Australia supports strikes: Turnbull
“Australia supports these strikes, which demonstrate a calibrated, proportionate and targeted response,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement.
“They send an unequivocal message to the Assad regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.
“The use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances is illegal and utterly reprehensible. The Assad regime must not be allowed to commit such crimes with impunity.
According to the Israeli narrative, the timeline of violence that resulted in Syria shooting down an Israeli fighter jet began just a few hours earlier. But Israel has been bombing inside Syria for months.
No matter the position one might take on the issue of sanctions, the fact remains that they caused a decade of tremendous suffering and widespread deaths of Iraqi civilians, many of them children.
The video evidence shows workers at the site roughly 30 hours after the alleged attack that were wearing clothing with the logo “Idlib Health Directorate.”
By Vegas Jessie This is what (I think) was really behind Trump’s decision to bomb Syria. 1) Putin wants a functional president in the White House. He does not want anyone to investigate what he’s already done to get him there. He definitely does not want trump impeached because for him that would be a…
The Russian ambassador to Turkey has been shot dead in an attack at an Ankara art gallery by a gunman shouting “Don’t forget Aleppo”.
At least 15 Turkish and US-backed Syrian rebels have been killed in fighting as the opposition edges closer towards Dabiq, an Isis village in northern Syria of great importance to the terror group’s ideology. “If matters proceed as planned, within 48 hours we will be in Dabiq,” Ahmed Osman, commander of the Sultan Murad Free Syrian Army (FSA) group, told Reuters on Monday.
Anderson Cooper and CNN have been caught staging fake news about Syria to justify military intervention. The primary “witness” that the mainstream media is using as a source in Syria has been caugh…
A maternity hospital supported by Save the Children has been bombed in an air raid in Syria’s northwest Idlib province.
(ANTIWAR) The US-backed offensive in and around Manbij has been going on for two months, with only a part of the city and surrounding area ever captured. The failing offensive on the ground is being overshadowed however, by the US air campaign. That’s because US airstrikes …
France’s foreign minister has said Turkey may no longer be a viable partner in the fight against Isis in Syria, while Syrian state media has claimed the failed coup in the country was fabricated by President Erdogan to tarnish the military’s reputation.
(ANTIWAR) In a speech at the Herzliya Conference, Israel’s military intelligence chief, Major General Herzi Halevy, took Israel’s long-standing position that it “prefers ISIS” over the Syrian government to a whole ‘nother level, declaring openly that Israel does not want to see ISIS defeated in the …
Beirut. I confess to having recently purchased four children near Ramlet el Baida beach from a stressed-out Syrian woman. I am not sure if she was what she said or if she was a member of one of the…
The announced partial withdrawal from Syria does not mean Russia is backing away from fighting Islamic State, but rather marks a turning point in the process of stabilizing Syria, which could not come at a better moment, believes former CIA officer Larry Johnson.
Just when we think that the Syrian crisis can’t get any bigger… An American-based oil and gas company will soon be drilling in Syrian territory that has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967 – the Golan Heights. The company, Genie Energy, has major investors …
It seems delusional to praise US Secretary of State John Kerry’s push to end the war in Syria as he has made no progress other than attending meetings in Vienna and other areas, says Paul Vallely, a retired US Army Major General.
The Turkish government is hitting against the part which is not as strong as Russia and other regional partners of Syria. They are hitting back at the Kurds – at the Kurdish civil society in Turkey, says Karin Leukefeld, Middle East journalist.
Russian president’s speech covered little new ground but intensified criticism of the US over the rise of the Islamic State and chaos in the Middle East
Russian President Vladimir Putin says he wants “a co-ordinating structure” to fight Islamic State, as world leaders gather at the UN to discuss the issue.
Source: Abbott’s Road to Damascus
The Syrian refugee crisis has become the story of the week. The images of hundreds of refugees streaming off ferries, dozens in unseaworthy vessels, and endless lines walking along rail-line tracks toward Germany in search of a new life, have flooded our television news services. In Australia, particularly on social media, the debate is in…
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has accused her Opposition counterpart Tanya Plibersek of wanting to provide for a “terrorist picnic” in Syria.
Tony Abbott appears to be laying the groundwork for Australia to extend its airstrikes against Islamic State extremists from Iraq into Syria, but Ms Plibersek, said she would rather see an increase in Australia’s humanitarian role.
“Asking questions doesn’t make you a cheerleader for Assad – that’s a false argument. It just makes you less susceptible to spin. The good news is, there’s a sceptic born every minute”
A closer look at the reporting of the violence in Syria:
Syriac Christians are generally considered to fear Islamic rebels and therefore unconditionally back Assad’s regime, but this is not the case in the predominantly Kurdish autonomous cantons commonly known as “Rojava”, where they have their own armed forces, rule their districts and advocate coexistence as an “alternative” to the civil war.
“Sutoro” is now the official Syriac Christian security force of the Kurdish-led autonomous cantons in northeast Syria.
It was founded in 2013 as a loose united front to defend the Christian neighbourhoods, but turned official earlier this year on January 22, when Syriac Christians joined the establishment of three predominantly Kurdish autonomous cantons of Cizire, Kobane and Efrin in northeast Syria.
Sutoro initially included Christian locals tied to the Syriac Union Party (SUP), but anybody can join now regardless of political affiliations.
“The Christian autonomist fighters of Sutoro secure the inner city of the cantons”
The Christian autonomist fighters of Sutoro secure the inner city of the cantons while it is the Syriac Military Council (SMC), formerly a paramilitary wing of the SUP, that mainly fights in the frontlines alongside the Kurdish armed forces in the outskirts against regime soldiers and Islamic rebels.
Sutoro secures the supply lines to the frontlines and occasionally join the battles whenever simultaneous offensives by the army and jihadist groups seem on the rise.
The Sutoro central command is now based in the predominantly Kurdish city of Al-Qamishli, considered as part of the Cizre autonomous canton.
It is relatively safe compared to rest of war-torn Syria, but sudden skirmishes in Al-Qamishli city center and constant fighting in the outskirts are all too common these days.
This is because the entire Al-Hasakah province is divided between and controlled by rival armed forces.
The regime’s National Defense Force (NDF) controls parts of Al-Hasakah province as well as a couple of Arab neighbourhoods in Al-Qamishli.
Islamic rebels of the Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) control their respective areas in the Al-Hasakah province toward the plains and neighbouring Deir Ezzor province.
Kurds and Christians control the rest of the Al-Hasakah province, including large swathes of the plains as well as the their districts in central and northwest Al-Qamishli.
Prior to the civil war, a car journey from the city of Al-Hasakah to Al-Qamishli took around 1 hour; it now takes several hours, as one has to discretely avoid the always-on-alert checkpoints set up along the way by these territorial armed forces.
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William Ibrahim, 24, was a hacker and targeted state-owned websites before the civil war reached Christian inhabited areas.
He took up arms two years ago and now leads a Sutoro unit defending the predominantly Christian Firdausi neighbourhood in central Al-Qamishli.
“I was an anti authoritarian person but believed in the Internet not rifles,” said Ibrahim. “I took up arms when I realised that my Syriac nation, Kurds and others in the northeast are in danger of being massacred by the major forces of the civil war.”
He said that the Christians in Syria do not fear the major forces in today’s Syria; it is just that they have experienced mass annihilations by Islamic rulers in the recent past, the most notorious of all being the 1890’s Sayfo massacre carried out by the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire said to have systematically killed hundreds of thousands of Syriac Christians in conjunction with the Assyrian, Armenian and Greek genocides.
“We fear that the same could happen in today’s Syria as Islamic extremists condemn us to death because we are neither Arab nor Muslim,” he explained. “The Kurdish-led self-rule autonomy managed to fight back and has prevented such massacres from taking place for the time being, but nobody is sure about the future.”
