September 28, 2014 by Ken Dilanian
President Barack Obama on Sunday gave voice to the conundrum at the heart of his Syria policy, acknowledging that the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria is helping Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, a man the United Nations has accused of war crimes.
"I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance," Obama said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’ "60 Minutes." ”We are not going to stabilize Syria under the rule of Assad," whose government has committed "terrible atrocities," Obama said.
"On the other hand, in terms of immediate threats to the United States, ISIL, Khorasan Group — those folks could kill Americans."
ISIL is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group, which has broken with al-Qaida as it has taken control of large sections of Iraq and Syria. The Khorasan Group is a cell of militants that the U.S. says is plotting attacks against the West in cooperation with the Nusra front, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate. Both groups have been targeted by U.S. airstrikes in recent days; together they constitute the most significant military opposition to Assad, whose government the U.S. would like to see gone.
Obama said his first priority is degrading the extremists who are threatening Iraq and the West. To defeat them, he acknowledged, would require a competent local ground force, something no analyst predicts will surface any time soon in Syria, despite U.S. plans to arm and train “moderate” rebels. The U.S. has said it would not cooperate with the Assad government.
"Right now, we’ve got a campaign plan that has a strong chance for success in Iraq," the president said. "Syria is a more challenging situation."
Earlier Sunday, House Speaker John Boehner questioned Obama’s strategy to destroy the Islamic State group. Boehner said on ABC’s “This Week” that the U.S. may have “no choice” but to send in American troops if the mix of U.S.-led airstrikes and a ground campaign reliant on Iraqi forces, Kurdish fighters and moderate Syrian rebels fails to achieve that goal.
"We have no choice," Boehner said. "These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re going to pay the price."
Obama, though, made clear he has no interest in a major U.S. ground presence beyond the 1,600 American advisers and special operations troops he already has ordered to Iraq.
"We are assisting Iraq in a very real battle that’s taking place on their soil, with their troops," the president said. "This is not America against ISIL. This is America leading the international community to assist a country with whom we have a security partnership."
Only the U.S. could lead such a campaign, Obama said.
"When there’s a typhoon in the Philippines, take a look at who’s helping the Philippines deal with that situation," he said. "When there’s an earthquake in Haiti, take a look at who’s leading the charge and making sure Haiti can rebuild. That’s how how we roll. And that’s what makes this America."
"60 Minutes" interviewer Steve Kroft asked Obama how the threat emanating from Syria and Iraq squares with the president’s longstanding position that al-Qaida’s leadership has been "decimated."
"You had an international network in al-Qaida between Afghanistan and Pakistan, headed by bin Laden. And that structure we have rendered ineffective," Obama said. "But what I also said .. .is that you have regional groups with regional ambitions and territorial ambitions. And what also has not changed is the kind of violent, ideologically driven extremism that has taken root in too much of the Muslim world."
While an “overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful,” Obama said, “in the Muslim world right now, there is a cancer that has grown for too long that suggests that it is acceptable to kill innocent people who worship a different God. And that kind of extremism, unfortunately, means that we’re going to see for some time the possibility that in a whole bunch of different countries, radical groups may spring up, particularly in countries that are still relatively fragile, where you had sectarian tensions, where you don’t have a strong state security apparatus.”
But “rather than play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops wherever this occurs, we have to build strong partnerships,” Obama said. “We have to get the international community to recognize this is a problem. We’ve got to get Arab and Muslim leaders to say very clearly: ‘These folks do not represent us. They do not represent Islam.’”
Asked how Islamic State fighters had come to control so much territory in Syria and Iraq, Obama acknowledged that U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated the threat and overestimated the ability and will of Iraq’s army to fight.
Obama said he agreed with his director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who acknowledged that the U.S. “underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.” Obama also said it was “absolutely true” that the U.S. overestimated the ability and will of the Iraqi army.
A still from a video from a plane camera shows smoke rising after an air strike near Kobani. Photograph: Reuters
September 28, 2014 by Martin Chulov
Air strikes continued to target Islamic State (Isis) positions near the Kurdish town of Kobani and hubs across north-east Syria on Sunday, as the terror group moved towards a new alliance with Syria’s largest al-Qaida group that could help offset the threat from the air.
Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been at odds with Isis for much of the past year, vowed retaliation for the US-led strikes, the first wave of which a week ago killed scores of its members. Many Nusra units in northern Syria appeared to have reconciled with the group, with which it had fought bitterly early this year.
