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- 09/14/17--10:20: _An American citizen...
- 09/14/17--14:45: _9 photos of the upg...
- 09/15/17--09:50: _US-backed Syrian fi...
- 09/15/17--11:50: _Turkey's purchase o...
- 09/17/17--06:35: _The Pentagon is spe...
- 09/21/17--06:30: _Russia warns US it ...
- 09/21/17--11:01: _Here's the video of...
- 09/22/17--09:24: _Royal Air Force rel...
- 09/25/17--07:42: _Russia says ISIS ki...
- 09/27/17--14:36: _The Russian general...
- 09/28/17--14:30: _Here's how the US-l...
- 09/30/17--12:27: _Trump is ignoring h...
- 10/01/17--18:23: _Israel is going to ...
- 10/05/17--07:17: _Iraqi military reca...
- 10/06/17--06:12: _Syria's Raqqa has b...
- 10/07/17--12:03: _This map shows the ...
- 10/09/17--03:43: _ISIS fighters, once...
- 10/09/17--08:03: _US-backed forces ha...
- 10/11/17--06:56: _How a businessman s...
- 10/12/17--01:57: _The British woman w...
- 09/14/17--10:20: An American citizen fighting for ISIS has been captured in Syria
- 09/14/17--14:45: 9 photos of the upgraded MiG-29 that Russia just sent to Syria
- 10/01/17--18:23: Israel is going to war in Syria — to fight Iran
- 10/05/17--07:17: Iraqi military recaptures ISIS' last stronghold in northern Iraq
- 10/07/17--12:03: This map shows the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria
- 10/11/17--06:56: How a businessman struck a deal with ISIS to help Assad feed Syrians
An American-born ISIS fighter has been captured in Syria by Kurdish forces, Betsy Woodruff and Spencer Ackerman of The Daily Beast report.
The Beast report cited multiple US military spokespersons as being "aware of reports" that a US citizen was captured, while a source familiar with the situation told the site the unnamed fighter had "surrendered."
US military officials confirmed the capture to CNN and Fox News. CNN's Ryan Browne reported the American was in the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed militia spearheading the push into the ISIS capital of Raqqa.
"We are aware of that report," a State Department spokesperson told Business Insider, referring to The Daily Beast. "We have no information to share at this time."
A spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, the US military-led coalition leading the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, did not immediately respond to Business Insider's request for comment.
This would not be the first case of an American being captured while fighting for the terror group. Mohamed Khweis, 27, originally from Virginia, joined the group and later surrendered to Kurdish authorities in 2016, according to NBC News. He was later convicted of providing material support to ISIS and faces a minimum sentence of five years imprisonment.
Moscow announced on Wednesday that it had deployed an unknown number of its MiG-29SMTs to Syria for the first time.
Russian defense firm Mikoyan started developing the MiG-29, codenamed "Fulcrum" by NATO, in 1974, and the jet made its maiden flight in 1977.
It was meant to be stationed near front-line areas to cover Soviet army units and also to protect other aircraft from F-15s and F-16s.
The MiG-29SMT is one of Russia's most recent upgrades of the Fulcrum, and you can see more of it below.
The MiG-29SMT's maiden flight came in 1998 and mass production began in 2004.
It has six external ordnance stations and carries a variety of air-to-air missiles.
It can hold up to two R-27T medium-range infrared-guided missiles or two long-range R-27ER or R-27ET missiles, or up to six RVV-AE medium-range missiles. It can also carry up to six R-73E short-range missiles.
It can carry air-to-surface missiles too.
It can hold two Kh-29T or Kh-29L air-to-surface missiles, up to four Kh-25M missiles, or two Kh-31A anti-ship missiles and two Kh-31P anti-radar missiles. It can also hold up to four KAB-500 guided bombs.
See the rest of the story at Business Insider
U.S.-backed Syrian militias will not let government forces cross the Euphrates River in their bid to recover eastern Syria, setting a red line for President Bashar al-Assad as both sides converge on Islamic State in Deir al-Zor, their commander said.
Militia commander Abu Khawla said a civilian administration would be set up to run areas of Deir al-Zor province being captured from Islamic State by his fighters, including its oil fields. The Syrian government was "not fit to lead and rule the people", he said.
The Deir al-Zor military council, fighting as part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has advanced toward Deir al-Zor from the eastern side of the Euphrates River since launching an offensive into the province a week ago.
Government forces, supported by the Russian air force and Iran-backed militias, have simultaneously advanced into Deir al-Zor from the west. Last week, they broke an Islamic State siege of the provincial capital, Deir al-Zor city, which sits on the western bank of the river.
Deir al-Zor province is Islamic State's last major foothold in Syria and Iraq. Rich in oil, it is bisected by the Euphrates River and abuts Iraq.
The Russian- and U.S.-backed campaigns against Islamic State in Syria have mostly stayed out of each other's way as the sides seek to avoid conflict, with the Euphrates often acting as a dividing line between the sides. Talks have been underway to extend a formal demarcation line that has separated the campaigns, officials have said.
Abu Khawla warned government forces and their militia allies against firing across the river as his fighters close in - something he said had happened in recent days.
"Now we have 3 km between us and the eastern riverbank, once our forces reach the area, any shot fired into that area we will consider an attack on the military council," he said.
"We have notified the regime and Russia that we are coming to the Euphrates riverbank, and they can see our forces advancing," he said. "We do not allow the regime or its militias to cross to the eastern riverbank."
"MOVING FORCEFULLY AND QUICKLY"
"Every village around the eastern riverbank of the Euphrates river until the Iraqi-Syrian border is a goal for our forces," he said. "We are moving forcefully and quickly. We do not have a timeline, but we hope soon to free the entire eastern bank."
Reflecting the demarcation line, the U.S.-led coalition said on Thursday the SDF was not planning to enter Deir al-Zor city.
But while Deir al-Zor city was not an SDF target, Abu Khawla did not rule out the possibility that it may become one, saying people in the city wanted to be liberated from "the regime and Daesh at the same time".
But "right now, we have a schedule that we’re following which is the liberation of the eastern riverbanks of the Euphrates", he said.
He said Islamic State had "shown fierce resistance" when SDF fighters entered the outskirts of Deir al-Zor on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. "The battles are continuous," he said.
Abu Khawla, who is in his early 30s, said 10,000 fighters were taking part in the Deir al-Zor campaign, the bulk of them members of Arab tribes from eastern Syria. The campaign is supported by the Kurdish militia that dominate the SDF.
"All our soldiers’ training (is) in the Coalition training camps, they oversee our training and our armament," he said.
Abu Khawla was a member of a Free Syrian Army rebel group in Deir al-Zor until Islamic State took over most of the province in 2014 at the height of its expansion in Syria and Iraq. He fled to Turkey before returning to Syria and joining the SDF.
"Now we are setting up a civil council parallel to the military council of Deir al-Zor, and this civilian council will run all areas freed from (Islamic State)," he said.
Turkey announced earlier this week that it had finalized a multibillion-dollar purchase of the S-400, Russia's most sophisticated surface-to-air-missile system.
The acquisition has been discussed for several months and comes amid a period of strained relations between Ankara and its partners in the NATO military alliance.
Finalizing the $2.5 billion deal appears to have inflamed those tensions however, and at least one US senator is saying sanctions on Turkey may now be necessary.
Turkey's purchase of the weapons system appears to stem in part from reluctance by NATO members to sell it certain arms. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized the alliance several times since announcing the purchase on Tuesday.
"Nobody has the right to discuss the Turkish republic’s independence principles or independent decisions about its defense industry," Erdogan said on Tuesday. "We make the decisions about our own independence ourselves — we are obliged to take safety and security measures in order to defend our country."
