aleppo," said Hadi Bahra, head of the Western-backed main Syrian opposition group in exile.

In a statement Tuesday, he said more than 300,000 people in rebel-controlled areas in Aleppo could be subjected to a “protracted starvation campaign” by Assad’s forces, a tactic the Syrian government has previously used to force rebels to surrender in the suburbs of Damascus and Homs. More than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict, which began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Assad and turned into civil war after a brutal military crackdown.

U.S. officials dismiss the premise that the American-led military campaign may be helping Assad. They insist that while Assad has lost legitimacy in Syria and should go, the administration’s first priority is to go after what poses a threat to Americans.

"Our present military action in Syria is focused on threats presented by ISIL and other extremists," Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, told The Associated Press.

Last month, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said attacking Assad’s regime “is not the focus of our international coalition and not the focus of our efforts.”

Such statements are bound to be gratifying to Assad, who has long contended that he is fighting terrorists and extremists in Syria.

In an interview with the AP on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York last month, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem insisted Syria was pleased with the U.S. targeting of IS militants in his country, even suggesting the air campaign should be widened to include all extremists.

Taqieldeen, the activist, said he couldn’t understand the international fixation on Kobani when there are millions of other Syrians threatened with death from the skies every day.

"The joke around here is that we should change the town’s name from Douma to Doumani. Maybe if it rhymes with Kobani it will resonate with the Americans and they will notice us, too," Taqieldeen said.

Doubling Down on Disaster in Syria

October 20, 2014 by Michael Weiss and Faysal Itani

Fareed Zakaria and Leslie Gelb both have made what they think are bold and unfashionable proposals for U.S. policy in Syria without bothering to realize that their prescriptions have become the new conventional wisdom. Both not only advocate that the United States team up with the very regimes responsible for the outbreak of transnational jihad in the Levant and Mesopotamia, but also seem to neglect the mounting evidence that this is exactly what the United States is doing, even as they decry the palpable insufficiencies of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Zakaria warns against any growing U.S. military interference in Syria in his latest Washington Post column, preferring instead a policy of “containment”. Only by “bolstering [Syria’s] neighbors,” the CNN host and foreign policy doyen writes, can President Obama hope to achieve any result from his campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Gelb, meanwhile, has just written in the Daily Beast: “Only Assad’s Syria and Iran can and would provide plausible ground forces in short order” — a claim with which Assad’s own Alawite support base apparently disagrees given the proliferation of loyalist protests against the regime precisely for failing to provide what might be called plausible ground forces against ISIL.

Containment, of course, has been President Obama’s Syria strategy all along, beginning in 2011. It has led to the caliphate. It is also the reason why 21 nations, including those Zakaria wants to see enlisted in his old-new strategy, are now committed to what former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says may be a “30-year war” against ISIL.

But Zakaria’s real purpose isn’t to tell the president what to do; it’s to tell him what not to do: namely, work with or empower the Syrian opposition. This is of course the ancillary component of Obama’s policy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL. By 2017, the United States hopes to have trained and equipped some 5,000 Syrian rebels as a kind of counterterrorism strike force in Syria, one that would hopefully coordinate directly with the United States against ISIL. As Zakaria’s colleague David Ignatius noted last week, drawing on discussions with administration officials, many of whom want greater U.S. intervention in Syria, the White House might double that number. Perhaps if only to ensure that half a billion dollars in taxpayer money aren’t immediately wasted, Secretary of State John Kerry also favors imposing a no-fly zone over northern Syria to protect these would-be U.S. assets from slaughter by Syrian Air Force barrel bombs, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey told ABC News’ This Week that he could “anticipate circumstances in the future” where one will be necessary. Thus, just as key decision-makers are finally and rightly concluding that the containment strategy has failed — and advocating the more promising course of helping the United States’ Syrian allies beat ISIL —Zakaria argues for the exact opposite.

Most troubling is Zakaria’s fuzzy math about the opposition, its ideology and the terrain it is said to control. He writes: “The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria.”