A senior source confirmed that al-Nusra and Isis leaders were now holding war-planning meetings. While not yet formalised, the addition of at least some al-Nusra numbers to Isis would strengthen the group’s ranks and further its reach at a time when air strikes are crippling its funding sources and slowing its advances in both Syria and Iraq.
Al-Nusra, which has direct ties to al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, denounced the attacks as a “war on Islam”, in an audio statement posted over the weekend. A senior al-Nusra figure told the Guardian that 73 members had defected to Isis last Friday alone and that scores more were planning to swear allegiance in coming days.
“We are in a long war,” the group’s spokesman, Abu Firas al-Suri, said on social media platforms. “This war will not end in months nor years, this war could last for decades.”
In the rebel-held north there is growing resentment among Islamist units of the Syrian opposition that the strikes have done nothing to weaken the Syrian regime. “We have been calling for these sorts of attacks for three years and when they finally come they don’t help us,” said a leader from the Qatari-backed Islamic Front, which groups together Islamic brigades. “People have lost faith. And they’re angry.”
British jets flew sorties over Isis positions in Iraq after being ordered into action against the group following a parliamentary vote on Friday.
David Cameron has suggested he might review his decision to confine Britain’s involvement to Iraq alone, but for now the strikes in support of Kurdish civilians and militants in Kobani were being carried out by Arab air forces from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain.
The US was reported to have carried out at least six strikes near the centre of Kobani, where the YPG Kurdish militia is fighting a dogged rearguard campaign against Isis, which is mostly holding its ground despite the jet attacks.
Kobani is the third-largest Kurdish enclave in Syria, and victory for Isis there is essential to its plans to oust the Kurds from lands they have lived in for several thousand years. Control of the area would give the group a strategic foothold in north-east Syria, which would give it easy access to north-west Iraq.
Isis continued to make forays along the western edge of Baghdad, where its members have been active for nine months. The Iraqi capital is being heavily defended by Shia militias, who in many cases have primacy over the Iraqi army, which surrendered the north of the country.
That rout – one of the most spectacular anywhere in modern military history – gave Isis a surge of momentum and it has since seized the border with Syria, menaced Irbil, ousted minorities from the Ninevah plains and threatened the Iraqi government’s hold on the country.
Barack Obama said the intelligence community did not appreciate the scale of the threat or comprehend the weakness of the Iraqi army. In an interview on CBS 60 Minutes, he said: “Over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swaths of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of … chaos. And so this became ground zero for jihadists around the world.”
September 28, 2014 by Damian Paletta and Kristina Peterson
President Barack Obama said U.S. intelligence underestimated that the political chaos in Syria over the past several years would create an environment for extremist group Islamic State to thrive.
"This became ground zero for jihadists around the world," he said in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, according to an excerpt aired by the network on Sunday.
The president said Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was able to attract former members of Saddam Hussein’s military in Iraq who brought a more sophisticated military strategy to the movement.
This “gave them some traditional military capacity and not just terrorist capacity,” Mr. Obama said, adding that it was “absolutely true” that the U.S. overestimated the ability and willingness of the new Iraqi government to push back against Islamic State.
The U.S. and international partners, particularly in the Middle East, would have to come up with political solutions in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Obama said.
But the near-term plan was to destabilize Islamic State.
"We just have to push them back and shrink their space and go after their command and control…and work to eliminate the flow of foreign fighters," he said.
The full 60 Minutes interview is slated to air Sunday evening.
Also on CBS, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken reiterated that the U.S. military planned to continue airstrikes but would not send troops into the conflicts.
"We’ve been clear that there will not be a U.S. ground invasion of Iraq or Syria," he said. He left the door open, however, to the idea that a no-fly zone could be established over Syria at some point.
On ABC News “This Week,” House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) indicated thatsending in American combat troops could become necessary to eliminate the Islamic State threat.
While Mr. Obama has said that he opposes sending U.S. ground troops into combat against Islamic State, Mr. Boehner suggested that such troops might be needed if the international coalition can’t defeat the militants.
"At some point, somebody’s boots have to be on the ground," Mr. Boehner said. So far the White House and its allies have deployed airstrikes against the militants and are preparing to train pro-Western Syrian rebels to fight on the ground.
Earlier this month, Congress authorized the White House to train and equip those rebels. But many Republicans have said they aren’t persuaded that the administration’s strategy will be forceful enough to eradicate the danger posed by the militants.
"Maybe we can get enough of these forces trained and get them on the battlefield," Mr. Boehner said.
But if the international coalition doesn’t come together, “we have no choice,” Mr. Boehner said of the possibility of sending in U.S. fighters. “These are barbarians. They intend to kill us. And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re going to pay the price.”