“Syriac Christians and Kurds advocate coexistence because this is the only solution. If applied elsewhere in Syria it can end the civil war,” Ibrahim continues. “It has been a very tough resistance for us Christians and Kurdish comrades alike amid this mayhem, but we have proved that the alternative to vehement nationalism and religious sectarianism is offered only by us, the most oppressed and neglected peoples of Syria.”
Although an official figure of the Syriac Christian population is not yet available in Syria, Christians are said to make up 10% of the country’s 22 million people.
Combatants of all ages above 17 are seen in the Sutoro armed units, but it is the Syriac Christian youths that make up most of the rank and file members.
“I was an anti authoritarian person but believed in the Internet not rifles”
The Christian religious symbols, various forms of the cross and Jesus’s name tattooed on the hands and arms of these young fighters signify their strong determination and willingness to fight for their ethnic and religious rights.
They proudly show religious tattoos that weren’t done for fashion or popular styles, but to prevent them from lying about their religion if one day captured alive by nemesis jihadists and held captive inside the enemy’s camp.
Gabi Dawd, 23, who has a Jesus tattoo on his left arm, said, “I first fought alongside Kurdish comrades in the ranks of the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) before joining the Sutoro. If you put yourself in our place as Kurds and Christians then you would understand why we are fighting for our rights. The regime wants us to be puppets, deny our ethnicity and demand an Arab-only state. On the other hand, Islamic forces call for Jihad, war and Islamic Caliphate. We are neither of those and would rather die fighting for our freedom.”
He added: “I have the name of Jesus tattooed on my arm so I can never lie about my faith if I’m captured alive by the enemy and fear may overcome my bravery.”
It is vague to see and foretell what the future holds for these determined armed Christian autonomist fighters in Syria, but regardless of the consequences, history would not forget this resistance for peaceful coexistence in a country alienated and nearly lost to bloodstained sectarianism fueling a reactionary civil war.
Kurdish offensive against ISIL gains momentum
Peshmerga forces have regained ground in northwestern Iraq, while Kurdish fighters also battle ISIL in Syria.
Fighters from overseas are an increasingly dominant – and sometimes resented – force in the fight against Bashar al-Assad
Muhammad no longer recognises his country. The 35-year-old former teacher from Idlib province says Syria has been so overrun by foreign fighters that they are the ones calling the shots.
“There are so many foreigners now – I have met guys from Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Libya. It makes me feel like it is not my country any more. Once, I was walking around my home town when a man drove up to ask me for my papers. He was Tunisian. What’s his business ordering me around in my own country, in my town?”
Muhammad’s resentment is shared by many Syrians who have been forced out of their country while foreigners flood in to wage jihad – and also to fight in the ranks of Bashar al-Assad’s regime or in the myriad other militias.
Faisal, 27, also from Idlib, has been working in a Syrian restaurant in Reyhanli, southern Turkey, for more than two years, while watching foreign jihadis travel unhindered through the border town into Syria. “There were so many of them here, all going to my country. These people have ruined us, they have destroyed Syria.”
He accuses foreign powers of supporting without question anyone fighting against Assad. “So many foreign players have their hands in Syria; they are responsible for this. I pray every day that there will be a time when the same troubles will befall them.”
A UN security council report obtained by the Guardian says at least 15,000 people from more than 80 countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria in recent years to become jihadi fighters. Armed opposition groups initially welcomed foreign fighters to Syria, but their growing influence, religious fervour and violence have alienated ordinary Syrians, many of whom feel the jihadis are part of an attempt to further destabilise the country from outside.
It is no secret that Sunni states in the region have long supported and funded armed opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, though the US vice-president, Joe Biden, speaking at Harvard in October, caused a stir between the US administration and its allies when he accused Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – previously lauded in the fight against terrorism by Barack Obama – of pushing for “a proxy Sunni-Shia war” in Syria by providing financial, military and logistical support for “the extremist elements”.
The foreigners fighting in Syria had little trouble entering the country through the 550-mile border with Turkey via what Turkish pundits called the “jihadi highway”. Working not unlike regular tour operators, traffickers ran routine – and lucrative – transfers from Turkish airports close to the Syrian border while the authorities and border guards turned a blind eye.
“For the first two years of the conflict in Syria there was virtually no border,” says Ahmet, a smuggler and lifelong resident of a border village in Hatay province. “We pretty much came and went as we pleased. The Turkish government didn’t seem to mind.”
At the height of jihadi traffic in 2012, he sometimes ran three tours a day from the airport and the bus station in Hatay to Syria. An ethnic Arab, Ahmet says most of the men he smuggled into Syria did not speak Arabic, and many appeared to be religiously conservative: “I brought in a lot of very religious guys, and I really liked that. They reminded me of my own shortfalls as a Muslim.”
Militants walking on wooded hillside en route to the Syria-Turkey border in the Hatay province of Turkey.
Militants en route to the Syria-Turkey border in the Hatay province of Turkey. Photograph: Jonathan Lewis
Under mounting US pressure, Turkey has increased border security, cracking down on smuggling and tightening rules for Syrian refugees trying to enter the country. Ahmet confirms that known smuggling routes have become harder to access. “I stopped smuggling foreign fighters into Syria because it had started to deteriorate. I didn’t know who these people were, whom I was taking into Syria and what they were here for,” he said. “It became shadier, I wasn’t sure any more of the people coming in.”
The unease is global. This year, the UN security council passed a number of resolutions urging member states to step up screening measures and border patrols aimed at stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Iraqi and Syrian battlefields. Muhammad, the teacher from Idlib, scoffs at such international efforts. “Without foreign support, these groups would never have grown this powerful in Syria,” he says. He now lives in Reyhanli with his wife and two children while regularly returning to Syria to visit his parents who refuse to leave home. He says he often comes across foreigners, some of whom are unable to communicate in Arabic.
Despite this, he thinks the global focus on foreign jihadis fighting for Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida-affiliated groups such as al-Nusra Front is one-sided: “There are many foreigners in Syria fighting for the other side. There are Iranians, Russians and Lebanese who fight for Assad. What about them? The other foreigners come to help us, because their governments don’t.”
Abu Nour, 35, a primary school teacher and former fighter for the jihadi Ahrar al-Sham from Aleppo, says all foreign combatants were initially welcomed by the armed opposition, but no longer: “They provided decisive support in many battles. We were desperate for anyone to help us, but nobody – not the UN, not Nato, not even other Arab states – stepped up to do so. So the foreigners came. Some of them are good, they want to fight Assad and help us, but many have turned bad. They come for the money, for women. They destroyed the revolution.”
Abu Obaydah, 28, a Syrian fighter for al-Nusra Front in Aleppo, says most foreigners fighting for al-Nusra left for Isis when the two groups fell out last year. “Most foreigners don’t understand the reality on the ground in Syria,” he says. “They hear about it in the mass media and on the internet. So it is easy for groups like Isis to teach them whatever they want and to brainwash them.”
While jihadi groups such as al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham boast professional social media presences and have made names for themselves, neither can drum up as much attention as Isis. “The international media have done their bit to make Isis this famous,” Abu Obaydah says. “That makes it part of the attraction for foreigners who want to come to this so-called Islamic State (Isis), but who have little knowledge of the real Syria.”
Most foreigners are suspected of joining the ranks of Isis, now the principal jihadi group in Syria and Iraq, whereas the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella term for a network of armed opposition groups deemed moderate by the US-led military coalition, draws on only Syrian fighters. The People’s Defence Corps (YPG), the Syrian-Kurdish force that has been defending the town of Kobani against an Isis attack since mid-September, is the only non-jihadi group known to have attracted foreigners.
Free Syrian Army in combat
The Free Syrian Army – a network of armed opposition groups deemed moderate by the US-led coalition, prefers not to use foreign fighters. Photograph: Hamid Khatib/Reuters
Samir, 28, from Lattakia province, is affiliated to an FSA battalion fighting close to the Turkish border. He cites the lack of a strong ideology and reward prospects as reasons why his group remains all-Syrian. “These fighters often come because of what they believe in, because they come for jihad, not for the revolution itself. The FSA has little to offer there, it is just not as attractive.”