These data points are dubious and misleading. A look at reliable maps of ISIL-dominant zones in Syria indicates that the terrorist army holds much of the Euphrates River Valley and Raqqa province, as well as parts of Aleppo province. Here is one produced by the Washington-based think tank the Institute of the Study of War, dated September 2014:

This is, self-evidently, hardly “one-third” of Syria’s territory. A glance at the same maps demonstrates that Syria’s non-jihadist rebels — including the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Harakat al-Hazm, the Southern Front and Division 13 – control more of Syria than “5 percent.”

Even supposing that ISIL might have the upper hand over its rivals in one-third of Syria, which is quite different from “controlling” it, area percentage is not a useful measure of the balance of power in Syria. The meaningful metric is control over major population zones and infrastructure, which are heavily contested by the regime and insurgent groups, but less so by ISIL. The Islamic State is present in Syria’s least populated areas, far from the country’s demographic heartland; their importance lie in their hydrocarbon assets, which the U.S.-led coalition has bombed and which ISIL is now struggling to exploit as a means of self-financing. ISIL has been wholly absent from Aleppo city since January 2014, when many of the rebels Zakaria disdains helpfully expelled it from Syria’s largest city and commercial/industrial capital. ISIL is now struggling to take more valuable terrain from rebel forces that Zakaria dismisses as dominated by extremists.

In addition to relying on empirically flawed data, Zakaria’s argument is syllogistic — although quite common among anti-interventionists. The mainstream rebels who were never seriously helped by the United States, this logic goes, are atomized, weak and promiscuous in their allegiances. Ergo, they should never be seriously helped by the United States. Not only does this guarantee that the problems besetting those rebels, and by extension America’s anti-ISIL strategy, will only grow worse, it also completely misconstrues the nature of fluid warfare and the Syrian conflict itself, as does Zakaria’s supporting argument.

For one thing, Zakaria claims that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) doesn’t actually exist: “The director of national intelligence has testified,” he writes, “that the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime is composed of 1,500 separate militias. We call a bunch of these militias — which are anti-Assad and also anti-Islamist (we hope) — the Free Syrian Army.” This is a canard. The “Free Syrian Army” label has always been used as a shorthand or catchall encompassing a number of disparate groups fighting the regime, and now also ISIL. Syria-watchers prefer the more exacting terms “mainstream,” “nationalist” and “non-jihadist” to characterize the more Western-amenable factions. Zakaria’s point about the FSA is irrelevant, and says nothing about whether particular fighting groups are worthy of our support. It is more useful and rigorous to assess rebel groups based on their actual behavior. Harakat al-Hazm, for instance, is a mainstream, non-jihadist fighting group that has received a modest supply of U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles. So far there is no credible evidence to suggest that they have found their way into the hands of extremists.

U.S. allies appear to have grasped the point that eludes Zakaria. France, which backs Kerry’s call for a no-fly zone in Syria, is also arming mainstream rebel groups. So, it seems, is another unlikely country. According to Ehud Yaari of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, moderate rebel factions in southern Syria have received small consignments of rocket-propelled grenades from the Israel Defense Forces, which has decided to partner with certain rebels as a counterterrorism deterrent against the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, near its border with Syria. The Israelis are reportedly coordinating intelligence with these fighters on jihadist positions in southern Syria, and offering them medical and humanitarian aid as needed. If a country whose leadership openly equates ISIL with Hamas has found in the Syrian opposition actors worthy of material support, then what becomes of the argument that Washington has no credible or trustworthy partner in this pool of alleged extremists?

