Archive for November, 2014

Islamic State suffering setbacks in Syria and Iraq

November 06, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — For a force that has built its reputation on an aura of momentum and invincibility, the Islamic State group is now dealing with a series of military setbacks in Iraq and a prolonged stalemate in the small Syrian border town of Kobani.

Gone are the days when IS was able to seize territory in both countries with relative ease. Its newfound problems, including a loss of oil revenue, raise questions about the extent to which it will be able to continue recruiting fighters who want to be with a winner.

“ISIS has run a very effective psychological campaign to intimidate its rivals and attract support and recruits,” said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, using an acronym for the extremists. But now, he said, the need to maintain its reputation is limiting the group’s options.

This is particularly true in Kobani, where a pre-emptive IS withdrawal in the face of U.S.-led bombings from the sky and ethnic Kurdish fighters on the ground could prove too costly. “They have invested a lot in this battle, and people are noticing. They will soon start asking what’s going on?” said Ayed, a Turkey-based Syrian activist who travels back and forth to the group’s stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa. He declined to give his full name.

The prolonged fighting in Kobani is also distracting IS from more strategically important areas in Syria and Iraq where the militant extremists are already stretched on multiple fronts. Nearly two months after IS launched its lightning assault on the Kurdish-dominated town near Turkish border, the group is bogged down in an increasingly entrenched and costly battle.

Syrian and Kurdish activists estimate nearly 600 Islamic State fighters have been killed — its heaviest losses since taking over large parts of Syria and Iraq in a summer blitz. Kurdish residents say the group appears to be struggling with personnel, bringing in inexperienced fighters and new recruits to reinforce the town. These include members of the IS police force known as Hisba, reassigned from nearby towns and cities, such as Raqqa and Manbij, under the group’s control.

“Many Hisba members have left Raqqa in the past two weeks, telling people they were headed to Kobani,” Ayed said. They are not fighters.” Kobani residents say recent U.S. airstrikes targeting IS in Kobani have inflicted heavy damage. “Their bodies are left for days rotting in the street without anyone picking them up,” said Farhad Shami, a Kobani-based activist.

In a move that some observers interpreted as a sign of weakness, the Islamic State group recently released a video showing a captive British photojournalist “reporting” from a place identified as Kobani. In the video, he says the battle for Kobani “is coming to an end” and IS is “mopping up.”

But despite seven weeks of fierce fighting and the reinforcements on both sides, fighting positions around Kobani remain much the same as they did several weeks ago, with IS controlling about 40 percent of the town, according to Syrian and Kurdish activists and observers.

IS has also recently suffered losses on several fronts in Iraq, where it is fighting government forces, peshmerga and Shiite militias aided by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Last week, Iraqi forces recaptured the town of Jurf al-Sakher. IS also lost Rabia, Mahmoudiyah and Zumar, a string of towns near the Syrian border, last month. Besieged Iraqi troops have also managed to maintain control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery outside the town of Beiji north of Baghdad, despite numerous attempts by the Islamic State group to capture it.

The group’s diminishing returns in Iraq partly reflects the fact that it already controls so much of the territory populated by minority Sunnis. It would have a much harder time conquering areas populated by Shiites.

But even in Sunni areas, IS is having to contend with dissent. Over the past few days, the group has massacred more than 200 Sunni tribesmen from the Al Bu Nimr tribe in what is likely to be revenge for the tribe’s siding with Iraqi security forces. The killings, in which the militants lined up and shot the men, suggest IS fighters now view them as a threat.

The group’s difficulties are striking considering the relative ease with which it seized other towns and cities in Iraq and Syria this past summer. In Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, Iraqi security forces quickly abandoned their positions and weapons in the face of the marauding militants, melting away quickly in humiliating defeat.

Most other towns in northern and western Iraq saw a widespread disintegration of the security forces, mostly because of the Islamic State group’s reputation alone in addition to grievances among the Sunni population that the militants were able to exploit.

In Syria, the group was able to capitalize on the chaos of the civil war to seize towns and villages abandoned by the government, routing out rival fighters in quick succession. By the time it got to Kobani in mid-September, IS was stretched on multiple fronts. Riding on the momentum, however, it captured dozens of Kurdish villages and a third of the town in lightning advances that sent waves of civilians fleeing across the border into Turkey. Expectations were that the town would fall to the militants within days.

But unlike in Iraq where the militants already had a substantial, years-long presence, the IS fighters in Kobani found themselves in an alien environment and unfamiliar terrain, fighting against highly motivated and surprisingly resilient Kurdish fighters, according to Syria observers as well as Syrian and Kurdish activists.