September 28, 2014 by Diyako Murad
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), and the main Syrian Opposition force, The Free Syrian Army (FSA, have announced an agreement to fight Islamic State (IS) militants together in Syrian Kurdistan.
The announcement was made in a joint statement in the Kurdish city of Sari Kani in northern Syria. They also said that they would establish a military coordination room to fight IS in Syrian Kurdistan.
In the statement both groups call on the international community to assist them militarily so they can eradicate the extremist group.
They also said that they would give amnesty to all members from the Islamic group who are willing to switch sides.
The announcement confirms what was said a few weeks ago, when both the FSA and YPG said that they would fight together in Syrian Kurdistan.
In the past fortnight Islamic State militants have fiercely attacked the Kurdish city of Kobani in northerb Syria causing thousands of Syrian Kurds to flee to Turkey.
In the past week US military planes have started to shell IS strongholds inside Syria.
September 28, 2014 by Hassan Hassan
Since Islamic State (Isis) were formed in their current incarnation in April last year, they have had a dilemma: how to gain legitimacy from the local population while continuing to be ruthless and genocidal against fellow Sunnis. The decision by the American-led coalition to strike against Isis while overlooking the Assad regime seems to have resolved this dilemma for the jihadist organisation. What Isis will lose in terms of strength and numbers as a result of the air strikes they might gain in terms of legitimacy.
Air strikes against Isis were inevitable, as the group’s advances towards Baghdad, Erbil and northern Syria seemed irreversible by local forces. But the way the US-led coalition, which the UK has now joined, has conducted itself so far threatens to worsen the situation in favour of Isis.
Most importantly, by overlooking the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which caused the death of nearly 200,000 Syrians, the air strikes create the perception that the international coalition is providing a lifeline to the regime. Despite repeated reassurance by Washington, such a perception is likely to become entrenched if the Assad regime begins to fill the vacuum left by the offensive against Isis, especially that there has been no evidence yet that the opposition forces are part of the military strategy against Isis.
The regime might deliberately step up its campaign in some areas to retake areas it has recently lost to the jihadist group to reinforce that perception, as Syrian officials were quick to issue statements that the regime had been briefed about the air raids before they were launched.Many Syrian rebel factions, including ones directly financed by the Americans and the Gulf states, expressed reservations about, or opposition to, the air strikes, including Harakat Hazm, Division 13, Suqour al-Sham. The significance of such statements is that they are issued by groups currently operating in areas outside Isis control but which are adjacent to Isis front lines. That makes them more capable than other groups of being part of potential ground forces to attack Isis under air cover. Even though some of these groups made such pronouncements mostly for practical reasons, since they are the ones who will bear the consequences of any failure to dislodge Isis as they fight on the ground, they are also concerned that the international campaign will aid the Assad regime.
Regionally, the offensive against Isis has received a similar cynical reaction from groups and people in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, including prominent figures such as Doha-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi, condemned the attacks inside Syria. Arab countries that have participated in the international military campaign including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, have been particularly criticised for failing to push for a formula that undermines Isis and Assad at the same time. In comparison, Iran opposed the air strikes against Isis in Syria while Turkey made it clear that the offensive would fail without moves to undermine the Assad regime, including a no-fly zone.
These attitudes mean that Isis are set to gain from the international campaign against them, if the current strategy does not change. Based on conversations with people from eastern Syria, including Isis members and sympathisers, the offensive against Isis seems to have already achieved one thing for the jihadi group: to push some Isis members who were on the periphery into their core, and neutralise some of their Islamist opponents. Many of Isis members are new to the group and they are still ideologically uncertain. But since Isis are now face to face with a numerically exaggerated alliance led by Washington, Isis members who could otherwise shift away from the group have become more determined adherents.
Isis can afford to lose their supply lines, infrastructure and many of their members – who are likely to be among the ones who recently joined it – as long as they can compensate by achieving popular recognition. They are already adapting to the campaign, reducing checkpoints (now mostly mobile) to a minimum and relocating weapons warehouses to safe areas in both Iraq and Syria.
People inside Syria say most of the bases or facilities hit by air strikes had been already emptied. While the air raids will surely undermine Isis’s ability to generate revenue by disrupting supply lines from factories or oilfields, Isis can survive without such easy-money resources. Also, it is important to highlight that Isis have established an intricate sleeper cell system that has not been unveiled, even when they felt secure in their territories.
Legitimacy for the fight against Isis cannot be achieved by simply having Sunni countries involved in it, but, rather, by addressing the true reasons that drove tens of thousands of Syrians to rise up against the regime.