Zakaria also recycles a longstanding and intellectually disingenuous complaint that the “largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States.” It is true that almost every mainstream non-jihadist faction in Syria, including the ones listed above, has fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra at some point - either against regime forces or against ISIL. However, “al-Qaeda-affiliated” is a misleading term, as these groups have tended to forge alliances of convenience or wartime exigency with some jihadists. All too often, observers of the Syria conflict employ a shallow, decontextualized approach to appraising fighters on the ground. YouTube video proclamations designed to drum up badly needed funds from Gulf Arab states, to pressure or blackmail the West into offering adequate support, or to triangulate between and amongst competitive rebel interests, are given to be copper-bottom proof of a brigade or battalion’s permanent ideological coloration. In reality, fighters migrate fluidly to and from ideologically divergent camps; we have spoken with rebels who have gone from nationalist to Islamist to outright jihadist alignments, all based on the need for ammunition, food or money. ISIL, for instance, pays its fighters $400 per month; most FSA units pay theirs around $100, according to FSA spokesman Hussam al-Marie. As a matter of simple economy, this disparity could be altered overnight. The perception, too, of who is “winning” versus who is “losing” on the battlefield also drives recruitment efforts, which is why, following ISIL’s seizure of Mosul last June, its numbers skyrocketed.

Col. Derek Harvey, a retired military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army — and someone who helped lure actual al Qaeda affiliates away from al Qaeda in Iraq during the Awakening and surge periods of the Iraq War — told one of us several weeks ago that Syria’s rebels are now fighting as many as six distinct enemies all at once. It is unrealistic to expect them not to prioritize their campaigns, or to avoid cutting pragmatic short-term truces with unsavory elements to do so. It is especially unfair to advocate abandoning these groups — as Zakaria does —while at the same time bemoaning their cooperation with extremists due in large part to inadequate U.S. support.

Ironically, as Zakaria should well be aware, these alliances of convenience are exactly what the United States has opted for against ISIL, while “de-conflicting” with a Syrian regime that, as Colonel Harvey knows, formerly ran al Qaeda operatives into Iraq to kill American troops. (As if to reemphasize this conventional wisdom, on Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Syrian regime officials and supporters on the grounds that the regime “played an important role in the growth of terrorist networks in Syria due to the Assad regime’s permissive attitude toward al-Qaida’s foreign fighter facilitation efforts during the Iraq conflict.”) And although the Pentagon and White House will deny it, U.S. Central Command also now finds itself in a de facto partnership or alliance with Assad- and Iran-affiliated Shiite militias in Iraq. Shall we be as moralistic about this strategic calculation, which Zakaria supports, as we are in our assessment of the underfunded and under-equipped rebels in Syria?

Zakaria also neglects to mention that the tenuous category problem he has with the name “Free Syrian Army” now also applies to Assad regime’s own military, which stands to gain most from a containment strategy. Assad’s Army no longer exists in any meaningful sense except on paper and in regime propaganda, thanks to two and a half years of attrition warfare, defections and desertions. His conventional military capability has leaned heavily on the Fourth Armored Division and Republican Guard — his two praetorian divisions, tasked with defending Damascus, both of which seem to be doing less and less these days — and overwhelmingly on a similarly ragtag consortium of brutal militias, almost all of them trained, financed and armed by Iran’s expeditionary arm, the Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QC). These Shiite militias — some of whom are indeed jihadist groups themselves — are just as terroristic and sectarian as the worst Sunni extremists on the other side, ISIL not excepted. They have committed ethnic cleansing, beheadings, car and mosque bombings and extrajudicial killings of prisoners. Their victims, nearly all Sunnis, have included children.

Both Zakaria and Gelb believe that we should essentially gift Syria not only to Assad’s quasi-state, but to other groups far worse  — and with more American blood on their hands — than the Syrian rebels. These pro-Assad forces include the National Defense Forces, which, according to the Wall Street Journalhelped maintain a months-long starvation siege of Moadamiyah, a Damascus suburb the regime targeted with sarin gas attacks in August 2013; Lebanese Hezbollah; the Baqir al-Sadr Force (a Shiite militia created by Iraq’s Badr Organization. During the height of the Iraqi civil war, Badr ran notorious death squads); and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, yet another Shiite militia built by the IRGC-GC and formerly known for using sophisticated IEDs to devastating effect against U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

The U.S. strategy in Iraq, which would be a critical component of any “containment” strategy, has employed many groups that, by Zakaria’s standards, are our enemies rather than allies. The U.S. lists three of Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s top leaders as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, an awkward fact that apparently didn’t stop the group from acting as the vanguard fighting force in the recent ground offensive to retake the town of Amerli, Iraq, from ISIL as U.S. fighter jets conducted sorties overhead. (Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the infamous IRGC-QC commander, was shown smiling on the ground in Amerli with cheering Asaib Ahl al-Haq militants at the close of that campaign.)