He was more direct the following day, saying NATO "went crazy just because we made the S-400 deal. What were we supposed to do? Wait for you? We are taking care of ourselves. We are taking security measures and will continue to do so."
NATO has warned Turkey that members of the alliance are obligated to use military hardware that is interoperable with each other's systems. (NATO leaders are also wary of the introduction of Russian equipment to a NATO member's military.) Turkey, for its part, has rebutted that by citing Greece's purchase of Russia's S-300 missile system several years ago.
Turkey has also criticized the US and its allies for their reticence about selling it military arms and technology. Ankara has touted the technology transfer component of the deal with Russia, which will aid its rapidly expanding domestic defense industry.
A NATO spokesperson told Politico that the bloc had not been informed about the details of the purchase. However, they said, "It is up to allies to decide what military equipment they buy."
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was less sanguine about the deal, asking the Trump administration to review its impact on US-Turkey security cooperation and on Turkey's NATO membership.
In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Cardin warned that the deal violated a bill signed into law in August that imposes sanctions "on any person that conducts a significant transaction with the Russian Federation’s defense or intelligence sectors."
"These are mandatory sanctions and constitute a commitment by the United States to deter Russia from attacking the United States and its allies in the future," the letter said, according to Politico.
The White House has resisted the sanctions measure as interference in the president's freedom to conduct diplomacy, and the State Department has stopped short of discussing punishment in this case. But the Pentagon has expressed more worry about the acquisition.
"We have relayed our concerns to Turkish officials regarding the potential purchase of the S-400. A NATO interoperable missile defense system remains the best option to defend Turkey from the full range of threats in its region," Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael said in a statement.
The deal also carries diplomatic weight.
The Erdogan government was irritated by what it saw as an lackluster response to an attempted coup against him in summer 2016. Germany has been a particular target of ire, especially after Berlin decided to limit some arms sales to Turkey over concerns about a crackdown and mass arrests in the wake of that coup.
In addition to frustration about arms sales, Turkey has been dismayed with the US's cooperation with the YPG, a mostly Kurdish group fighting ISIS in Syria. Turkey considers the group an offshoot of the Kurdish rebel group PKK, which both Ankara and Washington have labeled a terrorist group.
The deal also underscores what many in the West see as an increasingly cozy relationship between Russia and Turkey. Some view the sale as another step by Moscow to undermine NATO — a sentiment Russian presidential adviser Vladimir Kozhin may have tried to nurture by saying, "I can only guarantee that all decisions taken on this contract strictly comply with our strategic interests."
The U.S. Department of Defense is reportedly still funneling billions of dollars’ worth of Soviet-era weaponry to anti-Islamic State groups in Syria, with questionable oversight.
In a joint report published Tuesday, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) allege that the Pentagon has given up to $2.2 billion worth of weapons to groups like the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
The program sidesteps long-established checks on international weapons trafficking, the report alleges, and appears to be turbocharging a shadowy world of Eastern European arms dealers.
In particular, the Pentagon is reportedly removing documentary evidence about just who will ultimately be using the weapons, potentially weakening one of the bulwarks of international protocols against illicit arms dealing.
“The Pentagon is removing any evidence in their procurement records that weapons are actually going to the Syrian opposition,” Ivan Angelovski, one of the report’s authors, told Foreign Policy.
The program replaced a failed initial attempt to train and equip so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria beginning in 2014. Nine months later, the program collapsed after the vast majority of trainees were either captured or absorbed into other unvetted groups.
The Defense Department then decided that it would instead select “vetted” opposition forces on the ground and provide them with cheaper, Soviet-style weapons.
Legally, however, shipments like the ones that started flowing to groups in Syria are supposed to include information on the end-user of the weapons. Instead, according to the report, the Defense Department decided to allow the transfer of equipment to any army or militia it provides security assistance to — including Syrian rebels — without any clear documentation.
A Pentagon spokesman quoted in the report said the department monitored the usage of the equipment to ensure compliance. In comments to FP, spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway re-emphasized that, saying that the Pentagon “carries out end-use monitoring of issued equipment.” He also said that the the department’s primary objective was to provide equipment that was simple and easy to operate so that partner forces could quickly secure and hold territory retaken from the Islamic State.
Sidestepping rigorous controls on who receives arms threatens international efforts to halt arms trafficking, outside experts told the report’s authors.
The United States is “undermining the object and purpose” of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, Patrick Wilcken, an arms control researcher at Amnesty International, told the investigators. Another expert on conflict prevention said U.S. manipulation of the system could put the the entirety of the international arms control regime at risk.
In addition to the potential legal consequences of the Pentagon’s program, the report also documents issues with the acquisition process itself.
According to the report, many of the weapons suppliers — primarily in Eastern Europe but also in the former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Ukraine — have both links to organized crime throughout Eastern Europe and spotty business records.
The sheer amount of material necessary for the Pentagon program — one ammunition factory announced it planned to hire 1,000 new employees in 2016 to help cope with the demand — has reportedly stretched suppliers to the limit, forcing the Defense Department to relax standards on the materials it’s willing to accept.
In a well-documented incident in 2015, a Pentagon contractor working for a little-known company called SkyBridge Tactical was killed in Bulgaria when an aging rocket-propelled grenade he was testing exploded at a firing range. According to the new report, the Defense Department continues to use one of the other contractors involved in the accident.
Several contractors and subcontractors have also reportedly bragged about paying “commissions” to foreign agents to secure deals, the report alleges.
OCCRP is a worldwide investigative reporting platform specializing in coverage of criminal networks and corruption. It receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the International Center for Journalists, and Google Jigsaw — among others.
BIRN is a news outlet focused on analysis, commentary, and investigative reporting from Southeast Europe. It is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and others.
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Thursday it had warned the United States it would target areas in Syria where U.S. special forces and U.S.-backed militia were operating if its own forces came under fire from them, something it said had already happened twice.
Russia was referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting with the U.S.-led coalition, which Moscow said had diverted from the battle to take Raqqa to Deir al-Zor, where Russian special forces are helping the Syrian army push out Islamic State militants.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the SDF had taken up positions on the eastern banks of the Euphrates with U.S. special forces, and had twice opened fire with mortars and artillery on Syrian troops who were working alongside Russian special forces.
"A representative of the U.S. military command in Al Udeid (the U.S. operations center in Qatar) was told in no uncertain terms that any attempts to open fire from areas where SDF fighters are located would be quickly shut down," Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.
"Fire points in those areas will be immediately suppressed with all military means."
In Deir al-Zor province of eastern Syria, Islamic State is battling two separate offensives, launched by the SDF on one side and the Syrian army and its allies on the other.
The Syrian army, backed by Russian and Syrian war planes, has captured about 100 km (160 miles) of the west bank of the Euphrates this month, reaching the Raqqa provincial border on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Syrian troops also crossed to the eastern side of the river on Monday. The SDF's advances have been on the eastern bank of the river.
The convergence of the two rival offensives has increased tensions in Deir al-Zor. The U.S.-backed militia said on Saturday they had come under attack from Russian jets and Syrian government forces, something Moscow denied.
The SDF warned on Monday against any further Syrian army advances on the eastern riverbank.
On Tuesday Russia's Defence Ministry said the waters of the Euphrates had risen as soon as the Syrian army began crossing it, suggesting this could only have happened if upstream dams held by the U.S.-backed opposition had been opened.
Konashenkov, in his Thursday statement, questioned the nature of SDF's relationship with Islamic State (IS). Russian drones did not detect any clashes between the two groups when SDF fighters approached Deir al-Zor, he said.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)
On Jun. 18, F/A-18E Super Hornet belonging to the VFA-87 “Golden Warriors” and piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Michael “Mob” Tremel,” shot down a Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22 Fitter near the town of Resafa (40 km to the southwest of Raqqa, Syria).
