Max Forte's List: Syria
about 14 hours ago
Obama says he was ‘skeptical’ of Syria rebel boondoggle from the start
The failed $500 million program to set up a proxy army in Syria was a test, US President Barack Obama told ’60 Minutes’, adding that he had doubts about the project from the start. He also ruled out sending US troops to Syria.
“I've been skeptical from the get-go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria,” Obama said in the interview. “My goal has been to try to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that's willing to fight ISIL?”
Broadcast Sunday night, Obama’s interview with CBS correspondent Steve Kroft was recorded last Tuesday, days before the administration announced it would stop attempting to train a force of ‘moderate’ militants in Syria.
After spending hundreds of millions of dollars, Washington had only “four or five” fighters to show for the effort. Most of the equipment ended up in jihadist hands as US-trained rebels were captured or deserted without ever facing Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) in battle.
Asked why he went through with the program he doubted, Obama responded that part of what he has to do “is to try different things,” adding another reason was “because we also have partners on the ground that are invested and interested in seeing some sort of resolution to this problem.”
“And they wanted you to do it,” Kroft asked.
“Well, no. That's not what I said,” Obama replied.
Obama’s efforts to reframe almost every question and at times change the subject appeared to irk Kroft, who at one point remarked, “I feel like I'm being filibustered, Mr. President.”
The White House said last Friday it was dropping the training program because it had not lived up to expectations, but said it would continue providing weapons to the ‘moderate’ Syrian militants.
“Look, there's no doubt that it did not work,” Obama said of the program, but argued that there was no “silver bullet” approach to solving the Syrian problem. Washington would continue to support the ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria in hopes of seeing regime change in Damascus, but “what we are not going to do is to try to reinsert ourselves in a military campaign inside of Syria,” Obama said.
“What we have not been able to do so far, and I'm the first to acknowledge this, is to change the dynamic inside of Syria,” Obama said. According to him, victory over Islamic State will depend on the Sunni population in Syria and Iraq “working in a concerted way” with the US-backed coalition.
The president stuck close to the official US line, blaming the government of President Bashar Assad for the failure of US-backed rebels to fight against Islamic State forces. As long as Assad remains in power, getting “those folks” to focus on IS was difficult, Obama argued.
It will be this “community of nations” to eventually defeat Islamic State, Obama said, dismissing the Russian air campaign as nothing more than a desperate effort to save Assad.
Since September 30, Russian aircraft have struck over 100 terrorist targets inside Syria, from artillery positions to command centers and ammunition depots. Hundreds of militants have deserted and fled the country, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
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Amnesty International on Tuesday accused a Syrian Kurdish militia supported by the United States of committing war crimes by driving out thousands of non-Kurdish civilians and demolishing their homes.
The London-based rights watchdog documented cases in more than a dozen villages in Kurdish-controlled areas where residents were forced to flee or had their homes destroyed by the YPG, or People's Protection Units, who have seized swathes of northern Syria from Islamic State militants this year.
Amnesty's senior crisis adviser Lama Fakih said the autonomous Kurdish administration was "flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes".
YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said: "Very simply, this is a false allegation."
But Amnesty quoted Ciwan Ibrahim, the head of the Kurdish internal security force known as the Asayish, as admitting there had been forced displacements, but saying they were "isolated incidents" and that civilians had been moved for their own safety.
In a 38-page report, Amnesty said the forced displacement of mostly non-Kurds after the YPG had captured villages was often in retaliation for "residents' perceived sympathies with, or ties to, members of IS or other armed groups".
It said it had interviewed 37 people who said they had experienced Kurdish abuses in Hasaka and Raqqa provinces.
"They (YPG) pulled us out of our homes and began burning them ... Then they brought the bulldozers and they began demolishing the homes," one was quoted as saying.
Amnesty said militiamen had threatened civilians with coalition air strikes if they did not abandon their homes.
The YPG has proved the most effective partner on the ground for a U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State. The Asayish says it has received training from Western states.
The YPG has previously denied Turkish accusations of deliberately driving out Arab and Turkmen civilians from areas under its control, especially the town of Tel Abyad.
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U.S. forces airdropped small arms ammunition and other supplies to Syrian Arab rebels, barely two weeks after Russia raised the stakes in the long-running civil war by intervening on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.
One military official said the drop, by Air Force C-17 cargo planes in northern Syria on Sunday, was part of a revamped U.S. strategy announced last week to help rebels in Syria battling Islamic State militants.
Last week, Washington shelved a program to train and equip "moderate" rebels opposed to Assad who would join the fight against Islamic State.
The only group on the ground to have success against Islamic State while cooperating with the U.S.-led coalition is a Kurdish militia, the YPG, which has carved out an autonomous zone in northern Syria and advanced deep into Islamic State's stronghold Raqqa province.
On Monday, the YPG announced a new alliance with small groups of Arab fighters, which could help deflect criticism that it fights only on behalf of Kurds. Washington has indicated it could direct funding and weapons to Arab commanders on the ground who cooperate with the YPG.
Amnesty International, in a new report, accused the YPG of committing war crimes by driving out thousands of non-Kurdish civilians and demolishing their homes in Kurdish-controlled areas. A YPG spokesman called it "a false allegation."
The U.S. military confirmed dropping supplies to opposition fighters vetted by the United States but would say no more about the groups that received the supplies or the type of equipment in the airdrop.
Syrian Arab rebels said they had been told by Washington that new weapons were on their way to help them launch a joint offensive with their Kurdish allies on the city of Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital.
The Russian intervention in the four-year Syrian war has caught U.S. President Barack Obama's administration off guard. Washington has been trying to defeat Islamic State while still calling for Assad's downfall.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was rebuffed in his bid to gain support for his country's bombing campaign, with Saudi sources saying they had warned the Kremlin leader of dangerous consequences and Europe issuing its strongest criticism yet.
The head of Syria's Nusra Front, an offshoot of al Qaeda, took aim on Monday at the Russian intervention, urging insurgents to escalate attacks on the strongholds of Assad's minority Alawite sect in retaliation for what he called Russia's indiscriminate killing of Muslim Sunnis.
Describing Russia's action as a new Christian crusade from the east that was doomed to fail, the audio message from Abu Mohamad al-Golani posted on YouTube said: "The war in Cham (Syria) will make the Russians forget the horrors of what they faced in Afghanistan."
"The new Russian invasion is the last dart in the weaponry of the enemies of Muslims and the enemies of Syria," said Golani, whose extremist Muslim Sunni fundamentalist group is one of the most powerful forces fighting Assad's government.
Putin met Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of a Formula One race in a Russian resort on Sunday.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said those talks, along with discussions with the United States, had yielded progress on the conflict, although Moscow, Washington and Riyadh did not agree in full "as yet".
A Saudi source said the defense minister, a son of the Saudi king, had told Putin that Russia's intervention would escalate the war and inspire militants from around the world to go there to fight.
Riyadh would go on supporting Assad's opponents and demand that he leave power, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
European foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, issued a statement calling on Moscow to halt its bombing of Assad's moderate enemies immediately.
They were unable to agree on whether Assad should have any role in ending the crisis, but they did decide to extend sanctions by essentially freezing the assets of the spouses of senior Syrian figures.
The war has taken 250,000 lives and caused a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and Europe.
Moscow says it targets only banned terrorist groups in Syria, primarily Islamic State. In its briefings, it describes all of the targets it strikes as belonging to Islamic State.
But most strikes have taken place in areas held by other opposition groups, including many that are supported by Arab states, Turkey and the West in a war that has also assumed a sectarian dimension with Shi'ite Iran at odds with Saudi Arabia's Sunni rulers.
RUSSIAN AIR SUPPORT
Syrian government forces and their allies from the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, backed by Iranian military officers, have launched a massive ground offensive in coordination with the Russian air support.
They fought their fiercest clashes on Monday since the assault began, advancing in strategically important territory near the north-south highway linking Syria's main cities.
Russian warplanes carried out at least 30 air strikes on the town of Kafr Nabuda in Hama province in western Syria, and hundreds of shells hit the area.
The Syrian army announced the capture of Kafr Nabuda and four other villages in Hama province. It also said the army had seized Jub al-Ahmar, a highland area in Latakia province that will put more rebel positions in the nearby Ghab Plain within range of the army's artillery.
The U.N. diplomat trying to convene talks to end the war said he would hold talks in Russia on Tuesday and then in Washington.
Syria without Assad would be like Libya – bishop
If Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were removed from power now, Syria would become like Libya, a Syrian bishop has warned.
Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo, Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Hasakeh-Nisibi, said “the Syrians will decide if and when Assad has to go away, and not the Daesh [the so-called Islamic State] or the West,” continuing “and it is certain that if Assad goes away now, Syria will become like Libya”.
He also warned that the ISIS-besieged city of Deir al Zor has run out of food so that its population is “literally starving”.
The archbishops’ comments came in the aftermath of American criticism of Russian attacks on anti-Assad rebels linked with al-Qaeda. “US Senator John McCain protested saying that the Russians are not bombing the positions of the Islamic State, but rather the anti-Assad rebels trained by the CIA,” the archbishop said, continuing, “I find these words are disturbing. They represent a blatant admission that behind the war against Assad there is also the CIA.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has long backed President Assad, claims western intervention in the Middle East has caused the current Middle East crisis. Speaking in the UN last month he said “an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself”, criticising how “policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned”.
Calling for a coalition to fight Islamist terrorism, he said that “any attempts to play games with terrorists, let alone to arm them, are not just short-sighted but fire-hazardous”.
The Russian president’s UN address was followed by air attacks on a succession of targets identified by the Syrian government, which is believed to be responsible for the majority of deaths in the country since the civil war began in early 2011. Among those attacked were Islamist rebels including Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the so-called ‘Army of Conquest’.
“Western propaganda keeps talking about moderate rebels, who do not exist,” said Archbishop Hindo, continuing, “there is something very disturbing about all this: there is a superpower that since September 11 protests because the Russians hit the militias of al-Qaeda in Syria. What does it mean? Al-Qaeda is now a US ally, just because in Syria it has a different name? But do they really despise our intelligence and our memory?”
Russian planes have since been reported to have attacked ISIS targets at the city of Palmyra, where a 2000-year-old triumphal arch was destroyed on Monday.
Russian Cruise Missiles Help Syrians Go on the Offensive
OCT. 7, 2015
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Russia and Syria unleashed a coordinated assault by land, air and sea on Wednesday, seeking to reverse recent gains by rebel groups that were beginning to encroach on the Syrian coast, a critical bastion of power for President Bashar al-Assad.
Moscow said it had fired 26 cruise missiles at Syrian targets from naval vessels in the Caspian Sea, 900 miles away, though it was not immediately clear whether they had struck in the area of the ground offensive.
Although in its early stages, the coordinated attack has revealed the outline of a newly deepened and operationally coordinated alliance among Syria, Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to an official with the alliance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military strategy.
The official said the Russian intervention — a result of plans by the four allies over at least four to six months — had rejuvenated Syrian government forces and put to rest any doubts about Russia’s commitment to the Syrian president.
Despite Western calls for his departure, Mr. Assad remains in power more than four years into a war that has killed a quarter of a million people and displaced half the country.
“No more questions,” the official said in tones of renewed confidence and optimism. “Not at any level.”
For Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents alike, regionally and internationally, Russia’s increasing willingness to throw its full military power behind him is a game-changer. For his supporters, it gives a respite to depleted ranks of fighters and bolsters morale. For his opponents, it means taking on a vastly stronger foe and severely constrains options — for instance, virtually ruling out the imposition of a no-fly zone or buffer zone along the border with Turkey.
Russia has focused its earliest operations on the insurgent coalition known as the Army of Conquest, or Jaish al-Fatah, rather than on the Islamic State, according to the official from the pro-government alliance, because it is the Army of Conquest’s positions that most urgently threaten the crucial government-held coastal province of Latakia, while Islamic State forces are farther to the east and can later be isolated and hit. Latakia is Mr. Assad’s family’s ancestral home and the heartland of his fellow Alawites, who provide a critical bloc of support.
Wednesday was the first time since the spring that the government’s forces had moved “from defense to offense,” the official said.
The assault seemed to focus on an area straddling northern Hama Province and southern Idlib Province, where insurgent command of high ground threatens the coast. The initial ground attacks took place around three villages that insurgents consider the first line of defense of the strategic Jebel al-Zawiyah area.
The bombardment appeared to reach new levels of intensity in some places. One video showed white smoke rising far above a village’s minarets, while another appeared to show at least a dozen explosions — the person filming described the weapons as rockets — in less than five minutes.
A number of times in Wednesday’s fighting, insurgents fired advanced TOW antitank missiles, supplied covertly by the C.I.A., at Syria’s Russian-made tanks, leaving the impression of a proxy war between Russia and the United States. Rebel groups, including two that have received American aid, Division 13 and Suqour al-Ghab, posted videos that showed the guided missiles sailing toward approaching tanks and destroying them.
The main thrust of the offensive was aimed at areas held by insurgent groups that oppose both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State, including the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. But there were airstrikes elsewhere in Syria, according to SANA, the state news agency, which said that Syrian and Russian warplanes had worked together to attack targets in Al Bab, a city in eastern Aleppo Province long held by the Islamic State.
While Russian officials said the missiles launched from the Caspian Sea had targeted the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, Western officials said the great majority of the attacks had been directed against rebel groups fighting Mr. Assad. There were no reports of large explosions in Islamic State-held areas to the east, making it less likely that the cruise missiles had hit the group’s strongholds.
The news of the missile attacks came in a televised meeting between the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, and President Vladimir V. Putin.
“That we fired from the territory of the Caspian Sea, at a range greater than 1,500 kilometers, and hit targets precisely, this shows high qualifications,” Mr. Putin said, referring to naval crew members. Mr. Shoigu said no civilians had been injured.
The ground operation will eventually widen to include new contingents of fighters from Hezbollah, which has long played a key role on the front lines, as well as the current configuration of Syrian forces backed by Russians in the air, according to the alliance official. In addition, Iranian military advisers have been active on the ground in Syria and would most likely be involved in such a crucial operation.
There were no reports of Russians’ joining in the fighting, though an official refused to rule out the possibility of “volunteers” becoming involved.
The ground offensive is meant first to push the insurgents out of northern Hama Province, and then to move north into Idlib Province, according to the official and to diplomats and analysts in the region. In addition to Jebel al-Zawiyah, the government is trying to reclaim Jisr al-Shoughour, a city in Idlib that insurgents captured in March, a victory that was considered an ominous sign for the Syrian government.
The Army of Conquest is an Islamist coalition that includes the Nusra Front. Often fighting alongside it are more secular groups calling themselves the Free Syrian Army, including some that have received American aid. Russia has so far refused to make a distinction between the Army of Conquest and the Islamic State, labeling both groups as terrorists. Some Free Syrian Army groups have been hit in Russian strikes.
On Wednesday, insurgents said they had managed to blunt the start of the new ground offensive. “The regime stopped progressing, but the mortars are still hitting us,” said Abu Imad, a fighter with the Islamist group Jund al-Aqsa, who gave only a nom de guerre for safety. He said a united response by several rebel factions had helped repel the attack.
One fighter with Division 13 was being hailed as the “TOW king” after he was said to have destroyed four tanks using TOW missiles. Activists circulated pictures of him beaming over a celebratory meal and of other fighters riding in a captured tank.
When asked at a news conference in Rome about the ground offensive, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter lamented “the Assad regime’s use of violence against its own people.”
Mr. Carter added, “To the extent that Russia enables that, that’s the fundamental reason we believe Russia is making a mistake in their actions in Syria.”
Backed by Russian airstrikes, Syrian troops launch offensive
The attacks target areas in Syria that are important to President Bashar Assad but that not controlled by the Islamic State group.
Albert Aji Nataliya Vasilyeva Associated Press, Published on Wed Oct 07 2015
Photos View photos
DAMASCUS, SYRIA—Syrian government troops launched a ground offensive Wednesday in the country’s central region under cover of Russian airstrikes, a Damascus official said. And in the first salvo from the sea, Russian warships fired missiles into Syria, with Moscow saying the targets were militants.
The latest developments — exactly a week after Russia began launching airstrikes in Syria — add a new layer to the fray in the complex war that has torn this Mideast country apart since 2011.
In these attacks, Moscow is mainly targeting central and northwestern Syria, strategic regions that are the gateway to President Bashar Assad’s strongholds in Damascus and along the Mediterranean coast.
The strikes appear to have given Assad new confidence to try to retake some lost ground. According to the Syrian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the government push is concentrated in the adjacent provinces of Hama and Idlib where rebels have been advancing in the past months.
The Islamic State group is not present in the areas where the fighting is underway.
Wednesday’s offensive in central Syria and the ensuing clashes with militants, including Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, was the first major ground fighting since Moscow began launching air raids in Syria last week.