Regardless of who is involved in the campaign, the perception is that the allies have overlooked the acts of the Assad regime over the past three years and quickly assembled a major international coalition against a group that the Syrian rebels have been fighting since last summer. Unless the strategy against Isis shifts to a broader one that appeals to the local communities, the fight against it is doomed.
September 28, 2014
The British MI6 spy agency was reportedly engaged in months-long talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in the lead-up to the Western military campaign against the Islamic State group.
Officers from the agency have been conducting discussions in Damascus with members of Assad’s intelligence network as well as senior Syrian diplomats, despite a recent assertion by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond that a pact with the dictator would not be “practical, sensible or helpful,” the Mirror newspaper reported.
The United States has also denied any coordination with the Syrian government or its close ally Iran regarding the air campaign against the Islamic State, which has carved out a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate there, killing thousands of people in the process.
“We warned Syria not to engage US aircraft,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Tuesday. “We did not request the regime’s permission. We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government.”
The beheadings of three American and British citizens over the past six weeks, as well as the Islamic State’s shocking assault on other religious and ethnic groups in northern Iraq, galvanized the US into forming an international coalition of nations to attack the group.
“It makes sense that MI6 would try to make inroads with Assad by talking to his people, first through proxy channels like other Arab nations, but then directly,” an unnamed source was quoted by the Mirror as saying.
“It may be there are no face-to-face meetings with Assad himself but behind the double-speak of foreign relations it is perfectly normal for them to see his senior people. It would be staggering if Britain’s intelligence agencies were not talking to Assad’s people. The talks they have within Syria are of invaluable benefit to Britain’s security.”
According to the report, Britain is also acting under the assumption that Assad’s agents could possess information on the British nationals who are in Islamic State captivity.
On Saturday, British warplanes flew their first anti-jihadist combat missions over neighboring Iraq.
Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 jets took off from Britain’s RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus for Iraq but returned to base without dropping their laser-guided bombs.
“On this occasion no targets were identified as requiring immediate air attack by our aircraft,” said a Defense Ministry spokesman in London.
The US and Arab allies began airstrikes against IS in Syria on Tuesday, more than a month after Washington launched its air campaign against the jihadists in Iraq.
A US defense official told AFP Friday the Syrian mission is now similar to Iraq’s, with “near continuous” sorties.
Washington also plans to train and arm 5,000 Syrian rebels, although top US military officer General Martin Dempsey said 12,000-15,000 men would be required to recapture “lost territory” in Syria.
AFP contributed to this report.
Beirut, September 28, 2014 by AFP
In an audio message posted on the Internet, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, who heads Al-Nusra Front in Syria, addressed citizens “in America and Europe” and called on them to stand against their governments.
"Your leaders will not pay the price for the war alone, you will pay the higher price," Jolani warned.
The United States initially launched strikes in Iraq on August 8 against positions of the Islamic State jihadist group, and then widened its campaign with a coalition of partners last Tuesday to include Syria, where IS has its headquarters.
The coalition has carried out daily air strikes since Tuesday against IS and Al-Nusra Front in Syria.
Failure to stop these strikes “will transfer the battle to your very homes,” Jolani said.
Jolani did not say elaborate.
But he said: “People of America and Europe, what have you gained from your war against Muslims and jihadists except tragedies and pain brought on your countries and children?”.
Jolani’s warning comes a day after a spokesman of the same group also threatened reprisals against nations participating in air strikes, denouncing them as “a war against Islam”.
September 28, 2014 by Nick Cohen
After the military corrupted the English language with “collateral damage”, I’d like to introduce the equally dainty and equally misleading “collateral benefit”. I hope you like the smooth way the euphemism oozes from the lips; the imperceptible subtlety with which it shuffles off responsibility.
The phrase implies, without being so crude as to say so out loud, that the west does not intend mass murderers to benefit from its wars any more than it intends civilians to die in its airstrikes. If when the accountants of violence make their reckoning, the dictators are as triumphant as the civilians are dead, that is no concern of ours.
Bashar Assad is now enjoying the collateral benefits of western foreign policy. It is not that he, and by extension Iran and Hezbollah, is our formal ally. We still have our standards, after all. If their power is strengthened, and the bombing and slaughtering of civilians continues, we regret it, naturally. These are unintended side-effects no one can expect us to control.
Human suffering is not a competition. You can’t measure mounds of corpses and reserve your criticism for the highest. Yet when Barack Obama addressed the UN,he did not even glance at the mountain of bodies in Syria. He described the war crimes of Islamic State, but did not once say that clerical fascism had been nurtured by the bloodier war Assad had launched against the Syrian version of the Arab spring.