The VFA-31 Tomcatters, also embarked on USS George Bush (CVN-77) supporting Operation Inherent Resolve from the Mediterranean Sea back then, have included footage of the aerial engagement, filmed with their ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Forward Looking Infra Red) pod, in their 2017 OIR cruise video.
Here below you can see the relevant part of the cruise video, the one that shows the AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) hitting the Syrian Sukhoi (from two different angles – maybe because other Hornets filmed the scene) and then the Fitter crashing into the ground.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense has released footage of a Royal Air Force drone strike that it claims disrupted a public execution being staged by ISIS in Syria back in May.
The strike was reportedly carried out by a Reaper drone on May 9 as ISIS militants were preparing to kill a pair of shackled prisoners before a group of spectators in the town of Abu Kamal, which is located in eastern Syria near the Iraq border.
According to the MoD, the Reaper was flying an armed reconnaissance mission when its pilots, located 2,000 miles away in jolly old England, spotted the militants unloading the prisoners from a van. A large crowd was assembled nearby.
“Given the large number of civilians present, the Reaper’s crew could not target directly the [ISIS] fighters about to carry out the murders,” the MoD explained in a statement to The Guardian in May.
The crew also spotted an armed ISIS sentry on a nearby rooftop, whom they immediately obliterated with a Hellfire missile. This appears to have done the trick.
“The individual whom we engaged was a sniper in over-watch to shoot civilians who sought to move away from the execution, let alone to protect the planned execution itself,” Air Commodore Johnny Stringer, commander of UK air operations in Iraq and Syria, told The Telegraph.
The video, which the MoD released for public consumption on Sep. 19, shows the crowd start to scatter even before the missile hits. As the dust settles, people can be seen running in all directions. It is unclear what happened to the prisoners.
Speaking to British troops in Iraq earlier this week, Sir Michael Fallon, the U.K.’s Defense Secretary, said Britain has carried out over 1,500 strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria since the campaign to drive the terror group out of the region began.
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday that the "two-faced policy" of the United States was to blame for the death of Russian Lieutenant-General Valery Asapov in Syria, the RIA news agency quoted him as saying.
The Russian Defence Ministry said on Sunday that Asapov had been killed by Islamic State shelling near Deir al-Zor.
Moscow has complained about what it has suggested are suspiciously friendly ties between U.S.-backed militias, U.S. special forces, and Islamic State in the area, accusing Washington of trying to slow the advance of the Syrian army.
"The death of the Russian commander is the price, the bloody price, for two-faced American policy in Syria," Ryabkov told reporters, according to RIA.
Ryabkov questioned Washington's intention to fight Islamic State in Syria.
"The American side declares that it is interested in the elimination of IS ... but some of its actions show it is doing the opposite and that some political and geopolitical goals are more important for Washington," Ryabkov was quoted as saying.
Earlier on Monday, American-backed Syrian militias said that Russian warplanes had struck their positions in Deir al-Zor province near a natural gas field they seized from Islamic State last week. Russia denied that.
Ryabkov also said that Russia wanted to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency and had not violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, rejecting allegations made against it by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month.
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian general killed in Syria had been seconded to the Syrian government as a military commander, Russia's military chief of staff said on Wednesday.
Moscow has long been a staunch ally of Syria, but the role of the deceased general reveals the extent to which Russia has become an integral part of President Bashar al Assad's ruling system.
Lieutenant-General Valery Asapov, 51, was killed on Saturday by shelling from Islamic State positions near Deir al-Zor. He was the chief of staff of Russian forces deployed to the country and later became the commander of Syria's Fifth Corps of volunteers, chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov said.
It was known that the Syrian Fifth Attack Troop Corps of volunteers, formed in late 2016, was equipped and advised by the Russians, but Damascus and Moscow had not previously announced it was under Russian command.
Speaking at Asapov's funeral, Gerasimov said: "High prestige combined with care were outstanding features of his work.
"Of course, those qualities were displayed during his working trip to the Syrian Arab Republic, where he had been deployed from February this year," Gerasimov said, addressing Asapov's family and colleagues.
"He worked as the chief of staff of the group of our forces and then was in command of the Fifth Corps of volunteers ... A treacherous shell cut short his life."
A security specialist, who worked in Syria alongside the Russian and Syrian military, said Asapov was de facto the commander of Syria's Fifth Corps but he may have been listed as chief military adviser on paper.
"Syrian officers relied completely on our officers," he said.
Hundreds of people, most of them from the Russian military, attended the funeral at the Federal Military Memorial Cemetery for Asapov who became the highest ranking military officer to be killed in the Syrian war.
Inscriptions in Russian and Arabic on some of garlands said they were sent by President al-Assad, Syrian ministers and military commanders.
(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
US-led coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria hit record levels in August, dropping 5,075 bombs during close-air-support, escort, or interdiction operations.
That was the highest monthly total recorded during Operation Inherent Resolve, the three-year campaign against ISIS.
The amount of bombs dropped in each of the first eight months of 2017 exceeded the total of any other month during the campaign.
The 32,801 weapons deployed by coalition aircraft through August 2017 is more than the 30,743 dropped all last year, which was the previous annual high for Operation Inherent Resolve.
The sustained uptick in bombing during the first months of President Donald Trump's administration seems to fulfill his campaign promise to "bomb the s--- out of" ISIS. But the increase in bombings is also likely driven by intense operations in Mosul and Raqqa, ISIS' last major urban strongholds in Iraq and Syria, respectively.
Close-quarters fighting against determined ISIS militants in reinforced positions often necessitates close air support from Iraqi and coalition aircraft. (Not all aircraft active over Iraq and Syria are under US control, so the total number of weapons used is likely higher.)
Calls for airstrikes "would come from forces on the ground that an enemy's been identified, say, in this house," US Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Robert Sofge, director of the Combined Joint Operations Center in Baghdad, told Business Insider earlier this month. CJOC, as it's called, liaises with Iraqi security forces and government officials and is one of two strike cells in Iraq that manage such engagements, Sofge said.
"The enemy's been in a house, and that enemy's firing from this structure," Sofge said, describing a potential strike scenario. "So the first thing we do in a strike like that, we become aware of it, and we know where it is with great precision, 10-digit grids, down to the meter."
Coalition personnel and their local partners have a database of "category-one structures" that they will avoid targeting because they have infrastructural or historic value, including religious centers or hospitals. ISIS fighters are known to make use of those structures for that reason, Sofge said.
"If it's not that, it's still a [category two] structure that we would have to go through a rigorous process to say, 'Hey, this structure can be removed from its inherent protected status because of what's going there on now. There's fighters in there shooting at the Iraqi security forces.' So first we establish that we can go engage with this thing," Sofge told Business Insider.
"Then we apply a some fairly strict criteria of positive identification: How do we know who that is and what they're doing, and we have multiple intelligence requirements — it can't just be one thing; we have multiple indications that that is in fact what's going on from that place," he said, adding:
"And then we have a legal review that says that engaging this target comports with the laws of armed conflict and that engaging in these circumstances is permissible according to those laws, and once we've established all of those things we go to the government of Iraq and ask them for permission to strike that building, and they'll say yes or no, and they do say both, depending on the structure. They do a pretty thorough review themselves."
Sofge said coalition personnel will then, "within the bounds of proportionality," do engineering analysis to see what will be damaged in a strike and what effect it would have on nearby structures. That's followed by the weapon-selection process.
"We have an array of weapons available in support of the Iraqi security forces," he said. "We'll choose from among those and then use them in order to make sure that we do enough damage to kill the target and kill what it is that's attracted the Iraqi Security Forces' attention."
Sofge, who stressed coalition forces' efforts to avoid civilian casualties, said the actual process likely takes less time to complete than it does to describe, in part because of the experience they have doing it and because parts of it happen concurrently.