In Moscow, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia is using warships in the Caspian Sea to target the Islamic State group in Syria. Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin in televised remarks that Russia on Wednesday morning carried out 26 missile strikes from four warships of its Caspian Sea flotilla. Shoigu insisted the operation destroyed all the targets and that the strikes did not hit civilian areas.
Shoigu also said Russia has carried out 112 airstrikes on IS positions since its operation began on Sept. 30.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a government offensive began on four fronts early Wednesday in the northwestern provinces of Idlib and neighbouring Hama. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman described it as “the most intense fighting in months.”
In Syria, the leader of a U.S.-backed rebel group, Tajammu Alezzah confirmed the ground offensive in a text message to the media, claiming there were Russian and Iranian soldiers in the operation.
The rebel group’s commander, Maj. Jamil al-Saleh, said the offensive is targeting areas almost totally controlled by rebel groups.
The Observatory, which has a network of activists on the ground, said the main launching point for government forces is the town of Morek on the highway that links the capital, Damascus, with the snorthern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and former commercial centre. Rebels have controlled areas on the highway since 2012.
The Observatory said a total of 37 Russian air raids areas hit the area of fighting on Wednesday alone.
The Observatory said two helicopters — believed to be Russian — were seen flying at low altitude in Morek. It added that militants opened fire at the helicopters without striking them. It was not immediately clear if the pilots were Russian or Syrian. The Syrian military has Russian-made helicopters in its air force.
Though the Islamic State has no presence in the areas hit Wednesday, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, is active in central and northern parts of the country — as are the Western-backed rebels.
In Turkey, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu renewed criticism of Russia’s airstrikes in Syria, insisting they were mainly targeting the moderate Syrian opposition and therefore helping strengthen IS. He asked that Russia also respect Turkey’s security concerns over Syria.
Davutoglu called on Russia to respect Turkey’s air space, saying the country would not “make any concessions” on matters concerning its border security.
Russian warplanes violated Turkey’s borders on two separate occasions over the weekend, drawing strong protests from Turkey’s NATO allies. Turkey scrambled F-16s in response and also summoned the Russian ambassador to lodge protests.
The United States and its NATO allies denounced Russia on Monday for violating Turkish air space along the frontier with Syria, and Ankara threatened to respond if provoked again, raising the prospect of direct confrontation between the Cold War enemies.
NATO summoned the ambassadors of its 28 member states for an emergency meeting to respond to what Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called "unacceptable violations of Turkish air space".
Moscow's unexpected move last week to launch air strikes in Syria has brought the greatest threat of an accidental clash between Russian and Western forces since the Cold War.
Russian war planes and those of the United States and its allies are now flying combat missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two, with Moscow repeatedly targeting insurgents trained and armed by Washington's allies.
Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO, scrambled two F-16 jets on Saturday after a Russian aircraft crossed into its airspace near its southern province of Hatay, the Turkish foreign ministry said.
In a second incident, the Turkish military said a MiG-29 fighter jet - an aircraft used both by Russia and Syria's own air force - had harassed two of its F-16s by locking its radar on to them on Sunday as they patrolled the border.
Turkey summoned Moscow's ambassador to protest against the violation and said Russia would be held "responsible for any undesired incident that may occur" if it were repeated. Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, as well as key NATO partners.
By Monday afternoon, Russia had not given its own public account of the incidents. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that the Russian ambassador had been summoned and said "some facts were mentioned there which are to be checked", but gave no further details.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he had been told by Russia that the violation was a "mistake" that would not happen again.
"Turkey's rules of engagement apply to all planes, be they Syrian, Russian or from elsewhere ... Necessary steps would be taken against whoever violates Turkey’s borders, even if it’s a bird," he said in a live interview on HaberTurk TV.
"For Russia, which long opposed foreign intervention in Syria and blocked UN Security Council resolutions, to be actively involved in Syria is both a contradiction and a move that has escalated the crisis."
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington doubted the incursions were an accident.
"We’re deeply concerned about it and consider it something that just contributes to our overall sense that there’s real strategic and tactical problems with the way Russia is conducting itself in Syria right now."
The United States and its allies are waging their own air campaign against Islamic State fighters in Syria, while demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down and supporting other insurgents fighting against him.
Russia says it is targeting Islamic State, but the anti-Assad coalition including Washington, European powers, Turkey and most Arab states, say Moscow has mainly targeted other insurgents and hit few Islamic State targets.
The potential confrontation comes at a time when relations between Russia and the West are at their worst since the Cold War, with the United States and European Union having imposed financial sanctions on Moscow over its intervention in Ukraine.
Over the past year, NATO has repeatedly accused Moscow of sending planes to violate the air space of the alliance's member countries in Europe.
Speaking during a trip to Spain, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter compared Moscow's effort to bolster Assad to tethering itself to a sinking ship.
"By taking military action in Syria against moderate groups targets, Russia has escalated the civil war," Carter said in a speech in Madrid.
More than 40 Syrian insurgent groups, including some of the most powerful groups fighting against Assad and armed by Arab states, called on regional states to forge an alliance against Russia and Assad's other big foreign backer, Iran.
Regional cooperation was needed to counter "the Russian-Iranian alliance occupying Syria", they said. "Civilians have been directly targeted in a manner that reminds us of the scorched earth policy pursued by Russia in its past wars."
By infuriating Ankara, Russian President Vladimir Putin risks adding another name his costly and expanding enemies list: fast-growing Turkey is a big buyer of Russian gas and Moscow has announced ambitious plans to build pipelines across it to reach markets further west.
Turkey is one of Assad's fiercest foes in the region, has by far the biggest army on the border with Syria and has taken in the largest number of refugees.
President Tayyip Erdogan said Russia's defense of Assad was a "grave mistake".
"Assad has committed state terrorism, and unfortunately you find Russia and Iran defending (him)," Erdogan was quoted by the Hurriyet newspaper as telling a crowd of supporters in Strasbourg, France, late on Sunday.
"Those countries that collaborate with the regime will account for it in history," he said.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Twitter: "(The) Russian incursion into Turkish air space raises stakes in what is already a high risk situation."
Oct 03, 15
'Russia kills US-backed Syrian rebels in second day of air strikes as Iran prepares for ground offensive' - live updates
Russian jets bomb rebel positions in Syria including rural areas near the north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour, a day after launching air strikes. Follow latest developments here
10:11PM BST 01 Oct 2015
Here is our summary of events in Syria on Thursday, from Richard Spencer, Middle East Editor, Nabih Bulos in Beirut and Ruth Sherlock in Washington:
• Iran was on Thursday night moving up its ground forces in Syria in preparation for an attack to reclaim rebel-held territory under the cover of Russian air strikes, according to sources close to Damascus. Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia which has come to the Assad regime’s rescue in battle-fronts across the country in the past two years, is being prepared to capitalise on the strikes, a Syrian figure close to the regime told The Telegraph
• Sources in Lebanon told Reuters that Iran, which is the main sponsor and tactical adviser to Hizbollah, was sending in hundreds of its own troops to reinforce them. Iran made no comment on the claims but Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said the move would be an "apt and powerful illustration" that Russia's military actions had worsened the conflict.
• A Hizbollah-backed advance would fit the pattern of Russian air-strikes, which have predominantly targeted those rebels not aligned to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant who currently present the gravest threat on the ground to core regime territory.
• The long-term aim would be to defeat or demoralise the non-Isil opposition, so that Isil became the regime’s only enemy. That would force the West to back President Bashar al-Assad against it. “They want to clean the country of non-Isil rebels, and then the US will work with them as Isil will be the only enemy," the Damascus source said.
• The Russians continued their aerial bombardment on Thursday. Targets included Jisr al-Shughour and Jabal al-Zawiya, areas under the control of Jaish al-Fatah, the Army of Conquest, an alliance of Islamist groups which have won significant victories against the regime this year. They also included Isil targets in Raqqa and Deir Ezzour provinces, including a Syrian Air Force base which fell to Isil earlier this year after a long siege.
• The Kremlin admitted on Thursday that targets included non-Isil targets - something it had previously denied - and that its aim was to shore the regime “in its weak spots”. The White House last night said the failure to discriminate between Isil and other rebel groups was a “grave miscalculation”.
• Among the dead from Wednesday’s strikes was said to be a prominent rebel leader in north Homs province, Captain Iyad al-Deek, a former regime officer who defected early in the uprising.
