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- 08/21/16--06:33: _Syrian jets flying ...
- 08/21/16--08:49: _A rebel group's spl...
- 08/22/16--05:55: _Iran: Russia showed...
- 08/22/16--06:24: _Kurds to launch an ...
- 08/22/16--07:44: _Turkey to 'complete...
- 08/22/16--09:14: _Report: In less tha...
- 08/23/16--05:36: _Stopping the cycle ...
- 08/23/16--07:52: _Obama reportedly de...
- 08/23/16--08:30: _Syria's Kurds have ...
- 08/23/16--10:17: _US: We will 'defend...
- 08/23/16--20:41: _Operation launched ...
- 08/24/16--07:06: _Turkey has launched...
- 08/24/16--08:15: _Turkish forces and ...
- 08/24/16--09:33: _Biden: Syrian Kurdi...
- 08/24/16--11:52: _Report: Assad regim...
- 08/24/16--12:55: _Russia may set up c...
- 08/24/16--14:11: _Turkey's invasion h...
- 08/25/16--07:56: _Here's why Turkey f...
- 08/25/16--13:44: _US F-22 pilots desc...
- 08/26/16--02:29: _Kerry and Lavrov me...
- 08/23/16--10:17: US: We will 'defend our forces' against Syrian, Russian war planes
- 08/24/16--11:52: Report: Assad regime likely kept undeclared chemical weapons
- 08/24/16--12:55: Russia may set up camp in the base the US and NATO use to bomb ISIS
- Islamic State
- Kurdish SDF (northeast)
- Kurdish YPG (northwest)
- Anti-Assad rebel coalition (in and around Aleppo city)
- Free Syrian Army in the Azaz pocket (Turkish border, north of Aleppo)
- The coalition supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad
- 08/25/16--07:56: Here's why Turkey finally decided to go to war in Syria
- 08/26/16--02:29: Kerry and Lavrov meet to finalise details of Syria cooperation deal
Twice in the last few days, Syrian jets performing air strikes close to where US SOF are operating in northeastern Syria caused coalition aircraft to scramble.
On Aug. 18, US jets were dispatched to intercept the Syrian attack planes that were attacking targets near Hasakah supporting regime forces fighting the Syrian Kurdish forces. About 300 US military operate in the same area, training Kurdish forces who are fighting Daesh.
Syrian pilots did not respond to the radio calls of the Kurdish on the general emergency frequency nor did they acknowledge calls attempted by the coalition on the air safety channel used for communication with the Russian aircraft operating over Syria.
Anyway, by the time US fighters reached the area, the Syrian planes had already left.
Following the first “close encounter” the Pentagon warned Assad regime to not fly or conduct raids in the area where the American SOF are operating. However, on Aug. 19, two Su-24 Fencers, attempted again to penetrate the airspace near Hasakah.
This time, the two Syrian Arab Air Force attack planes were met by American F-22 Raptors (most probably already operating in the same area providing Combat Air Patrol).
As reported by ABC, a US official said the presence of American F-22 aircraft “encouraged the Syrian aircraft to depart the airspace without further incident. No weapons were fired by the coalition fighters.”
This is not the first time the F-22 presence deters foreign military aircraft from harassing US forces.
In March 2013, few months after two Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes operated by the Pasdaran (informal name of the IRGC – the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) attempted to shoot down an American MQ-1 flying a routine surveillance flight in international airspace the Pentagon decided to escort the drones involved in ISR (intelligence surveillance reconnaissance) with fighter aircraft, including the Raptors.
In one very well-known episode, F-22 stealth jets providing HVAAE (High Value Air Asset Escort) to a US Predator flew under the Iranian F-4E Phantoms that had intercepted the drone then pulled up on their left wing and then called them and radioed a famous “you really ought to go home” that allegedly scared the Iranian pilots off saving the drone.
One rebel group in Syria just denounced its terrorist ties, and its leaders are already trying to rehabilitate its image in the media.
Jabhat al-Nusra's split from Al Qaeda is largely thought to be a public-relations move, and it could help the group achieve its ultimate goal in Syria — establishing an Islamic emirate not unlike the one ISIS has declared across the Middle East.
Sheikh Mostafa Mahamed, a senior leader within the newly established Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), spoke to Sky News this week in a rare interview given to a Western media outlet. Mahamed was educated in Australia, speaks fluent English, and now coordinates with the Western press.
In his interview with Sky, he marketed JFS as a defender of the Syrian people and insisted the group's ideology is in line with what the population wants.
"It's very clear here that by extension [Western governments] are trying to infer that our ideology is completely alien to the general masses of the Syrian population and we totally reject that," Mahamed said. "If Western governments are expecting us to come out and say we want liberal, Western democracy, secular democracy, they have to understand that as a Muslim society our core beliefs and values define all spheres of our life."
He also advocated establishing a "system of governance that will remove oppression" and "see justice for everyone." He lamented that Sharia law has a bad reputation in the West.
Abu Faisal, a Syrian aid worker who goes by a pseudonym, explained what this means.
"The primary goal of the split is that al-Nusra now sees itself with a real opportunity to actually govern significant parts of Syria, nothing any Al Qaeda franchise has ever dreamed of," he told Business Insider via email. "Even though it's Al Qaeda's stated goal to create/run an Islamic State, it was always more of a dream than reality."
Now that the group has denounced its ties to Al Qaeda, it has a better chance of winning popular support.
JFS is selling the split as a move toward unification of Syria's rebel groups against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his allies, including Russia and Iran. Despite the terrorist presence inside Syria, the Assad regime is still widely regarded as the primary enemy of the Syrian people. The Assad regime has relentlessly bombed civilians and killed more people in the country than ISIS or Al Qaeda.
Jabhat al-Nusra proved to be one of the most well-armed and effective groups fighting the Assad regime on the ground. Its resources alone gained the group many members, but some were still put off by its terrorist image.
And al-Nusra ran into problems in Idlib province, where the population rebelled once it tried to govern.
"Al-Nusra is mostly Syrians and that is on purpose, to make them more palatable to locals," Faisal said. "But still, the only problem was that al-Nusra was Al Qaeda. Most Syrians could not accept this no matter how effective al-Nusra was against the regime. People will cheer them in battle, but when they tried to rule using very similar methods to ISIS, people would push back and say 'go back to the front, your place is not here.'"
That could change now that al-Nusra has rebranded.
The rebrand has been a long time coming, and Al Qaeda's awareness of its image problem stretches back to its founding father, Osama bin Laden.
"Bin Laden actually, before he died, in his letters, he was telling Al Qaeda, 'do not use Al Qaeda's name, I do not want anyone to use Al Qaeda's name’ because the moment you use Al Qaeda's name, the West and the locals are going to come and they're going to beat you up," Ali Soufan, the CEO of strategic-security firm The Soufan Group, said in May at a national-security conference in New York.
"Every time they change their name, we get so confused."
But all these groups are "poisonous fruits coming from the same evil tree," Soufan said.
Despite this, the violence in Syria has made those still living in the country desperate.
"You see, if the devil himself rode a horse into Aleppo and freed the people from siege, starvation and bombing, people would accept it," Faisal said. "Very few people outside of Syria realize what it must feel like to live in those conditions every day of your life with no hope that it ends and with only the expectation that it gets worse (as it has)."
Al-Nusra's move capitalizes on its power, as people inside Syria feel increasingly hopeless about their future.
"People don't like al-Nusra's ideology (and that has not changed in the 'split') but will accept it more so now given that it's their only hope at maybe living some sort of decent life after years of this war," Faisal said.
Ultimately, Jabhat al-Nusra's divorce from Al Qaeda will likely help it outlast ISIS in Syria.
"This is all the long game," Thomas Joscelyn, an Al Qaeda expert and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider in March. "The concept of jihad and the notion of jihad as [Al Qaeda] understands it was missing in Syria for decades. Their whole idea is to use the war to inculcate the ideology of jihad among the population."
