Syrian Opposition Leader: UN ‘Freeze’ Must Be Tied to Broad Peace Process

Hadi al-Bahra, president of the Syrian National Coalition, spoke to European Union foreign ministers this week. European Pressphoto Agency

December 17, 2014 by Naftali Bendavid

Syria’s opposition chief, who was in Brussels this week to meet with European Union foreign ministers, is warning Western leaders against embracing a possible United Nations “freeze” on Syrian fighting unless it’s tied to a broader peace process.

Hadi al-Bahra, president of the Syrian National Coalition, said a plan being floated by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura could be a breakthrough. But if it’s not part of a political resolution, Mr. Bahra said, it will simply give the regime of President Bashar al-Assad time to regroup.

“I’m seeing some fatigue with a few countries who feel a need just to support any proposal submitted, whether it’s part of a political solution or not, just for the sole reason that there is nothing available except this,” Mr. Bahra said in an interview.

European Union foreign ministers, meeting here Monday, largely embraced the idea as a rare glimmer of hope in a conflict that has killed some 200,000 people. “There is a good chance … that he can succeed in going step-by-step to impose a freeze in Aleppo,” Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told reporters. “That would be perhaps the beginning of a more positive evolution… In any case, we don’t have a lot of options.”

But Mr. Bahra’s concerns were echoed privately by some countries, including Britain and France. Any plan must ensure that Mr. Assad doesn’t redeploy his troops and attack elsewhere, he said, and it must guarantee serious consequences if either side violates the deal.

“If you have things stable in Aleppo and you save 200 lives, but these forces went to the south and killed 200 people, you would be achieving nothing,” Mr. al-Bahra said.

Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman for Mr. de Mistura, said such issues are being taken into account as the plan is formulated. “Right now we are figuring out all the details on how we will make the freeze in Aleppo operational, and the issue of monitoring is something we are working on and have thought about,” Ms. Touma said.

Supporters of the freeze are seeking to distinguish it from an ordinary ceasefire. For example, occasional shooting wouldn’t violate the freeze, they say, as long as each side continues to steadily reduce violence.

Mr. Bahra said a freeze must be tied to a broad political process such as one outlined in a 2012 Geneva agreement that envisioned a Syrian unity government. That deal left unresolved the question of whether Mr. Assad could be part of such a government, an idea rejected by opposition and Western leaders.

Ms. Touma said that hopefully a freeze “will plant the seeds for some sort of a political dialogue.”

Mr. al-Bahra said that unlike two years ago, Russia and Iran are now tired of propping up Syria financially and are more open to a deal. “Russian and Iran feel hurt and cannot continue supporting the regime,” Mr. al-Bahra said. “They need a way out.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said this week she’d be open to working with Iran and Russia. “We will work with all the actors that have a say, that have a role, that can be part of the solution to the Syrian crisis —namely, big Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, but also Iran and Russia,” she said.

Mr. Bahra warned that both Iran and Russia would prefer a stand-alone freeze, not tied to a broader political process. That would allow Mr. Assad to strengthen his position, he said, and Western leaders should dismiss it.

“A few of the European countries feel that there is nothing in town except what is now available, and they must support the only thing available,” Mr. Bahra said. “The de Mistura effort should be supported, but upgraded as part of a full political process.”

Secret Detention Centers in Syria: Der Shmiel camp

Der Shmiel

December 17, 2014

Introduction

With the accumulating, ceaseless widespread, and systematic arrests and detentions is continuing at the hands of government forces (The army, security forces, or the local and Shiite militias), the number of detainees has exceeded 215,000 according to SNHR’s estimation. SNHR has documented approximately 110,000 whilst the fates of tens of thousands remain unknown. You can search our lists for any name by using the search engine on our website.
As a result, the official detention centers, the four main security branches and its sub-branches has been completely overfilled with detainees. Since the beginning of 2012, government forces started using schools, stadiums, some building and villas as detention camps which is similar to the Nazi and Stalinist camps. This report will highlight the largest secret camp: Der Shmiel secret camp.

The secret detention centers are controlled by local militias (The National Defense Army and the Popular Committees) which are affiliated to the Syrian government that worked on facilitating these militias’ work in exchange of insuring the cooperation of these militias in raids, clashes, and terrorizing the residents of the nearby areas. This is the case in Der Shmiel camp where the majority of the forces that control the camp are residents from the surrounding towns and villages. There are about 1,500 “Mercenaries -Shabihas-” in these camps including women according to local activists and residents in these areas.

Investigations and former prisoners’ testimonies suggested that the main purpose of this kind of detention centers is brutal torture. The brutality of torture in these secret detention centers surpasses other security branches’ by far. The torture in Der Shmiel has a religious background. Additionally, it is extremely rare for anyone to get out alive from the camp. SNHR, after years of searching, managed to find only one survivor who was formerly imprisoned inside Der Shmiel secret camp.
The second goal is gaining large amounts of money as most of the detainees inside these secret detention centers were kidnapped.
The Syrian law indulges torture inside the official detention centers let alone the secret detention centers. According to decree 14 of 1968, anyone who works with the intelligence apparatus can’t be prosecuted without the authorization of his administrator. Also, any military personnel can’t be prosecuted without the approval of the minister of justice. After the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Law no. 55 was adopted on 21 April, 2011 (only a month after the outbreak of the popular protests) to expand the circle of impunity to include the other branches of the government forces. The Syrian government only wants to affirm the practices of torture more and more.
The international commissions wasn’t able to visit any official detention centers and will never be able to visit any secret detention center.

full pdf report

As easy targets thin, Syria air strikes by U.S. allies plunge

Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani Ocotber 10, 2014.   REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani Ocotber 10, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/UMIT BEKTAS

Washington/Dubai, December 17, 2014 by Phil Stewart and Yara Bayoumy

As U.S. fighter jets pound Islamic State targets in Syria, Washington’s coalition allies appear increasingly absent from the air war.