The US-led coalition's air campaign against ISIS has attracted intense scrutiny for the number of civilian casualties it is believed to have caused.
According to Airwars, a UK-based independent monitoring group, between Trump's inauguration and mid-July, more than 2,200 civilians appeared to have been killed in coalition airstrikes — almost as many as the 2,300 likely killed by coalition strikes under Obama.
That works out to 80 civilian casualties a month under Obama and 360 a month during the Trump administration.
Civilian deaths under Trump peaked in March, with nearly 700 confirmed or likely casualties. They have declined since June and July, when fighting in Mosul wrapped up.
Concerns about the air campaign were also piqued by reports the coalition had loosened its rules of engagement, allowing US and other coalition personnel on the ground to move closer to the front line and call in strikes and artillery fire directly, rather than going "through a whole bureaucracy and through Baghdad," one embedded US adviser told the Associated Press at the time.
A coalition spokesman told the AP the rules of engagement had been "adjusted" in December, "empowering" more coalition forces "to call in airstrikes without going through a strike cell."
The Pentagon contested that report, saying in March that overarching guidelines about such strikes had not changed, even as US personnel were being embedded at lower levels within Iraqi Security Forces units and appeared to be closer to direct combat.
Asked if the process to carry out strikes had changed during the fighting in Mosul, Sofge said "not appreciably," adding that the process did see "refinements" regarding Iraqi permission for airstrikes.
"Some of the processes tend to be centralized, and in effort to decentralize them while still retaining the integrity of an Iraqi permission [it] was tweaked by the Iraqi government, not by the strike cells, as to who's the Iraqi giving you the thumbs-up that the government has given permission," Sofge told Business Insider.
"I know in some cases [it] was lowered a level in an effort to streamline the process so it was more effective to the fighters on the ground," he added, "but there was no change from a coalition perspective in the process — only who was the person saying 'yes' to the strike on the Iraqi side."
Such an adjustment may have given Iraqi commanders on the front line more say in when and where strikes took place.
The Iraqi government declared the liberation of Mosul in early July, though cleaning up munitions left there by the fighting could take a decade or more.
ISIS fighters remain in some pockets of Iraq, mostly in the north-central part of the country and in the far western desert.
Iraqi forces, backed by the coalition, have launched assaults on those positions in recent days.
In Syria, the months-long fight in Raqqa has gained ground, according to US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman.
More than 75% of the city is now cleared of ISIS fighters, he said on Thursday, adding that Syrian Democratic Forces, a mainly Kurdish force partnering with the coalition, "have made clear progress and we are seeing ISIS begin to lose its grip on their self-declared capital in Raqqa."
During his address at the United Nations on Tuesday, President Donald Trump went further than he ever had before in threatening military action against North Korea.
"If [the United States] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea," Trump told the gathering at the UN's annual General Assembly.
In issuing this threat, the president spoke as if he alone could determine the fate of tens of millions of civilians on the Korean Peninsula. He is wrong.
Not only did the Founders explicitly give Congress, not the president, the power "to declare war," but the ground rules for war-making in the modern age as established by the War Powers Act of 1973 would prohibit this sort of unilateral action from the executive.
Indeed, Trump's threat triggers the act's requirement that he consult with the House and Senate before following through. If he refuses, this act of defiance would amount to an impeachable offense far more serious than any that Robert Mueller is reported to be currently investigating.
To set the stage, it's worth considering the way in which the War Powers Act balances realism with a commitment to democratic deliberation.
Realism first: The act recognizes that, in the nuclear age, the president should not be required to consult Congress before responding to "an attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces." If Kim Jong-un did launch his missiles in the direction of Guam, for example, Trump would indeed be authorized to let loose "fire and fury" against North Korea.
But Trump has been asserting a far broader prerogative. At the UN on Tuesday, he also claimed unilateral authority to make war in defense of our allies. He does not have that authority.
On other occasions, he has threatened a pre-emptive strike unless Kim halted his entire nuclear initiative.
On such issues, the War Powers Act requires the president, "in every possible instance," to "consult with Congress before introducing" our armed forces into a "situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances."
Lest there be any doubt as to the "imminence" of involvement in this instance, Gen. Robin Rand, commander of the Air Force's Global Strike Command, followed up Trump's speech by declaring, "We're ready to fight tonight." Emphasizing this imminence, he added: "We don't have to spin up, we're ready."
Under such circumstances, the War Powers Act requires the president to trigger a process of congressional consultation by notifying the House and Senate within 48 hours that there is an imminent prospect of hostilities. Indeed, the administration's lawyers understand this point perfectly well.
When Trump ordered a military strike against Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime in April following a reported chemical weapons attack against civilians, these administration lawyers promptly sent the requisite notice, expressly noting that the administration was acting "consistent[ly] with the War Powers Resolution."
The president should take his own precedent seriously and trigger the consultation process immediately. Not only does the statute expressly include "imminent" as well as actual "hostilities" within its scope, but its demand for consultation makes even more sense in such "imminent" cases—since it will require the administration to make a sober case for a pre-emptive strategy at a time when Congress could intervene to call it to a halt if it were unpersuaded.
Moreover, the act establishes special procedures that enable Congress to impose limits on Trump's powers as commander in chief with great speed—after as few as three days of floor debate under some plausible relevant scenarios. Even if, in the end, the House and Senate refused to limit the president's authority, the final decision would be made after an open and democratic debate.
It is imperative, then, for the president to explain whether he intends to comply with the notifications requirements of the War Powers Act—and if not, why not.
If Trump chooses to ignore the act, it would have serious consequences even if we manage to avoid nuclear catastrophe this time around. It would allow the president to assume that he could engage in future acts of unilateral brinkmanship without concern for legal niceties involving the Constitution and the War Powers Act. If Trump does try to duck the issue, senators and representatives of both parties should forcefully bring it to his attention.
If he then insisted on evading congressional prerogatives, this would constitute an impeachable offense. It was precisely President Andrew Johnson's defiance of Congress' statutory efforts to limit his command of the army that provoked his impeachment, and near-conviction, in the aftermath of the Civil War. A similar act of defiance by Trump would no less represent a classic example of "high crimes and misdemeanors."
JERUSALEM – Israeli officials believe that Iran is winning its bid for dominance in the Middle East, and they are mobilizing to counter the regional realignment that threatens to follow. The focus of Israel’s military and diplomatic campaign is Syria.
Israeli jets have struck Hezbollah and Syrian regime facilities and convoys dozens of times during Syria’s civil war, with the goal of preventing the transfer of weapons systems from Iran to Hezbollah.
In an apparent broadening of the scope of this air campaign, on Sept. 7 Israeli jets struck a Syrian weapons facility near Masyaf responsible for the production of chemical weapons and the storing of surface-to-surface missiles.
The strike came after a round of diplomacy in which Israeli officials concluded that their concerns regarding the developing situation in Syria were not being addressed with sufficient seriousness in either the United States or Russia. A senior delegation led by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen visited Washington in late August, reportedly to express Israel’s dissatisfaction with the emerging U.S.-Russian understanding on Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi to raise similar concerns with Moscow.
In both cases, the Israelis were disappointed with the response. Their overriding concern in Syria is the free reign that all the major players there seem willing to afford Iran and its various proxies in the country. And as long as nobody else addresses that concern in satisfactory, Israel is determined to continue addressing it on its own.
Iranian forces now maintain a presence close to or adjoining the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights and the Quneitra Crossing that separates it from the Syrian-controlled portion of the territory. Israel has throughout the Syrian war noted a desire on the part of the Iranians and their Hezbollah clients to establish this area as a second line of active confrontation against the Jewish state, in addition to south Lebanon.