Russia has stopped using an Iranian air base for launching airstrikes on Syria for the time being, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday, just hours after the Iranian defense minister criticized Moscow for having "kind of show-off and ungentlemanly" attitude by publicizing their actions.
There was no immediate response from Moscow, which had used the Shahid Nojeh Air Base to refuel its bombers striking Syria at least three times last week.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters in Tehran that the Russian airstrikes on militants in Syria were "temporary, based on a Russian request."
"It is finished, for now," Ghasemi said, without elaborating.
Last week, Russia announced it used the airfield, located some 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Iranian city of Hamedan. Iranian officials only confirmed Russia's presence a day later.
Earlier Monday, state TV quoted Iran's defense minister as saying that Russia "will use the base for a very short and fixed span." The comments by Gen. Hossein Dehghan came after he chastised parliament this weekend for asking questions about Russia using the base.
Responding to a question about why Iran didn't initially announce Russia's presence at the airfield, Dehghan appeared prickly on the state TV broadcast.
"Russians are interested to show they are a superpower to guarantee their share in political future of Syria and, of course, there has been a kind of show-off and ungentlemanly (attitude) in this field," he said.
Dehghan's remarks also suggest Russia and Iran initially agreed to keep Moscow's use of the air base quiet. Its announcement likely worried Iran's Sunni-ruled Mideast neighbors, which host American military personnel.
The Interfax news agency on Monday also quoted Russia's ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, as confirming that all of Moscow's warplanes have been withdrawn from Iran. Dzhagaryan said, however, that he does "not see any reason" why the Russians can't use the Iranian base again.
For Iran, allowing Russia to launch strikes from inside the country is likely to prove unpopular. Many still remember how Russia, alongside Britain, invaded and occupied Iran during World War II to secure oil fields and Allied supply lines. But while Britain withdrew, Russia refused to leave, sparking the first international rebuke by the nascent United Nations Security Council in 1946.
Analysts have suggested Russia potentially leveraged Iran into allowing it to use the airfield over either economic or military interests, such as Tehran wanting to purchase Sukhoi-30 fighter jets or its deployment of Russian S-300 air defense missile systems. Russia initially held off on supplying the missile system to Tehran amid negotiations over Iran's contested nuclear program.
Over the weekend, photographs of President Hassan Rouhani were published in Iranian state media near a Bavar-373 missile defense system. That system is designed to be the local equivalent of the S-300 — perhaps an Iranian signal back to Moscow that it's capable of defending itself without the Russian missile system.
In his comments, Dehghan said the Bavar-373 can hit targets at the height of 27 kilometers (16.7 miles) — the same height the S-300 can reach.
"When we make Bavar-373 operational, we will not need to purchase another high-altitude and long-range air defense system," he said.
Dehghan added that Iran still sees the Sukhoi-30 as "an appropriate fighting aircraft," though he acknowledged the U.S. could seek to block any fighter jet deal. The U.N. resolution enshrining last year's nuclear deal with Iran prohibits the supply, sale and transfer of combat aircraft to Iran unless approved in advance by the Security Council.
"The issue of purchasing the fighters has been raised and we have not heard any negative answer," he said. "We are negotiating to learn how we can do this with the restriction that can be raised for the Russians."
Meanwhile, fighting continued Monday in Syria. In the northern Syrian city of Hasakeh, clashes again erupted between Kurdish fighters and pro-government militias, according to the Kurdish Hawar News Agency. The government and the Kurdish movement have shared control of the city since the early years of the Syrian civil war.
Syrian government planes bombed Kurdish positions in Hasakeh last week as the struggle for predominance in the city escalated.
HASAKA, Syria (Reuters) - The Kurdish YPG militia launched a major assault on Monday to seize the last government-controlled parts of the northeastern Syrian city of Hasaka after calling on pro-government militias to surrender, Kurdish forces and residents said.
They said Kurdish forces began the offensive after midnight to take the southeastern district of Nashwa, close to where a security compound is located near the governor's office close to the heart of the city.
The powerful YPG militia had earlier captured Ghwairan, the only major Arab neighborhood still in government hands.
The fighting this week in Hasaka, which is divided into zones of Kurdish and Syrian government control, marks the most violent confrontation between the Kurdish YPG militia and Damascus in more than five years of civil war.
The Syrian army deployed warplanes against the main armed Kurdish group for the first time during the war last week, prompting a U.S.-led coalition to scramble aircraft to protect American special operations ground forces.
The YPG is at the heart of a U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State militant group in Syria and controls swaths of the north, where Kurdish groups associated with the militia have set up their own government since the Syrian war began in 2011.
Syrian state media accused the YPG-affiliated security force known as the Asayish of violating a ceasefire and said its members had torched government buildings in Hasaka.
It accused the Asayish of igniting the violence through escalating "provocations", including the bombing of army positions in Hasaka, and said the Asayish aimed to take control of the city.
"We will not retreat"
The YPG denied it had entered into a truce. It distributed leaflets and made loudspeaker calls across the city asking for army personnel and pro-government militias to hand over their weapons or face death.
"To all the elements of the regime and its militias who are besieged in the city you are targeted by our units," leaflets distributed by the YPG said.
"This battle is decided and we will not retreat ... We call on you to give up your weapons or count yourselves dead."
The YPG, known as the People's Protection Units and which has ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, appeared intent on leaving a nominal Syrian government presence confined to within a security zone in the heart of the city, where several key government buildings are located, Kurdish sources said.
The complete loss of Hasaka would be a big blow to President Bashar al-Assad's government and would also dent efforts by Moscow, which had sought through a major military intervention last year to help Damascus regain lost territory and prevent new rebel gains.
Kurdish forces have expanded their control of the city despite the bombing of several locations by Syrian jets.
Thousands of civilians in the ethnically mixed city, including members of the Christian community, have fled to villages in the countryside as the fighting intensified, residents said.
The confrontation appears to have undone tacit understandings between the YPG and the Syrian army that had kept the city relatively calm.
Many critics and residents say the YPG was handed weapons and territory by the Syrian army at the start of the conflict as Assad sought to focus on crushing the mainly Sunni Arab rebels who sought to topple him.
Hasaka's governor told state media after the flare-up of violence the military had armed the YPG with weapons and tanks to fight jihadist elements but had not expected them to turn against them.
Hasaka's population, swelled by displaced Syrians fleeing areas that fell under Islamic State control, is broadly divided along ethnic lines, with Kurds mainly in the city's eastern neighborhoods and Arabs in the southern parts.
(Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Paul Tait)
ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey vowed on Monday to "completely cleanse" Islamic State militants from its border region, after a suspected suicide bomber with links to the group killed 54 people, including 22 children, at a Kurdish wedding.
Saturday's attack in the southeastern city of Gaziantep is the deadliest in Turkey this year. It was carried out by a suicide bomber aged between 12 and 14, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday, adding that initial evidence pointed to Islamic State.
A senior security official told Reuters the device used was the same type as those employed in the July 2015 suicide attack in the border town of Suruc and the October 2015 suicide bombing of a rally of pro-Kurdish activists in Ankara.
Both of those attacks were blamed on Islamic State. The group has targeted Kurdish gatherings in an apparent effort to further inflame ethnic tensions already strained by a long Kurdish insurgency. The Ankara bombing was the deadliest of its kind in Turkey, killing more than 100 people.
"Daesh should be completely cleansed from our borders and we are ready to do what it takes for that," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference in Ankara, using an Arabic name for the group.
A senior rebel official said Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were preparing to launch an attack to seize the Syrian town of Jarablus from Islamic State on the border with Turkey, a move that would deny control to advancing Syrian Kurdish fighters.
The rebels, groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, were expected to assault Jarablus from inside Turkey in the next few days.
Cavusoglu said Turkey, a member of NATO and the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, had become the "no.1 target" for the militants because of its work to stop recruits traveling through Turkey across its over 800 km (500 mile) border into Syria to join the Sunni hardline group.