• The rebels have promised to take the fight to the Russians, some in blood-curdling comments online. “Is it not time for the knight to mount his steed? Is it not time to cut off the heads? What are we waiting for? What remains?” said one man, Mohammad al-Maghaweer, who claimed to be a front-line fighter with Jaish al-Fatah.
• The rebels also claimed there were a number of civilians among the dead. "The mosque was virtually destroyed, and there was a body under the ruins, and there were eight wounded, among them a child,” said Tareq Abdul-Haq, a media activist who visited Jisr al-Shughour after the Russian bombing. He said a “poor, civilian” neighbourhood had been hit.
• Russia is preparing both a United Nations resolution purporting to cover both its bombing campaign and that of the US-led anti-Isil coalition under one formulation, and a new round of peace talks.
US and Russian military officials spoke for a little over an hour on Thursday evening about how to improve the safety of air crews conducting simultaneous air strikes in Syria and agreed to consider each other's proposals, a Pentagon spokesman said.
"Both sides agreed to consider the proposals and provide feedback in the coming days," Peter Cook, the Pentagon spokesman, said in a news briefing.
Cook said Elissa Slotkin, an acting assistant secretary of defense who was on the call, had noted to the Russian officials US concerns that Russian strikes so far had not targeted strongholds of Islamic State militants.
Richard Spencer, Middle East Editor, has this handy Q&A of why Russia has launched Syrian air strikes.
Why would Russia bomb non-Isil groups?
The same spokesmen are sometimes vague - referring to Isil and terrorists in the same breath. By “terrorists” they mean the same as Bashar al-Assad - anyone part of the armed opposition. And it so happens that the gravest threat to the regime’s core areas - Damascus, and the central and western plains to the coast - comes from non-Isil rebels. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president has also said that he believes the survival of the Assad regime is very important, so it makes sense to target them first.
Has Russia not bombed Isil at all?
Reports are coming in that on Thursday morning there were strikes on a former regime air base near the Isil capital Raqqa and on Isil positions near Deir Ezzour city in eastern Syria. It is not quite clear whether there was any particular tactical purpose to these strikes.
If the regime is fighting Isil, surely anything that helps it is a good thing?
The Syrian war is a lot more complicated than that. The regime long ago gave up any hope of recapturing Isil-held areas in the near future. So the number of “live” battle-fronts between the regime and Isil are comparatively few. However, there is a fierce war going on between Isil and other rebel groups, so it may be that by bombing them the Russians are actually helping Isil. Russia denies that.
Its strategy may be that if it can help the regime defeat the non-Isil rebels, the world will gather round and help Damascus seize control of Isil-held areas too.
Are the non-Isil groups being bombed terrorists?
The groups they are bombing a spectrum of opposition groups from an alliance called Jaish al-Fatah - Army of Conquest - to brigades of “moderate” rebels backed and even, according to one account, trained by the US. Jaish al-Fatah made up of hardline groups that include Jabhat al-Nusra, which is aligned to al-Qaeda, so they are formally designated by the West and the United Nations as terrorists.
What will happen next?
The big question is whether these bombing raids are followed up by a ground offensive. A Telegraph source in Damascus said Hizbollah and the regime are preparing a major ground offensive on rebel-held parts of Homs following the Russian aerial bombardment while another report said Iranian reinforcements are arriving in Syria to assist in an attack also on rebel-held areas.
That will send a challenge to the rebels - and their backers in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia: do they also want to escalate the conflict?
Turkey: Russia strikes are worrying and last thing we need
Feridun Sinirlioglu, Turkey's foreign minister, has said he is concerned by the Russian air strikes and described it as a "very worrying development".
We feel serious concern over the information that Russia's air strikes in Syria targeted opposition positions instead of Daesh (Isil) and that as a result civilians also lost their lives.
"If these reports are confirmed, then this is a very worrying development.
"This would escalate the crisis and is the last thing we need in Syria's tragic and chaotic environment.
"In this case... the problems will increase for the Syrian people."
Oct 01, 15
Russia bombs Syria targets for 2nd day, including U.S.-backed rebels
Russian officials acknowledge that non-ISIS groups are being targeted as well
The Associated Press Posted: Oct 01, 2015
Russian jets carried out a second day of strikes in Syria Thursday, and some activists claimed that the targets included rebels backed by the United States.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denied reports that civilians were killed in any Russian airstrikes.
"We are ready for such information attacks," he said in a live broadcast from the Kremlin. "The first reports of civilian casualties came even before our jets took off."
Russian Defence Ministry Igor Konashenkov said in televised comments that Russian aircraft damaged or destroyed 12 targets in Syria belonging to the Islamic State group including a command centre and two ammunition depots.
Officials acknowledged, however, that other unidentified groups were being targeted as well.
Konashenkov said Russian Su-25M and Su-25 jets made 20 sorties between Wednesday and Thursday morning, and he insisted that civilian areas were not targeted.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said airstrikes in the central province of Hama on Thursday hit locations of the U.S-backed rebel group, Tajamu Alezzah. The British group said Tajamu Alezzah was also targeted on Wednesday.
Russia's air campaign in support of Syrian government forces began Wednesday in what Putin called a pre-emptive strike against the militants.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday that Russia was going after IS militants as well as a "list" of other groups.
"These organizations are well known and the targets are chosen in co-ordination with the armed forces of Syria," he said, without giving specific names.
On Wednesday, however, Sergei Ivanov, Putin's chief of staff, said "the operation's target is solely air support for the Syrian government forces in their fight against the ISIS."
Speaking later in the day, Putin said Russia would be fighting "gangs of international terrorists" and then went on to talk about IS.
Asked Thursday whether Putin was satisfied with the way the Russian campaign was going, Peskov said it was "too early" to say.
In Paris, Russian Ambassador Alexander Orlov insisted that Russian warplanes in Syria were hitting at the same extremists targeted by the United States and denied American claims that its military failed to co-ordinate the airstrikes, describing the allegations as a "war of disinformation."
Orlov said the targets were installations for Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, "two terrorist organizations recognized as such."
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the Russians appeared to have targeted areas that did not include ISIS militants and complained Moscow did not use formal channels to give advance notice of its airstrikes to Washington, which is conducting its own airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State group.
The U.S. and Russia agree on the need to fight the Islamic State but not about what to do with President Bashar Assad. The Syrian civil war, which grew out of an uprising against Assad, has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to other countries in the Middle East and Europe.
With American and allied airstrikes daily, and now Russian warplanes in the Syrian airspace, the war is taking on a dangerous new dimension.
4 areas hit
Orlov said Russian officials warned the Americans "via confidential channels" of where they planned to strike. He also noted a co-ordination centre was being set up in Baghdad that would include Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians and Russians — and any other country that wants to participate.
Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the UN that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed 36 civilians, with five children among the dead. The claim could not be independently verified.
Iran's Foreign Ministry said it fully supports Russian airstrikes against "terrorist groups" in Syria.
The ministry's spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, said the "Islamic Republic of Iran considers military action by Russia against armed terrorist groups to be a step toward fighting terrorism and toward resolving the current crisis" in Syria.
Her statement was carried by the official IRNA news agency.
Oct 01, 15
Russia makes intentions clear with choice of targets in Syrian air strikes Add to ...
The Globe and Mail
It is somewhat telling that one of the first images of the Russian bombardment of Syria had nothing to do with Syria.
Shortly after Russian planes began bombing the war-battered country, several Middle Eastern commentators and activists (some of them directly or indirectly affiliated with the Islamic State) began circulating a picture of Russian priests “blessing” a fighter jet on the runway.
“Orthodox priests bless a Russian plane before the holy war in Syria,” one widely followed Islamist wrote.
In fact, the picture is a year old, taken during Russia’s Crimean engagement. But its propaganda value quickly proved too good to pass up – used by supporters of the Islamic State as proof that Russia’s bombing constitutes not only an attempt to keep the current Syrian regime in power, but the beginning of a new Crusade.
Besides hard-line supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – for whom Russia is the single most important international benefactor – it’s difficult to find many observers within Syria or the Middle East who see Russia’s new military involvement as a positive development. For Islamists, liberals and myriad Syrian opposition figures, Russian air strikes appear as proof that the current war, bloody as it has been, will soon enter an even more intractable phase.
“Russia’s increased military involvement in Syria will result in prolonging Syria’s civil war, additional difficulties in the already faltering war against ISIL, bringing the non-ISIL opposition closer to ISIL and a substantial increase in regional tension,” noted prominent Syrian activist and researcher Samir Altaqi, who runs the Orient Research Centre, using another term for Islamic State.