“Syria,” of course, hardly exists today. The regime is in the hands of its Iranian and Russian masters, and half of the country remains outside its control. But the Iran-led bloc and its clearly stated intention to eventually destroy Israel certainly do exist, and the de facto buffer against them may be disappearing. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah recently declared “victory” in the Syrian war, adding that what remained was “scattered battles.”
With the prospect of pro-Iranian forces reaching Bukamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border, this opens up the possibility of the much-reported Iranian “land corridor” stretching uninterrupted from Iran itself to a few kilometers from the Israeli-controlled Golan. Earlier this month, Israel shot down an Iranian drone over the Golan Heights. It was the latest evidence of Iran’s activities on the border.
Syrian opposition reports have noted an Iranian presence in Tal Al-Sha’ar area, Tal Al-Ahmar, and Division 90 headquarters, all in the vicinity of the border. Pro-Iran forces, meanwhile, are open in their ambitions. Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite force supported by Iran, has formed a “Golan Liberation” unit and declared itself “ready to take action to liberate the Golan.” Senior figures from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij have been photographed in areas close to the border.
Israel has so far thwarted these ambitions in two ways. First, it has launched attacks to frustrate and interdict attempts to build a paramilitary infrastructure in the area. Most famously, the killing of Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh, in a targeted strike at Mazraat Amal in the Quneitra area in January 2015 was part of this effort. Five other Hezbollah members and a general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Mohammad Allahdadi, were also killed in the strike.
Second, Israel has developed pragmatic working relations with the local rebel groups who at the moment still control the greater part of the border, such as the Fursan al-Joulan group. This cooperation focuses on treating wounded fighters and civilians, and providing humanitarian aid and financial assistance. There has also probably been assistance in the field of intelligence, though no evidence has yet emerged of direct provision of weapons or direct engagement of Israeli forces on the rebels’ behalf.
On July 9, a ceasefire agreement directly brokered by the United States and Russia for southwest Syria was announced. It posits the establishment of a de-escalation zone in Syria’s southwest, in the area of the Quneitra and Daraa provinces.
The details of the de-escalation zone are still being negotiated. But Israel has been deeply concerned that it could seriously complicate the de facto Israeli safeguards in place against Iranian infiltration of the border. If the fighting ends, physical resistance to encroachment will become more complicated and sponsorship of rebels potentially no longer relevant. As of now, Russian attempts to assure Israel that the terms of the ceasefire adequately address its concerns in this regard have evidently failed to persuade. The latest media reports on the negotiations for the zone suggest that the United States has reached an agreement with Moscow that pro-Iranian militias will be kept 25 miles from the border.
But the issue goes beyond arrangements at the southwestern edge of Syria. Israel is concerned by Iran’s overarching regional ambitions. Recent comments by Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, that a future war with Israel might involve additional pro-Iranian militia forces to the Lebanese groups have been well noted in Jerusalem. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz recently told a security conference in Herzliya, as reported by Reuters, that in a future war between Israel and Hezbollah the latter may be able to make use of an Iranian naval port, bases for Iran’s air and ground forces, and “tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen being brought in from various countries.”
A recent report in the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi described Iranian plans to thin out the Sunni Arab population between Damascus and the border with Lebanon, expelling Sunni residents and replacing them with pro-government Shiites from elsewhere in the country or outside it. Israeli strategic culture tends to emphasize addressing immediate threats, but these potential demographic developments are also being watched closely in Jerusalem.
This all forms a larger picture in which Israel sees a major shift underway in the regional balance of power, to the benefit of the Iran-led regional bloc. Anyone who has received briefings from senior Israeli security officials in recent years has become familiar with a conception of the region as divided into four broad blocs: Iran and its (mainly Shiite) allies; a loose group of countries opposed to Iran that includes the Arab autocracies of the Gulf (excluding Qatar), along with Egypt, Jordan, and Israel itself; an alliance of conservative Sunni Islamist forces, such as Turkey, Qatar, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni Arab rebels in Syria; and finally the regional networks of Sunni Salafi jihadism, most notably the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
There are problems with this picture, and it contains simplifications. Most notably, the line between the conservative Sunni Islamists and the Salafis has always been blurred. There is an additional blurred line, in which authoritarian rulers such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi have some sympathy for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Nevertheless, the picture was a serviceable one, adhering to many of the clear realities of the Middle East over the last decade and a half.
But the tectonic plates of this picture are now shifting, most notably to the clear detriment of the two camps associated with Sunni political Islam. The period of Arab unrest in 2010, during which Islamist and Salafi forces seemed briefly ascendant, is now a spent force — its beneficiaries in retreat and in some cases eclipsed by Sunni autocrats and pro-Iranian forces.
Hamas is seeking to rebuild its relations with Iran. Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi languishes in jail. Islamists in Tunisia are a minority element in the government, and Qatar is under attack from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates because of its stances in recent years. And the Syrian Sunni Arab rebels, once the great cause of this group, are now stranded — fighting for survival and without hope of victory against the Assad regime. The Salafis, too, are in eclipse, at least as political contenders.
Looked at from Israel, this process is a mixed bag. Sunni Islamists are hostile to Israel, of course, and for the most part, their failure to assemble a lasting power bloc is welcomed in Jerusalem. Senior Israeli security officials describe, for example, Sisi’s 2013 coup deposing the Muslim Brotherhood as a species of “miracle.”
In Syria, however, the insurgent efforts of the Sunni Islamists had at least the benefit of distracting the attentions of the more formidable enemy — the Iran-led regional bloc. For five years, Israel was largely able to sit by while Sunni and Shiite political Islam were in a death’s embrace just north and east of the border. Russian and Iranian intervention, however, appears to have tipped the balance against the Sunni rebels, threatening to bring the long chapter of active civil war in Syria to a close.
From an Israeli point of view, we are back to the pre-2010 Middle East, when Israel and pro-western Sunni powers understood they were in a direct faceoff with the Iranians and their allies. But in 2017, there is the additional complicating factor of a direct Russian physical presence in the Levant, in alliance or at least in cooperation with Israel’s enemies.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which remains exclusively focused on the war against the Islamic State, has done little to assuage Israeli concerns. Trump and those around him, of course, share the Israeli assessment regarding the challenge of Iranian regional ambitions. The impression, however, is that the administration may well not be sufficiently focused or concerned to actually take measures necessary to halt the Iranian advance — both military and political — in Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon.
Where does this leave Israel?
First, Israel’s diplomatic avenues to the international power brokers in Syria remain open. When it comes to Washington, Israel’s task is to locate or induce a more coherent American strategy to counter advance of the Iranians in the Levant. Its goal when it comes to Moscow is to ensure sufficient leeway from Putin, who has no ideological animus against Israel and no special sympathy for Tehran, so that Israel can take the measures it deems necessary to halt or deter the Iranians and their proxies.
Second, Israel will continue to rely on its military defenses, which remain without peer in the region. And as shown in Masyaf, they can be employed to halt and deter provocative actions by the Iran-led bloc where necessary. Nevertheless, as seen from Jerusalem, the shifting regional tectonic plates are producing a new situation in which the Iran-led alliance is once again directly facing Israel, consequently raising the possibility of direct confrontation. Masyaf was not the first shot in the fight between Israel and its proxies in the Levant — and it is unlikely to be the last.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi forces have captured the town of Hawija and the surrounding area from Islamic State, the military said in a statement on Thursday.
With the capture of Hawija, the militants' last stronghold in northern Iraq, the only area that remains under control of Islamic State in Iraq is a stretch alongside the western border with Syria. Hawija is close to the oil-city of Kirkuk.
The offensive on Hawija was carried out by U.S.-backed Iraqi government troops and Iranian-trained and armed Shi'ite paramilitary groups known as Popular Mobilization.
