ISIS

Amnesty protests US 'denial' over Raqqa casualties

The US-led Coalition's ongoing failure to admit to, let alone adequately investigate, the shocking scale of civilian deaths and destruction it caused in Raqqa is a "slap in the face" for survivors trying to rebuild their lives and their city, said Amnesty International a year after the offensive to oust ISIS. On Oct. 17, 2017, following a fierce four-month battle, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the Coalition's Kurdish-led partners on the ground—announced victory over ISIS, which had used civilians as human shields and committed other war crimes in besieged Raqqa. Winning the battle came at a terrible price—almost 80% of the city was destroyed and many hundreds of civilians lay dead, the majority killed by Coalition bombardment. In a letter to Amnesty on Sept. 10, 2018, the US Department of Defense made clear it accepts no liability for the civilian casualties it caused. The Coalition does not plan to compensate survivors and relatives of those killed in Raqqa, and refuses to provide further information about the circumstances behind strikes that killed and maimed civilians.

Syria: Idlib 'buffer zone' takes effect

The "buffer zone" through Syria's northern Idlib province, negotiated by Russia and Turkey to forestall an Assad regime offensive on the opposition-held portion of the province, officially takes effect this week. Rebels began withdrawing heavy weapons from the zone at the start of the month, but said that fighters are remaining. Fighters from designated "radical terrorist groups"—primarily Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—are supposed to withdraw entirely from the zone. HTS initially said it would comply on a "de facto" basis, but the zone is being implemented despite the fact that a deadline has been missed for withdrawal of all its fighters. The zone, some 20 kilometers wide, stretches from Latakia to Aleppo, through Idlib and portions of Hama province. (See map.) (Qantara, Oct. 17; AFP, Oct. 10; BBC News, Oct. 8; EA Worldview, Oct. 7) But Bashar Assad insisted that the so-called "demilitarized zone" is temporary. Addressing the central committee of his Baath Party, Assad reiterated his pledge to retake "every inch" of Syrian territory: "This province and other Syrian territory remaining under the control of terrorists will return to the Syrian state." (EA Worldview, Oct. 8)

Afghanistan: US to groom Taliban to fight ISIS?

Taliban leaders confirmed that long-planned direct talks with the US took place in Doha, capital of Qatar, Oct. 12. The Taliban said in a statement (PDF)  that their delegation met with US special adviser for Afghanistan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad. The statement said the two sides discussed the prospects for an end to the presence of the foreign forces in Afghanistan, and the return of "true peace" to the country. (Khaama Press, Long War Journal, Oct. 13) These overtures come as the US is stepping up operations against ISIS in Afghanistan. In an Aug. 25 air-strike in Nangarhar province, the US claimed to have killed Abu Sayed Orakzai, top ISIS commander in Afghanistan. (CNN, Sept. 3) Earlier in August, more than 200 ISIS fighters and their two top commanders surrendered to Afghan government forces in Jowzjan province to avoid capture by Taliban insurgents, after a two-day battle that was a decisive victory for the Taliban. (NYT, Aug. 1)

Podcast: Standing for Idlib

In Episode 19 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg discusses the urgent need for solidarity with Idlib, the last remaining stronghold of the Syrian Revolution, and looks at heroic examples of the civil resistance there, which is standing up to the Assad regime and jihadists alike—such as Rania Kisar, who has been running schools and other civil institutions; and Radio Fresh, which is continuing to broadcast in defiance of threats and censorship from the jihadists. The weekly Friday demonstrations in Idlib continue to keep alive the spirit of the 2011 Arab Revolution, demanding a democratic future for Syria. In a victory for the forces organizing in solidarity with Idlib around the world, the long-planned Assad regime invasion of the opposition-held province has been postponed (at least) in a deal negotiated by Russia and Turkey, buying time for the survival of the revolution.  But those who stand in solidarity with Idlib in New York City have themselves been threatened and physically attacked by followers of sectarian pseudo-left factions that support the genocidal Assad regime. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.

ISIS leader flees to Afghanistan: report

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is reported to have fled to Afghanistan via Iran, to escape "Operation Roundup," a final offensive against remnant Islamic State pockets in Syria's eastern desert. The operation was launched last week by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Baghdadi is believed to have reached Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan. According to Pakistani security sources, Baghdadi crossed through the Iranian border city of Zahedan. The sources claimed Baghdadi received protection from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as he passed through the country's territory. ISIS now holds only three towns in Syria—Hajin, a-Baghouz and al-Sussa, all close to the Iraqi border.

Turkey sentences Brit volunteer for fighting ISIS

A Turkish court has sentenced a former British soldier to seven-and-a-half years for alleged links to Syria's Kurdish YPG militia, considered a "terrorist" group by Ankara. Joe Robinson of Leeds was arrested in Turkey in July 2017 after he apparently posted photos of himself in camouflage, posing beside fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. A court in the western city of Aydin sentenced the 25-year-old for "membership of a terrorist organization" on Sept. 15. Robinson did not attend the trial for health reasons. He is currently on bail and planning an appeal. His Bulgarian fiancée, arrested along with him, was sentenced to nearly two years for "terrorist propaganda," but she is currently in the United Kingdom. The BBC reports that the fiancée, Mira Rojkan, was given a suspended sentence.

US tightens clampdown on Syria aid

The US government has reinforced counter-terrorism controls on aid operations in Syria. New contractual terms require US-funded organizations to get special permission to provide relief in areas controlled by extremist groups. The move further complicates aid operations for those trapped in Syria’s last rebel stronghold, Idlib, where two thirds of its three million people need assistance. The top UN official for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, Panos Moumtzis, told IRIN news agency that donors were, in general, backing away from funding all but the most critical needs in Idlib, fearing aid will fall into the hands of groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Syria: reprieve for Idlib; flashpoint at al-Tanf?

The long-feared Assad regime offensive on Idlib province appears to have been called off—for now. After meeting in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly agreed to a "buffer zone" in Idlib—a strip some 25 kilometers wide to separate regime forces in the south from rebel and opposition forces in the north. Although it is being called a "demilitarized" zone, it will in fact be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops. There are numerous unanswered questions. Reports indicated the deal stipulates that "all heavy weapons be withdrawn from the zone"—but does that apply to the Russian and Turkish patrols? It is also mandated that what Putin called "radically-minded" rebel fighters would have to pull out of the zone entirely, which is presumably a reference to the Nusra-affiliated jihadist factions. These factions control parts of Idlib city, and it is not clear if the provincial capital will be included in the zone. (BBC News, Haaretz)

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