“Russia, a harsh [critic] of U.S. interventionist policy in the Middle East, is now implementing its own interventionist policy.”
Russia has framed its air strikes as being aimed directly at the Islamic State. However, it didn’t take long for members of various opposition factions – some of them considered moderate and supported by the United States – to claim that Russia was targeting them, not the terrorist organization.
Shortly after the Russian air strikes began, residents and reporters throughout Syria claimed the strikes were taking place in parts of the country that had essentially no Islamic State presence. Images of injured children and ruined buildings began to emerge from the northwestern Syrian town of Talbisah – which appears to have suffered some of the heaviest damage so far. However, Talbisah, located in the Homs Governorate, is an area where rebel groups opposed to both the Islamic State and the Assad regime hold considerable sway.
Indeed, according to the Institute for the Study of War, not a single Russian air strike has hit any known Islamic State territory – the nearest such territory is more than 50 kilometres away from any Russian bombardment site.
“All of the areas hit by Russian air strikes today were free of ISIL,” said Khaled Khoja, president of the Syrian National Coalition. Mr. Khoja also claimed the strikes killed 36 civilians.
The Russian government has so far dismissed any criticism of its bombing as propaganda. But the military incursion appears to have achieved a rare feat – in opposing it, both Syria’s most radical and most moderate groups find common ground.
For Syria’s rebel and opposition groups, the Russian bombings are evidence of Moscow’s concern only with propping up Mr. al-Assad, rather than fighting the Islamic State. And for the Islamic State, the bombings play into an alluring narrative – one in which the terrorist group finds itself at war with an infidel empire, with the future of the caliphate at stake.
It is, in many ways, a familiar narrative – one used by a previous generation of mujahedeen against the same foreign invader, some 30 years ago.
“The assumption that ISIL and the non-ISILwill fight each other … may prove self-deceptive,” Mr. Altaqi noted. “Lessons of … the Russian occupation of Afghanistan seem to have been forgotten.”
Oct 01, 15
Russian airstrikes hit parts of Syria with no ISIS fighters, U.S. says
'Don't listen to the Pentagon about the Russian strikes,' Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
CBC News Posted: Sep 30, 2015
Hours after Russia sharply escalated its role in the Syrian civil war by launching airstrikes, the U.S. claimed some bombardments are targeting areas with no ISIS presence — raising questions about Moscow's motives.
Russia launched airstrikes Wednesday in Syria targeting what it said were Islamic State positions, after weeks of upping the stakes by deploying aircraft, marines, air defence systems and drones to the war-torn country.
The same day, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made firm pronouncements at the United Nations Security Council about the need for the world to unite in the fight against terrorist groups.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry responded by announcing that the United States was prepared to welcome Russian actions if they are directed at the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda, and promising that the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS would "dramatically accelerate our efforts."
We would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL-affiliated targets are not operating," Kerry said, using one of several acronyms for the Islamic State.
There are concerns Russia's main intent is not to fight Islamic State militants but to protect its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Those appeared to bear out Wednesday evening, as U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said the Russian airstrikes seem to have hit areas that do not include Islamic State fighters.
"It does appear they were in in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces," Carter said. "The result of this kind of action will inevitably simply be to inflame the civil war in Syria."
Some U.S.-backed rebel groups claimed they were hit by Russian airstrikes but those claims could not be confirmed.
Carter also said he couldn't confirm reports that the Russian strikes may have hit civilians, but said, "if it occurred, it's yet another reason why this kind of Russian action can and will backfire very badly on Russia."
'Doomed to fail'
Carter's comments triggered a dismissive response from Lavrov, who told reporters flatly, "Don't listen to the Pentagon about the Russian strikes" and referred them to the Russian Defence Ministry website.
A key unanswered question is what the U.S. will do if the Russian airstrikes target moderate Syrian rebel groups working with the Western-led coalition in the fight against the Islamic State. Asked directly if the coalition would protect the U.S.-trained or -aligned groups, Carter did not answer.
Instead, Carter said the strikes highlight a contradiction in Russia's approach. He said the Russians should not be supporting the Assad government, and their military moves are "doomed to fail."
Addressing concerns that Russian and U.S. military efforts could run into each other, Kerry said he and Lavrov agreed that U.S. and Russian militaries should hold talks as soon as feasible, possibly on Thursday, to ensure the countries' forces do not come into conflict.
A U.S. official said the meeting would involve a U.S. military officer and a senior Defence Department civilian, and could be either by secure video teleconference or in person. The details are still being worked out.
Earlier Wednesday afternoon, Lavrov told foreign ministers of world powers that his country was circulating a draft UN Security Council resolution to augment efforts in Syria.
In remarks to the Security Council, Lavrov stressed a "maximally effective fight" and listed countries with a key role to play in resolving the chaos in Syria, including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar , the U.S. and even China.
"What we require are collective agreed approaches backed by Security Council," said Lavrov, whose country holds the council's rotating presidency this month.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the council his country strongly endorses Russia's latest moves and called French and other airstrikes in Syria that aren't co-ordinated with his government a "blatant contravention" of international law.
Assad himself also welcomed Wednesday's decision by Russia to send troops to his war-torn country, saying the military support from Moscow is the result of a Damascus request.
The Syrian civil war, which grew out of an uprising against Assad, has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to other countries in the Middle East and Europe.
Sep 28, 15
Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin spar over Syria in United Nations addresses
Putin also meets with Cuban President Raul Castro on the sidelines of UN General Assembly
The Associated Press Posted: Sep 28, 2015
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin sparred in speeches at the United Nations Monday over what to do about the conflict in Syria.
The U.S. has no desire to return to the Cold War, President Barack Obama told the United Nations Monday, hours before his first face-to-face meeting with Putin in nearly a year.
But he differed dramatically with Putin over strategies for Syria. As well, he said the world cannot stand by while Russia violates Ukraine's integrity and sovereignty.
If there are no consequences for Russia's annexation of Crimea, it could happen to any other country in the United Nations, he said.
Putin spoke later in the morning, saying it would be a "huge mistake" not to co-operate with the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against extremists such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
He urged the creation of a broad anti-terror coalition that would include the Syrian government troops.
He criticized the West for arming "moderate" rebels in Syria, saying they later come to join the Islamic State terror group.
Putin meets Cuban leader
Putin also met with Cuban President Raul Castro on the sidelines of the assembly and was expected to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as well.
For his part, Obama called Assad a tyrant "who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children."
In a speech that stressed tools such as sanctions and the benefits of negotiation, Obama also said he leads the most powerful military force the world has ever known and won't hesitate to use it in the defence of his country or its allies.
Obama said Russia's state-controlled media depict recent events as an example of a resurgent Russia. He said that view is shared by many U.S. politicians who think the world is in a new Cold War.
But Obama said that's not true: Ukrainians are more interested than ever in aligning with the West.
Obama said the U.S. doesn't want to isolate Russia. Rather, he wants Russia to engage diplomatically and resolve the crisis in a way that lets Ukraine determine its own future.
"We the nations of the world cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion …" he said. "We all have a stake in each other's success."
In stressing the benefits of co-operation, Obama pointed to Iran and this year's deal on limiting that country's nuclear program.
"We and our partners — including Russia and China — stuck together in complex negotiations that yielded an agreement …," he said.
"We want a strong Russia that's invested in working with us to strengthen the international system as a whole."
Despite little sign of a breakthrough on Syria or Ukraine, U.S. officials insisted it was still worthwhile for the leaders to meet — something that has happened rarely since Obama vowed to isolate Putin in retaliation for Russia's provocations in Ukraine.
"The president believed it would be irresponsible to let this occasion in which the two leaders would be in the same city pass without trying to test to see whether progress could be made on these newly intractable crises," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Sunday on ABC's This Week.
Ahead of their early evening meeting, Obama and Putin each have a chance to make their case to a broader audience of world leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.
Putin is expected to argue in his speech that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's military is the most capable force for fighting the Islamic State — the extremist group with key strongholds in Syria and Iraq — and therefore needs to be strengthened.
"There is no other solution to the Syrian crisis than strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism," Putin said in an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes that aired on the eve of his meeting with Obama.
Ahead of his UN visit, Putin deployed more weapons and troops to Syria. The Kremlin has also intensified its diplomatic efforts in recent months, launching a dialogue with Saudi Arabia, which is firmly bent on unseating Assad, and the Syrian opposition, in a renewed attempt to try to negotiate a political compromise.