For Ankara, Islamic State is not the only threat lurking across its frontier. Turkey is also concerned that attempts by Syrian Kurds to extend their control along the common border could add momentum to an insurgency by Kurds on its own territory.
Dogan news agency said the death toll in the Gaziantep bombing had risen on Monday to 54 after three more people died. Sixty-six were being treated in hospital, 14 in serious condition.
The attack comes with Turkey still shaken just a month after the government survived an attempted coup by rogue military officers, which Ankara blames on U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen. Gulen denies the charge.
Turkish authorities have said a destroyed suicide vest was found at the scene of the bombing.
A second security official told Reuters that they were investigating the possibility militants could have placed the explosives on the child without his or her knowledge and detonated them remotely, or that a mentally disabled child was duped into carrying the device, a tactic seen elsewhere in the region.
"It could be that someone was loaded with explosives without even being aware of it and it may have been detonated remotely," the official said, adding a search was underway for suspected militants who may have played a reconnaissance role.
In the latest southeast violence, two Turkish security force members and five PKK militants were killed in clashes and attacks in three areas of eastern Turkey over the last 24 hours, officials said.
Some in Turkey, particularly in the Kurdish southeast, feel the government has not done enough to protect its citizens from Islamic State.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) said the wedding party was for one of its members. The groom was among those injured, but the bride was not hurt.
(Additional reporting by Dasha Afanasieva and Gulsen Solaker in Ankara and Cagan Uslu in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Ralph Boulton)
A new report from a United Nations-sanctioned human rights group finds that Russian airstrikes have killed more Syrian civilians than ISIS.
Over a span of 305 days, beginning September 30, 2015 and lasting until July 31, 2016, Russia's campaign in Syria "has killed no less than 2,704 civilians including 746 children and 514 women."
By contrast, since ISIS emerged on April 9, 2013, the extremist terror group is responsible for the deaths of "no less than 2,686 civilians including 368 children."
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) report includes the names, location, date of death, and other details about the victims.
"We affirm that the bombardment operations mentioned in the report have targeted armless civilians. Therefore, Russian forces have violated the rules of the international human rights law that protect the right to life," the Syrian Network for Human Rights report stated.
"We explicitly accuse the Russian forces of perpetrating tens of crimes that constitute war crimes."
The SNHR recommends this case be brought to the International Criminal Court and hold all those involved, including the Russian regime accountable.
Syria is suffering from the seemingly never-ending cycle of civil war and terrorism.
The country has become a recruiting hotspot for ISIS, the group also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh, ever since Syria descended into internal conflict in 2011.
But despite ISIS' purported religious convictions, the spiral of violent extremism in Syria is not driven by religion, according to Syrian businessman Zaid Al Rayes.
"Extremism is a complex issue, and while there are no exact or clear roots there are two sides to the problem," Al Rayes told Business Insider. "Educational and economic."
"Some say that religious roots are the cause of the problem," he continued, "but if you look in-depth into extremism, we see that people join these groups when they've lost hope, have no jobs, and no rights. I have visited Syrian refugee camps, and I feel there is a great passion for them to want to work. But a lot of them do not have job opportunities, and this is why I established a social entrepreneurship project as I wanted to create opportunities for Syrians."
How extremism is borne out of poverty, not religious beliefs
Al Rayes is one of the 10 people involved in Extremely Together, an initiative launched by the Kofi Annan Foundation and One Young World aimed at countering violent extremism within communities.
"At Extremely Together we are 10 different people from 10 different backgrounds, and each of us has different experiences in witnessing extremism," Al Rayes said.
"Extremism is not a new issue, but why are we only talking about it for the last few years?" he added. "I think this is because of the [9/11] attacks.
"But let's take the example of the massacre in Rwanda and what's happening with Boko Haram. These are not new kinds of violence — these have been happening in places where people are in extreme poverty and have no rights. We only start talking about it now because it is touching the West."
Al Rayes initially tried to join politics as part of the Syrian opposition early in his career. He says he found, however, that no matter what type of good work he tried to do, "there were also big forces trying to push their own agenda."
He now runs the Al Rayes Group, an umbrella company that employs more than 1,900 people across 16 companies in industries such as gas and trade.
Al Rayes believes that he can make a difference in Syria by offering economic and educational opportunities to people who would otherwise be driven to extremism by a sense of hopelessness.
He told Business Insider: "People aren't thinking about the economic issues because security is the first priority. At the moment people don't know if a bomb is going to drop on their house. But the reason why I look at this from an economic point of view is because economics provide a future for people."
Syria's destruction spiral
Syria is suffering through one of the most devastating civil wars in recent history. The country's president, Bashar Assad, has been at war with his own people since 2011. In August 2013, Assad killed 1,400 of his own citizens after he unleashed chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus. Now the Syrian government is bombing rebel strongholds in the city, which is still home to 250,000 people, according to the BBC.
At the same time, Britain, the US, Denmark, and others are engaged in a bombing campaign in Syria against ISIS. That bombing is also killing civilians, as the coalition tries to rid the region of ISIS.
Al Rayes believes this maelstrom of violence has created the perfect breeding ground for terrorism, adding that Western military action to try to stop the spread of ISIS over parts of the region in fact "absolutely" exacerbates extremism.
As detailed above, he believes that the lack of economic power, poverty, and displacement borne out of the bombings, will only act as a catalyst to those turning to extremism.
Syria itself is too dangerous for Al Rayes to operate in, so his focus through Extremely Together is on helping the refugee population.
At last count, 65.3 million people worldwide have been displaced by conflict, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of those, 4.8 million are registered Syrian refugees abroad and 6.6 million more have been forced to flee their homes in Syria but still live in the country.
Jordan has one of the biggest populations of Syrian refugees, and Al Rayes focuses on helping out Syrian refugees in camps spread across the Middle East. These camps "in Jordan and Lebanon are far worse than those in Europe," he says. "We have limited resources, but we give help to those much needed people."
Jordan has close ties with the UAE and this enables him to seek out jobs and opportunities for Syrian refugees. Since he is based in the UAE, he is able to bridge those in nearby Jordan with opportunities elsewhere.
There is currently a humanitarian crisis in Jordan because the army shut down some of the country's borders, making it difficult for international relief workers to help refugees. This has meant that much-needed food and care is being blocked, with only makeshift shelters and little central organisation.
How to help stop the cycle of radicalisation and extremism
Al Rayes offers three ways to improve conditions for these Syrian refugees in a bid to show them they have a bright future and do not need to turn to extremism.
"We do business in food supply and we try to provide job opportunities to refugees this way," he told Business Insider. "We bring them to countries in the UAE, such as Dubai, Azerbaijan, and Saudi Arabia and provide work so they are able to support their families."
Giving one Syrian a job can end up helping an entire family, he says.
He says one of the most touching moments he has had since getting involved with Extremely Together was seeing how providing a job for a refugee named Halid affected an entire family. Al Rayes met Halid in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, where he was living with 23 family members. He had lost a sister and a brother in bombings.
After Halid was offered an assistant chef job in Dubai he was able to provide for his family, and his niece ended up returning to education.
Another way Al Rayes helps Syrian refugees is by giving grants for "socially progressive" projects that directly help them. This includes training and projects that could garner employment opportunities for refugees. So far, three have been granted in Jordan and four in Lebanon. The grants are derived from the Kofi Annan Foundation.
Finally, Al Rayes also helps by supporting education initiatives for Syrian refugees in Jordanian and Lebanese camps. This means providing some means of education within the refugee camps for young people for free.
"When people are in extreme poverty, not allowed to work, and have no sources of funds, they turn to extremism as it provides a future," Al Rayes said. "However, to counter this, we need to show people that they have a future and will be able to provide for themselves and a family, elsewhere."
President Barack Obama infamously drew a "red line" with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria only to back away from it, and we now know why.
Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon, who recently wrote a book called "The Iran Wars,"told MSNBC on Monday that the Obama administration's determination to close the Iran nuclear deal is to blame for the failure to act on its own red line in Syria.
"When the president announced his plans to attack [the Assad regime] and then pulled back, it was exactly the period in time when American negotiators were meeting with Iranian negotiators secretly in Oman to get the nuclear agreement," Solomon said.
"US and Iranian officials have both told me that they were basically communicating that if the US starts hitting President Assad's forces, Iran's closest Arab ally ... these talks cannot conclude."
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful military arm in Iran, reportedly "would not accept a continued engagement with the US if its closest ally was being hit," Solomon said.
Ned Price, spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, denied that US policy on Syria was a part of the Iran nuclear talks.
"The multilateral talks with Iran that culminated in the deal to verifiably prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon were focused squarely on Iran's nuclear program," Price said in a statement to Business Insider. "To be clear: our Syria policy was not a part of these talks, and reports to the contrary are false."
Obama said in 2012 that his red line with the Assad regime would be the use of chemical weapons. Later that year, Assad's forces killed nearly 1,500 people in a chemical-weapons attack.
But then Obama got cold feet — he sought congressional approval for military intervention in Syria, which he was not likely to get, and eventually brokered a deal with Russia that had Assad agreeing to destroy most of the regime's arsenal of chemical weapons.
Many foreign policy experts have said that Obama's decision not to attack damaged US credibility in the international community.
Obama's establishment of the red line came as a surprise. Even his defense secretary at the time, Leon Panetta, told The Atlantic earlier this year that he "didn't know it was coming."
Obama gave The Atlantic several reasons for not enforcing the red line — uneasiness about a strike against Syria not being sanctioned by Congress, a lack of support from the international community and the American people, the possibility that the intelligence on the chemical-weapons attack wasn't 100% solid — but did not mention the Iran deal among them.
The Iran deal is thought to be the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration, and experts have speculated previously that his determination not to compromise the deal affected his policy on Syria.
Watch Solomon's full interview with MSNBC below:
BEIRUT – Syrian Kurds have accused Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) of being behind the assassination of Abdel Sattar al-Jader, the head of a newly-formed military council backed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) aiming to seize the ISIS-held border town of Jarablus.
The Jarablus Military Council chief was killed Monday in mysterious circumstances only hours after he read out a statement warning Turkey against backing a rebel offensive on Jarablus, a strategic town on the western bank of the Euphrates River that Ankara does not want to fall under the control of the Kurdish-led SDF.
Reports have emerged in recent days that Ankara has been transporting rebels from northern Aleppo and Idlib to a base across the Turkish border from Jarablus in preparation for an attack on the town, which lies far behind Syrian rebel’s current frontlines with ISIS in the northern countryside of Aleppo.
Amid the mounting preparations for the widely-anticipated offensive, including heavy Turkish shelling, the Jarablus Military Council—which was only formed over the weekend—said Ankara was transporting “mercenaries” across its border as part of a series of “accelerating hostile actions.”
“We warn the Turkish authorities of the consequences of aggressive practices against Syrian territories and [people], especially in our region of Jarablus,” Jader said in a video statement released Monday afternoon.
Later that day, the military commander—an ethnic Arab who formerly led the Martyr Abu Furat Brigades—was gunned down in Al-Shouyoukh, a town that lies across the Euphrates from Jarablus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The monitoring NGO tracking developments in war-torn Syria did not go into further details on the circumstances of Jader’s death, but reported that the Jarablus Military Council accused Turkish intelligence of perpetrating the attack.
Meanwhile, the ANHA news agency, which is close to Syria's Kurdish fighting forces, said that Jader was fatally shot by a sniper in Al-Shouyoukh, adding that fighters in the Jarablus Military Council arrested two “agents” working for Turkish intelligence in connection to the assassination.
The Council launched an investigation into the incident and is expected to shortly release a statement on the matter, the report said.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party also published the ANHA report on its official website, but has yet to issue an official statement on Jader’s killing.
Turkey, for its part, has yet to comment on the matter, however Yeni Safak—a daily supportive of the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—claimed that Jader was killed by a local tribe member following a dispute.
Ankara’s military efforts in the Jarablus region continued late Monday, with a Turkish official saying the army was shelling ISIS as well as Kurdish positions to “open a corridor for moderate rebels,” the clearest indication yet a cross-border rebel offensive was nearing.
NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Amin Nasr translated Arabic-language material.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Syria has been warned not to fly warplanes in areas where American troops are advising Kurdish and Arab forces fighting the Islamic State group, the Pentagon said on Monday. But it insisted this does not amount to a "no fly zone."
Reporters pushed press secretary Peter Cook to explain the distinction.
"Our warning to the Syrians is the same that we've had for some time, that we're going to defend our forces and they would be advised not to fly in areas where our forces have been operating," Cook said.
"It's not a 'no fly zone,'" he added. Later, he said, "You can label it what you want."
Twice last week the U.S. scrambled fighter aircraft to protect American special operations forces and partner forces after Syrian government warplanes flew near the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh. Cook said there have been no similar incidents since Friday.
"If need be we will send aircraft again to defend our forces," he said.
Cook said the most recent warnings to Syria not to fly in areas near U.S. troops were communicated through the Russian military, which is operating in support of the Syrian government in its fight against opposition forces, including the Islamic State militants.
Asked whether the U.S. policy is to shoot down a Syrian or Russian aircraft if it poses a threat to U.S. troops on the ground, Cook said, "We're going to defend our forces on the ground, absolutely."
Cook was highly critical of Syrian military action in and around the divided city of Aleppo, which has become a main battlefield in Syria's civil war. Relentless shelling and airstrikes have killed more than 300 civilians in the city since rebels broke through a government blockade of the opposition-held east on July 31.
"The Syrian regime aided and abetted by its allies, Russia and Iran, is driving the escalation with its indiscriminate bombing campaign," Cook said. "Bombing densely populated urban areas, interrupting water and electrical services and maiming civilians is only adding fuel to Syria's civil war and does nothing to degrade extremist groups, which was of course Russia's original reason for its military intervention in Syria."
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish special forces units supported by warplanes from the US-led coalition launched an operation in northern Syria to wipe out Islamic State militants along the Turkey-Syria border, a Turkish government press office said on Wednesday.
The Turkish army began firing artillery rounds into the Syrian border town of Jarablus at around 0100 GMT, state-run Anadolu agency said.
White and grey plumes of smoke rose from atop hills in northern Syria, Turkey's CNN Turk television showed in footage broadcast live from the Turkish town of Karkamis across the border.
Turkey had vowed on Monday to "completely cleanse" Islamic State militants from its border region after a suicide bomber suspected of links to the group killed 54 people at a Kurdish wedding in southeastern city of Gaziantep.
The operation comes as Syrian rebels backed by Turkey had said they were in the final stages of preparing an assault from Turkish territory on Jarablus, aiming to preempt a potential attempt by Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to take it.
The Kurdish YPG militia, a critical part of the U.S.-backed campaign against Islamic State, took near complete control of Hasaka city on Tuesday. The group already controls swathes of northern Syria where Kurdish groups have established de facto autonomy since the start of the Syria war in 2011.
Their growing sway has been alarming Ankara, which is fighting its own insurgency with Kurdish PKK militants.
Turkey is focused on preventing the YPG or its allies building on recent advances against Islamic State by capturing the town of Jarablus. The U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces alliance (SDF), including the YPG, captured the city of Manbij, just south of Jarablus, from the Islamic State earlier this month.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Patrick Markey)
KARKAMIS, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkish special forces, tanks and jets backed by planes from the U.S.-led coalition launched their first co-ordinated offensive into Syria on Wednesday to try to drive Islamic State from the border and prevent further gains by Kurdish militia fighters.
A column of at least nine Turkish tanks crossed into northern Syria with Turkish-backed Syrian rebels to push Islamic State out of the border town of Jarablus, military sources said. A Reuters reporter at the border witnessed intense bombardments, with palls of black smoke rising around the town.