Although President Barack Obama’s administration announced the Syrian air strikes three months ago as a joint campaign by Washington and its Arab allies, nearly 97 percent of the strikes in December have been carried out by the United States alone, according to U.S. military data provided to Reuters.

The data shows that U.S. allies have carried out just two air strikes in Syria in the first half of December, compared with 62 by the United States. 

That accentuates a shift that began shortly after the start of the campaign in late September, when U.S. allies carried out 38 percent of the strikes. The percentage quickly dropped to around 8 percent in October and 9 percent in November, according to Reuters calculations based on the data.

U.S. officials are keen to prevent the coalition from fraying over concerns about the air campaign’s direction. Some allies have long worried the air strikes might unintentionally bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by striking a common enemy, sources said. Others in the region are also saying privately that the U.S.-led campaign against Sunni extremists needs to do more to help Sunni Muslims. 

However, officials in the United States and the region insist that political tensions simmering within the coalition had nothing to do with dwindling coalition strikes.

"It’s a question of targets. From a military perspective, the cooperation is extensive and deep," said a source familiar with Gulf strategy in the coalition. 

Two factors are at play: a decline in the overall pace of strikes and fewer easier-to-hit fixed Islamic State targets after nearly three months of bombings, U.S. officials and Gulf sources say.

Such fixed targets were initially bombed by Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates while the United States has from the start focused on more difficult ones, using precision-guided munitions to avoid civilian casualties. 

"There are simply less (fixed) targets," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "From our point of view, that’s a good thing. It means that the strikes are having an impact." 

Just under half of the 65 non-U.S. coalition air strikes in Syria tallied until 3 a.m. on Dec. 15 took place in the first nine days of the air campaign in late September, according to U.S. military data. U.S. allies carried out 20 air strikes in October and just 14 in November.

The only two strikes by Washington’s allies this month targeted an electronic warfare garrison near the city of Raqqa on Dec. 7, a U.S. official said.

MORE CAPABILITY, FEWER DOUBTS IN IRAQ

The drop in air strikes by coalition partners in Syria underscores the contrast with the campaign in Iraq.

Across the border, the United States has allies with highly trained and equipped air forces, including Britain, France, Canada and Australia. They see the air campaign in Iraq on far more solid legal ground, since they are there at the invitation of Baghdad.

Syria, on the other hand, is considered off-limits by many allies, particularly those in Europe, because of the Syrian government’s public opposition to the U.S.-led air strikes.

"It’s legal issues. It’s concerns that our European partners and others have about where Syria is going," one U.S. official said. "So the reality is, even though we say the problem knows no border, by definition there’s a distinction."

The United States intensified its campaign in Syria in October, carrying out 233 strikes, as the battle over the Kurdish border town of Kobani became a focal point. It carried out another 146 in November.

In total, the United States carried out 488 air strikes in Syria through Dec. 15, according to U.S. military data.

Making the strikes harder, the Islamic State is operating less out in the open and increasingly establishing itself “in or near civilian-use facilities,” one U.S. official said. 

A diplomat in the Gulf described the allies’ role as largely symbolic, given the scale and complexity of U.S. operations.

"There are targets and all involved know the U.S. is more efficient at hitting them. Now is not the time for an ‘oops’ moment," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Lieutenant General James Terry, who leads the coalition effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, told reporters that the strikes had hurt the Islamic State.

But the view from the ground is mixed. Assad said this month the U.S.-led campaign had made no difference and Islamic State supporters in Syria say the air strikes have helped the group win support among residents and recruit fighters.

Even within the U.S.-led coalition in Syria there is concern that the strikes against the Islamic State have helped Assad by allowing his forces to step up air attacks on other rebel groups, some of whom are sympathetic to Washington.

Iran transformed Syria’s army into a militia that will help Assad survive another year

A man inspects a damaged site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs thrown by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on al-Ghariya, in the east of Deraa province

December 17, 2014 by David Axe

In early 2015, the civil war in Syria will turn four years old. If current trends hold, the terrible conflict — which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions — will almost certainly continue to rage through the end of the year. That’s my prediction.

This is largely because the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Tehran’s help, has transformed its professional army into a militia-style amateur force that’s cheap and easy to train. Its ranks are filled by eager young men, who are numerous in pro-Assad Syria.

However, the same militia force that allows the regime to keep fighting also lacks the mass, mobility and firepower to mount a decisive offensive against the rebels. One that would stand a chance of recapturing northern and eastern Syria from secular rebels and Islamic State militants and end the war on Damascus’ terms.

Combined with the rebels and militants’ own similar limitations, it’s a recipe for a stalemate. And another year of grinding warfare.

Rebel fighters take positions inside a damaged building during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Assad who are stationed in Aleppo's historic citadel

When the war began amid mass protests in spring 2011, Assad’s army was a conventional force, organized along typical Middle East lines. It included some 220,000 soldiers. Officers were full-time professionals. Most junior enlisted soldiers were conscripts.

It was largely a mechanized army, one that Damascus had optimized for battling Israel’s heavy forces. In 2011, the Syrian army possessed as many as 5,000 tanks and thousands of other armored vehicles.