Abu Ayman al-Ansari, 30, formerly a surgery assistant from Hama and now a chief medical officer for the Chechen-led jihadi Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Supporters, JMA), agrees: “The FSA fights for democracy, but jihadi groups want Islamic law and unity among Muslims. This is a goal many foreigners support.”
Like other jihadis, he rejects nationalism and so is less troubled by foreigners fighting alongside Syrians. “We were immediately impressed by the Chechen commanders,” he recalls. “They and their sons were always fighting on the frontlines. That made us trust and believe them.”
Abu Ayman says that many of his fellow fighters placed similar trust in the Chechens’ religious convictions: “Our faith was skewered by government influence, but their way of religion is right, it’s unspoiled, because they learned it without outside interference, it’s purer. They support Muslims everywhere.”
Many of the JMA fighters, a group formerly headed by Omar al-Shishani, now a senior leader of Isis, come from Caucasian and central Asian countries, he explains, though one JMA battalion unites jihadis from western countries – the US, UK, Germany and others – who fight together “for language reasons”.
Abu Ayman says jihadis do not wish to quit the war and return to their countries. “They come because they have a very strong religious conviction. Many foreigners I know volunteer for suicide missions against Assad forces.”
But the international focus on foreign jihadis has made their recruiters wary. Abu Obaydah underlines that any foreigner aspiring to fight with his group needs a recommendation from another foreign al-Nusra Front member, adding that some jihadi outfits have set up monitoring groups that perform background checks on fighters coming from abroad.
“We have caught several spies posing as fighters,” he said. The JMA sends foreigners to fight on the frontlines, without exception. “Those that who refuse are immediately suspect.”
Only those who have gained the trust of the leadership are sent abroad for recruitment and to raise financial and logistical support.
“But those travelling out of Syria don’t wear those beards,” the medical officer says, smiling. “They wear earrings and often look quite fashionable.”
“Foreigners who enter Syria are often watched and followed by anti-terrorism groups and secret intelligence,” says Abu Ayman, who liaises between the opposition factions in Syria to organise ambulances and medical care. “This is one reason why we try never to send wounded foreign fighters to Turkey – most of them are being treated in Syria.”
Isis militants in balaclavas with guns in the air Most foreigners are suspected of joining Isis militants, above, who now form the principal jihadi group in Syria.
Photograph: Medyan Dairieh/Zuma Press/Corbis
Scores of Syrian fighters have been treated in Turkish hospitals since the start of the war, and private clinics and rehabilitation centres have been set up in many Turkish border cities. But Abu Ayman increasingly prefers to tell border guards that the wounded he brings across the border are with the FSA. “Everyone has become more nervous,” he says. “Even the Turks.”
FSA fighter Samir is angry that foreign fighters in Syria put themselves in charge and try to impose their religious views on the locals. In his experience, Tunisians, Saudis and Iraqis are among the most ruthless.
“These people don’t know Syria, and don’t understand it,” he says. “Why should our women suddenly be dressed all in black?”
A heavy smoker, he is not happy with the new regulations enforced by fighters of al-Nusra Front in his town either. “We will welcome anyone who wants to fight against Daesh [Isis] with us. But our religion does not allow killing indiscriminately and it doesn’t ban smoking. We would like people to come and help us in our fight, but they need to come to the right place.”
Sami Laani, an opposition journalist from the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, describes an all-female police force formed by Isis in his city. “They watch the women, how they dress and behave. None of them are Syrian, but they think they know better than us.”
In his eyes, the foreigners fighting in Syria are an occupation force, but he blames fellow Syrians for allowing them in: “All these foreigners would never be able to come and do what they do without the help of Syrians, who know the country,” he says bitterly. “I hate those Syrians even more than I hate those foreign fighters. Why do they help them to destroy Syria?”
Federal Attorney-General George Brandis says at least 20 Australians have been killed fighting alongside terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, and warns that the Islamic State group is using Australians on the frontline as “cannon fodder, bombers and propaganda tools”.
Senator Brandis said the number of Australians killed had risen in recent weeks and that Western recruits were being duped into thinking they were an important part of a religious crusade.
Around 70 Australians are still believed to be fighting in the Middle East while another 20 have returned home.
Among those fighting is Sydney man Mohammad Ali Baryalei, who has been accused of masterminding a plot to kill random members of the public in Sydney and Brisbane, and had recruited dozens of Australians to fight with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.
There were reports that he had been killed in Syria, but Vice Admiral David Johnston last month said the Australian Defence Force believed it was less than likely that he was dead.
The Government recently introduced a raft of legislation aimed at stopping would-be jihadists from travelling to the Middle East.
The Foreign Fighters Bill passed Parliament in October, making it illegal to travel to areas declared as terrorist zones, without a specific humanitarian or family purpose.
Australians found to be illegally visiting the region could face up to 10 years in prison.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop used provisions under the recently passed Bill to declare it an offence for Australians to visit the Al-Raqqa province in Syria without a legitimate reason.
Ms Bishop said the province was Islamic State’s de facto capital, and said the terrorist organisation directed many of its operations from the banned region.
“I have today declared Al-Raqqa province an area where a listed terrorist organisation is engaging in hostile activity,” Ms Bishop told Question Time last week.
“This now makes it an offence under Australian law to enter or remain in the province of Al-Raqqa without a legitimate reason.”
Fighters from the Free Syrian Army and several Islamic military groups say Isis is gaining allies or truces due to US bombings
US air strikes in Syria are encouraging anti-regime fighters to forge alliances with or even defect to Islamic State (Isis), according to a series of interviews conducted by the Guardian.
Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamic military groups are joining forces with Isis, which has gained control of swaths of Syria and Iraq and has beheaded six western hostages in the past few months.
Some brigades have transferred their allegiance, while others are forming tactical alliances or truces. Support among civilians also appears to be growing in some areas as a result of resentment over US-led military action.
“Isis now is like a magnet that attracts large numbers of Muslims,” said Abu Talha, who defected from the FSA a few months ago and is now in negotiations with other fighters from groups such as the al-Nusra Front to follow suit.
Assam Murad, a fighter from a 600-strong dissident FSA brigade near Homs said: “There’s no way we would fight Isis after the US military campaign against them.”
A third man, Abu Zeid, the commander of an FSA brigade near Idlib and a defector from President Bashar al-Assad’s army, said: “All the locals here wonder why the US coalition never came to rescue them from Assad’s machine guns, but run to fight Isis when it took a few pieces of land. We were in a robust fight against Isis for confiscating our liberated areas, but now, if we are not in an alliance, we are in a truce with them.”
These and other Syrian fighters told the Guardian in interviews by phone and Skype that the US campaign is turning the attitudes of Syrian opposition groups and fighters in favour of Isis. Omar Waleed, an FSA fighter in Hama, north of Damascus, said: “I’m really scared that eventually most of the people will join Isis out of their disappointment with the US administration. Just have a look on social media websites, and you can see lots of people and leaders are turning to the side of Isis.
“We did not get any weapons from the US to fight the regime for the last three years. Only now US weapons arrived for fighting Isis.”
Abu Talha said he had joined the FSA after being released from prison in an amnesty Assad granted shortly after the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, and became commander of the Ansar al-Haq brigade in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus. He became disillusioned with the FSA, however, believing it was a tool of foreign intelligence services and poor in combat. After four senior fighters in his brigade were fatally wounded a few months ago, he defected to Isis.
“Since that day, I vowed not to fight under a flag bearing the mark of the FSA even for a second. I looked around for truthful jihadis, to fight by their side. I could not find any better than the jihadis of Isis. I told my fighters: ‘I’m going to join Isis, you are free to follow me or choose your own way’,” he said.
More than 200 of his fellow fighters also declared their allegiance to Isis, a move met with opprobrium by other FSA brigades and civilians. Then the US and its allies began a campaign of air strikes.
“All those who were cursing and attacking us for joining Isis came to pledge their loyalty to Isis. A couple were FSA commanders, others were members of Islamic brigades. Even ordinary people now demand to be governed by Isis,” Abu Talha said.