President Tayyip Erdogan said the operation was targeting Islamic State and the Kurdish PYD party, whose gains in northern Syria have alarmed Turkey. Ankara views the PYD as an extension of Kurdish militants fighting an insurgency on its own soil, putting it at odds with Washington, which sees the group as an ally in the fight against Islamic State.
"This morning at 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) an operation started in northern Syria against terror groups which constantly threaten our country, like Daesh (Islamic State) and the PYD," Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Turkey, which has NATO's second biggest armed forces, hours after operations began on a pre-planned trip. Biden is the most senior U.S. official to visit since a failed July 15 coup shook confidence in Turkey's ability to step up the fight against Islamic State.
"Euphrates Shield", named after the river running nearby, is Turkey's first major military operation since the abortive coup. A military source said the Turkish-backed rebels had seized control of four villages as they pushed towards Jarablus.
The offensive by Turkey comes four days after a suicide bomber suspected of links to Islamic State killed 54 people at a wedding in the southeastern city of Gaziantep.
Syria's foreign ministry condemned what it said was a breach of its sovereignty and accused Ankara of launching the incursion to replace Islamic State with "other terrorist groups".
A senior U.S. official traveling with Biden said the United States wanted to help Turkey to get Islamic State away from the border, and was providing air cover and "synching up" with the Turks on their plans for Jarablus. The shelling was hitting Islamic State, not Kurdish forces, he said.
Biden's visit comes at a testing time for Turkish-U.S. relations. Turkey says the failed putsch was staged by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for the past 17 years.
Erdogan wants Gulen extradited but Washington says it needs clear evidence of his alleged involvement, sparking an outpouring of anti-Americanism from Turkey's pro-government media. Gulen denies any involvement in the attempted coup.
The Turkish army began firing artillery rounds into Jarablus at around 0100 GMT and Turkish and U.S. warplanes pounded Islamic State targets with air strikes.
It was the first time warplanes from Turkey have struck in Syria since November, when Turkeydowned a Russian warplane near the border, and the first significant incursion by Turkish special forces since a brief operation to relocate the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a revered Ottoman figure, in February 2015.
Turkey and the United States hope that by removing Islamic State from the border, they can deprive it of a smuggling route which long saw its ranks swollen with foreign fighters and its coffers boosted by illicit trade.
But for Turkey, it also preempts any attempt by Syrian Kurdish militia fighters, who play a critical part of the U.S.-backed campaign against Islamic State, to take Jarablus.
Kurdish fighters have captured large areas of territory since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, and Ankara has long declared the Euphrates river, which runs just east of Jarablus, a red line which it does not want them to cross.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Kurdish fighters must return east of the Euphrates or Turkey would "do what is necessary". He said the operation was a turning point and would accelerate removing Islamic State from Syria's Aleppo region.
ENTERING A "QUAGMIRE"
Plumes of smoke rose from the hills around Jarablus, visible from the Turkish town of Karkamis across the border. The boom of artillery rounds was audible as advancing Turkish tanks fired.
Turkish military sources said the air strikes had hit 12 Islamic State targets, while artillery fire hit 70 targets.
"The aim of the operation is to ensure border security and Syria's territorial integrity while supporting the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State," one military source said, adding work to open a passage for ground forces was under way.
Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish PYD, wrote in a tweet that Turkey was entering a "quagmire" in Syria and faced defeat there like Islamic State. Redur Xelil, spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, said the intervention was a "blatant aggression in Syrian internal affairs".
Kurdish groups control swathes of northern Syria where they established de facto autonomy since the start of the Syria war. The YPG, armed wing of the PYD, took control of most of Hasaka city on Tuesday, about 250 km (155 miles) east of Jarablus.
That growing Kurdish influence has alarmed Ankara, which is fighting its own insurgency with militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), blamed by the government for an escalation of attacks in the southeast of Turkey.
The U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces alliance (SDF), which includes the YPG, captured the city of Manbij, just south of Jarablus, from Islamic State earlier this month.
The U.S. official acknowledged Turkey had not been happy about the Manbij operation but said Washington underlined the Kurds would pull back once the city was cleared and that they would not move north, addressing a major Turkish concern.
"We've put a lid on the Kurds moving north, or at least doing so if they want any support from us," he said.
Turkey had vowed on Monday to "completely cleanse" Islamic State militants from its border region after the Gaziantep bombing. Operation "Euphrates Shield" also comes after at least 10 mortar shells from Jarablus landed in Karkamis and the surrounding areas in recent days, forcing residents to flee.
Syrian rebels backed by Turkey had said they were in the final stages of preparing an assault from Turkish territory on Jarablus. A Syrian rebel with one of the Turkey-backed groups said about 1,500 fighters had gathered in Turkey to take part.
It is Turkey's first major military operation since the failed July coup by rogue solders who tried to overthrow Erdogan and the government, killing 240 people and triggering a purge of suspected coup supporters in the army and civil service.
Angered by a perceived lack of Western sympathy over the coup, Turkey chilled ties with Washington and the EU while ending a diplomatic row with Russia and proposing more military cooperation with Moscow in fighting Islamic State. Growing ties between Ankara and Moscow have worried Turkey's Western allies.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason aboard Air Force Two; Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Ayla Jean Yackley, Asli Kandemir, David Dolan, Osman Orsal and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Patrick Markey and Nick Tattersall; Editing by Peter Millership)
Syrian rebels, backed by Turkish and US forces, have captured the ISIS border city of Jarablus in northern Syria.
The capture of Jarablus serves as a major blow to ISIS, the group also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh, as the city functioned as a funnel for foreign fighters and supplies leading from Turkey into Syria, The Washington Post reports.
Turkey and the US hope that by removing the Islamic State from the border, they can deprive it of a smuggling route that long saw its ranks swollen with foreign fighters and its coffers boosted by illicit trade.
The capture of Jarablus came after Turkey vowed on Monday to "completely cleanse" ISIS from its border following a suicide bombing at a wedding in the Turkish city of Gaziantep on Saturday.
The bombing is thought to have been carried out by ISIS, though the group has not yet claimed responsibility. The bombing killed 54 people and was aimed at a Kurdish wedding, most likely in an attempt to further provoke hostilities between Turkey's Kurdish minority and the central government.
"Daesh should be completely cleansed from our borders and we are ready to do what it takes for that," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference in Ankara.
Turkey followed through with its vow to expunge ISIS from its border by launching a large-scale offensive against the city of Jarablus on Wednesday. The BBC reports that the Turkish military destroyed 70 targets around Jarablus with artillery strikes and another 12 targets with airstrikes.
Following the strikes, Turkish tanks and special forces, also backed by US-led coalition airpower, moved into northern Syria and against Jarablus. The mission also involved the use of Turkish-backed regiments of the Free Syrian Army rebel group, which crossed over the border from Turkey to assault Jarablus.
The Washington Post reports, citing rebel forces and Turkish officials, that the combined force managed to reach the center of Jarablus while encountering little to no resistance from ISIS. It is believed that the militant group fled the city before the offensive was fully launched.
As much as the mission was meant to strike at ISIS and deny the group from conducting further operations within Turkey, the drive against Jarablus was also meant to limit the aspirations of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.
"This morning at 4 a.m. (1 a.m. GMT) an operation started in northern Syria against terror groups which constantly threaten our country, like Daesh (Islamic State) and the PYD," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
The sudden Turkish-backed seizure of Jarablus comes as the YPG seized the ISIS-held city of Manbij and prepared to turn its attention against Jarablus. Indeed, over the weekend the Syrian Democratic Forces — which are largely made up of the YPG — formed a Military Council aimed at retaking the border city.
The YPG has emerged as one of the most powerful groups fighting against ISIS in Syria. The group has managed to seize and hold large portions of northern Syria, and the Kurds have made moves toward forming an autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country in a similar move to that of Iraqi Kurdistan.