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both recorded evidence showing that Asaib Ahl al-Haq, among many other Iranian proxies in Iraq, is guilty of war crimes. In mid-August, the Guardian interviewed a Kurdish Iraqi Air Force pilot who said that Iran had brought in its own planes, pilots and mechanics to an air base south of Baghdad: “the Iranians make barrel bombs and then use Antonov and Huey planes to drop them in Sunni areas.”

One wonders, then what Gelb can mean when he writes, “If a deal can be arranged, Tehran’s ground forces should be restricted to Baghdad and southern Iraq. Going northward would antagonize Iraqi Sunnis whom Washington and Baghdad are currently wooing.” Tehran’s ground forces are already well north of Baghdad committing atrocities against the Iraqi Sunnis whom Washington and (nominally) Baghdad are currently wooing; its intelligence services are coordinating Baghdad’s campaign against ISIL, with America’s undeclared assistance.

Zakaria and Gelb’s arguments, based as they are on bad data, faulty analysis and selective moralizing, have become all-too-common in the Syria debate. The standard practice is to unfairly and disingenuously misrepresent the Syrian opposition, while judging the United States’ potentially useful allies by far stricter standards than its sworn enemies. A containment strategy that empowers Syrian and Iraqi Shiite militias and disregards Syrian rebels can only court failure. The sad fact is, until wiser heads like General Allen and Colonel Harvey are heeded, Zakaria and Gelb needn’t opine very hard to see the fruits of their strategy. They need only open their eyes. It’s the strategy Obama has been following all along.

Syrian Air Force Carries Out 200 Strikes In 36 Hours

Beirut, October 21, 2014 by Reuters

The Syrian air force carried out more than 200 air strikes around the country in the past 36 hours, a group monitoring the war said on Tuesday, a rapid increase in government raids as U.S.-led forces bomb Islamist insurgents elsewhere.

The intensified strikes by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces will add to the fear among his opponents that the government is taking advantage of the U.S. raids on Islamic State to attack other foes, including opposition groups that Washington backs.

Analysts say the increase could be because the Syrian military wants to weaken rebel groups before they get training and equipment promised by the United States.

Since midnight on Sunday, the Syrian military carried out at least 210 raids, including barrel bombings, on provinces in the east, north and west of the country, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said there were many casualties but did not give an exact figure.

The military concentrated the strikes in the “western corridor” that stretches from the southwest up through Damascus towards the Mediterranean, according to the information from the the Observatory, which says it gathers details from all sides of the conflict.

The air raids struck areas in the Hama, Daraa, Idlib, Aleppo and Quneitra provinces as well as the Damascus countryside, it said. It also hit the eastern Deir al-Zor province where U.S.-led forces have also been bombing Islamic State, the Observatory added.

Before the surge in Syrian air force raids, the military had carried out 12-20 raids a day, according to the Observatory.

Damascus has not raised objections to the U.S. bombing of Islamic State, which is mainly based in the east and north of the country, far from the most populous areas near Damascus and the Mediterranean coast.

The United States says it does not want to help Assad’s government despite bombing Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that has become one of the most powerful insurgent groups in the more than three-year conflict.

What do Kobani airdrops mean for regional politics?


Smoke and flames rise over the Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc, Oct. 20, 2014. The United States told Turkey that a US military airdrop of arms to Syrian Kurds battling the Islamic State in Kobani was a response to a crisis situation and did not represent a change in US policy.  (photo by REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

October 20, 2014 by Amberin Zaman

On Oct. 19, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that it had conducted multiple airdrops near the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which has remained under siege by Islamic State (IS) fighters for more than a month. CENTCOM said US C-13 cargo planes had made multiple drops of arms, ammunition, and medical supplies provided by Kurdish authorities in Iraq. The move is set to have a profound effect on regional balances between Turkey, the Kurds and the United States that will likely reverberate in Tehran and in Damascus as well.