When regime forces opened fire on protesters, sparking the initial rebellion, thousands of soldiers defected to the opposition Free Syrian Army, which quickly grew to a force of roughly 200,000 men. The fierce fighting destroyed entire towns and cities, displacing millions of people, and the rebels seized much of northern and eastern Syria.

Defections had weakened the Syrian army. Unrelenting combat further sapped the army’s strength far faster than Damascus could train and equip fresh recruits. In the first two years of fighting, rebels destroyed, badly damaged or captured 1,800 regime tanks and other armored vehicles, analysts estimated. That’s one-third of the regime’s heavy weaponry.

At least 39,000 regime soldiers died in fighting through July 2014, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It’s safe to assume that many times that number were seriously injured.

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad walk in al-Mallah Farms after regaining control of the area in north of Aleppo

But it wasn’t enough for the rebels to merely kill or wound tens of thousands of regime soldiers and damage or destroy thousands of tanks. Damascus has an air force — a key advantage. The regime also soon had serious outside help. Iran, Assad’s long-time ally, sent the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah into Syria to help the regime. Members of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps were also deployed to Syria to boost Assad’s forces, with roughly 5,000 volunteers from Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Meanwhile, foreign jihadists infiltrated Syria and drew many rebel fighters to their ranks, dividing the Free Syrian Army. This transformed the rebellion into a three-way fight among regime, rebels and militants. In the first three years of the war, about 18,000 rebels and militants died in combat, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

By 2014, the old Syrian army was a spent force. In May, a rebel sniper killed Iranian General Abdullah Eskandari in battle near Damascus. Opposition fighters seized Eskandari’s notebook and published its contents online, including a frank description of the Syrian army’s “dissipation and disintegration” in Hama province in west-central Syria. It’s safe to assume the army was in a similarly poor state in other provinces.

But that didn’t matter. Because by then the Iranians had essentially replaced the Syrian army with a militia called the National Defense Force, which draws many of its volunteers from the Alawite religious group — the regime’s main supporters — and also requires minimal training and support to function. What the volunteers lack in expertise and experience, they make up in patriotic fervor.

This fall, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fighter named Sayyed Hassan Entezari gave a shockingly candid interview to a corps-funded website, in which he detailed the creation of the National Defense Force by Iranian agents.

syria-bashar-bullet holes

“The Syrian army couldn’t handle this three-year crisis because any army would be fatigued [after that long],” said Entezari, paralyzed after being badly wounded while fighting in Syria. “Iran came and said why don’t you form popular support for yourself and ask your people for help.”

Tehran’s agents helped build support for the volunteer National Defense Force. “Our boys went to one of the biggest Alawite regions,” Entezari recalled. “They told the head of one of the major tribes to call upon his youth to take up arms and help the regime.”

Entezari explained that National Defense Force volunteers serve 45 days at a time on the front line before returning home. “Of course,” he pointed out, “some of them get martyred.”

At any given time there are an estimated 50,000 National Defense Force fighters under arms in Syria, in at least 37 brigades of slightly more than 1,000 men apiece. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers lead the volunteer units. Indeed, several high-ranking Revolutionary Guard Corps generals, in addition to Eskandari, have died commanding Syrian volunteers.

An injured man sits at a field hospital after what activists said was was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus

Damascus equips volunteers with weapons from the disintegrating army, including many of the surviving tanks. Spreading the heavy weaponry across widely scattered militia units bolsters the volunteers’ local firepower but also prevents Damascus from concentrating force for a decisive attack into rebel-held territory.

This lack of decisive force worried Eskandari. In his notebook, he brainstormed ideas for punching through rebel lines. One was bringing in specialized “line-breaker” troops from Iran. But not long after Eskandari died, Iran diverted some troops in Syria to Iraq to help battle Islamic State. It seems unlikely Tehran will be able to significantly boost its contingent in Syria.

More than 24,000 National Defense Force volunteers have died in combat, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. But there are three million Alawites in Syria, more than enough to sustain the National Defense Force for years to come, barring an unlikely collapse in Alawite support for the regime.

That means Damascus can keep fighting through 2015. But it can’t win — and neither can the rebels or the militants. The rebels still struggle to obtain heavy weaponry for their two-front war. For their part, Islamic State militants have picked simultaneous fights with the Syrian regime, the Free Syrian Army, Iran, Iraq and a growing U.S.-led coalition.

I predict that a year from now not much will have changed in Syria. Except for increases in the death toll and the roster of the displaced.

PHOTO (TOP): A man inspects a damaged site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs thrown by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on al-Ghariya, in the east of Deraa province, December 15, 2014. REUTERS/Wsam Almokdad 

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Rebel fighters take positions inside a damaged building during clashes with forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad who are stationed in Aleppo’s historic citadel, December 7, 2014. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad walk in al-Mallah Farms after regaining control of the area in north of Aleppo December 15, 2014. REUTERS/George Ourfalian

PHOTO (Insert 3): A picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad riddled with holes on the facade of the police academy in Aleppo, after it was captured by Free Syrian Army fighters, March 4, 2013. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

PHOTO (INSERT4): An injured man sits at a field hospital after what activists said was was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus, December 8, 2014. REUTERS/Badra Mamet

FSA commander about Syrian regime: ‘we have to cut the head of the snake’

Rami Aldalati.
Rami Aldalati.