Support for Assad
In another development, Iraq's military said Sunday it will begin sharing "security and intelligence" information with Syria, Russia and Iran to help combat the Islamic State group. The move could further complicate U.S. efforts to battle the extremists without working with Damascus and its allies.
Russia has shown no indication that it would dump its support for Assad, whom it has shielded from UN sanctions and continued to provide with weapons throughout the nation's more than four-year civil war.
Putin's calls for strengthening Assad's military come amid striking troubles for Obama's plan to train and arm moderate rebels to fight the Islamic State in Syria. A $500 million U.S. Pentagon training program has resulted in just a handful of fighters to bolster airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition.
The U.S. has agreed to talk with Russia about "deconflicting" their military action in Syria. U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter has spoken to his Russian counterpart about Syria earlier this month, the first military-to-military conversation in more than a year.
It will be hard for Moscow and Washington to reach any common ground on Syria beyond the military talks. Putin clearly has no intention of joining the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, which would mean accepting U.S. orders, and Washington has voiced concern that Russia is using its military presence in Syria to shore up Assad, whom it sees as the cause of the Syrian crisis.
Obama and Putin have long had a strained relationship and their body language in face-to-face meetings is always closely scrutinized for signs of tension. Their last formal meeting was in June 2013, though they've had a number of conversations on the sidelines of international summits, including in China last November.
The Ukraine crisis drove U.S.-Russian relations to post-Cold War lows. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and a pro-Russian armed insurgency continues in eastern Ukraine, with Kyiv and NATO accusing Moscow of backing and supplying it.
A shaky peace deal for Ukraine was brokered in February by France and Germany, and Russia doesn't want the United States to become engaged in those talks. Another four-way meeting of leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany is set to take place in Paris this weekend.
U.S. officials say Obama will stress to Putin the importance of local elections in Ukraine scheduled for late October going forward without interference.
Russia appeared to seize the initiative in international efforts to end the conflict in Syria on Sunday as Washington scrambled to devise a new strategy for the war-ravaged country and France sent warplanes to bomb Islamic State targets.
As leaders gathered in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He said that while it was vital to coordinate efforts against Islamic State militants this was not yet happening.
"I think we have concerns about how we are going to go forward," Kerry told reporters. U.S. officials said Kerry was working on a new political initiative in New York that would include Russia and key regional powers.
A senior State Department official told reporters: "It was a very thorough exchange of views on both the military and the political implications of Russia’s increased engagement in Syria."
Kerry also discussed Syria with Iran's foreign minister during a meeting at the United Nations on Saturday.
It was announced in Baghdad that Russian military officials were working with counterparts from Iran, Syria and Iraq on intelligence and security cooperation to counter Islamic State, which has captured large areas of both Syria and Iraq.
The move was seen in the region as potentially giving Moscow more sway in the Middle East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin derided U.S. efforts to end the Syria war, which has driven a tide of refugees into neighboring states and Europe.
He said Moscow, which this month sent tanks and warplanes to a Russian military base in Syria, was itself trying to create a "coordinated framework" to resolve the conflict.
"We would welcome a common platform for collective action against the terrorists," Putin said in an interview on Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes."
PUTIN DERIDES U.S. EFFORTS
Putin, who will meet U.S. President Barack Obama in New York on Monday, branded U.S. support for rebel forces in Syria as illegal and ineffective and said Damascus should be included in international efforts to fight Islamic State.
He mocked U.S. plans to train up to 5,400 Syrian rebels to fight the group. "It turns out that only 60 of these fighters have been properly trained, and as few as four or five people actually carry weapons," he said.
Putin said Russia had no plans now to deploy combat troops. "Russia will not take part in any field operations on the territory of Syria or in other states; at least, we do not plan it for now," he said.
Referring to the risk of radicalized fighters returning home after fighting with Islamic State, he said: "There are more than 2,000 militants in Syria from the former Soviet Union. Instead of waiting for them to return back home we should help President al-Assad fight them there, in Syria."
Critics have urged Obama to be more decisive in the Middle East and Syria, where the United Nations has said 250,000 people have died after four years of conflict, and say lack of a clear American policy has given Islamic State opportunities to expand.
Divisions over the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remained critical.
France launches airstrikes against ISIS in Syria
6 French jets destroyed ISIS training camp in eastern Syria without casualties, president says
The Associated Press Posted: Sep 27, 2015
France has carried out its first airstrikes in Syria, expanding its military operations against Islamic State extremists, President Francois Hollande's office announced Sunday. The strikes make good on a promise to go after the group that the president has said is planning attacks against several countries, including France.
Hollande's office said that "France has hit Syria" based on information from French reconnaissance flights sent earlier this month. It did not provide further details.
"Our nation will strike each time our national security is at stake," the presidential statement said.
France has carried out 215 airstrikes against ISIS extremists in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition since last year, the defence ministry said earlier this month. But it previously held back on engaging in Syria, citing concern of playing into President Bashar al-Assad's hand and the need for such action to be covered by international law.
Following a change in strategy announced by Hollande earlier this month, his office on Sunday cited "legitimate defence" evoked in the UN Charter to support the move. Hollande, who has ruled out sending ground troops into Syria, has cited "proof" of plans for attacks on France and the growing danger to Syrian civilians, with a large chunk of the population fleeing in a massive exodus.
The president's office reiterated on Sunday the French argument that airstrikes in Syria were a question of national defence. France has already been attacked by extremists claiming ties to ISIS.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France was going after ISIS "sanctuaries where those who want to hit France are trained."
The goal of the strikes is to "slow, break, stop if possible the penetration of Daesh," Gen. Vincent Desportes said on the iTele TV station, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Hollande, who spoke briefly to reporters Sunday at the United Nations after the strikes were first announced in Paris, said six French jet fighters targeted and destroyed an ISIS training camp in eastern Syria.
He said the camp was a threat to French security and was destroyed without causing civilian casualties.
Heading to the UN General Assembly, Hollande stressed the importance of seeking a political solution for Syria.
"More than ever the urgency is putting in place a political transition," including elements of the opposition and Assad's regime, Hollande said.
France has remained opposed however to recent diplomatic suggestions of allowing Assad to stay in power for a limited time.
The French government has insisted that while it is part of the U.S.-led coalition, France is deciding who and what to hit independently.
Hollande announced Sept. 7 that France would start airstrikes, days after the photo of a dead three-year-old Syrian boy galvanized public concern about Syrian refugees.
In his statement Sunday, Hollande said: "Civilian populations must be protected from all forms of violence, that of IS and other terrorist groups but also the murderous bombardments of Bashar al-Assad."
Iraq to share intelligence with Russia, Iran and Syria
Larger role for Russia in Middle East could spark competition with America
Thomson Reuters Posted: Sep 27, 2015
Iraq has said its military officials are engaged in intelligence and security co-operation in Baghdad with Russia, Iran and Syria to counter the threat from the Islamic State militant group, a pact that could raise concerns in Washington.
A statement from the Iraqi military's joint operations command on Saturday said the cooperation had come "with increased Russian concern about the presence of thousands of terrorists from Russia undertaking criminal acts with [ISIS]."
The move could give Moscow more sway in the Middle East. It has stepped up its military involvement in Syria in recent weeks while pressing for Damascus to be included in international efforts to fight Islamic State, a demand Washington rejects.
Russia's engagement in Iraq could mean increased competition for Washington from a Cold War rival as long-time enemy Iran increases its influence through Shia militia allies just four years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Russian news agency Interfax quoted a military diplomatic source in Moscow as saying the Baghdad co-ordination centre would be led on a rotating basis by officers of the four countries, starting with Iraq.
The source added a committee might be created in Baghdad to plan military operations and control armed forces units in the fight against Islamic State.
The Russian defence ministry declined to comment on the reports.
Diplomatic solution sought
By raising the stakes in Syria's four-year-old civil war, Moscow has prompted Washington to expand diplomatic channels with it.
Western officials have said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wants to launch a new effort at the UN General Assembly this week to try to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Diplomacy has taken on new urgency in light of Russia's military build-up in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a refugee crisis that has spilled into Europe.
Critics have urged U.S. President Barack Obama to be more decisive in the Middle East, particularly towards the Syrian conflict, and say lack of a clear American policy has given ISIS opportunities to expand.
A Russian foreign ministry official told Interfax on Friday that Moscow could "theoretically" join the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS if Damascus were included in international efforts to combat Islamic State and any international military operation in Syria had a United Nations mandate.
Iraqi officials on Friday had denied reports of a co-ordination cell in Baghdad set up by Russian, Syrian and Iranian military commanders aimed at working with Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq.