For several weeks now, the US and its allies have been bombing IS positions around Kobani. But the delivery of weapons takes the de facto alliance between the Syrian Kurds and the United States to a new level.

Turkey, which borders Kobani, is best positioned to help the Syrian Kurds. But the country’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party has spurned repeated Syrian Kurdish demands to allow weapons and fighters to cross through Turkey into the Syrian Kurdish enclave. On Oct. 18, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is battling IS in Kobani, were “the same as the PKK. “It’s a terrorist organization. It would be very, very wrong to expect us to openly say ‘yes’ to our NATO ally America to give this kind of [armed] support [to the PYD],” Erdogan declared.

Erdogan was referring to the PYD’s close links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting on and off for self-rule inside Turkey since 1984. The PKK is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, and until last month successive US administrations refused to have any contact either with the PKK or the PYD. But the PKK and the YPG’s effectiveness against IS both in Iraq and Syria has triggered a paradigm shift in US strategic thinking. The US and the Syrian Kurds are now allies in the war against IS.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia that while the Obama administration understood Turkey’s concerns, it would have been “irresponsible” and “morally difficult” not to support the Syrian Kurds in their fight against IS.

Kerry said IS had chosen to “make this a ground battle, attacking a small group of people there who, while they are an offshoot group of the folks that our friends the Turks oppose, they are valiantly fighting ISIL and we cannot take our eye off the prize here.” Kerry stressed, however, that it was “a momentary effort” and that the US had “made it very clear” to Turkey that it “is not a shift in the policy of the United States.”

Kerry’s words came hours after US President Barack Obama spoke over the telephone with Erdogan about Kobani. News emerged soon after that Turkey would be allowing Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters to cross through Turkey into Kobani carrying fresh weapons for the YPG. How in the space of 48 hours did Turkey go from calling the PYD terrorists to opening an arms corridor for them?

As analysts ponder these dizzying changes, here a few immediate factors to consider:

  1. Turkey could have led the effort to support anti-IS forces in Kobani by letting arms and fighters through its borders weeks ago. This would have bolstered the peace process between Turkey and its own Kurds, while averting the public relations disaster caused by images of Turkish tanks and soldiers looking on as the Syrian Kurds battled IS in Kobani, thereby reinforcing claims that “Turkey supports IS.

  2. The fact that Turkey was forced into opening a corridor to Kobani only after the US informed Ankara that it would go ahead with the airdrops anyway only increases doubts about Turkey’s commitment to working with its Western partners. It also plays into the hands of Erdogan’s domestic rivals, who will now say he is America’s poodle and that the US is using the PKK to tame Turkey.

  3. One big question is whether the recent days’ events mean that the PYD will move away from the PKK. The likely answer is that the PKK will seek to move closer to the US. The PKK has already established a channel of communication with the US via the PYD in Syria, and is also fighting alongside US-supported Kurdish peshmerga forces in Iraq. Any attempt to drive a wedge between the PYD and the PKK is doomed to fail. Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder and leader of their PKK, commands the loyalty of Syrian and Turkish Kurds alike.

  4. Any US-PKK dialogue would make the PKK less likely to resume violence against the Turkish army, as this would tarnish its burgeoning legitimacy. Turkey could yet turn the situation to its advantage and make goodwill gestures to the Syrian Kurds. These could include opening the sealed border with the PYD-controlled town of Serkaniye (Ras al Ain). The fact that US drones flew drone reconnaissance missions over Kobani out of the Incirlik air base has gone largely unnoticed in the media. So Turkey actually has helped, but chose not to advertise this.

  5. The Kurds adeptly used the media and global public opinion — which depicted them as the region’s secular, pro-Western force, a space formerly occupied by Turkey — to draw the US into the battle for Kobani. The battle for Kobani then became a symbol of the contest between IS and the coalition, one that the US could no longer afford to lose. Moreover, the concentration of IS forces around Kobani allowed the US to inflict heavy losses on IS fighters.