“We will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities,” Obama cried. But only if they were fighting to reclaim them from Islamic State.
Between 2011, when peaceful demonstrators demanded the removal of a Ba’athist dictatorship that has tyrannised Syria since 1963, and April this year, the UN said that 191,000 people had been killed – the figure is “probably an underestimate”, it added. About nine million Syrians have fled their homes. To comprehend the catastrophe the Assad regime has brought, you must imagine an apocalyptic Britain where the entire population of London – and then some – run for their lives. Assad has launched chemical weapons attacks on the suburbs of his own capital. The gallant Syrian air force has dropped incendiary bombs on school playgrounds. Uncounted thousands, including relief workers, lawyers and doctors, have disappeared into his prisons where their jailers have beaten, mutilated andraped them.
Obama might have thrown every condemnation he threw at Islamic State at the Assad regime. Both have “terrorised all whom they come across” in Syria. Both have subjected “mothers, sisters and daughters to rape as a weapon of war”. Both “have gunned down innocent children”. But while Obama said Islamic State had shocked “the conscience of the world”, he could not manage one word about Assad.
I accept that the conscience of the world is as flexible as an iPhone. And I have mentioned before how Mr Obama’s bends with the wind. But his behaviour, and that of the wider west, remains extraordinary. We are going to war against a barbaric enemy, but no one is talking about the barbarism that helped create it. That airstrikes against Assad’s enemies must strengthen his chances of survival is not a fit subject for discussion.
I am tempted to write that Obama’s willingness to aid criminals is Nixonian. Authorities on the Middle East are already looking at the diplomatic exchanges with Tehran and speculating that he is edging towards his own Nixon in China moment. Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House says that Assad must be waiting for the news that Obama is prepared to allow him to dominate Syria and his Iranian puppetmasters to dominate Iraq and Lebanon as well. Perhaps, however, the comparison with the worst of his predecessors is too kind to Obama. Nixon and Kissinger would do anything and support anyone who was against the Soviet Union. For all their crimes, they had a brutal singlemindedness. I struggle to find coherence of any kind in Obama’s foreign policy.
Assad does not care. He knows he is winning, whatever the president’s motives. Ali Haidar, his “minister for national reconciliation”, purred like the Queen on hearing the result of the Scottish referendum when he described the US attacks on Islamic State targets. “What has happened so far is proceeding in the right direction in terms of informing the Syrian government and by not targeting Syrian military installations.”
I am not disputing the need to confront Islamic State. Militant Islam will drive the Christians and Zoroastrians out of Iraq like the Jews before them. The Kurds, who could be our truest friends in the region, may suffer yet more massacres. Britain has a particular moral responsibility to confront radical Islam when our “vibrant” and “diverse” society has furnished Islamic State with so many willing executioners. (Or would have a moral responsibility if our armed forces had not lost their battle with George Osborne and been left in no condition to confront anyone.)
But just as the west won’t recognise the right of the Kurds to self-determination, so it won’t accept that you cannot fight Islamic State in Syria without offering hope to those who oppose Assad. Instead it carries on propagating the authentically orientalist lie that Syrians are either Ba’athists or Islamists, and there is no alternative to tyranny.
I do not believe the line will hold. How long will the Sunni Arab states stay in Obama’s coalition when they see their Shia enemies benefiting? How will Syrians react to the double standard?
It is as if every liberal chant of the last decade is returning to haunt Obama. You will remember hearing, or perhaps said yourself, that we should concentrate on the “root causes” of terrorism. The root cause of Islamic State is Shia sectarianism in Iraq and sectarian mass murder in Syria. Mohammed Antabli, a leader of Syrian exiles in Britain, told me how he took British and European politicians to Turkey’s border with Syria at the start of the war and warned them that Islamism would flourish if the west did nothing for the moderate opposition. And so it has.
You will remember hearing, or perhaps said yourself, that we must not alienate “the Arab street”. Kassem Eid, an opposition activist now in exile in the US, said what streets were left in Syria were alienated beyond measure. The democratic world has done nothing. No no-fly zone. No attempt to slow Assad down, even for a day, even when he crossed Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons. Every Syrian activist I spoke to repeated his assertion that western hypocrisies were driving support for Islamism.
In his 1 September, 1939, on the eve of another war, WH Auden wrote: “I and the public know/ that all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”
A great evil has been done to Syria. I cannot see how any western project against Islamic State can prosper until the “conscience of the world” provides redress by saying it will not tolerate the continuation of the Assad regime. At present, however, the world won’t even acknowledge evil’s existence. We must expect evil in return.