"The army's 9th armored division, the Federal Police, the Emergency Response division and (..) Popular Mobilization liberated Hawija," said a statement from the joint operations commander, Lieutenant-General Abdul Ameer Rasheed Yarallah.
Iraq launched an offensive on Sept. 21 to dislodge Islamic State from the area north of Baghdad where up to 78,000 people were estimated to be trapped, according to the United Nations.
"The Coalition congratulates the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces on their swift and decisive victory against ISIS in Hawijah," the coalition said in a statement on Thursday. "The battle was hard fought and operations to liberate the city took 14 days, with many sources reporting more than 1,000 terrorists surrendered."
The militants continue to control the border town of al-Qaim and the region surrounding it. They also hold parts of Syrian side of the border, but the area under their control is shrinking as they retreat in the face of two different sets of hostile forces — a U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led coalition and Syrian government troops with foreign Shi'ite militias backed by Iran and Russia.
Islamic State's cross-border "caliphate" effectively collapsed in July, when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces captured Mosul, the group's de facto capital in Iraq, in a grueling battle which lasted nine months.
The Iraqi government and security forces, backed by the US-led coalition, has freed more than 4 million Iraqis and recaptured more than 41,5000 square kilometers of land once held by ISIS, according to the coalition.
The militants' leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared the caliphate from Mosul in mid-2014, released an audio recording last week that indicated he was alive, after several reports he had been killed.
He called on his followers to keep up the fight despite the setbacks.
(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Clarence Fernandez)
RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) - The ancient mud brick walls circling Raqqa's deserted old city are almost the only structure still intact. Inside, shops and homes spill crumbling concrete onto either side of the narrow roads, block after block.
Fighting between U.S.-backed militias and Islamic State in the jihadist group's former Syria stronghold has peppered mosques and minarets with machine-gun fire while air strikes flattened houses. No building is untouched.
"The old clock tower could be heard from outside the walls once. It's damaged now. It's silent," Mohammed Hawi, an Arab fighter from Raqqa, said at a nearby home occupied by the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance (SDF).
Raqqa, where Islamic State plotted attacks abroad during its three-year rule, is almost captured in a months-old offensive backed by U.S. air cover and special forces. But driving militants out has caused destruction that officials say will take years and cost millions of dollars to repair.
The nascent Raqqa Civil Council, set up to rebuild and govern Raqqa, faces a huge task. It says aid from countries in the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS is so far insufficient.
Raqqa's uncertain political future, as it comes under the sway of Kurdish-led forces which neighbor Turkey opposes, and is still coveted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is partly what has made coalition countries hesitate, diplomats say.
But failure to quickly return services to the city that was once home to more than 200,000 people, mostly now displaced, risks unrest, they warn.
"Infrastructure is completely destroyed, water, electricity networks, bridges. There's not a single service functioning," said Ibrahim Hassan, who oversees reconstruction for the Raqqa council at its headquarters in nearby Ain Issa.
"We gave our city as a sacrifice for the sake of defeating terrorism. It's the world's duty to help us," he said.
A major bridge leading into eastern Raqqa lies collapsed after a coalition air strike. Beyond it, damaged water towers and the skeletons of teetering residential blocks dot the skyline.
Awnings hung by militants to hide their movements flap in the wind.
Bodies under rubble
Senior council member Omar Alloush estimated at least half the city is completely destroyed.
"There are also bodies under rubble, of civilians and terrorists. These need reburying to avoid disease outbreaks," he said.
Amnesty International has said the U.S.-led campaign, including air strikes, has killed hundreds of civilians trapped in Raqqa. Residents have reported civilian deaths, but it is difficult to establish how many people have died.
The coalition says it does all it can to avoid civilian casualties. But the city is densely built up and militants firing from homes are often targeted by air raids.
Council officials said with the battle still raging in a small, encircled area of the city center and countless explosives rigged by militants in areas they abandoned, reconstruction has not yet begun.
"The focus is on emergency aid, food and water, de-mining," Hassan said.
The council wants to get services up and running as soon as possible, but has limited capacity and is staffed by volunteers. At its headquarters the offices of several departments consist of a single desk in a shared room.
"Support from the international community has improved and we feel less isolated, but it's been modest," Hassan said.
The United States delivered several bulldozers and other vehicles to the council to clear debris recently, the Raqqa council said, out of a total of 56 due to arrive.
"Even 700 wouldn't be enough," Alloush said.
Raqqa council volunteers have said they told the coalition it will take 5.3 billion Syrian lira (about $10 million) a year to restore power and water supplies, roads and schools.
It is feared delays could reignite unrest.
"Groups that took over Raqqa in 2013 didn't run it well," a Western diplomat in the region said, referring to Syrian insurgents who seized the city from Assad's forces earlier in the six-year-old civil war, before IS arrived.
"That's partly what allowed Daesh (IS) to take over. If there's a gap in humanitarian assistance and no effective local governance structure, the risk of future violence increases."
The council said coalition countries were reluctant to aid the Raqqa council, made up of local engineers, teachers and doctors.
"We've suffered from bureaucracy in the decision making process for foreign aid," Hassan said.
Some coalition countries were concerned about relations with NATO member Turkey over support for a governing body perceived to be allied to Kurdish militia, the diplomat said.
The SDF, which for now controls much of Raqqa, is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, a foe of Ankara which is fighting its own Kurdish insurgency. Turkey opposes the YPG's role in capturing Raqqa.
Council officials say Raqqa will be governed independently of a self-run administration for northeast Syria that is dominated by Kurds, but is expected to have close relations with it. The extent of those relations is to be decided by elected officials once elections can be held.
A second diplomat in the region said reluctance to aid the council was partly over concerns whether it properly represented the ethnic make-up of mostly Arab Raqqa, seeing tension if local Arabs were sidelined. Several prominent council members are Kurdish.
There is also uncertainty over whether Raqqa will remain allied to the self-run parts of northern Syria, or if it would fall back to Assad in future upheaval. Assad has sworn to retake the entire country.
For now, with Turkey's borders closed to SDF-controlled areas, aid to Raqqa comes a longer route through Iraq's Kurdish region.
Raqqa council says it may have to be self-sufficient.
"We're waiting for help to repair the east bridge," co-president Leila Mustafa, a civil engineer, said.
"If it doesn't arrive soon, we'll begin ourselves, using any means we have."
(Reporting by John Davison, additional reporting by Issam Abdallah; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
The Islamic State has been losing ground in Syria for more than a year.
United States-backed Syrian rebel forces have laid siege to the militant group’s de facto capital of Raqqa and now control most of the city; it’s expected to fall within days or weeks.
But the fight to liberate Syria from the Islamic State is far from over. A final stronghold remains in the east — the vast tribal region of Deir Ezzor, a remote swath of territory near the border with Iraq.
If a two-pronged assault — from Syrian government forces and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — can root out the Islamic State from the tribal regions, that could definitively bury the caliphate.
“After the fall of Deir Ezzor, ISIS will be reduced from a state to an insurgency,” said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
That’s easier said than done. Syria’s oil fields are heavily concentrated in Deir Ezzor. Yet for years the local population was shut out of the profits from the black gold siphoned from underneath their feet, a source of resentment against the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad.
Since the Islamic State took control of the region in 2014, it has worked to integrate local society into its system of governance, co-opting tribal leadership, providing social services, and steadily rooting out opposition.
The group has also recruited hundreds of largely teenaged men from the population to serve as fighters, tying local families into the fabric of control and governance. Though support for the Islamic State is by no means universal in Deir Ezzor — it has faced armed opposition — it is heavily entrenched there.
The maps below show Deir Ezzor, its oil fields, and the complex web of tribal federations along the Euphrates River, which bifurcates the region. The maps, used with permission, are the result of a yearlong joint project among the Center for a New American Security, the nonprofit People Demand Change, and a network of researchers based in and around Deir Ezzor, which is also sometimes transliterated as Deir Azzour.