Only a small number openly declared their new allegiance, he added. “Large brigades in Idlib, Aleppo, Derra, Qalamoun and south Damascus have pledged loyalty to Isis in secret. Many senior leaders of brigades in Syria are in talks with us now to get together and fight as a united force against the US aggression,” he said. His claims cannot be independently verified.
Murad, a fighter with the FSA’s 600-strong al-Ribat brigade near Homs, said an offer three months ago by the US-backed Hazem movement to supply his unit with advanced weaponry if it joined the fight against Isis was turned down.
“We rejected this attractive offer, even though we are in great need not only of weapons but food. There is no way that we would fight Isis after the US military campaign against them,” he said.
He and his fellow fighters were awaiting the arrival of Isis militants in Homs, he added. “The moment Isis fighters touch the soil of the Homs countryside, we will be the first to fight with them at the front. This [US-led] military coalition is not against Isis, it is against entire Islam.”
Fighters from Islamic militias are also joining forces with Isis. In Idlib, in north-west Syria, the Jaish al-Mujahideen army, al-Sham brigade, Ahrar al-Sham brigade and al-Nusra Front were all in conflict against Isis earlier this year. Now they are calling for an alliance. More than 1,000 al-Nusra Front fighters in the area joined forces with Isis in a single week in August, according to Ali Sa’eed, a spokesman for the FSA revolutionary command in Idlib.
Abu Talha said he was in talks with al-Nusra Front leaders, “asking them to proclaim their allegiance to Isis and be one hand to defeat Bashar [al-Assad] and all the tyrants in the world”.
“There are senior leaders of al-Nusra Front who are waiting for the zero hour to unite with us. They are more conscious now of the great risks that lie behind the new US crusade against Muslims and jihadis,” he said.
According to those interviewed, civilians as well as fighters are turning towards Isis. The group is gaining support because it implements social measures and increases security, according to Abu Talha.
“We opened 57 free public restaurants in Raqqa city, which provide three meals a day for any resident to foil any claim by a looter that he had to steal in order to feed his children. We provide free fuel to residents as well.” The implementation of sharia law had led to a huge fall in the crime rate in Raqqa and other cities controlled by Isis, he said.
In Ghouta, near Damascus, the al-Nusra Front is the dominant force, but it has lost ground to a few hundred Isis fighters, according to locals. “I can assure you the day Isis declares they are coming to Ghouta, all the people and brigades will be with them out of our dismay and disappointment,” said Fadhil Ali, a restaurant worker. “We can’t wait for the day we have Isis in Ghouta.”
Isis does not have enough weapons for the number of foreign and local jihadis wanting to join its ranks, Abu Talha said. “Jihadis in Algeria, Morocco and Yemen are declaring their allegiance to Isis. Soon we will be in Gaza and then in Iran. People are starting to be aware that Isis is defending the Sunnis.”
The growth in support for Isis was inevitable, he said. “People are suffocated and cannot stand any more. Even when you push a small cat to a corner, it will scratch you. They are slaughtering and killing us. Why should we be silent about it?”
Revealed: UK ‘mercenaries’ fighting Islamic State terrorist forces in Syria
Should their passports be confiscated? Should they be arrested on returning home? They are fighting for Assad? What would Abbott,Brandis and Morrison say?
A former British infantryman who served in Afghanistan is among a growing cohort of Britons joining the ranks of westerners travelling to Syria and Iraq to fight Islamic State (Isis) militants, the Observer has learned.
James Hughes, from Reading, Berkshire, is understood to be in Rojava, northern Syria, helping to defend the beleaguered city of Kobani as a de facto “mercenary” fighting on behalf of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the YPG.
According to his Facebook profile, Hughes served in Afghanistan three times and left the army this year after five years’ service. He appears to be fighting Isis forces alongside his friend Jamie Read, from Newmains, north Lanarkshire, whose Facebook page reveals that he trained with the French army. He describes having been involved in fierce gunfights against jihadists last week.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan police are investigating the whereabouts of a 17-year-old woman from Haringey, north London, who travelled by Eurostar last week and was last seen in Belgium believed to be making her way to Syria, potentially the first known case of a British female fighter joining the struggle against Isis. Officers are looking into whether the teenager, of Kurdish descent, is planning to offer humanitarian assistance or join the ranks of the Kurdish YPJ, or Women’s Defence Units, which is battling Isis forces in Kobani.
The development highlights the dynamic of British nationals fighting one another in the strategic border city. Another two Britons – both from London – have reportedly been killed fighting for Isis in Kobani during the past two days. Abu Abdullah al-Habashi, 21, and Abu Dharda, 20, were thought to have died in the latest ongoing offensive by jihadists to seize the city from the YPG, which has lost more than 300 fighters there. Both Hughes and Read are serving with the YPG, which is backed by US and international coalition air strikes and Kurdish peshmerga forces.
The Britons appear to have been recruited by an American called Jordan Matson on behalf of the “Lions of Rojava”, which is run by the Kurdish YPG movement and whose Facebook page urges people to join and help “send [the] terrorists to hell and save humanity” from Isis.
Matson, who has been wounded in fighting against Isis, confirmed that Hughes and Read were with him, sending an invitation to the Observer: “U can travel to Rojava n meet them.”
On Facebook, Read outlines that he has been in fighting in northern Syria, writing on Thursday that the “shit hit the fan my ass was going 5 to 10 lol”, to which Matson replied: “It’s always interesting the first time you have a bullet fly past your head.”
It appears that Read arrived in the region recently, after undergoing training last month in the Czech Republic. Another Facebook message, on 5 November, states: “It looks like all the hard work has payed off I got my good news, most of you know what i’m doing for those that don’t you will have to wait haha can’t really say on here but all I can say is this time next week i will be living the dream.” A picture shows him alongside Matson in full combat gear.
The Kurdish rights campaigner Mark Campbell said that he had become aware of Read and Hughes enrolling with the YPG in Rojava and of other Kurds in Britain travelling to Syria and Iraq. Aman Banigrad, of London’s Kurdish Community Centre, said: “Some are travelling for humanitarian reasons, but others are going to the frontline with the YPG. People have been killed; one of our members lost a cousin fighting in Kobani two weeks ago.”
Kurdish sources estimate that dozens may have gone from Britain to the Middle East, with an unknown number killed in action. The Home Office said that it does “not hold data on British nationals fighting with the Kurds in Syria/Iraq”. Experts estimate that about 500 Britons have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for jihadists.
The developments follow reports from Kobani of westerners taking up arms against the militants, including claims that a number of European biker gangs had ridden to Syria and are helping to bolster the resistance. A Canadian woman – 31-year-old Gill Rosenberg – was recently identified as the first foreign female to join the Kurds battling the Islamic State in Syria.
David Cameron has insisted that there is a fundamental difference between fighting for the Kurds and joining Isis.
Although the Home Office states that taking part in a conflict overseas could be an offence under both criminal and anti-terrorism laws, it clarifies: “UK law makes provisions to deal with different conflicts in different ways – fighting in a foreign war is not automatically an offence but will depend on the nature of the conflict and the individual’s own activities.”
When Cameron was asked in September how volunteers with the Kurdish authorities and Isis fighters could be identified when returning to the UK, he said that “highly trained border staff, police and intelligence services” would be able to discern the difference between Islamic extremists and those fighting them.
The prime minister recently outlined new powers to prevent British jihadis from returning to the UK unless they agreed to strict controls. The UK is also directly arming Kurdish forces fighting Isis militants in Iraq.
There was a circle of friends who lived on the southern edge of Damascus in a district called Yarmouk. They were artists, mainly. Actors, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians. Their neighborhood was a maze of alleys and tightly packed, four-story cement block buildings, and it smelled faintly sweet and dusty. On the roofs, the friends would sometimes sit to smoke cigarettes and look toward a horizon filled with rusted satellite dishes and rooftop water tanks. They could see laundry hung out of windows and rugs draped over balconies. In the evenings, they could watch men flying pigeons from their rooftop coops. Off to the west, they could see Mount Hermon, and if it was winter, there would be snow on it.