“The Iraqi army was a severely demoralized force that didn’t see a purpose in fighting for a central government whose credibility they questioned,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

The Kurds, on the other hand, “are fighting a truly existential battle,” he said. A group of 150 Iraqi Kurdish forces known as peshmerga deployed last week to Kobani with more advanced weapons including anti-tank missiles and artillery to help bolster their Syrian brethren defending the town. They have provided artillery cover for fellow Kurdish fighters, but it is too early to say whether this has already made any difference on the ground.

Bayan Jabr, an Iraqi cabinet minister, said IS was simply fighting too many battles. He predicted a Sunni uprising in Anbar province following the massacres targeting the Al Bu Nimr tribe. “I think Daesh is starting to fade,” he said, using the Arab acronym for the group.

Associated Press writer Vivian Salama contributed to this report from Irbil, Iraq.

Makeshift schools for Syrian refugee children

November 04, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — It’s only a blue tent at the back of a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc. But for dozens of children who study in the makeshift school, it’s a glimmer of hope.

Inside, brightly colored drawings are pinned to the plastic walls, and wooden desks stand in two neat rows. For some of the Kurdish kids who fled with their families from the besieged Syrian town of Kobani, this is the only school they’ve known.

“The whole world was collapsing, how could they go to school,” said Ghazi Mammo Darwesh, father of 7-year-old Diyala. The shy, brown-eyed girl says she like learning Kurdish writing and drawing pictures of flowers and girls.

Her father is overjoyed that, at last, she is learning something. “How can I not like it? I can fly for happiness. I hope that my children will study abroad,” said Darwesh, who has seven children. School also provides some psychological support for traumatized youngsters, who have lost their homes and often family members during a ferocious onslaught by Islamic State militants on Kobani that began in mid-September. The lessons are basic — only reading and writing in Kurdish is taught, and only for the ages of 7-10. But children, parents and teachers agree it’s better than nothing.

“It’s very important for the children to be in school and concentrated on education instead of having flashbacks to the war,” said Rukan Sheikh Mohammed, a 19-year-old teacher who is a refugee from Kobani herself. The war, she said, had deeply affected the children. “We teach the students to try to provide some confidence, motivating them and telling them they will go home one day and all will be well.”

The school where Mohammed teaches was set up about three weeks ago. In a nearby camp, volunteers initially began organizing simple activities to keep the refugee children occupied, but soon decided to try a more formal education. The Viyan Amara school, named after a woman killed fighting in Kobani, started classes a few days ago.

Volunteer teacher Fidan Kanlibas said the school is funded solely by charitable donations. For now, she said, they only have enough materials for rudimentary lessons. “In the beginning we were doing activities and getting the children to do drawings,” Kanlibas said as she carried newly donated desks into the tent-school, with some of the camp’s older children rushing over to help.

“They were doing drawings of beheadings and weapons. The fear they saw was reflected in their drawings,” she said. “Now, you can see they are smiling and recovering from the things they saw and the pressure of war.”

Diyala’s friend, 7-year-old Shirin Ahmad, had been registered to go to school in Kobani, but the war broke out and she never made it to first grade. Now, she has started school in the camp where she lives with her two younger brothers and parents.

“This school isn’t enough, of course,” said Shirin’s mother, Warda Ahmad. “But at least having this is better than illiteracy.”

Kurdish fighters killed in Syria buried in Turkey

October 22, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Hundreds of supporters chanting slogans turned out to accompany three Kurdish fighters — two men and a woman barely out of her teens — to their final resting place in a dusty cemetery on the edge of the Turkish town of Suruc, within view of the Syrian border and the besieged town of Kobani. But there was one notable absence: their families.

The flag-draped coffin bearing the body of 20-year-old Hanim Dabaan was carried to her grave Tuesday by women who didn’t know her, but wanted to show their support for those killed fighting the Islamic State group extremists. Idris Ahmad, 30, and Mohammed Mustafa, 25, were laid to rest beside her, also carried by volunteers.

The three fighters of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, died in fierce clashes in Kobani, which has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. IS still surrounds the town and holds parts of it despite Kurdish resistance and repeated U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

In the chaos of Syria’s multifaceted war, with a multitude of groups fighting each other as well as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and it’s not always possible to locate the families of those killed in fighting. Turkey alone has seen an estimated 1.6 million refugees cross its borders in the four years of the Syrian war, according to U.N. officials.