As the Islamic State lost ground in Iraq and Syria beginning in 2016, and especially after the fall of Mosul and the siege of Raqqa, it moved much of its command and control apparatus to Deir Ezzor, Heras told Foreign Policy: “Deir Ezzor is the most remote Syrian province, and there are important cross-border ties between the local population in Deir Ezzor and the population in western Iraq.”
Two forces are currently marching on Deir Ezzor — the Syrian government military augmented by Russian troops, Iranian military advisors, Shiite militias, and the U.S.-backed SDF, which includes Kurds and Arabs. Whether or not two groups can work together to vanquish the Islamic State from Deir Ezzor is unclear.
Heras said that the Russians have waged a successful information campaign in the region to convince the local population that the United States, via the SDF, intends to seize land and natural resources rather than simply defeat the Islamic State.
The U.S. military has tried to push back on that notion. “We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business,” Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman, told reporters in June. “We are in the killing-ISIS business.”
But that’s not a clear strategy, and it may not be enough to convince the tribes of Deir Ezzor that the United States, through its proxies, isn’t looking to benefit from a future offensive.
“The Trump administration is going to need to define what its Syria strategy is,” Heras said.
Otherwise, it will be easy for Assad’s forces to define that strategy for themselves.
When US-backed Iraqi security forces and Iranian Shia militias cleared ISIS' final Iraqi stronghold in Hawijah, they met weak resistance and a massive surrender from a once fearsome army.
In 2015 and 2016, ISIS, the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State, carried out suicide attacks around the globe at a historic rate.
The group, founded in June 2014, has long demanded that its militants fight or die, and it often sends young men and even children on suicide-bombing missions.
But as the group weakens on the ground, it seems to have shifted course.
A US Department of Defense release on the battle for Hawijah cites "many sources reporting more than 1,000 terrorists surrendered."
Unlike the battle for Mosul, once ISIS' largest Iraqi stronghold, the terrorist group "put up no fight at all, other than planting bombs and booby traps," Kurdish officials told The New York Times.
Strikingly, the same officials reported that ISIS commanders had ordered their fighters to turn themselves in, on the grounds that the Kurds would take prisoners while other opponents would be harsher.
Indeed, after three years of brutal conflict, the Iraqi Security Forces fighting have admitted to engaging in acts of savagery against defeated ISIS fighters.
In July, Iraqi officers said they took part in extrajudicial killings of many unarmed ISIS fighters, with one vowing a "slow death" as revenge for killing his father.
After suffering defeat after defeat on the ground, ISIS has upped the aggression of its media operation in an attempt to save face. Recently the group released audio it said came from its top leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was rumored to be killed or at least injured by airstrikes.
After last week's shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, ISIS also made the dubious claim that the gunman was one of its followers.
US officials have shot this claim down, and ISIS' claims do not match evidence that has since emerged on the gunman's preparation for the attack.
In its early months and years, ISIS enjoyed a surge of battlefield victories. The group had political support in Sunni Muslim areas, where many felt disenfranchised by Iraq's Shia-run government.
But it has since been ground down for years by US-led coalition airstrikes and a wide range of militias and national armies on the ground.
With the fall of Hawijah, only a small strip of territory along Syria's border remains in ISIS' control.
In the gutted four-storey building that he and five other US-backed fighters have turned into a frontline fortress, Babel can peer out at Islamic State positions just 150 meters away.
The jihadist militants expected to make a last stand for this stronghold of their self-proclaimed caliphate are cornered and desperate here in Raqqa, the city on the Euphrates river that has served as their de-facto Syrian capital since 2014.
"Let Daesh come — we're ready for them. We have explosives to drop downstairs," said Babel, which is his nom de guerre. He and his fellow members of the US-backed Syrian Defense Forces have occupied the frontline building for three weeks and are now preparing for a final showdown with Islamic State, the group also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
The SDF fighters' position is well prepared in case the cornered IS militants attempt an attack. The front porch steps have been demolished, leaving a drop to the basement that can be crossed only by climbing a section of iron fence — a makeshift ladder, which the defenders can pull up. Inside, plastic bottles have been strewn across the floor to squeak when stepped on and alert them to intruders.
After months of intense fighting and heavy US bombardment, the SDF have surrounded Islamic State militants in a small part of the city. As the Kurdish and Arab militias of the SDF close in and US-led air raids increase, they expect fierce fighting to mark the final stages of the campaign.
"Daesh regularly launch small raids, even behind our position. Yesterday they attacked the building opposite and tried to push toward us. We killed a few and they retreated to the hospital," Babel said.
SDF units have a clear view over the Raqqa hospital, one of Islamic State's last strongholds in the city, from a line of buildings they occupy to its northwest. Apartment blocks between them and the hospital have been flattened by air strikes.
Commanders say the hospital and a nearby stadium, where the jihadists are said to be holding civilian hostages, will be where they make their last stand.
Babel's unit are holding the front line ahead of an anticipated final push, firing at militants whenever they can spot them.
"The last few nights they've been shining spotlights from the hospital towards our lines, so we can't really see," he said.
Another fighter in the unit said sniper fire from Islamic State had recently reduced, possibly as a means of conserving ammunition for more intense fighting to come.
Surrender or die
An SDF field commander said on Sunday assaults were to begin soon as part of a final push against Islamic State, focused initially on surrounding the stadium. The hospital is already encircled.
"Daesh is amassing, preparing to fight. This is the last stage, so they'll resist and then surrender or die," the commander who gave his name as Ardal Raqqa said.
US coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon was more cautious about calling the current stage of the offensive a final assault.
"Whether this is the final assault or an assault, I won't characterize it either way," Dillon said by phone. The fight was "concentrated around the complex which was the national hospital and the stadium," he said.
The SDF predicted ahead of a major push in June that it could take just weeks to drive Islamic State out of Raqqa. That has proven overly optimistic, with the militants holding out for months so far.
Their use of civilians for cover, tunnels to launch counter attacks, snipers and countless booby traps have slowed SDF advances.
"Many are being wounded, especially by snipers. Daesh snipers often shoot to wound, not to kill, so they can target whoever comes to save an injured comrade," Babel said. One shaken SDF fighter in a nearby base last week showed cuts on his face from where a sniper bullet had ricocheted.
Both the U.S. spokesman Dillon and the SDF fighter Babel said that some Islamic State fighters were surrendering.
"The other day a Saudi fighter escaped and handed himself over. The guys who surrender usually have families," Babel said. Interrogations of surrendering militants revealed IS had dug a tunnel between the hospital and stadium, he said.
Dillon said several IS militants and leaders had surrendered in recent weeks. "It is a growing trend," he said.
At the front line, SDF fighters said morale was high. One fighter belted pop music to other units over his walkie talkie.
"Hopefully we'll be done soon," Babel said.
RAQQA/DUBAI (Reuters) - While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was accusing the West of turning a blind eye to Islamic State smuggling, a member of his parliament was quietly doing business with the group, farmers and administrators in the militants' former stronghold said.
The arrangement helped the Syrian government to feed areas still under its control after Islamic State took over the northeastern wheat-growing region during the six-year-old civil war, they said.
Traders working for businessman and lawmaker Hossam al-Katerji bought wheat from farmers in Islamic State areas and transported it to Damascus, allowing the group to take a cut, five farmers and two administrators in Raqqa province told Reuters.
Katerji's office manager, Mohammed Kassab, confirmed that Katerji Group was providing Syrian government territories with wheat from the northeast of Syria through Islamic State territory but denied any contact with Islamic State. It is not clear how much Assad knew of the wheat trading.