There were many sounds: children playing soccer in the alleys, men advertising the watermelons they pushed around on wooden carts, stereo-projected voices calling the devout to prayer. In between the honking of horns and vrooming of motorcycles there were the coos of pigeons, the dings of bicycle bells, the gossip of neighbors.
The scent of food always beckoned on Yarmouk Street: warm, cheese-filled pastries dripping with sugary syrup; the best falafel in Damascus; pizzalike things called fata’ir that came in 10 different varieties and cast tantalizing scents a block away. People were poor in Yarmouk, more so than in most of Damascus, but there was always much food. Many had large bellies.
Who then could conceive that imams would one day announce it was no longer religiously taboo to eat cats or donkeys? Women and children couldn’t yet dream they would soon be sifting through the grass for edible weeds. No one could imagine that on a street outside some apartments, there would be a little pile of cat heads next to men and children flaying the mangy animals and boiling them in a pot.
From the edge of Yarmouk, above the distant buildings miles away, the friends could see the house of Bashar al-Assad, sitting high up on a hill. They did not like him. People they knew had gone to prison for suggesting an alternative political vision, however subtly. They felt so choked by his secret police that when someone they didn’t know showed up at a party, they regarded him with suspicion and measured their words. Sharing a cigarette laced with hashish at the edge of Yarmouk, they would joke about the eyes of the dictator being upon them, and they would laugh cynically.
Among this group of friends were Hassan and Waed. (I’m withholding their last names to protect their families.) Hassan was a budding actor and playwright, and Waed had been a student of English literature. They were a handsome couple, both in their mid-20s. Waed was reserved compared to most of the group, but sharp and self-possessed, with gentle eyes and long, wavy hair. Hassan had a long face, a head of shiny black curls, and dense, dark eyebrows that arched high when he became excited. He loved to joke about things—ridiculous things, like the schlocky keyboard players who perform at weddings, and serious things, like how his grandparents’ honeymoon in 1948 consisted of being driven out of their homes in Palestine—”life’s a bitch”—and coming to Syria.
Their friends were refugees, mostly, as was nearly a third of the population of Yarmouk. They had been born in Syria and most of their parents had, too, but they were not citizens. The Syrian regime, like other Arab governments, held that naturalizing them would absolve Israel of its responsibility for the Palestinians it displaced. Refugees came to Yarmouk in waves, first after the mass expulsion in 1948, then in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Yarmouk became the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. Poor Syrians eventually moved in and outnumbered the Palestinians, but it remained known as “the camp.” In less than a square mile, Yarmouk contained an estimated half-million people, nearly 13 times the density of Manhattan.
As places to be a refugee went, it was a good one. In Syria, unlike neighboring Lebanon, Palestinians could do most of the things citizens could, including going to college. Waed and her sister were the first women in their family to attend university, at the urging of their illiterate grandmother. The school was two hours north of Damascus, and Waed had to travel there alone every week. She would leave on Sunday and come back Friday morning. Or so her parents thought.
They didn’t know that Waed would actually come back to the capital on Thursdays, as soon as she finished classes. Hassan would meet her at the bus station and they would go to the city’s main park, one of the only green parts of Damascus, where it smelled like eucalyptus and there were gushing fountains and winding rows of carnations. They would stroll around, snack on nuts, and talk for hours on the park benches. Once it was dark enough to move around unrecognized, they’d return to Yarmouk. There, they had a secret place. At the top of Hassan’s four-story building there was a little cement-walled room with no doors. Hassan and Waed would wait in the stairwell, sometimes for hours, until Hassan’s mom closed the door of her apartment for the night. Then they’d sneak up to the little room. The next morning, Waed would sneak out and go home, pretending she’d just come off the bus.
Years later, the two became engaged. Waed dropped out of college to get work so they could save up for an apartment and get married. The after-school trysts were over, but Thursday nights remained sacred for them. That’s when they would go to the weekly salons put on by Mazen Rabia, a mentor of sorts for their group. It was at these gatherings, while living in Yarmouk in 2009, that I first met Waed and Hassan.
When Waed and Hassan fell in love, they were students in a neighborhood of internet cafes and all-night parties. Then the Assad regime turned their world into a medieval hellscape.
Mazen had spent five years in a political prison for his association with the Communist Workers Party. There, he was introduced to theater. Mazen came to believe that in Syria, the most powerful subversion was in art, not in politics, because art was difficult to suppress. Once, Mazen produced a play based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but the censors refused to let him stage it because Kafka was Jewish and they accused Mazen of trying to spread Zionist propaganda. He changed the name of the play to The Cockroach, the censors didn’t notice, and he performed it to a full house 10 nights in a row.
On Thursday nights at Mazen’s, Hassan and Waed would squeeze onto a couch or a spot on the floor. Everyone would watch a film or listen to people read their poetry or see someone’s photo project. They would discuss these works, and Mazen would bring food out—chicken, fries, eggplant with ground beef, hummus, pizza—and people would drink beer and anise-flavored brandy clouded with water. Someone might play flamenco guitar or put Algerian Rai on the stereo, or maybe Manu Chao. Hassan would drag Waed onto the dance floor, and then they would sit out in the courtyard where people talked about literature (was Faulkner better in Arabic than in English?) and politics (if they won the right to return to Palestine, would they actually want to leave Yarmouk?). Then Mazen would throw everyone out and they would walk home. Snippets of songs would trickle from radios into the streets, and sometimes they would see old men shuffling to the mosques for the early morning prayer. It was 2010. The world was safe.
Fall came, then winter. Hassan wrote plays and acted. A man lit himself on fire in Tunisia and there was a revolution. Then there was another in Egypt, and in Yemen, and Bahrain. They watched it all on TV, but the camp rolled on with its usual cadence. They still gathered at Mazen’s. They still talked and sang about returning someday to Palestine. They thought the fever of these revolutions would spread to Syria, and some of it did. Friends of theirs were arrested and released, but Yarmouk stayed the same.
Then, on the internet, some people made a call for Palestinians to have their own Arab Spring uprising. It was 2011, and they were calling it the “third intifada.” People in the West Bank and Gaza would rise against Israel, and the diaspora would storm the borders, unarmed. It would happen on Nakba Day, the day Palestinians commemorate their expulsion. Waed and Hassan were excited about it at first, but then pro-Assad Palestinian parties in Syria got involved and Hassan became suspicious.
Every year, the regime held events in the Syrian-controlled section of the Golan Heights to commemorate the Nakba, but they never let anyone near the border. This time, however, they left the road to the border open. Hundreds of young men rushed the barbed wire fence that separated the two countries. Young men threw rocks. Israeli soldiers fired their rifles. It happened again a few weeks later, on the anniversary of Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights; 23 of the protesters were killed by Israeli soldiers, around 350 injured.
The dead in their wooden boxes floated over the heads of people filling Yarmouk Street. Hundreds surrounded the headquarters of the pro-regime Palestinian party. Was the regime trying to deflect attention from its own atrocities by trotting these young men off to get killed by Israeli border police? Some threw rocks. A 14-year-old boy was shot dead from the building. The people inside fled, shooting in the air as they left. The crowd stormed the headquarters and lit it on fire. They chanted, “The people want the end of corruption” and “God is great.”
As the months passed, Syria started to slip into war. The military had killed protesters in Dara’a, and by November tanks were opening fire on Homs. Hassan decided he needed to become more active. He wasn’t going to become a fighter, though he sympathized with them. What people needed, he decided, was comedy. Along with a few friends, he started filming skits and posting them to YouTube. Some of them were about the ridiculous details of daily life—people consumed with their smartphones, self-obsessed poets, men who bragged about how many phone numbers they’d scored from women. Other videos brought humor to the experience of war. As the fighting started taking its toll on the communications infrastructure, Hassan did a skit of himself running through the streets like a rebel fighter—to find cell coverage.