“Our house has been demolished in Kobani and we are living in tents. … At least we can support our martyrs and we will accompany them to their graves,” said Fatma Muslim, one of dozens of women who turned up at the Suruc hospital morgue for the funeral procession to the nearby cemetery.

It was volunteers — rather than family members, as is the Islamic tradition — who helped wash and shroud the fighters’ bodies in preparation for burial. “There is nobody to wash them,” said Akeed Hamad, 21, who came to the morgue with a friend and offered to help. “There is only one doctor who can wash them, and the rest are volunteers.”

It wasn’t immediately clear where the families of Dabaan, Ahmad and Mustafa were — or even whether they knew their loved ones were dead. At one point a rumor rippled through the crowd that the young woman’s parents were on their way. But if they were, they never made it.

Yet in Suruc’s cemetery, in a part set aside for Syrian Kurds killed across the border, they aren’t the only ones buried without their relatives. Out of about 30 graves there so far, only five of them have known families, said Wahida Kushta, one of the volunteers who helped prepare Dabaan’s body for burial.

“I do it to help. Let’s support them now at least.” Just a day later, another five fighters were buried beside them in Suruc’s cemetery. Wounded in Kobani, they had died in hospitals and their bodies were transferred to Suruc morgue Wednesday.

Like the three before them, their families weren’t present. One hadn’t even been fully identified. His rough tombstone will bear his nom de guerre, the name he was known to his fellow fighters with: Tamhat Kobani.

Kurds help Islamic militants in battle for Kobani

November 04, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Ethnic Kurds are helping members of the Islamic State group in the battle for the key Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, sharing their knowledge of the local terrain and language with the extremists, according to Iraqi and Kurdish officials.

It is not clear how many Kurds are aiding the estimated 3,000 Islamic State militants in the Kobani area — and fighting against their own Kurdish brethren — but activists say they are playing a major role in the 7-week-old conflict near the Turkish border.

A top military commander for the extremists in the town is an Iraqi Kurd, known by the nom de guerre of Abu Khattab al-Kurdi, helping them in the battle against fellow Kurds. Officials with the main Syrian Kurdish force known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, say they became aware of the Kurds among the mostly Sunni Muslim extremists early in the fighting.

As Kurdish fighters were defending the nearby Syrian village of Shiran in September, two Kurdish men with different accents and wearing YPG uniforms infiltrated their ranks, Kurdish officials said. Upon questioning, however, they were captured and admitted to fighting for the Islamic State group, the officials added.

Iraqi and Kurdish officials say many of the Kurdish fighters with the Islamic State group are from the northeastern Iraqi town of Halabja, which was bombed with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988, killing some 5,000 people.

Shorsh Hassan, a YPG spokesman in Kobani, said although most of the Kurdish jihadi fighters come from Iraq, some are from Syrian regions such as Kobani, Afrin and Jazeera. He added that the number of Syrian Kurds is small compared with the dozens of Iraqis fighting with the IS group.

“The fighter who is from Kobani is not like someone who hails from Chechnya with no idea about tracks and roads,” Hassan said. Thousands of militants from all over the world — including north Africans, Asians and some Westerners — have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the ranks of the Islamic State group. Turkish nationals are among them, but it is unknown if any are fighting in Kobani.

Hassan said many of the Iraqi fighters were from Halabja, including al-Kurdi. Websites affiliated with the Islamic State group recently published several photographs of the young, bearded man, including some of him wearing the traditional Kurdish garb of baggy pants, and others of him standing in front of Kurds killed in Kobani.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi security official said al-Kurdi was a member of Ansar al-Islam, a Sunni militant group with ties to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who was active in the early 2000s. Al-Kurdi later joined the Islamic State group, the official said.

The Iraqi official said al-Kurdi is also from Halabja and is wanted by Iraqi authorities. He refused to give the man’s real name when pressed by The Associated Press. “Our latest information is that he is in Syria fighting in the Kobani area. He is an expert in mountainous areas,” the Iraqi official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

“He is commanding the Kurdish group within Daesh because he is a Kurd,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. Halabja was known as a secular village and the home of Abdullah Goran, one of the best-known Kurdish poets in the 20th century and a member of the Iraqi Communist Party. But in the past three decades, Muslim preachers have become active and have turned it into one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most religiously conservative areas.

Still, most of the Kurds are moderate and secular-leaning Muslims. Many Kurds in Iraq were stunned when they learned that Kiwan Mohammed, the 25-year-old goalkeeper of Halabja’s soccer team, was killed last month in Syria while fighting for the Islamic State group in Kobani. Mohammed was identified by jihadi websites as Abu Walid al-Kurdi.