But the YPG has ties to the Kurdish PKK movement, which the US and the EU consider to be a terrorist organization and which has waged a deadly insurgency across eastern Turkey since in the 1980s. Despite a lull in attacks as the Turkish government and the Kurds worked on a peace process, violence between the PKK and the Turkish military has restarted, leading to clashes throughout Turkey's Kurdish east.
Turkey fears that the expansion of the YPG across Syria will only further embolden the PKK at home. For that reason, Turkey's push to take Jarablus has as much to do with limiting the YPG's territorial ambitions as it does with forcing ISIS from the border.
Kurdish fighters have captured large areas of territory since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, and Ankara has long declared the Euphrates river, which runs just east of Jarablus, a red line it does not want them to cross.
The Turkish military actions against Jarablus have been named "Euphrates Shield." It is Turkey's first military action since the failed coup in July.
Syria's foreign ministry condemned what it said was a breach of its sovereignty and accused Ankara of launching the incursion to replace the Islamic State with "other terrorist groups." Damascus has also called for an immediate end to the Turkish-backed incursion.
However, Turkish officials told the official Anadolu news agency, however, that the operation was "aimed at clearing the Turkish borders of terrorist groups, helping to enhance border security and supporting the territorial integrity of Syria," The Post notes.
ANKARA (Reuters) - The United States has made it clear to Syrian Kurdish forces that they must return to east of the Euphrates river after seizing control of the Syrian town of Manbij to retain U.S. support, Vice President Joe Biden said on Wednesday.
Biden was speaking during a visit to Turkey. Ankara has said it expects Syrian Kurdish fighters to withdraw across the river after the Manbij victory by the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters. Ankara considers the Kurdish YPG in Syria as a hostile force.
Biden also said Turkish officials made clear that the rule of law will prevail during an investigation into the July 15 failed coup. Turkey has detained and arrested tens of thousands after the coup, worrying Western allies who fear a crackdown on dissent.
(Reporting Jeff Mason; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by David Dolan)
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said its inspectors found traces of deadly nerve agents in multiple locations across Syria despite the commitment by President Bashar al Assad’s regime to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal, according to a new report.
The watchdog group has discovered soman and VX, precursors for chemical warfare, at several undeclared facilities in Syria, including two near Damascus, over the past three years, raising questions about whether Assad abided by the US-Russian 2014 international disarmament deal.
The OPCW said the findings detail a “troubling pattern of incomplete and inaccurate Syrian disclosures” regarding the scope of the nation’s chemical weapons program, Foreign Policy reported Tuesday.
The inconsistencies have further fueled speculation among US and Western officials that the Syrian government may be attempting to maintain a limited chemical weapons capacity to use against rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Assad vowed in 2013 to eliminate the country’s chemical weapons program after the US vowed to conduct airstrikes against government targets. The OPCW confirmed in the summer of 2014 that Syria’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons had been removed from the country.
But the watchdog group’s latest findings undermine Assad’s insistence that the government has entirely destroyed the program.
OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu wrote in the report that most of the 122 samples taken at multiple labs in Syria “indicate potentially undeclared chemical weapons-related activities.” He added that most of Syria’s defenses for having the undeclared agents “are not scientifically or technically plausible, and … the presence of several undeclared chemical warfare agents is still to be clarified,” Foreign Policy reported.
President Obama told the Atlantic in April that he was “very proud” of his decision not to order airstrikes against the Assad regime in 2013 after it attacked civilians with the chemical agent sarin, killing more than 1,400 people.
Obama had infamously vowed that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” provoking US military force. He instead used diplomatic channels to reach a disarmament deal with Russia and Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry said the agreement successfully “got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out of” Assad’s control.
The US representative to the OPCW, Kenneth Ward, accused Syria in July of engaging “in a calculated campaign of intransigence and obfuscation, of deception, and of defiance,” according to Foreign Policy.
Ward said OPCW’s collection of undeclared chemical warfare agents across Syria are “indicative of production, weaponization, and storage of [chemical warfare] agents by the Syrian military that has never been acknowledged by the Syrian government.”
“We, therefore, remain very concerned that [chemical weapons] agent and associated munitions, subject to declaration and destruction, have been illicitly retained by Syria,” he continued.
After Russia's short-lived air campaign out of Iran's Hamedan air base, Turkey's prime minister has said that the Russian air force could possibly operate out of Turkey's Incirlik base, where US and NATO forces are stationed, "if necessary."
Iran cut Russia's engagement at Hamedan shortly after Russia demonstrated a "kind of show-off and ungentlemanly" attitude in publicizing the event, according to Iran's defense minister, when Moscow televised video of bombs dropping from Tu-22s over Syria.
Now a Russian senator, Igor Morozov, told a state-run media outlet that "it just remains to come to an agreement with Erdogan that we get the NATO base Incirlik as our primary air base ... You'll see, the next base will be Incirlik."
For NATO, it seems such a move would be untenable.
"In 2014, we suspended all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia following Russia's illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea," a NATO official told Business Insider. "This decision was reconfirmed at the NATO Summit in Warsaw in July 2016."
However, Incirlik is not a NATO base.
"Incirlik air base is a Turkish air base, and any foreign nation's operations from there would need to be coordinated with the Turkish government," an official from US Army Europe told Business Insider.
Meanwhile, US Vice President Joe Biden, who is visiting Turkey on Wednesday, said Syrian Kurds would need to withdraw from the area immediately across the Turkish border in Syria, back across the Euphrates river, to receive US support.
Ankara, for its part, views the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, as a terrorist organization and immediately set out on a sweeping military campaign into Syria, unlike any seen from it before, once the Kurds started operations aimed at taking the ISIS-held border city of Jarablus. For the US, however, Syrian Kurds have been some of the most effective allies on the ground.
Biden also said he was confident that the rule of law would prevail in Turkey in regard to the failed coup in July, after which the government, media, and military were purged of thousands of employees, with tens of thousands arrested.
Yet according to Amnesty International, "the coup attempt unleashed appalling violence and those responsible for unlawful killings and other human rights abuses," a far cry from the "rule of law" heralded by Biden.
NATO and US European Command officials did not respond to inquires about the effect of a possible Russian presence at Incirlik.
For now, it seems the US may be toeing Turkey's line to possibly prevent Russia, which has different objectives in Syria, from setting up camp at Incirlik.
State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner said at a press briefing on Tuesday that the US focuses on fighting ISIS in Syria, whereas Russia's focus is on supporting the Assad regime, which often leads to civilian casualties.
"Aleppo is a perfect example of that, where you still see strikes hitting civilian targets and certainly moderate opposition targets," Toner said. "And that is not helping the overall situation in Syria."
A new contest is raging in northern Syria. This time, however, it's not a battle but a race.
On August 24, Turkish tanks and soldiers, backed by U.S. coalition air strikes, crossed the Syrian border to attack positions held by the militant group Islamic State (IS) near Jarablus.
This town lies near the frontier with Turkey and is approximately 95 kilometers northeast of the city of Aleppo.
On the same day, the BBC reported the following:
Military sources told Turkish media 70 targets in the Jarablus area had been destroyed by artillery and rocket strikes, and 12 by air strikes.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are accompanying the Turkish advance.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation was aimed against both IS and Kurdish fighters.
Despite the fact that Turkey is fighting IS in this area, fighting terrorists may be the mechanism that Ankara is using to engage in northern Syria rather than the primary motivation. Such a scenario envisages Turkey trying to reverse a series of foreign policy defeats it has suffered in recent months, a cycle that has been accelerating in recent weeks.
Aleppo Province is quickly becoming the conflict's most complicated arena. As LiveUAMap illustrates, the region is divided by (at least) six distinct groups of fighters:
The city of Aleppo, once Syria's financial capital, is largely controlled by antigovernment rebel forces and is besieged by a coalition comprising the Syrian military, fighters from Hezbollah, Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commandos, Iraqi Shi'ite militias, and Russian contract soldiers, with the former two groups representing the bulk of the party.