The armed groups, some of which have fought alongside troops loyal to Assad, are seen as a critical weapon in Baghdad's battle against the radical Sunni militants of Islamic State.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said in New York on Friday that his country had not received any Russian military advisers to help its forces but called for the U.S.-led coalition to bomb more Islamic State targets in Iraq.
Despite more than $20 billion in U.S. aid and training, Iraq's army has nearly collapsed twice in the last year in the face of advances by Islamic State, which controls large swathes of territory in the north and west of the OPEC oil producer.
Syrian rebels trained by the United States gave some of their equipment to the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in exchange for safe passage, a U.S. military spokesman said on Friday, the latest blow to a troubled U.S. effort to train local partners to fight Islamic State militants.
The rebels surrendered six pick-up trucks and some ammunition, or about one-quarter of their issued equipment, to a suspected Nusra intermediary on Sept. 21-22 in exchange for safe passage, said Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, in a statement.
"If accurate, the report of NSF members providing equipment to al Nusra Front is very concerning and a violation of Syria train and equip program guidelines," Ryder said, using an acronym for the rebels, called the New Syrian Forces.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, was told of the equipment surrender around 1 p.m. on Friday, Ryder said. Earlier on Friday, Ryder had said all weapons and equipment issued to the rebels remained under their control.
The news was the most recent sign of trouble in a fledgling military effort to train fighters to take on the Islamic State militant group in Syria, where a 4-1/2-year civil war has killed about 250,000 people and caused nearly half of Syria's prewar population of 23 million to flee.
A top U.S. general told Congress last week that only a handful of the rebels are still fighting in Syria, though U.S. military officials said this week that dozens more have since joined them.
U.S. officials have told Reuters that a review is underway that could result in scaling back and reenvisioning the program.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing for unilateral air strikes against Islamic State in Syria if the United States rejects his proposal to join forces, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday, citing two people familiar with the matter.
Russia has increased its military presence inside Syria and its arms supplies to the Syrian army as it steps up support of longtime ally President Bashar al-Assad, drawing warnings of further destabilization from Western countries that oppose Assad.
A Russian diplomatic source told Reuters on Wednesday that Moscow sees a growing chance to reach international agreement on fighting terrorism in Syria and end the crisis that has stretched into its fifth year.
Bloomberg reported that Putin's preferred course of action was for the U.S. government and its allies to agree to coordinate their campaign against Islamic State militants with Russia, Iran and the Syrian army. It cited a person close to the Kremlin and an adviser to the Defense Ministry in Moscow.
Bloomberg cited a third person as saying Putin's proposal called for a "parallel track" of joint military action accompanied by a political transition away from Assad, a key U.S. demand. Russia has communicated the proposal to the United States, according to the news service.
But one source told Bloomberg that Putin was frustrated with U.S. reticence to respond and was ready to act alone in Syria if necessary.
Sep 23, 15
Criminals, ISIL sympathizers and pretenders ditch identities to enter Europe posing as Syrian refugeesBy Souad Mekhennet and William Booth, Washington Post
VIENNA — Moving among the tens of thousands of Syrian war refugees passing through the train stations of Europe are many who are neither Syrian nor refugees, but hoping to blend into the mass migration and find a back door to the West.
There are well-dressed Iranians speaking Farsi who insist they are members of the persecuted Yazidis of Iraq. There are Indians who don’t speak Arabic but say they are from Damascus. There are Pakistanis, Albanians, Egyptians, Kosovars, Somalis and Tunisians from countries with plenty of poverty and violence, but no war.
It should come as no surprise that many migrants seem to be pretending they are someone else. The prize, after all, is the possibility of benefits, residency and work in Europe.
Leaders in Germany and other European states say they are prepared to award asylum to legitimate refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, but they are issuing more strident warnings they will reject many of the economic migrants streaming over their borders.
“What we see here has nothing to do with seeking refuge and safety,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said Monday. “It is nothing but opportunism.”
Many of the asylum seekers tell journalists and aid workers they are from Syria, even if they are not, under the assumption that a Syrian shoemaker fleeing bombed out Aleppo will be welcome, while a computer programmer from Kosovo will not be.
It is common knowledge on the migratory route that some who are not from Syria shred their real passports in Turkey and simply fake it.
A couple of reporters, one a native Arabic speaker, who wandered through the bahnhofs in Vienna found plenty of newcomers whose accents did not match their stories and whose stories did not make sense.
Swimming in the river of humanity are shady characters, too, admitted criminals, ISIL sympathizers and a couple of guys from Fallujah, one with a fresh bullet wound, who when asked their occupation seemed confused.
“Army,” said one. His friend corrected him. “We’re all drivers,” he said.
The refugees report that a forged Syrian passport can be bought on the Turkish border for as little as $200. A reporter for the Daily Mail bought a Syrian passport, ID card and driving license for $2,000 in Turkey under the name of a real man who was killed in the conflict.
An Austrian security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there is a thriving black market for Syrian passports in Croatia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, too.
There are enough pretenders that true Syrians complain about ersatz Syrians.
Syrian war refugees said that Europe offered a welcome to them but that opportunists will quickly wear out the continent’s welcome if they haven’t already.
“Look at these people, what are they doing here? We are the ones who are fleeing from war and slaughter, and now these men are taking away our space,” said Mustafa, 62, from Syria. He had stopped to help a woman who had fainted, letting a group of Afghans use the opportunity to cut in line.
“I don’t understand — we thought the Europeans invited Syrians like us to come,” said one of Mustafa’s companions.
At Vienna Westbahnhof, a tight clutch of men are queuing at the ticket windows. Days of rough travel lay behind them. All have one aim: Germany.
When asked by a reporter where they were from, the men answer, “We are from Syria.”
When a reporter switches to the North African dialect, the men laugh nervously. “We are Algerians,” they admit.
Hamza, 27, is from Algiers. “I am illegal, not refugee,” he said. “In my country, the only thing you can do there is either drugs or crimes. So I was in prison several times, for drugs, also for trying to kill another guy.”
Hamza and his mates went to Turkey because the smuggling route to Sardina has been shut down.
“We flew to Istanbul and then took a bus to Izmir. There we destroyed our passports and just mixed with the Syrian refugees. We then took the boat from Izmir to Greece. From there to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and now we are in Vienna,” he said.
Did Hamza feel guilty? Not at all.
“It’s really easy now to travel with these refugees. We received food and shelter, and a nice welcoming from people so far.”
He’s met Tunisians, Moroccans and Libyans playing the same game.
“So when someone asks us, where do you live? We say Damascus. Where are you from? Answer Syria.”
An Austrian aid volunteer at the train station, Hisham Fares, is of Libyan descent and has worked as an interpreter helping asylum seekers find their way in the present confusion.
We flew to Istanbul and then took a bus to Izmir. There we destroyed our passports and just mixed with the Syrian refugees
“There are people who are trying to benefit from the situation. I’ve met Egyptians who claimed they were Syrians, but the dialect is Egyptian. I’ve also met people from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia or Libya who all are now flying to Istanbul and then go to Izmir where they destroy passports,” Fares said.
“I’ve also met Palestinians who live in camps in Lebanon and now claim they were from Yarmouk camp in Syria. Many of them said they have family in Germany and just use this situation to finally get asylum.”
“Most of these people say they’ve lost their passports,” Fares added. “The sad thing is that those Syrians who really are fleeing war will be the ones paying the price.”
Another group of men, standing in line for free food, were speaking English among themselves but with an Indian accent.
One said his name was “Hassan.”
“We grew up in Syria, our fathers worked there for many years,” Hassan said.
He had worked in Syria, in a bank, in Damascus, he said.
When a reporter spoke to them in Arabic, the men smiled and said, “No Arabic, only English.” Asked where they lived in Damascus, they couldn’t really say.
They excused themselves and wandered away.
Confronting a surge in migrants falsely claiming to be from war-torn nations, European authorities are seeking to bolster screening efforts, particularly at gateway nations such as Greece and Italy.
Ewa Moncure, a spokeswoman for Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, said officials are deploying interpreters to assess accents and are using geographic and other questions to weed out pretenders.
“You have interpreters working with officers, and they are asking questions,” she said. “If someone claims to be from Syria and he can’t say what the currency is or what the main street is in Damascus, there are going to be questions about his claim.”
Frontex, she said, is moving to double its staff in Greece in the coming weeks to at least 140 people, an effort that may help the agency to identify more false refugees. Those identified as such, she said, should be detained and processed for rapid deportations.