December 12 by DİLXWAZ BEHLEWΠ

He has the last word within the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but lives in Istanbul, Turkey. He travels back to Syria occasionally, but only when the FSA council requires his attention. 

Rami Aldalati was born in the Syrian town of Homs, a graduate in Islamic theology in Syria and a civilian. That all changed when he was assigned the highest military position in the FSA.  

In this interview with Rudaw, Aldalati talks about the Peshmerga and wishes it were the FSA that could defend Kobane instead.  He also talks about the ongoing talks between the FSA and the al-Nusrah Front, which is considered to have had links with al-Qaeda. Here is an edited transcript of his comments:  

Rudaw: Why did the FSA withdraw its forces instead of taking on the Islamic State (ISIS), especially in the town of Adlib?

Rami Aldalati: I think the military support for the FSA was not substantial enough to resist an ISIS advance or to curb its rise in the northeastern parts of Syria. There were, of course, other reasons too. ISIS financed its war machinery through the oil wells it had seized and even the tribal populations of these areas were supporting it in any way they could. And besides all of that, the ISIS was heavily fortified by the support it received from Mosul and other Iraqi cities which were seized by the militants. They moved much of the apprehended weaponry in Mosul and other areas to Syria and that drastically changed the balance of power between us and ISIS. I should also say that the international support for the FSA has diminished profoundly.

  The military support for the FSA was not substantial enough to resist an ISIS advance or to curb its rise in the northeastern parts of Syria.  

Rudaw: You have different entities within the FSA, including the Syrian Council, the Military Board and the Free Army — and even other names for other units. What are their tasks and how do they cooperate?

Rami Aldalati: The High Military Council of the Free Army, or the Leadership Council, is the only elected institution among all the Syrian revolution’s institutions. Nearly 500 military leaders took part in the Anatoly International Congress. They elected a council of 30 representatives to represent them within the Free Syrian Army. The duty of the council is to assign or remove the interior and defense ministers of the Interim Government. This council is not a military council in its classical sense. Instead, it supervises the army’s leadership units and the military forces.

It has five divisions: North, South, East, West and the Homs province.  

Rudaw: How many forces are there, especially in the north? 

Rami Aldalati: As you might know the leadership of the Free Army was in fact formed after the emergence of these forces. These forces were not created in an organized way but were more or less spontaneous reactions against the regime — created by the local tribes or powerful families. Then they turned into a military force. And after that there was a need for a council to lead them.

The Free Army was the first force that appeared across Syria. It had a good impact and pushed ISIS back to the north and northwestern areas of Syria.

FSA is a formidable force in the north and south of the country. Most southern areas down to the Jordanian borders are in our hands. We control two international gates, including the Nasiba gate to Jordan and Alhawa and Babolsalam towards Turkey.

Rudaw: Recently, there were reports of clashes between Syrian rebels and the al-Nusrah Front, in which the rebels withdrew after losses. Some say this has created a threat against the other forces?

  FSA is a formidable force in the north and south of the country. 

Rami Aldalati: We have to be frank and differentiate between al-Nusrah and ISIS, although both have ties with al-Qaeda. But ISIS is a criminal organization that has no popular support among the majority of Syrian people. 

The al-Nusrah Front has a different story. All members of this front are Syrians. They are to some extent popular. And people have recognized them in part. We do not approve of everything they do. But we cannot deny them either. They have an impact and we have some coordination. 

At the same time, the US army is at war with ISIS. But it has not fought al-Nusrah. Washington knows that there is some level of cooperation between us and the Nusrah Front, but turns a blind eye.  Regarding the recent escalations between Nusrah and the rebels, I should say that the rebels made some errors of judgment and embraced some indecent military commanders. We really did not wish to see an armed conflict between us and wanted the dispute to be resolved through a military court. But al-Nusrah unilaterally made the decision and overran a military base of the Syrian rebels. 

Rudaw: Do you see the Nusrah Front as a threat against the Syrian Revolution?

Rami Aldalati: So far, we see the al-Nusrah as a Syrian front against the regime. We do not see it as a radical group. 

Rudaw: But al-Nusrah sympathizes with the al-Qaeda?

Rami Aldalati: Yes, that is true and a matter of concern. But we have had some meetings between us and we now know that al-Nusrah wants to cut off ties with al-Qaeda, both ideologically and otherwise. We have heard that from leading members of al-Nusrah. 

  We now know that al-Nusrah wants to cut off ties with al-Qaeda, both ideologically and otherwise. 

Rudaw: The US army had plans to train the FSA rebels. What is the prospect of that happening? 

Rami Aldalati: Nearly a year ago, all the 12 friendly countries that support the FSA decided to extend their assistance to us. In both Jordan and Turkey there were command centers that would support the forces directly. But we think the proper way to do this is through the Syrian people. We made contact with the Security Council and told them that the remedy for our problems lies within Syria and not outside it. The Army Council, the Leadership of the Army and the Interim Interior Ministry are the remedies. 

Rudaw: Are there Kurdish forces within FSA?

Rami Aldalati: The Kurdish brethren are a main component of the Syrian people.  At the start of the Syrian revolution, the Kurdish brethren contacted FSA. We had a force called after the assassinated Kurdish activist, the Mashaal Tamo Force, as well as the Kurdish Islamic Front in Hasaka and Qamishloo. 

Rudaw: Are there any Kurdish forces within FSA now?