  6. Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani is probably unhappy about US engagement with the PYD/PKK, which he views as rivals. But, unlike Turkey, he has turned the situation to his own advantage by projecting himself as a benevolent leader who has aided fellow Kurds in their time of need.

  7. The US will use its new leverage over the PYD to push the Kurds to engage with factions opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, particularly the Free Syrian Army. The YPG’s existing battleground alliance with various rebel factions will, therefore, probably expand.

  8. Is the de facto non-aggression pact between the Syrian regime and the Kurds coming unstuck? It’s too early to say, because the US insists that its military intervention in Syria is limited to countering IS. The Kurds are likely to continue to hedge their bets for as long as they can.

  9. And what of the PYD’s other primary benefactor, Iran? Will its friendship with the Americans anger the clerics? Much will depend on whether the US and Iran can reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Should the talks fail, the PKK may become an instrument of US policy to be used against Iran.

  10. Any alliance in the Middle East should never be taken for granted.

Displaced Syrians look to start a new life

Displaced Syrians look to start a new life

Istanbul, October 20, 2014 by Daily Sabah and AA

Facing an unknown fate, displaced Syrians living outside the refugees camps where they are hosted by Turkey, turn to make a living by setting up shops across the country.

Data provided by the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) that oversees the needs of the displaced, indicate Syrians set up 1,898 businesses in Turkey since they first started arriving in Turkey en masse when the conflict broke out in Syria four years ago. 
Out of the 1,898 businesses, only 370 are unregistered under the code of commerce, according to AFAD figures. Syrians opened businesses in 14 cities and Istanbul, the country’s most popular city for immigrants, dominates the list of most businesses set up by Syrians with 809. It is followed by Hatay, a southern Turkish city situated on the Turkish-Syrian border that also has a considerable number of displaced Syrians living in refugee camps or in private residences. Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa and Kilis, other cities located on the 915-kilometers-long border follow Hatay. Curiously, Syrian nationals did not set up any businesses in the Turkish capital of Ankara. 

AFAD also announced the current number of displaced Syrians in Turkey. Şanlıurfa, which saw a renewed influx of Syrians since September, has the highest number of Syrians with 410,055. Şanlıurfa’s town of Suruç received nearly 180,000 Syrian Kurds who fled Kobani, located across the border from Suruç, after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) launched a major offensive against Kurdish forces in the predominantly Kurdish Syrian town. Gaziantep follows Şanlıurfa with 265,987 Syrian refugees while Hatay has 197,952. The least number of refugees is in Turkey’s popular vacation spot of Antalya in the south with 2,771 people. 

Turkey is host to about 1.6 million Syrians and the majority of them live outside refugee camps, eking out a living by running shops if they have the means or panhandling on the streets if they are impoverished. About 220,000 people stay in tent refugee camps and “container cities” – camps composed of shipping containers converted into housing units – in 10 cities. 

The country received 545,088 Syrians who have fled the conflict so far, but 324,000 have returned home to live in relatively safe areas held by rebels. 

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, AFAD President Fuat Oktay, said Turkey was the only country providing unprecedented aid to the displaced Syrians it hosts. “All state agencies, institutions, et cetera have been successful in catering to all needs of Syrians. Our country, our nation does not have to be modest on that matter. It is clear that Turkey is better in aiding Syrians than others. AFAD has been on the border to help Syrians since people started fleeing. We provide every kind of humanitarian aid. No country is as embracing of Syrians as Turkey,” he said. 

Oktay added that there were “people who merely talk about the plight of Syrians” and “people actually helping them.” “We are the ones helping them and proud of it. This is a humanitarian issue and Turkey never discriminates against those seeking shelter here no matter what their religion, sect or ethnicity is,” he said. 

Highlighting the ordeal of Syrian Kurds who fled to Suruç, Oktay said half of them were children and “victims of a great tragedy in Syria.” 

"They thank Turkey for its hospitality but are also concerned about winter. They worry the tent camp we set up in Suruç will not endure winter conditions. We are now planning to build a new accommodation facility and its construction is scheduled to be completed before winter. This new center will provide them protection from winter," he said.

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