But Greece has been so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that many are slipping through.
Most economic migrants and war refugees in Vienna say they have arrived without showing a single document to authorities – nor are they photographed, fingerprinted or subjected to biometric measurements.
It will take months to sort out their stories.
Sep 23, 15
It was a pathetic spectacle, another black face in a high place in the person of General Lloyd J. Austin III, head of the United States Central Command, came before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee to report to incredulous members that the 500 million dollar program to train 5000 so-called moderate rebels in Syria had only resulted in the training of a few dozen.
He went on to report that of that number, half had already been either captured, or some say “integrated,” into the al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, leaving just four or five individuals in what must be a record for the most expensive training process in human history.
With howls of criticism coming from right-wing democrats and republicans, the impression developing in congress and the general public is that similar to the debacle that Iraq and Afghanistan became for George Bush, Syria is Obama’s foreign policy disaster.
Strangely however, while General Austin was falling on his sword on front of the Senate committee, spokespersons for Barack Obama were busy telling anyone who would listen that President Obama could not be blamed for the calamity unfolding in Syria.
The White House claimed that it is not to blame on the training issue. In what some are calling his “the devil made me do it” defense, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary argued that the finger should be pointed at those who convinced President Obama to get directly involved in training Syrian rebels, including by implication the former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
And on the general Syrian issue, the Administration appears to be trying to put distance between itself and its own policies.
But facts can be stubborn things, even when the interpretative framework for assessing facts is different. For many of us, the historical record is clear – this war was/is Mr. Obama’s. And what we are witnessing in Syria today is the human and political consequences of his administration’s decision to embrace a policy of regime change in Syria.
Plan A: Regime Change; Plan B: the Destruction and Dismembering of the Syria State and Society
This notion that Obama was a reluctant warrior who only got involved in Syria recently is a fiction.
From the very beginning of the phony Arab spring actions in Syria, it was not even necessary for former general Wesley Clark to reveal that Syria was on a hit-list of governments slated for subversion to see the reactionary presence of U.S. intelligence agencies in the “rebellion” in Syria.
Former French Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas blew the whistle on
Western war plans against Syria, long before the first “spontaneous” protests erupted in 2011. While Dumas told a story of British and French intrigue, it was always clear that those two sub-imperialist nations would not have been engaged in anything of that magnitude and sensitivity without a green light from the U.S. hegemon.
WikiLeaks conformed those plans when it released over 7000 secret diplomatic cables that documented that from 2006 to 2010, the US spent 12 million dollars in order to support and instigate demonstrations and propaganda against the Syrian government.
Millions were spent to support dissident groups and for disinformation campaigns targeting the corporate media in the U.S. and Western Europe.
Once the destabilization plan was launched reports in the alternative press immediately emerged of CIA involvement with illicit arms being funneled to Syria opposition fighters, including tons of equipment from Libya that had been destroyed by NATO forces.
Seymour Hersh the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter revealed that President Obama and the Turkish PM, Erdogan concluded a secret deal in the beginning of 2012 in which the CIA and the British M16 would move heavy weapons out of Libya to supply the Free Syrian Army. This was the activity that Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, was providing political cover for in Benghazi when the CIA annex and diplomatic compound was attacked by one of the disaffected armed groups that the U.S. was dealing with.
Those reports became so wide-spread in media outlets globally that finally even the New York Times could no longer avoid the reports and ran a story that essentially corroborated reports of CIA involvement in support of Syrian opposition forces.
But clearly the most damaging information that revealed the extent of the Obama’s administration moral complicity with the carnage that it unleased in Syria was the report from the Defense Intelligence Agency ( DIA) written in 2012 that clearly documented that “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [Al- Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” being supported by “the West, Gulf countries and Turkey.” And like the report that exposed that white terrorist organizations represented a major threat to domestic security in the U.S., this report was also ignored by the administration.
When retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), was asked why the Obama administration didn’t act on his agency’s concerns, his response was that the administration apparently decided to ignore the findings, “I think it was a willful decision.”
The DIA report was ignored because the Obama Administration had already decided on its course of action. The strategy that the administration was implementing was detailed in another piece of reporting by Seymour Hersh. Hersh revealed that the strategy first formulated in the latter years of the Bush administration and carried over into the Obama Administration, was that radical jihadists would be used in a manner similar to how they were used in Afghanistan in the 80s, as the “boots on the ground” for the U.S. in Syria.
Embracing this strategy was not a very difficult one for the Administration, especially since Obama and many others in his administration believed that the creation of a “moderate” force of what Obama divisively referred to as former doctors, farmers and pharmacists capable of dislodging Assad was a fantasy.
The geo-strategic objective for the Obama Administration was regime change, therefore, the plan implemented for that objective had nothing to do with wanting to liberate Syrians. In their cynical calculations, eliminating al-Assad outweighed any considerations for the longer term interests of the Syrian people. For the cold-hearted strategists of the Obama Administration, the talk of a people’s revolution was only a ploy to obscure their real intentions and confuse liberals and even some leftists.
The Administration peddled the outrageous fiction that there was a viable force of so-called moderates in Syria that they were supporting at the same time that they knew that the al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) had emerged as the central forces in the anti-Assad insurgency.
And by early 2013 when it became clear that the al-Assad government would not surrender, the destruction and dismemberment of the Syria State became the goal of U.S. policy. The impact that this decision would have on the people of Syria was of no concern for U.S. planners.
It would not be an exaggeration to argue that despite whatever contradictions existed in Syria, and there were many, without the subversion by the U.S./EU/NATO axis of domination and its allies, it is highly unlikely that any social upheaval that might have developed in the country as part of a pro-democracy movement would have reached the scale of suffering experience by the people of Syria today.
No, the devil did not make Obama engage in the incredible cynicism that sacrificed an ancient culture and the lives of so many. It was the imperatives of empire and the ethical position that Westerners have the right to determine the leadership of states and what lives have value.
Being the self-centered narcissist and operating from a colonialist, Eurocentric mindset, Obama is now taking a familiar position that European imperialists have taken for years after committing unspeakable crimes against humanity – they feign innocence.
But this is Obama’s war and while he may escape prosecution as the war criminal that he is, the consequences and moral condemnation that it has generated is inescapable. It is his legacy, a legacy written in blood that no amount of slick public relations will be able to erase from the pages of history.
Ajamu Baraka is a human rights activist, organizer and geo-political analyst. Baraka is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington, D.C. and editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report. He is a contributor to “Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence” (CounterPunch Books, 2014). He can be reached at www.AjamuBaraka.com
The United States bills itself as a peacemaker, but a newly released WikiLeaks document could point to the country having played a significant role in the heightening of tensions between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian rebels in the Middle Eastern nation, Al Bawaba English reports.
The alleged document is a telegram sent from Damascus by US Ambassador William Roebuck in 2006. It detailed specific plans for destabilizing Syria five years before the bloody conflict even began.
Despite the cable having been classified as “secret,” the US hasn’t been shy making known how much it disapproves of Assad. Since 1979, Syria has been listed as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” But a painstaking analysis of the document reveals there may be some truth to the conspiracy theories linking the American government to the creation of the Islamic State group.
The report broke down “possible actions” the US could have taken in Syria, including encouraging “rumors and signals of external plotting,” using the media to cause “Bashar personal angst and may lead him to act irrationally” and “highlighting failures of reform.” The strategies all seem to have in common a disregard for the Syrian people and their quality of life.
One proposed action in particular should raise a few eyebrows: “play on Sunni fears of Iranian influence.” If the US proceeded with this plan, it could have played a role in the rise of ISIS.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in his new book, “The WikiLeaks Files,” delves into the US empire and its involvement in Syria. He suggests America intended to overthrow the Syrian government long before the civil uprising began in 2011, according to RT News.
“That plan was to use a number of different factors to create paranoia within the Syrian government; to push it to overreact, to make it fear there’s a coup,” he told RT.
The most serious part of the strategy, Assange noted, was the US plan to “foster tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. In particular, to take rumors that are known to be false … or exaggerations and promote them — that Iran is trying to convert poor Sunnis, and to work with Saudi and Egypt to foster that perception in order to make it harder for Iran to have influence, and also harder for the government to have influence in the population.”
Currently, Assange is cooped up in the Ecuadorian embassy, where he’s been granted asylum, in London. If he steps onto British soil, he will undoubtedly be arrested by the round-the-clock police force barricading the premises. He is wanted in the UK, US and Sweden.