Rami Aldalati: We have a High Military Council in which Saud Naso, who is a Kurdish commander, is a member. He defected from the Syrian Army and joined the FSA.  He has been battling the regime in Homs and many other places. Kurds are mostly located in the north and northeastern parts of the country. But when ISIS advanced towards the Kurdish areas, all of our Kurdish FSA forces withdrew from the area. 

Rudaw: Kobane is now besieged by the ISIS militants. FSA has a commander there, Major Jabar Agedi, fighting ISIS in Kobane. Do you have any relations with this force? How do you cooperate with them?

Rami Aldalati: We made a brave decision to join the fight against ISIS in Kobane, which is a Kurdish city. We consider Kobane as a part of Syria, and one that should be defended like any other Syrian city. We have defended Kobane and still do. Our forces came all the way from Aleppo to join the fight for Kobane. We lost 15 rebels there. We thank Major Agedi for his cooperation with us. It was a brave decision. But unfortunately, due to our war with both the regime forces and ISIS in Aleppo and elsewhere, we were unable to send enough troops to Kobane.

Rudaw: How do you view the Peshmerga forces fighting ISIS in Kobane? Do you have any cooperation with them or the YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) fighters? 

 We consider Kobane as a part of Syria, and one that should be defended like any other Syrian city.   

Rami Aldalati: Our Turkish brethren had their own view of the Peshmerga forces and had to allow them in to Kobane. We had some objection to the idea of having Peshmerga coming and fighting ISIS in Kobane. Because, if Peshmerga can come and fight here, then the regime could seek the support of foreign forces, like the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, to confront the revolution.  

We said we do not allow foreign forces in Syria. We have the power to liberate all components of Syrian society, including Kurds, Arabs, Christians and other Syrian minorities. There was no cooperation with us before the Peshmerga’s arrival. Turkey and other neighbors were engaged in that and we are thankful for that. 

At the moment the Peshmerga forces fight for the survival of Kobane side-by-side with the FSA and the YPG and other Kurdish forces. We need all the support there is to defend Kobane, but we should not need foreign forces to do that. We respect our brethren in Kurdistan very much, but we really wished to protect our Kurdish brethren in Syria by our own force.  

Rudaw: According to the Dohuk agreement, there will be a new Kurdish force in Syrian Kurdistan. How will you deal with this new force?

Rami Aldalati: We do not have any strong ties with these forces. But we are working on our relations. Not cooperating with FSA is a problem for the Syrian people and Kurdish people. We are working hard to protect our nation. There is no great support for FSA internationally or among our Kurdish brethren. We are ready to defend every inch of Kurdish areas within Syria, but do not approve of foreign forces coming and fighting on our behalf.

Rudaw: The US-led coalition is targeting the ISIS positions in Kobane but not in other places in Syria. How do you interpret that?

 We do not approve of foreign forces coming and fighting on our behalf. 

Rami Aldalati: In the beginning we were against the idea that the international coalition would only target ISIS. We said we will join the coalition if it will target both ISIS and the Syrian regime. But if you only target ISIS under the pretext of protecting US national interests, it is a different story. We think degrading ISIS will strengthen the Syrian regime. 

We think there is some sort of cooperation between ISIS and Damascus, because the Syrian regime pays millions of dollars to ISIS for the oil that is under ISIS control. 

We said we had to cut the head of the snake and not its tail.  If you destroy the regime in Damascus it will eventually define the outcome of the revolution in Syria. 

Rudaw: A Kurdish force was formed In the Kurdistan Region called Rojava Peshmerga Force. How do you view this force? If this force, predominantly made of former officers of the regime’s army, enters Syria, will you cooperate with them?

Rami Aldalati: We welcome any force or person who wants to join the FSA struggle. But we oppose any force that is structured on sectarian or national grounds. Any force that enters Syria must know that their duty is to liberate Syria from the tyranny of the regime of Bashar Assad. It is not about a village or an area or a tribe. We do not differentiate between any tribes or regions.

Rudaw: How many armed rebels does the FSA have?

Rami Aldalati: The FSA has close to 60,000 fighters in total.

Female fighters battle for freedom and equality in Syria – TRFN

Til Kocher, December 16, 2014 by Benedetta Argentieri

Every night before 27-year-old Arin goes to bed, she hangs her Makarov, a Russian semi-automatic pistol, from a steel coat rack by the entrance to her one-bedroom apartment in a small, dusty town on the Syrian border with Iraq.

The pistol was an award for her success on the front line in the battle to protect Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria and is a far cry from her life a year ago when she was working as a nurse in Cologne in Germany.

"This is a bloody war," Arin, using only her combat name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the almost deserted apartment block in Til Kocher in northeastern Syria.

"But we need to fight it, we need to protect our women and children or nobody else will defend us."

Arin is one of thousands of young Kurdish women who have taken up arms in the past two years, with Kurds, Syria’s largest minority group, largely left to their own devices by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces battling Islamic State militants who have seized large areas of Iraq and Syria.

About 7,500 women are estimated to have joined the Women’s Protection Unit, or YPJ, many as volunteers, which was set up in 2012 as part of the People’s Defense Unit (YPG), the Kurds’ dominant fighting unit in the northern Syria region of Rojava.

Their aim is to fight any group that threatens Kurdish inhabited areas of Rojava and the YPG has taken defacto control over a sizable chunk of Syria’s predominantly Kurdish north.

While female fighters are common within the ranks of Kurdish forces, a women’s only combat unit is unusual for the Muslim world where some Islamic traditionalists are of the view that women should not engage in combat.

Like the followers of Islamic State, many Kurds are Sunni Muslims but this band of young female fighters hope their frontline role will help put women on an equal footing with men.