Humor was in short supply in Yarmouk. Mazen’s gatherings continued, but the tone had changed. There was no more dancing. Pro-regime Palestinian militiamen stood on corners around the camp. People from other parts of south Damascus, where there was fighting between regime and opposition forces, were flowing in, bloating Yarmouk’s population to as many as 900,000, nearly double its prewar density. At Mazen’s, the group of friends would discuss how to find apartments for these newcomers. How would they get them medicine and food? How would they register their kids in schools? Many of them started smuggling food and medical supplies to nearby neighborhoods coming under siege. Hassan headed a group of activists who documented events and posted their videos to YouTube.
For Waed and Hassan, there was a silver lining to all this chaos. With enforcement of building codes vanishing, they began to transform their little unfinished room into a studio apartment with a tiny bathroom and a kitchenette. Then, in December 2011, they got married.
But things were no longer the same. People began to disappear. One night, regime loyalists showed up at Mazen’s apartment and took one of their friends away. Shells would land in Yarmouk at random times. Mazen and others fled Syria.
On December 16, 2012, Waed was at work, on the other side of Damascus, when Hassan called and told her not to come home. MiG fighter jets had stormed over Yarmouk and launched missiles at several schools in the camp. Seconds later, they hit a hospital. Then the mosque, full of displaced people. Some people from Hassan’s film crew ran to the mosque. Bodies and parts of bodies were everywhere, like a pack of cards thrown up and left to lie as they fell. Men rushed around the place of worship, streaking the puddles of blood on the floor. Children screamed. Some just stared silently.
Waed told Hassan she would stay away, but as soon as she hung up the phone she rushed to Yarmouk. People were filing out of the camp by the thousands, carrying babies or armfuls of luggage. Waed pushed past them. Stay away from Yarmouk Street, they told her. There are snipers. But Yarmouk Street bisected the camp. The only way she could get to Hassan was to cross it.
Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people made headlines, but his use of starvation has slipped under the radar, even though it is far more pervasive.
She found the thoroughfare, always so jammed with cars and smelling of exhaust and pastries, empty. The only humans she could spot were a few men with guns—opposition fighters. She’d never seen any of those in the camp, but now she took a deep breath and ran toward them, shouting, “Long live the Free Syrian Army!” She heard bullets crack up the street and found Hassan standing in front of their house. “What are you doing here?” he exclaimed. His face showed both terror and relief.
The next day, thousands more left Yarmouk, including Waed’s family. Some crammed into relatives’ apartments in other parts of the city. Others slept on the streets. Hassan and Waed wouldn’t go. As the days passed, the shelling got heavier. Stray bullets came through their bathroom wall. One morning, Hassan woke Waed and told her they had to move downstairs into his parents’ apartment, where it was safer. She got up, closed the door, and went back to bed. “If you want to go, go,” she said. “This is my house, and I’m not leaving it.” She wasn’t trying to be a martyr; she just couldn’t let it go. No matter how rational it might have been to move, it was more comforting to close her own door to the world falling apart outside.
The fronts in Syria were hardening. The opposition controlled most of the country’s north, and nearly every major city had rebels battling the regime for control. Religious fundamentalist groups were starting to gain influence in the opposition, and suicide bombings against regime targets were on the rise.
A pro-regime checkpoint went up at the beginning of Yarmouk Street. Waed had to go through it to get to the other side of Damascus, where she worked for a company building a private hospital wing for the Assad family. Every morning, she would steel herself before making the journey. Regime snipers had set up on the rooftops. Several of the main streets of Yarmouk were now closed off like this, and when people had to cross them, they would dash across in a zigzag pattern to make themselves difficult targets.
She walked along the sidewalk, nervous yet determined. She and Hassan needed money to eat and the snipers targeted young men, so there was no way for him to work. Besides, there was almost no food for sale in Yarmouk anymore. The checkpoint blocked flour and gas from getting in. No one was allowed to bring in more than one bag of bread.
Rather than risk the checkpoint and its snipers, or wait for the intermittent UN aid packages, many started breaking into shuttered shops and abandoned houses to find something to eat. Within weeks, the camp’s complicated social hierarchy was obliterated. One neighbor of Waed’s parents, a well-respected historian, was now looting for bags of macaroni with his wife to feed their five-year-old twins. To cook them, Ghassan Shahabi and his family pulled doors and windows from abandoned apartments and lit a fire outside.
Waed and Hassan were fortunate, relatively speaking. Her government-related job allowed her to leave the neighborhood every day and bring back food, and their neighbors had left behind a supply of heating oil. It was colder than usual that winter. One night, it snowed, and people went outside to make snowmen. Ghassan, his wife, Siham, and their children were bundled up in blankets by a fire in the street, a warmer spot than their freezing apartment.
Now she had to show her ID both at the regime checkpoint and to the Free Syrian Army fighters. More and more, bearded men were shouting at her for not wearing a hijab.
Ghassan and Siham grew hungrier. One day, they decided they couldn’t take it anymore. During the morning window when the checkpoint opened, they put the twins in their car, drove into the city, and bought 25 bags of bread. The next day, on their way back in, a soldier searched the car and found their stash. Only one bag goes in, he told them, and the car has to stay out of the camp. Siham and the kids got out of the car with their one bag, then a soldier called from the other side of the checkpoint.
“Ghassan Shahabi,” he shouted. “Never mind. It’s okay. Go ahead and come in with your car.” Maybe the soldier had seen the kids and had a change of heart? Siham and the girls got in the backseat. Ghassan drove ahead. A sniper bullet pierced the window and went straight into Ghassan’s back, and then the gas tank was hit and erupted in flames. Ghassan’s lifeless foot continued to press the gas pedal. The car drove a ways down Yarmouk Street and crashed into a wall. People rushed to pull the screaming kids out of the car. They buried Ghassan immediately.
In the days that followed, Siham and the children gathered remnants of bread where they could find them and warmed them on the fire. After eight days, she decided, “If we die, we die. It’s better to die by sniper fire than by hunger.” They paid someone to drive them to the entrance of the camp. Snipers shot along the road, and when they got out of the car, they saw a man and a boy lying dead on the street. They ran to the checkpoint and got out. Eventually they found their way to Lebanon.
In Paris, Mazen got a call from a neighbor back in Yarmouk. The other day, in the little alley in front of his apartment, a dog had dragged in and eaten the lower half of a human body. The books on the shelves of Mazen’s apartment were all gone. Presumably people had burned them to keep warm.
By June 2013, people in other parts of Syria were starting to accuse the regime of using chemical weapons. The United States and the United Kingdom were now officially aiding the rebels, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia historically funded by Iran and Syria, was fighting on the side of the regime. Only 20,000 people remained in Yarmouk, leaving the streets eerily empty.
One day after midnight, Waed and Hassan heard a man call Hassan’s name. Downstairs was a car with some men from an Islamic opposition group. They told him to get in and drove away.
The men interrogated Hassan. Why had he been filming in a cemetery earlier that week? He explained that he was filming a man whose relative had died. Every single day the man went to his grave and put a flower on it. Hassan wanted to capture that quiet moment. The men asked if he was a spy. Was he filming the area to tell the regime where the militants were located?
Eventually they let him go, but Waed was seething. She and Hassan had been happy when the opposition fighters first showed up—perhaps they would go on to depose Assad. But it had been five months, and now she had to show her ID both at the regime checkpoint and to the Free Syrian Army fighters. Rumors were going around that the FSA was looting houses and stealing the little food aid that was getting in. More and more, bearded men were shouting at her for not wearing a hijab, for not fearing God.
Waed quit her job—the checkpoint was closed too often, and she was worried about being locked outside. It was time to leave, she told Hassan—she had family they could stay with. But now he refused. All those people in the camp, he said, they couldn’t just leave them. He wanted to keep going, to make a film, something.
