An ISIS commander described by the Pentagon as the group's "minister of war" was announced to have been likely killed in a US air-strike in Syria on March 8. Abu Omar al-Shishani AKA "Omar the Chechen" ranked among the most-wanted militants under a US program that offered up to $5 million for information leading to his removal from the battlefield, Reuters reports. The conspiranoid website Levant Report responds to this development with the headline "ISIS Leader Omar al-Shishani Fought Under US Umbrella as Late as 2013." As is often the case with conspiranoid claims, there is a grain of truth here worthy of examination, but it hardly justifies the click-bait headline...
A US air raid, carried with both warplanes and drones, killed more than 150 al-Shabaab militants in Somalia March 5, with the Pentagon citing an "imminent threat" to US and African Union forces. Spokesman Cpt. Jeff Davis said a "large-scale" attack was being prepared at the camp. The target, identified as "Raso Camp," was in Bulobarde province, about 200 kilometers north of the capital, Mogadishu. Al-Shabab was pushed out of Mogadishu by African Union peacekeeping forces in 2011 but has continued to launch frequent attacks in its bid to overthrow the Western-backed government—including the twin bombing at a busy restaurant in the Somali city of Baidoa that killed 30 on Feb. 28.
Two Turkish journalists were released from Silivri prison early Feb. 26 after Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled that the detention violated their personal liberty, security, and freedom of expression and press. Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, employees of the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, were arrested last November for reporting in 2014 that Turkish trucks were smuggling arms to Islamist groups in Syria. The Turkish government denied the allegations and later made contradictory claims that the trucks were carrying humanitarian aid or ammunition to rebel groups. Subsequently, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan filed a claim against the reporters and accused them of cooperating with FETO, a secret movement intending to falsely link the Turkish government to terrorist groups. Though Dundar and Gul have been freed, they still face the government's charges and must stand trial on March 25.
US President Barack Obama delivered his plan to close Guantánamo Bay (PDF) to Congress on Feb. 23. This plan comes seven years after Obama first announced he planned to shut down the prison by the end of his presidency. Under the proposed plan, detainees not fit for US prosecution or deportation would be transferred to a yet-undisclosed detention facility in the US. The plan also prioritizes transferring detainees to their home countries when possible, or resettlement in third countries. The plan states that "closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility is a national security imperative. Its continued operation weakens our national security by furthering the recruiting propaganda of violent extremists, hindering relations with key allies and partners, and draining Department of Defense resources."
We've long noted that the Israeli security establishment and its neocon allies in Washington are divided between those who would give Bashar Assad a healthy shove and those who would prop him with up as the Devil they know. One faction views him as a bulwark against the jihadists; the other as an ally of Hezbollah even more dangerous to Israel's interests. This is reflected in Washington's "strategy of equivocation," which has over the past five years seen the White House tilt now the rebels, now to the dictatorship. This provides convenient quotes from Israeli officials whenever some conspiranoid wants to prove the "fairy tale" that Israel is backing ISIS and other jihadist factions. One such specimen appeared in the Washington Post Jan. 19, when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told the audience that if he had to choose between ISIS and Iran as the new power in Syria, he'd "choose ISIS."
What is happening at the northern Syrian town of Azaz, in Aleppo governorate, could prove critical in determining what the role of the Rojava Kurds will be in the Syrian war and revolution. The Kurdish YPG militia took the nearby Menegh air base on Feb. 10. Since then, Turkey has been shelling YPG forces in the area from across the border, and has issued grim warnings. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu threatened to make the Menagh base "unusable" if the YPG does not withdraw, and promised the "harshest reaction" if Kurdish forces try to take Azaz. (BBC News, Feb. 15) Reuters reported Feb. 15 that 14 people were killed in Azaz when missiles hit a school sheltering displaced families. The account implied the missiles were fired by Russia, which makes sense if Azaz is being held by Turkish-backed rebel forces. But all accounts are maddeningly vague on who is in fact holding Azaz...
The Syria "peace" talks have opened in Geneva—without the participation of the Syrian Kurds. Those rebel leaders in attendance will not actually meet face-to-face with Damascus representatives, and are pressing their own demands. Salem al-Meslet, spokesman for the opposition's High Negotiations Committee, uniting most of the rebel factions, told Al Jazeera: "We came here to discuss with the special envoy UN Resolution 2254; lifting the sieges and stopping the crimes done by Russian air strikes in Syria." Syrian opposition activists have taken to social media with a campaign to boycott the talks, which they see as legitimizing a genocidal regime, using the hashtag #DontGoToGeneva. (Middle East Eye, Jan. 26)
Turkey is threatening to boycott UN-backed peace talks on Syria scheduled for later this week if the main Syrian Kurdish party is invited. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said "of course we will boycott" the Geneva talks if the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing the People's Protection Units (YPG) are at the table, Cavusoglu said in a TV interview, saying it was a "terror group" like ISIS. "There cannot be PYD elements in the negotiating team. There cannot be terrorist organizations. Turkey has a clear stance." He added: "A table without Kurds will be lacking. However, we are against the YPG and the PYD, who repress Kurds, being at the table..." (Hurriyet Daily News, AFP, Jan. 26) Of course, he didn't say which Kurds should be at the table, and in fact there is no other significant Kurdish force in Syria. We've noted before the Turkish state's sinister game of equating the militantly secular and democratic PYD-YPG—the most effective anti-ISIS force in Syria—with their bitter enemy ISIS. But complicating the situation is that Russia, once again, has come to the defense of the Kurds. Moscow's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blasted Cavusoglu's boycott threat as "blackmail," warning that it would be a "grave mistake" not to invite the PYD. "How can you talk about political reforms in Syria if you ignore a leading Kurdish party?" (ABC, Jan. 26)