Cooperation over wheat between a figure from Syria's establishment, which is backed by Shi'ite power Iran, and the hardline Sunni Islamic State would mark a new ironic twist in a war that has deepened regional Sunni-Shi'ite divisions.
Reuters contacted Katerji’s office six times to request comment but was not given access to him.
His office manager Kassab, asked how the company managed to buy and transport the wheat without any contact with Islamic State, said: “It was not easy, the situation was very difficult.” When asked for details he said only that it was a long explanation. He did not return further calls or messages.
Damascus, under U.S. and EU sanctions over the conflict and alleged oil trading with Islamic State, strongly denies any business links with the hardline Islamist militants, arguing that the United States is responsible for their rise to power.
The self-declared caliphate they set up across large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014 has all but collapsed after Western-backed forces drove them out of their Iraqi stronghold, Mosul and surrounded them in Raqqa, where they are now confined to a small area.
Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian forces are attacking them elsewhere, such as Deir al Zor on Syria's eastern border, where Kassab says he was speaking from, in a continuing struggle for the upper hand between world powers.
Five farmers in Raqqa described how they sold wheat to Katerji’s traders during Islamic State rule in interviews at the building housing the Raqqa Civil Council, formed to take over once the city is retaken.
"The operation was organized," said Mahmoud al-Hadi, who owns agricultural land near Raqqa and who, like the other farmers, had come to the council's cement offices to seek help.
"I would sell to small traders who sent the wheat to big traders who sent it on to Katerji and the regime through two or three traders," he said.
He and the other farmers said they all had to pay Islamic State a 10 percent tax, or zakat, and sold all of their season’s supplies to Katerji’s traders under the multi-layered scheme.
Local officials said Katerji’s traders bought up wheat from Raqqa and Deir al-Zor and gave Islamic State 20 percent.
“If a truck is carrying 100 sacks, they (Islamic State) would keep 20 and give the rest to the trucker,” said Awas Ali, a deputy of the Tabqa joint leadership council, a similar, post-Islamic State local body allied to the Kurdish-led forces now attacking Raqqa.
Ali said he learned of the details of the arrangement with Katerji by speaking with Islamic State prisoners and others who worked in the group’s tax collection and road tolling systems.
“Katerji’s trucks were well known and the logo on them was clear and they were not harassed at all,” Ali said, adding that Katerji’s people were active during the last buying season, which lasts from May to August. The farmers also said the trucks were identifiable as Katerji's.
The truck drivers were even allowed to smoke cigarettes as they passed through the checkpoints, something Islamic State enforcers punished with whippings elsewhere, Ali and several other sources said.
"I would sell an entire season’s supplies to Katerji’s traders," said farmer Ali Shanaan.
"They are known traders. The checkpoints stopped the trucks and Daesh would take a cut and let them pass," he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The wheat was transported via the “New bridge” over the Euphrates River to a road leading out of Raqqa, the farmers and local officials said. Control of the bridge is now unclear as the militants in Raqqa come close to defeat.
Raqqa-based lawyer Abdullah al-Aryan, who said he had been a consultant for some of Katerji’s traders, said Katerji's trucks brought goods into Islamic State territory as well as wheat out.
"Food used to come from areas controlled by the government. Medicine and food," he said.
Islamic State rule involved shooting or beheading perceived opponents in public squares, imposing its own extreme version of sharia, Islamic law, and then providing basic goods such as bread and setting up ministries and taxation.
Several farmers said they saw Islamic State documents which were stamped at checkpoints to allow the wheat trucks to pass. They belonged to the department which imposes taxes.
Islamic State may have exported some of the wheat. Local officials and farmers said the militants, as well as a rebel group, had sold the contents of grain silos in the northeast to traders across the Turkish border.
Assad has accused his enemies, including Turkey and Western countries, of supporting the group, something they deny.
In an interview in March with a Chinese news agency, published by Syrian state news agency SANA, Assad said:
“As for the other side, which is the United States, at least during the Obama administration, it dealt with Daesh through overlooking its smuggling of Syrian oil to Turkey, and in that way Daesh was able to procure money in order to recruit terrorists from all over the world."
Asked whether Syrian companies were dealing with Islamic State to secure wheat, Internal Trade and Consumer Protection Minister Abdullah al-Gharbi said in August: "No, not at all."
Speaking to Reuters at a Damascus trade fair, he added: "This doesn’t exist at all. We are importing wheat from Russian companies in addition to our local crop and this talk is completely unacceptable."
The wheat buying season ended in August and IS has lost control of the wheat-growing areas, either to government forces or the Syrian Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces.
The Onassis of Syria
Assad has traditionally relied on a close-knit set of businessmen most notably Rami Makhlouf, his maternal cousin, to help keep Syria’s economy afloat.
Makhlouf is subject to international sanctions and relies on various associates to do business.
Katerji is a household name around Raqqa and elsewhere. Farmer Hadi likened him to a late Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis. “Katerji is the Onassis of Syria,” he said.
Katerji’s facebook profile page shows him shaking hands with Assad and he regularly posts pictures of the president, who he describes as “a beacon of light for pan-Arabism, patriotism and loyalty”.
He is member of parliament for Aleppo, a key battleground recovered by the government late last year, and is part of a new business class that has risen to prominence during the war.
The United States and EU have imposed a range of measures targeted both at the government and some of the many armed groups operating in Syria, but foodstuffs are not restricted.
U.S. and European sanctions on banking and asset freezes have, however, made it difficult for most trading houses to do business with Assad’s government and made local supplies increasingly vital.
Flat bread is a subsidized staple for Syrians, who have suffered under a conflict estimated to have killed several hundred thousand people and forced millions to flee their homes.
The government needs around 1.5 million tonnes annually to feed the areas it controls and keep Syrians on Assad's side.
Syria's bread-basket provinces of Hasaka, Raqqa and Deir al-Zor account for nearly 70 percent of total wheat production.
While the government looks set to retake much of Deir al-Zor province soon, Hasaka is mostly under the control of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, who are also likely to hold sway in Raqqa along with Arab allied groups.
Ali, from the Tabqa council, predicted that would not stop the wheat trade. “People like Katerji, with a lot of money and power, their activities will never be completely frozen," he said. "It is just going to disappear from one area and go to another."
(Reporting by Michael Georgy and Maha El Dahan; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
The British woman who fled her home to join the Islamic State has reportedly been killed.
Sally Jones — also known as the "White Widow"— was killed by a US drone strike in Syria this June, CIA agents told UK operatives, the Sun reported on Wednesday night.
The US Air Force Predator strike took place near the Syria-Iraq border, the newspaper said.
A Whitehall source told The Sun: "The Americans zapped her trying to get away from Raqqa. Quite frankly, it’s good riddance."
Jones, 50, took her son Jojo and left her home in Chatham, Kent, for Syria to join her husband Junaid Hussain in 2013. Hussain, a British computer hacker from Birmingham, was killed by a US airstrike in 2015.
Jojo, 12, was believed to be travelling with Jones at the time and may also have been killed in the strike. Jones is said to have frequently used Jojo as a human shield against drone strikes in the past. The US government could face repercussions if it is responsible for Jojo's death, The Sun said.
US intelligence chiefs were "confident" that Jones had died but could not be completely certain because there was no way of retrieving DNA from the ground. Many ISIS militants have reappeared after their reported deaths.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reclusive ISIS leader, has been reported dead multiple times in the past, including by the influential UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights this July. The terror group has since cast doubts on the claim by releasing a recording of their leader this September, possibly to quell rumours of his death and to motivate the group's followers, according to the New York Times.
Jones, a former punk musician, frequently recruited young women and spread ISIS propaganda online. She was setting up all-female terrorist cells to attack Western countries, The Times of London reported. She was marked as a "high priority" on the US's kill list earlier this year, the newspaper added.