Then, one day in July, the checkpoint closed permanently. No one could get into Yarmouk, and only the sick, which mostly meant the starving, could leave. Anyone who showed up at the checkpoint with an injury was presumed to be a fighter and likely to be arrested or killed. There was hardly any electricity, sometimes no water. The regime cut off all outside aid. No food was getting in, no medicine. Nothing.
There was a time when this sort of thing was common. The Goths blocked off the main entrances of Rome and cut off its aqueducts in 537, letting disease and famine spread throughout the city for more than a year. It was good to trap civilians inside, because they ate up food that would otherwise sustain the fighters. When the Romans besieged Jerusalem in 70 A.D., they allowed pilgrims to enter, but didn’t let them leave.
In the Middle Ages, sieges were far more common than battles. They became increasingly deadly as urban areas grew. World War II brought what was probably the deadliest siege in history when the Nazis surrounded Leningrad for 872 days. A million people in the city perished.
When the war was over, many thought no one would ever try something so horrific again. Then, in the early 1990s, the Serbian army blockaded Sarajevo, cutting off food, medicine, and electricity for years.
While the Syrian regime made global headlines with its use of chemical weapons, its use of starvation has largely slipped under the radar, even though it is far more pervasive. Assad has been trying to prevent food and medicine from entering opposition-controlled parts of Syria, while also destroying 60 percent of the country’s hospitals. Parts of Homs were cut off from the outside world for three years, and most of southern Damascus came under siege by last year, as did large parts of Aleppo. As this story went to print, some 250,000 people—the population of Orlando, Florida—were living under siege in Syria, completely cut off from outside food or aid. Most of the time regime forces were responsible for the blockades, though opposition forces began using the tactic too.
UN report suggests decline of al-Qaida has yielded an explosion of jihadist enthusiasm for its even mightier successor organisations, chiefly Isis
The United Nations has warned that foreign jihadists are swarming into the twin conflicts in Iraq and Syria on “an unprecedented scale” and from countries that had not previously contributed combatants to global terrorism.
A report by the UN security council, obtained by the Guardian, finds that 15,000 people have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State (Isis) and similar extremist groups. They come from more than 80 countries, the report states, “including a tail of countries that have not previously faced challenges relating to al-Qaida”.
The UN said it was uncertain whether al-Qaida would benefit from the surge. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida who booted Isis out of his organisation, “appears to be maneuvering for relevance”, the report says.
The UN’s numbers bolster recent estimates from US intelligence about the scope of the foreign fighter problem, which the UN report finds to have spread despite the Obama administration’s aggressive counter-terrorism strikes and global surveillance dragnets.
“Numbers since 2010 are now many times the size of the cumulative numbers of foreign terrorist fighters between 1990 and 2010 – and are growing,” says the report, produced by a security council committee that monitors al-Qaida.
The UN report did not list the 80-plus countries that it said were the source of fighters flowing fighters into Iraq and Syria. But in recent months, Isis supporters have appeared in places as unlikely as the Maldives, and its videos proudly display jihadists with Chilean-Norwegian and other diverse backgrounds.
“There are instances of foreign terrorist fighters from France, the Russian Federation and and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland operating together,” it states. More than 500 British citizens are believed to have travelled to the region since 2011.
The UN report, an update on the spread of transnational terrorism and efforts to staunch it, validates the Obama administration’s claim that “core al-Qaida remains weak”. But it suggests that the decline of al-Qaida has yielded an explosion of jihadist enthusiasm for its even mightier successor organizations, chiefly Isis.
Those organisations are less interested in assaults outside their frontiers: “Truly cross-border attacks – or attacks against international targets – remain a minority,” the report assesses. But the report indicates that more nations than ever will face the challenge of experienced fighters returning home from the Syria-Iraq conflict.
Wading into a debate with legal implications for Barack Obama’s new war against Isis, the UN considers Isis “a splinter group” from al-Qaida. It considers an ideological congruence between the two groups sufficient to categorise them as part a broader movement, notwithstanding al-Qaida’s formal excommunication of Isis last February.
“Al-Qaida core and Isil pursue similar strategic goals, albeit with tactical differences regarding sequencing and substantive differences about personal leadership,” the UN writes, using a different acronym for Isis.
Leadership disputes between the organisations are reflected in the shape of their propaganda, the UN finds. A “cosmopolitan” embrace of social media platforms andinternet culture by Isis (“as when extremists post kitten photographs”) has displaced the “long and turgid messaging” from al-Qaida. Zawahiri’s most recent video lasted 55 minutes, while Isis members incessantly use Twitter, Snapchat, Kik, Ask.fm, a communications apparatus “unhindered by organisational structures”.
A “lack of social media message discipline” in Isis points to a leadership “that recognizes the terror and recruitment value of multichannel, multi-language social and other media messaging,” reflecting a younger and “more international” membership than al-Qaida’s various affiliates.
With revenues just from its oil smuggling operations now estimated at $1m daily, Isis controls territory in Iraq and Syria home to between five and six million people, a population the size of Finland’s. Bolstering Isis’s treasury is up to $45m in money from kidnapping for ransom, the UN report finds. Family members of Isis victim James Foley, an American journalist, have questioned the policy of refusing to pay ransoms, which US officials argue would encourage more kidnappings.
Two months of outright US-led war against Isis has suffered from a lack of proxy ground forces to take territory from Isis, as Obama has formally ruled out direct US ground combat. On Thursday at the Pentagon, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the US has yet to even begin vetting Syrian rebels for potential inclusion in an anti-Isis army it seeks to muster in Syria. Dempsey encouraged the Iraqi government to directly arm Sunni tribes to withstand Isis’s advances through the western Anbar Province.
(Reuters) – When Sunni rebels rose up against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in 2011, Turkey reclassified its protégé as a pariah, expecting him to lose power within months and join the autocrats of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen on the scrap heap of the “Arab Spring”.
Assad, in contrast, shielded diplomatically by Russia and with military and financial support from Iran and its Shi’ite allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah, warned that the fires of Syria’s sectarian war would burn its neighbors.
For Turkey, despite the confidence of Tayyip Erdogan, elected this summer to the presidency after 11 years as prime minister and three straight general election victories, Assad’s warning is starting to ring uncomfortably true.
Turkey’s foreign policy is in ruins. Its once shining image as a Muslim democracy and regional power in the NATO alliance and at the doors of the European Union is badly tarnished.
Amid a backlash against political Islam across the region Erdogan is still irritating his Arab neighbors by offering himself as a Sunni Islamist champion.
The world, meanwhile, is transfixed by the desperate siege of Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish town just over Turkey’s border, under attack by extremist Sunni fighters of the Islamic State (IS) who are threatening to massacre its defenders.
Erdogan has enraged Turkey’s own Kurdish minority – about a fifth of the population and half of all Kurds across the region – by seeming to prefer that IS jihadis extend their territorial gains in Syria and Iraq rather than that Kurdish insurgents consolidate local power.
Turkey is thus caught between two fires: the possibility of the PKK-led Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey reviving because of Ankara’s policy towards the Syrian Kurds; and the risk that a more robust policy against IS will provoke reprisal attacks that could be damage its economy and the tourist industry that provides Turkey with around a tenth of its income.
Internationally, one veteran Turkish diplomat fears, IS “is acting as a catalyst legitimizing support for an independent Kurdish state not just in Syria but in Turkey” at a time when leading powers have started to question Turkey’s ideological and security affiliations with the West.
He was a funded recruiter ?????
Where was our alternative recruitment drive Mr Abbott ?
ASIO is just a suppository for your intelligence!!
Policing with a heavy club is Neanderthall $650 Mill will take rights from all of us.
HAS ABBOTT A MANDATE TO CREATE AN ORWELLIAN WORLD?