Lately, however, the tables have turned. In the past two weeks, rebel forces, with the help of Al-Qaeda-linked groups, have broken the siege of the city and are now locked in a desperate and bloody battle for the Syrian government's last real stronghold in the north. If the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lose this fight, the anti-Assad rebels would have a nearly unified front and would be able to push deeper into the regime's heartland.
But the power dynamic in this area is made more complicated by the other competing factions in the region. The westernmost reaches of territory held by IS protrudes north of Aleppo city. To the northeast of the city, the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) are now rapidly capturing territory from IS. The SDF is made up mostly of Kurdish YPG fighters, although it also contains Arabs and other non-Kurds, and they have been armed, trained, supplied, and otherwise supported by the United States in an effort to create a ground force in Syria that is capable of taking and holding territory from IS.
They have taken control of Manbij, about 70 kilometers east-northeast of Aleppo city, and are pushing farther west and south in the process. Crucially, they are also advancing north of Manbij toward Jarablus, the target of Turkey's invasion.
Making things even more complicated, there is another group of anti-Assad rebels that is also predominantly occupied with the fight against IS. Due north of Aleppo city, members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) control a crescent-shaped sliver of territory sometimes called the Azaz pocket, with their backs to the Turkish border, IS controlling the majority of their perimeter, and a separate group of YPG Kurdish fighters to the west. These FSA fighters are said to have received training, equipment, and support from Turkey and the CIA, but they have been fighting a desperate battle for survival for months.
In the spring, Russian air strikes and ground troops reportedly tipped the balance of power in this region and split the rebel lines in two, cutting off the anti-Assad rebels in Aleppo from the Turkish border, and from the rebels in Azaz. IS, smelling blood in the water, struck north and west, capturing huge amounts of territory from the FSA and other rebel groups. The YPG also saw opportunity, and worked to expand its control in the region.
Since then, the SDF -- which the United States says is made up of more than just YPG fighters but which some analysts say is primarily interested in advancing Kurdish interests in the region -- has benefited from strong support from the United States and has flanked IS. Rebels in the Azaz pocket have capitalized on IS's weakness and have pushed west, but at a snail's pace compared to the advances made by the SDF.
To simplify: What is taking place in northern Aleppo Province at the moment is effectively a race to see who can capture the most territory from IS the fastest. Just like the end of World War II, when the United States and Britain were advancing into German territory from the west and the Soviet Union was gobbling up the Nazi empire from the east, so too are the Kurds and the various non-Kurdish rebel groups fighting to stake their own claims as IS collapses under the combined weight of its enemies. Just like 1945, the outcome of this race could have major implications for the regional balance of power and could set the stage for the next war in the region, whether hot or cold.
So far, the major losers in this race are arguably the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Turkey, while Kurdish groups have gained the most. Between 2012 and 2014, the FSA led the fighting against the Assad regime in northern Syria and captured the vast majority of this territory. Between 2014 and 2016, IS seized control of vast swaths of northern Syria. In the last year, foreign support for the Assad military, particularly Russian air power, has helped gobble up even more territory from the anti-Assad rebels. Now, with robust U.S. support, the SDF is capturing that territory and controlling it itself.
In mid-August, Syrian activist Omar Sabbour shared a map made by Syrian journalist Hadi Abdullah that clearly illustrates how much territory has shifted. In 2013, most of northern Syria was covered by the dark-green color of the anti-Assad rebels. IS had yet to be formed, Assad had been pushed out, and the light-green color denoting Kurdish territory was relatively small. In 2014, almost the entire map was gray, having been taken over by IS. But since 2016, the light-green of the Kurds has displaced much of the gray, while Assad's forces have once again entered this zone of control.
The perception among many Syrian activists in this area is that U.S. support for moderate rebels has been lacking while U.S. support for the SDF has been robust. Sabbour's opinion of these developments is strongly worded. “The US has essentially stolen vast swathes of Syria liberated by the FSA between 2012-13 and given them to the YPG. Between 2012-13 -- when these areas were liberated -- the US was actively blockading military supplies coming in from neighboring countries,” he wrote. Since this post, the SDF has advanced even farther.
There are those, of course, who would dispute that worldview. But Sabbour's opinion is not uncommon. Reports suggest there is a sense among many Sunnis that the U.S. government's strategy in Syria and Iraq has empowered Shi'ite and Kurdish groups at the expense of Sunnis who once controlled Iraq and who have always been the strong majority in Syria.
Turkey, a major supporter of the anti-Assad rebels and a country that is effectively at war with the Kurdish PKK and, to a lesser extent (for now) the YPG, has watched as its own proxies have struggled while a group it considers to be a terrorist organization gains power just across its border. Kurdish groups have been blamed for a series of terrorist attacks inside Turkey this summer, including several last week. Jarablus appears to have been the last straw.
Earlier in the week, Turkey fired warning shots, with artillery, at SDF positions in northern Syria. On August 22, the SDF commander of the newly-formed Jarablus military council, Abdulsettar Al-Cadiri, was assassinated after announcing the beginning of the fight for the city. There is no proof for the claim, but there are suggestions that Turkish military intelligence was responsible.
Turkey's engagement in Syria could complicate the situation further, since it is entirely possible that the Turkish military or the rebels it supports could go to open war in northern Syria. Such a development could derail the fight against IS and efforts to end the Syrian conflict, and even widen the war. Any conflict of that nature could also exacerbate sectarian tensions at a time when stability and peace are already at a premium in the region. In short, it's an oil barrel, surrounded by powder kegs, surrounded by flame.
The U.S. government is responding. At the time of writing, the breaking news was that visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had told Kurdish forces that they "must move back across the Euphrates River." He said "they cannot -- will not -- under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment,"according to the AP news agency.
Now there are new questions: Will Turkey continue to expand its operations in Syria? Does this mark a new, much more robust phase of NATO intervention in the conflict? Will Turkey then turn on Assad? Will the SDF and other Kurdish groups respond, or might they lose U.S. support? And how will Russia and Assad respond to their loss of control in northern Syria, which may very likely be permanent?
The race for northern Syria has just heated up. Who will win?
The United States may finally have a professional military ally against the Islamic State in Syria. The Turkish-led assault on the northern Syria town of Jarablus, which was held by the Islamic State for two-and-a-half years but was re-captured Wednesday with little resistance, will shape the war on the extremist group to Washington’s advantage.
Turkey entered the Syrian war directly for the first time Wednesday morning, sending tanks and special forces to support a rebel offensive on the Islamic State’s only remaining stronghold on the Turkish border. U.S. aircraft also backed the offensive, providing close air support against Islamic State targets — a crucial indication that the Turkish intervention had received Washington’s acceptance.
Rebels declared victory within hours, suffering no significant casualties. Turkey has thus quickly achieved its immediate objective of taking Jarablus and has now signaled its attempt to push westward to “cleanse” the border area of the Islamic State.
The campaign itself may launch a new era of U.S.-Turkish cooperation in Syria. It’s true that Ankara’s motives for directly entering the Syrian war do not cleanly overlap with Washington’s and are in direct conflict with those of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is a U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State but is considered a terrorist group by Turkey.
Overall, however, Wednesday’s events mark a change for the better for the United States, its alliance with Turkey, and the war on the Islamic State.
Every actor in the Jarablus operation is fighting for its own reasons. Turkey certainly sought to weaken the Islamic State, which has shelled Turkish territory and carried out a series of terrorist attacks — including a suicide bombing in the southern city of Gaziantep just last weekend, which killed 54 people at a wedding.
More importantly, Ankara is responding rather belatedly to territorial acquisitions in northern Syria by the PYD-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which aims to connect different “cantons” to form a contiguous Kurdish territory along the Turkish border. As Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Wednesday, Turkey will not accept a Kurdish entity on its border.