FIERCE FIGHTERS

"We want to set an example for (both) the Middle East and the West. We want gender equality for all," said one of the six other women in Arin’s unit who all live in the same, small apartment. 

When asked for their full names, the women declined, preferring to be known and addressed by their noms de guerre.

David L. Phillips, director of a program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights in New York, said these women were making a mark.

"(They) are some of the fiercest and most effective fighters. Many of them are widowed, and strongly motivated on the battlefield by their personal loss," he said.

Human Rights Watch has reported serious human rights abuses by the Syrian government and other opposition fighters in the Syria and also said Kurds in parts of northern Syriahave carried out arbitrary arrests and failed to investigate the killings and disappearance of political opponents.

Arin, who was born and raised in Germany, said she was awarded her pistol after she killed 20 Islamic State militants, earning her the reputation among her colleagues as one of the most dangerous snipers in the group.

Born in Cologne of Kurdish parents, Arin graduated from nursing school and was working there when the Syrian conflict started, rising a pro-democracy movement which grew into an armed uprising and inflamed regional confrontations.

Some 200,000 people have died during the four-year conflict, according to the United Nations.

"I had a good life, I liked living there," Arin said, dressed in a dark green camouflage uniform with baggy trousers, but she felt she had to do something as the news became worse.

"I remember watching television when I saw women and children slaughtered by Daesh (Islamic State), and I couldn’t stand it anymore," she added, using a term for Islamic States that is widely viewed as derogatory.

LOYALTY AMONG COMRADES

Last year she travelled to Syria to join the YPJ and now heads her unit, which originally had 20 members, mainly from Syria and Turkey. Today only seven survive.

She was reluctant to give too many details about the group’s combat operations or to comment on any links between the YPJ and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an organization fighting for Kurds in Turkey that is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

Syrian Kurds have an ambiguous relationship Assad, who has mostly left the Kurds alone while focusing firepower on insurgents fighting to unseat him. The Syrian Kurds have denied cooperating with Assad.

When they’re not fighting, the unit of seven women try to avoid talking about war. They cook and laugh as if they were living an ordinary life but their lives are far from normal.   

Arin hasn’t talked to her parents since she left Germany.

"I don’t call them, it’s better this way," she said, adding that she might call then one day, once the war is over. "My life is here with these brave women. They are my family."

Her loyalty to her fellow soldiers is typical of YPJ members who boast to live by a code of honesty, morals and justice, addressing each other as Haval, the Kurdish word for comrade and friend.

The schedule of Arin’s unit is always tight, starting with breakfast at 8 a.m. every day and strategy meetings.

Nisan, a 24-year-old combatant, spread a grey plastic table cloth on the floor. She lost her right finger while fighting in Rabia, the Iraqi town adjacent to Til Kocher, in August.

Rangin, another sniper, came in with breakfast: tomatoes, olives, goat cheese, and homemade bread.

After breakfast, the unit’s phone rang.

Orders were given and three women grabbed their combat gear, ready to jump in a car waiting for them outside to take them to Jezza, a town close to Kobani near the Turkish border and one of the most violent flashpoints in the war.

"We are going to fight the Daesh, take care," Arin said as she closed the door behind her.

In Darayya, tunnels hide a war playing out underground

December 9, 2014

The battle for Darayya, located near the regime-controlled Mezze military airport and one of the last opposition-controlled areas in the southern Damascus area, has resulted in almost total destruction throughout. 

For rebels encircled by the Syrian army in Darayya, the war has moved to tunnels dug underground by both sides. 

“Rebels spend months digging tunnels to reach their targets using primitive tools,” says an opposition-affiliated Syrian Revolution Media Office report on the subject.

“Digging tunnels is the only solution while the rebels cannot compete with the regime’s arsenal and equipment.” 

Just over a week ago, rebels destroyed two regime tunnels attempting to burrow into the city. Residents call the battle the “tunnel wars,” as both sides use tunnels not only to target each other, but to capture a building, a city block – any turf to claim as their own. 

The regime in particular is trying to capture high buildings, Mustafa al-Dairani, the pseudonym of a Darayya-based member of the pro-opposition Syrian Media Council tells Syria Direct’s Majdolina al-Jajeh.

“The regime digs tunnels in order to access tall buildings so their snipers can target rebel positions.”

Q: How does the FSA find the regime tunnels?

At first, FSA fighters used to hear the noise of the machines the regime used to dig the tunnels. Then, the regime stopped using the machines to dig because they don’t want rebels to know where the tunnels are.

Now FSA fighters are discovering the tunnels through the regime’s use of wireless devices and through cameras set up to monitor [suspected] areas. 

The regime uses civilians and children to dig tunnels. We know that because a child’s body was found in a regime-made tunnel in Damascus last month.

The regime forces civilians and children to use primitive equipment to dig the tunnels. In some cases, we discover the tunnels after civilians and detainees flee. Five people escaped through tunnels and they told us about them.  

TunnelsDarayya Rebels in Darayya blow up regime tunnels in early December. Photo courtesy of @kitabatpedia.

Q: How many regime tunnels in Darayya has the FSA destroyed?

In October and November, 14 tunnels were destroyed by both the regime and the rebels. We call this time the “Tunnel Wars.” 

Forty regime tunnels and 27 rebel tunnels have been destroyed since the beginning of the war in Darayya in April 2013. 

Q: How have the tunnels affected the battle between the regime and the rebels? 