16 and 17 year old Feiz & Abdullah secretly ran away from home last June to join the fight in Syria and Iraq. Feiz has returned home. Their parents did not know where they were. When they left they told them they were off to go fishing. It’s anybody’s guess where Abdullah is, Iraq most likely. A spokes-person for the Department of the Attorney General said all 60 should come home
“there are safer and more legal ways of helping the people affected by these conflicts than travelling overseas to fight”
Wow this is a significantly different sound bite coming from a government department than we have heard recently. Are these really the words of the Attorney Generals Department?Is this really policy? Expanded and driven by a community of Muslim parents you just might have a competing and alternative recruitment agency that supports these young idealists. Yes idealists not radicals they want to accomplish some good. They needed a good reason to stay here and help not just join your ‘death cult’. However you and ASIO had nothing to offer.
What could they do here to help? The war in Syria has been going 2-3 years in Iraq longer. ASIO has been fully aware of this. They know that revolution against repression always attracts young idealists wanting to help and not old people. Where were our intelligence advisers? What have they been doing trying to stop these young people seaching for meaning? If there was genuine help as the spokes -person was alluding to. Those boys and others like them would still be here and not over there. Is Abbott recruiting young Muslim boys to work in is Humanitarian Aid Drops.Probably not.
Instead the PM and all the voices behind him merely talk of increased surveillance and policing and stopping them. It’s a wonder he hasn’t put them all in detention camps as is his want with asylum seekers.
Please tell us who the above spokes-person is!! Put them in charge with a far smaller budget than the $650mill and most of the 60 Australians over there now would probably still be here helping in other ways instead of on their unwise boys own adventure. What is Abbott doing to help on the ground here? What is he doing in recruiting help from the community most affected? Nothing!!!!!!.
USA & Australia sit on the UN Security Council and have no mandate to take action in Syrian Territory. The UN is committed to assisting the Syrian government. So Australia is about to commit an illegal raid in Syrian sovereign territory. Doesn’t that give Putin a green flag to do what it wants in the Ukraine? Isn’t Australia complicit in terrorist action? While Abbott proudly swans on the international stage as a member of UNSC and wants to be a member on the UNHRC he has no regard for the united Nations whatsoever. Will Tony Abbott start WW3
Washington and its Western allies have supported the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and have ruled out cooperating with him to fight Islamic State, which seeks to create a cross-border caliphate.
However any foreign intervention in Syria would be an act of aggression unless it is approved by Damascus, a Syrian government minister said on Thursday, after the United States said it was prepared to strike against Islamic State militants in the country.”There must be cooperation with Syria and coordination with Syria and there must be a Syrian approval of any action whether it is military or not.”
Syria’s Western-backed National Coalition opposition has said it is ready to work with the United States against Islamic State, saying it had long called action and had repeatedly warned about the threat of radical Islamists.
Speaking in Damascus after meeting with Assad and other senior Syrian officials, U.N.-appointed mediator Mistura said it was important for the international community to tackle radical militant groups in Syria.
“The terrorist threat has become an international concern shared by everyone,” he told a news conference, adding that the international community was getting closer to taking action.
He said he had a “very long and useful meeting” with Assad, but declined to give details, saying only that the United Nations would work with Syria to help tackle the violence, provide humanitarian aid and work on a solution to the crisis.
“Syrians, wherever they are, and the government should be helped by the United Nations and the international community to find a Syrian-owned all-inclusive, positive, political process,” he said. However President Barack Obama “has emphasized repeatedly that Assad had lost all legitimacy and must go, but the President has also been clear and his first priority is the safety of the American people.
Syria has said it is willing to work with Mistura and has called on him to be fair and respect the wishes of the Syrian people.
Responding to Syrian objections over the Administration’s plans to fly combat missions against ISIS in Syrian territory, President Obama told journalists at the White House that as far as he was concerned, Bashar Assad could “Fuck off and die.”
In a speech to the nation last night, Mr. Obama said the United States was recruiting a global coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militants, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He warned that “eradicating a cancer” like ISIS was a long-term challenge that would put some American troops at risk.
“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” Mr. Obama declared in a 14-minute address. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” he added, using an alternative name for ISIS. “This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”
Mr. Obama specifically stated that he would not place U.S. “boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria, which most intelligent pundits interpreted as meaning that we will have no large ground units in the Middle East like we did in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but did not preclude the use of special forces units and forward air observers.
Although Mr. Obama has received political support from both parties on his policy statement, some pundits on the far right, particularly those who depend on Fox News for their income, have criticized the President for not going far enough. In addition, several members of the wing nut radio talk show crowd, along with former members of the Bush Administration, continue to blame Obama for the whole situation.
“The Bush Administration and its cheerleaders caused this clusterfuck by invading Iraq in the first place,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “Anyone who listens to Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, or Sean Hannity on this subject needs his head examined anyway. They’re best bet is to shut the fuck up, that way they won’t sound so ignorant.”
ISIS has consolidated it’s position across Syria and Iraq even eliminating opposition groups with the same goals such as the FSA in Syria. With the fog of confusion lifted the reality remains whether any rapprochement is possible with Assad and the new Iraq Government. ISIS is now calling for professionals to help consolidate their Sunni caliphate. Unlike previous rebel groups ISIS has the hallmarks of Saddam’s military invasion with it’s specific goals,targets and logistics & bringing together a growing coalition of support.
“It really is all guesswork at this stage,” said Sakhr al-Makhadhi, a British-Arab journalist and Syria analyst. “The Islamic State recently called for professionals – doctors, engineers and such – to move to its territory, so it’s clear that they view this as a long-term state building project. What this shows is that they’re lacking certain skills. They may have the manpower to fight, but not to build a state.”
It is Muslims in the Middle East who have most to worry about from the Islamic State. The decapitation of the journalist James Foley doesn’t change anything – the number of Iraqis executed by Islamic State fighters is far, far more. In a very short time the Islamic State has become the most compelling and attractive organisation for Muslim fighters around the world, more so than AL-Qaeda ever was.
For countries where Muslims are a minority like Australia paranoia has developed. The impact of this phenomenon on community relations – in Australia, Canada, India, the US, and Europe – could be devastating. Abbott for his own political advantage is calling for National Unity in the hope of restoring flagging polls. Once again, suspicions will easily be raised by Islamophobes like Andrew Bolt about Islamic State sympathisers in the west and whether they pose a threat. The news media will undoubtedly report on Australian, American or European Muslims joining the group or calling for violence in videos, further raising tensions and besmirch the Muslim faith. These very actions help recruit sympathizers amongst Australians being disparaged.
The group has prompted bomb blasts and fighting in Lebanon, and in Jordan and Kuwait the governments are worried that sleeper cells may attack at any moment. But it is Saudi Arabia that is on high alert, worried that the Islamic State group will come after them with force. In a recent interview, a senior Islamic State defector said their next stop would be Saudi Arabia, which includes Mecca and Medina. Its rulers are now in full panic, sending money to the Lebanese army, funding UN counter-terrorism efforts, and even getting senior Muftis to condemn the group. And there is reason for this panic. However for the moment their focus is firmly on the Middle East states.
The Islamic State is a direct descendant of AL-Qaeda, but there is one key difference: Its leaders believe fighting “apostates” is more important than fighting non-Muslims for now. They want to unite the Middle East under their banner before truly turning their sights on the US and Europe. In the eyes of many jihadis, the Islamic State has established the most successful and feared caliphate in recent history.
President Obama calls the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant a “cancer.” Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, describes ISIL as a “monster.” Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, ranks al-Qaeda and ISIL, also known as ISIS, as “Enemy No. 1″ of Islam. And President Hassan Rouhani of Iran warns Muslim states to beware of “these savage terrorists,” for “tomorrow you will be targeted,” too, by ISIL.
The unanimity of hatred and fear toward the ISIL militants rampaging through Syria and Iraq is testament both to the threat they pose and to an unusual opportunity. Not since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait 24 years ago have the region’s most powerful players expressed such animus toward a common enemy. That’s because ISIL’s goal of replacing national boundaries in the Middle East with a Sunni Muslim caliphate threatens not just the usual “infidels”—Christians, Jews, Shiites, and other non-Sunni Muslim minorities—but the nation-states themselves.
But make no mistake: The real threat from the Islamic State is to other Muslims in the Middle East. Sooner or later people across the Middle East will have to face up to this threat.