But why now? The SDF has been expanding for months, and the Turkish response had been rather muted until Wednesday. Ankara may have hoped the United States, which supports the SDF, would pressure the group to respect territorial red lines, such as staying east of the Euphrates River. This, however, did not happen, as the SDF crossed the Euphrates and eventually took the town of Manbij on Aug. 12 and seemed intent on continuing west to link up with the farthest Kurdish canton in Efrin.
The SDF’s growing momentum seems to have changed Ankara’s calculations, leading to the Jarablus operation. Turkey had already been fighting a rebel proxy war to clear other border areas of the Islamic State and preempt SDF expansion, using local militias but resisting the deployment of Turkish troops into Syria.
In taking Jarablus, groups including the Sultan Murad Division, Faylaq al-Sham, Liwa al-Mutasim, and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement were moved from other rebel areas farther west, through Turkish territory, and over the border into the Jarablus fight.
This is Turkey’s most dramatic move in its otherwise inconsistent war on the Islamic State, and it could provide a blueprint for cooperation with the United States going forward. Washington has been hesitant to ally with Turkish-backed rebel groups focused on fighting Damascus, fearing it could be dragged into a war against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This has left the United States heavily dependent on the PYD, an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a U.S.-designated terrorist group — and a sworn enemy of Turkey.
The United States desperately needs an ally that can deliver results against the Islamic State, work with local Arab citizens who are suspicious of Kurdish groups, and serve as a strategic international partner rather than a local militia. While Turkey was focused exclusively on defeating the Assad regime and containing the PYD, none of this was possible.
But if Ankara calculates that playing a central role against the Islamic State is its best chance to bolster viable Arab partners in northern Syria — while countering the possibility of a united, hostile Kurdish entity — that would change.
The Jarablus operation is therefore the culmination of a strategic Turkish adaptation, PYD overreach, and U.S. eagerness to expand its operations and partners against the Islamic State. Turkey will leave the town in rebel hands, though it may also choose to keep its own troops there to deter or defend against Islamic State counterattacks.
If Turkey and its allies can hold it, Jarablus could serve as a springboard for further Turkish-backed expansion of an anti-Islamic State buffer zone. This will cement a new partnership between Turkey and an array of Syrian rebels, with U.S. backing.
These dynamics have potentially enormous implications for the war in northern Syria. They may raise Turkish-PYD tensions in the short term, which the United States will have to manage and factor into its anti-Islamic State strategy. On balance, however, Washington has little choice but to embrace Ankara, a NATO ally, over a controversial militia that is Turkey’s enemy.
Having Turkey as a full-fledged partner in the anti-Islamic State fight also will give Washington greater leverage with its Kurdish allies. In Ankara Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called for Kurdish forces to withdraw from areas west of the Euphrates, which is the very region Turkish-backed rebels hope to expand into.
Kurdish forces will likely have little choice but to comply — or risk losing U.S. military support. Thus, a curb on Kurdish expansion may actually de-escalate Turkish-Kurdish tensions, so long as the United States remains engaged in the war.
If built upon, the Jarablus operation could lay the basis for much-needed U.S.-Turkish cooperation, facilitate an Arab-Kurdish balance of power in northern Syria, and substantially strengthen the war on the Islamic State. And if Washington and Ankara remain closely engaged, they should be able to secure the border area. South of that strip of land, however, things get complicated, as the rebels will eventually run into PYD and regime forces.
Their respective foreign backers — Turkey, the United States, Russia, and Iran — will have to work very hard to avoid an escalation. For now, however, Washington has plenty to gain from Ankara’s newfound enthusiasm and aggression against the Islamic State.
In an interview with USA Today, the pilots of the F-22s who chased away Syrian jets bombing close to Kurdish forces with embedded US advisers revealed that the Syrian pilots had no idea they were being shadowed.
“I followed him around for all three of his loops,” one of the American pilots, a 38-year-old Air Force major, told USA Today. “He didn’t appear to have any idea I was there.”
Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran, commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, told USA Today that once the F-22 made radio contact, "The behaviour stopped. We made our point."
The situation in Syria is tense, as the US has limited forces on the ground, but has employed air assets to defend them. So the US effectively has told Syria that it can't fly planes within a section of their own country.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that in the event that Syrian planes get too close to US and US-backed forces that they "would advise them to steer clear in areas where we are operating," adding that "we always have the right to defend our forces."
Fortunately, in this case, the warning was sufficient.
“The big concern is really a miscalculation,” said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of US air operations in the Middle East told USA Today. “It can happen on either side.”
“We made it very clear to our folks from the highest levels: We’re not at war with the Russians or Syrians,” Corcoran told USA Today. “We’re not here to shoot down Russian or Syrian airplanes.”
But sending servicemen and women into combat with unclear, or delicate instructions is not an ideal case. Every second a pilot spends weighing the decision to fire or not could potentially cost that pilot's life.
Luckily, no life or death decisions had to be made.
“I’m thinking how do I de-escalate this scenario to the best of my ability and also keep us in a safe position while doing so,” the other pilot involved told USA Today.
It seems also that the pilot's leadership was behind them every step of the way. Maj. Gen. Jay Silveria, the air commander in Qatar, made it clear he was ready to pull the trigger.
“I wouldn’t have hesitated,” said Silveria.
“All I needed at that point to shoot them down was a report from the ground that they were being attacked,” Silveria told USA Today. “We were in a perfect position to execute that with some pretty advanced weaponry.”
GENEVA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva on Friday to try to hammer out final details of a cooperation agreement on fighting Islamist militants in Syria.
The hope is that a deal on fighting jihadists in Syria will help lead to a cessation of hostilities between the army and its militia allies on one side and non-jihadist rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, as a step towards relaunching talks on a political transition to end the five-year Syrian conflict.
The meeting between Lavrov and Kerry at a luxury hotel on Lake Geneva began shortly after 10 am (0800 GMT). Asked what the main impediment was to a nationwide ceasefire, Lavrov quipped: "I don't want to spoil the atmosphere for the negotiations."
While Kerry said this week that technical teams from both sides were close to the end of their discussions, U.S. officials indicated it was too early to say whether an agreement was likely.
"There are still issues that need to be ironed out," a senior State Department official said as the talks began.
"We're hopeful that today could see resolution on at least some of them, and that we can move this plan forward," the official said, "But we're mindful of the challenges."
When Kerry launched the Syrian cooperation talks in July during a visit to Moscow, the proposal involved Washington and Moscow sharing military intelligence to coordinate air strikes against Islamic State and grounding the Syrian air force to stop it from attacking moderate rebel groups.
Kerry believes the plan is the best chance to limit the fighting that is driving thousands of Syrians into exile in Europe and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching tens of thousands more, as well as preserving a political track.
The talks take place just days after Syrian rebels backed by Turkish special forces, tanks and warplanes entered Jarablus, one of Islamic State's last strongholds on the Turkish-Syrian border.
The advance westward in the next phase of their Turkey-backed operation could take weeks or months to complete, a rebel commander told Reuters.
Turkish military shelled the Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units, or YPG, south of Jarablus and demanded that the YPG retreat to the east side of the Euphrates River within a week.
The YPG had moved west of the river earlier this month as part of a U.S.-backed operation, now completed, to capture the city of Manbij from Islamic State.
Turkey's stance puts it at odds with Washington, which sees the YPG as a rare reliable ally on the ground in Syria.
By reaching a deal with Russia, which supports Syrian Assad, Washington hopes that it will help launch talks on a political transition in Syria.
On Thursday, the UN said Russia had agreed to a 48-hour humanitarian ceasefire in the divided Syrian city of Aleppo to allow aid deliveries, although U.N. officials said they were waiting for security guarantees from parties on the ground before moving forward.
The United Nations has pushed for a weekly pause in the fighting in Aleppo to deliver food, water and medicine to civilians caught in the fighting.
Separately, Syrian rebels and government forces agreed in a deal on Thursday to evacuate all residents and insurgents from the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya, ending one of the longest standoffs in the five-year conflict.