Last week, the regime forces managed to capture four tall buildings after sneaking in from a tunnel. Rebels regained control of two of them.

Q: What is the regime’s goal in digging the tunnels in Darayya?

Despite the regime’s weapons and power on the ground, it couldn’t gain control of Darayya city. The regime now is using the tunnels as a way to penetrate the city. 

The regime digs tunnels in order to access tall buildings so their snipers can target rebel positions and weaken their power in Darayya. The first tunnel the regime forces dug in Darayya was on the northern front and they blew up a tower that separates the regime and rebels from each other. These are the buildings that the regime is targeting in order to protect its soldiers during the clashes.

The FSA proved its worth by digging tunnels better than the regime. The FSA has managed to dig tunnels and sneak behind regime forces as it did in a battle in this past January. 

Q: Where does the regime dig its tunnels?

The regime digs tunnels near the front lines of the fighting, like Saida Sukaina [Prophet Granddaughter], the Old Cornish street and Abbas Mosque.

An army invasion of Arsal outskirts?

Lebanese troops deploy in Arsal on August 28, 2014, during clashes with jihadist militants that led to the capture of over two dozen soldiers and policemen (AFP)

Last week, the army reportedly called up significant reinforcements to Arsal. (AFP)

Beirut, December 16, 2014 by Alex Rowell

In the past week, a number of media reports have pointed to the possibility of a significant forthcoming operation carried out by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) on the outskirts of the eastern border town of Arsal, where the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra militants have held over two dozen Lebanese soldiers and policemen captive since briefly invading the town in August.

Last Tuesday, it was reported that the LAF had “pounded” jihadist positions in the barren, mountainous no-man’s-land between Arsal and the Syrian border with heavy weaponry, and also moved a “large number” of additional troops and artillery into the town and closed several roads leading in and out of it in a “signal that they might be preparing a ground assault.” This morning, a local newspaper said the LAF had acquired aerial imagery intelligence on the militants’ activities in the area and claimed: “The army is not too far away from completely taking control of its confrontation with terrorists.”

The news comes after a fourth captive was killed by the jihadists earlier this month, sparking incidents of violence including shootings and arson attacks against Syrian refugees. It also follows the killing two weeks ago of six LAF troops by gunmen on the outskirts of Ras Baalbek, some 10km north of Arsal.

Yet if the army is planning to put a stop to these outbreaks of unrest by launching a ground invasion from Arsal, it’s the first the town’s mayor has heard of it, according to remarks he made to NOW by telephone Tuesday.

“I don’t have any information about the army asking for reinforcements or preparing for a big operation,” said Mayor Ali Hojeiri. He added he would prefer if the army did not launch such an attack from the town, saying “there are a lot of [other] regions connected to the mountains where gunmen are,” but nonetheless insisted that if the army should decide to do it, Arsal’s residents would “stay aside and not interfere and let the army deal with the gunmen.”

Whether or not such an operation would in fact be militarily feasible, however, is another question, and one on which security analysts and experts are divided. On the one hand, Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), believes the army is more than up to the task.

“The army has the capability to carry out a ground invasion,” Kahwaji told NOW. “It has the troops, the firepower, the logistical requirements. If there is going to be an operation it will be limited to the immediate outskirts of Arsal, [which] is a confined, not a vast area.”

Retired LAF General Elias Hanna, by contrast, believes exactly the opposite, telling NOW the geographical space involved and the nature of the combatants make a ground invasion far from straightforward.

“The area is highly difficult to wage a conventional war [in],” said Hanna. “You don’t have an enemy that is stable in the same place with obvious targets […] [if it were] possible to wage a conventional war in this area, the Syrian regime army would have been done with these people a long time ago, after [the battles of] Qusayr and Yabroud and so on.”

As such, Hanna says the best the LAF can do is what it is already doing, which he describes as taking essentially defensive measures to “deny infiltrations, ambushes, and bombings” wherever possible.

Yet Kahwaji argues the best form of defense is attack, advocating a “swift operation” against the militants to “mop up the area around Arsal and make sure it is clean of all terrorist groups.”

Asked by NOW whether that would not risk the execution by the militants of all remaining Lebanese captives, Kahwaji replied: “The militants are killing them anyway. The militants have not shown any willingness to seriously negotiate the release of any of the captives.”

“If you look at the rules of negotiations in captive situations internationally, the minute the captives start executing hostages, special operatives immediately move in […] As far as I’m concerned, the captors have started executing and it’s time to cease negotiations and move into a military operation, provided the army has prepared thoroughly and knows the exact whereabouts of the captives.”

Lebanon, U.N. seek $2.14B for refugees

Beirut, December 16, 2014 by Samyar Kullab

Stabilizing Lebanon amid a deluge of 1.2 million Syrian refugees was the focus of a joint response plan launched Monday which highlighted support for host communities and public institutions. The government and the United Nations are asking the international community for a record $2.14 billion in funds to finance next year’s refugee response plan, which uniquely emphasizes investing in Lebanese services, communities and institutions, reaching 2.9 million people in the poorest parts of the country.

On hand to launch the plan alongside Prime Minister Tammam Salam was United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson.

“[The plan] is meant to draw the contours of what needs to be done to mitigate the negative effects of the multifaceted and protracted crisis we have been suffering from as a result of the events in Syria,” Salam said, addressing a gathering of government representatives, U.N. officials and civil society at the event, held at the Grand Serail.

“Despite unified expressions of concern over the unavoidable security consequences of this situation and the threats it poses for the stability of the country and beyond, few practical measures have been effectively decided upon by the international community to defuse these threats,” Salam said, exempting Saudi Arabia’s $3 billion grant to support the Lebanese Army.

The prime minister expressed hope that the plan would serve as a road map enabling donors to focus their funding on key government sectors and communities affected by the influx of Syrian refugees. “New concerns with extremist attacks and terrorism are intensifying.”

“There is no doubt that worsening socioeconomic parameters are a catalyst, drawing greater numbers of desperate young people into the illusory and paradoxical realm of finding hope in violence.”

Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said the adoption of the plan by the Cabinet was the outcome of lengthy deliberation by the Crisis Cell, headed by Salam.

Eliasson said the “innovative” plan was designed to reinforce stability while directing resources to vulnerable areas and institutions. “The plan promotes priorities for stabilization identified by the government,” he said. “It will put in place arrangements for the government to lead the response. It clearly reflects government priorities, consistent with internationally recognized norms.”

The response will continue to deliver humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians and other vulnerable groups while expanding plans to invest in Lebanese services and institutions. It incorporates three main strategic objectives, including providing basic assistance and protection, strengthening service delivery capacity and reinforcing public institutions.

Last year’s record appeal of $1.89 billion was only 46 percent funded as of early December, prompting concern among NGOs about diminishing funds in the face of growing needs of both refugees and host communities.

Speaking to The Daily Star, UNHCR country representative Ninette Kelly said this year’s response aimed to broaden the scope and reach out to more donors.

“It’s not just a humanitarian appeal,” she said. “Through this plan we are trying to cast the net wider and to attract more support from the development community and donors that bring support to public institutions in a manner that we haven’t been able to do to the extent necessary before.”“There have been significant investments in institutional support,” she said, citing the over $93 million channeled to host communities last year. “These are important investments but they are simply not enough to help Lebanon withstand the very serious shocks that it continues to take as a result of the Syrian crisis.”

Drafting this year’s plan, Kelly added required partners to identify areas specifically designed for stabilization as opposed to those meant to facilitate humanitarian response such as waste and water management which benefits entire communities.

Chronic underfunding last year prompted the UNHCR to make “heart wrenching” cutbacks in education and health care services. “There are many people who are literally scraping to get by, who send their children out to work because they have no other means of support,” she said. “We simply don’t have enough income support to provide to keep them from having to resort to those very desperate measures.”

“In 2015 Lebanon faces delivering electricity, water, waste collection, education and health care services to a population that has grown by a third in just four years,” U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Ross Mountain said. “No country in the world could be expected to manage such a situation on its own – not even the most highly developed.”

Abandoning the Free Syrian Army

December 14, 2014 by Max Boot

So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

The New York Times has a report on how the police force in Ninevah Province in northern Iraq is not receiving support from the central government in Baghdad or from the U.S. This is a mostly Sunni force in an area where ISIS has been strong–Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to ISIS in June, is located in Ninevah. Retaking, and crucially holding Mosul after retaking it, will require the work of local security forces, but they complain that they are not getting arms or equipment. “We are in a camp like refugees, without work or salaries,” the Times quotes one Iraqi SWAT team member wearing a “U.S. Army” T-shirt saying. “ISIS is our target, but what are we supposed to fight it with?”

Some of these officers fondly remember the days when they did raids alongside American forces, but that is ancient history by now. Today the Obama administration refuses to channel aid directly to Sunnis in either Anbar or Ninevah Province because it insists on working exclusively through the central government–and never mind that the central government is so penetrated by Iranian influence that the minister of interior, who is in charge of the police, is a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-sponsored militia that is inveterately hostile to Sunnis.

This is a self-defeating policy and yet one in which the Obama administration persists, pretending that sending aid to Sunnis directly would undermine Iraqi sovereignty. In truth the Baghdad government already controls considerably less than half the country and it will never regain any more control unless it can mobilize Sunnis to fight ISIS. The U.S. can be a key player in mobilizing Sunnis, as it was in 2007-2008, but only if it is willing to reach out to them directly.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Josh Rogin of Bloomberg reports that Congress has not passed a $300 million appropriation to fund the Free Syrian Army. The money was apparently held up in the House Intelligence Committee because lawmakers are concerned that the Free Syrian Army is not an effective fighting force.

Rogin writes that “Congress’s disenchantment with the Syrian rebels is shared by many officials inside the administration, following the rebels’ losses to Assad, IS and the al-Nusra Front in northern Syrian cities such as Idlib. There is particular frustration that these setbacks resulted in some advanced American weaponry falling into extremist hands. Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.”

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that the U.S. refuses to fund the Free Syrian Army, the weaker it will get–and the more its weakness will be used as an excuse not to support it. This dynamic has been plain for years and it continues. And yet despite our neglect, the Free Syrian Army is still battling, as Rogin notes, to hold onto Aleppo. The U.S. has no choice but to help if we are going to support any alternative in Syria to Sunni jihadists (Al Nusra Front, ISIS) and Shiite jihadists (Hezbollah, Quds Force). But it increasingly looks as if the Obama administration is counting on Bashar Assad–who has murdered some 200,000 of his own people–to fight ISIS.

There is a connecting thread between Syria and Iraq: in both places the Obama administration is tacitly acquiescing to Iranian domination. That is a grave mistake for a whole host of reasons, not the least of them being that the more prominent that Iran appears to be in the anti-ISIS coalition, the more that Sunnis afraid of Shiite domination will flock to ISIS and the Nusra Front for protection.