Dana Jalal, an Iraqi journalist who follows jihadi groups, said the Iraqi athlete left Syria in July 2013 and had not been heard of until his death. Some 70 Iraqi Kurds, mostly from Halabja, went to fight in Syria with the Islamic State group, Jalal said. Most go through Turkey where they say they are going for tourism, but theu then they cross into Syria, and “some even take their wives with them,” Jalal added.

Nawaf Khalil, the Europe-based spokesman for Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, said Kurdish fighters within the Islamic State group are invaluable in the Kobani battle because they know the geography, as well as the language and the mentality of fellow Kurds.

“A main part of their work is tapping (electronic surveillance) and intelligence-gathering. They might be also using some from the Kobani area to benefit from the geographical knowledge of the area,” he said.

Mustafa Bali, a Kurdish activist in Kobani, said that by having Kurdish fighters, Islamic State extremists are trying to win the hearts and minds of Syrian Kurds in the area. “Daesh is trying to tell the people of Kobani that it does not consider them enemies and its fighters include Kurds,” Bali said.

Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad.

Israel presents maritime version of ‘Iron Dome’

October 31, 2014

LE BOURGET, France (AP) — Israel’s “Iron Dome” is heading to the seas, the maker of the rocket-blocking defense system says.

State-owned defense contractor Rafael wants to leverage the system’s much-vaunted success in protecting Israeli civilians in this summer’s Gaza war, hoping to draw navies as buyers for a new maritime version seen as especially useful in protecting national economic resources at sea like oil and gas platforms.

At this week’s Euronaval conference near Paris, Rafael unveiled “C-Dome,” which endeavors to help combat vessels counteract any threats from the air, including missiles, helicopters and tiny unmanned drone aircraft, which could increasingly become tools of combat and reconnaissance at sea just as they have on land in recent years.

Large naval vessels generally have radar-based interception systems to counter incoming threats. But Rafael executives say C-Dome offers innovations. It can fire up to a missile per second, cover a 360-degree range while piggybacking on a vessel’s own radar systems with heat-tracking missiles that zero in on multiple incoming threats at a time.

“C-dome offers something that is not out there (in the market) yet … A small footprint and the capability to engage multiple targets and saturation threats. And it’s based on the only system in the world that has more than 1,000 intercepts,” said program director Ari Sacher. “We can protect the ship from every direction at the same time. Most systems out there can’t do that.”

Iron Dome was a game-changer in this summer’s war, ensuring a decisive technological edge for Israel that all but eliminated civilian casualties from Palestinian rocket fire. The Israeli military says that Iron Dome shot down 735 rockets in this summer’s Gaza war, for more than an 85 percent success rate of those targeted.

The land-based system quickly recognizes the trajectory of incoming rockets and whether they are headed for population centers. Those are shot down, while others are allowed to fall in empty fields to spare the hefty cost of firing the sophisticated interceptors. Rafael officials insist Iron Dome intercepted more than 1,200 projectiles during the war.

C-Dome builds on that experience, shapes it for maritime needs and to defend smaller zones like ships or sea-borne installations. At Rafael’s display area at the Euronaval exhibit hall in suburban Le Bourget, where high-tech whirligigs like mine-sweepers or virtual-reality training suits for aircraft carrier crews were on show, sat a gray, square metallic box about the size of a large coffee table with a black-tipped missile in one of four launch holes. Missiles would be housed underneath a ship’s deck.

The small size makes C-Dome suitable for smaller vessels, such as corvettes and similar — many of which currently rely on less sophisticated intercept systems, Sacher said. C-Dome defends both the ships that carry it and other vessels or oil and gas platforms in its vicinity, he said.

“This is opening a whole new market,” Sacher said. The closest competitors, he said, would be MBDA’s short-range air defense system VL Mica and the Rolling Airframe Missile system of Raytheon. MBDA says its system provides 360-degree coverage against all existing airborne threats, and Raytheon says the RAM system can be used on ships of all sizes and is now deployed on 165 ships in seven fleets — including corvettes.

John Eagles, a Raytheon spokesman, said RAM has demonstrated in tests an intercept rate of more than 90 percent, and is capable of countering threats against oil platforms. He said he was not immediately aware of any cases when RAM had been used in combat; Rafael’s Sacher played up how C-Dome was based on a system with a “proven track record.”

C-Dome uses the same Tamir rockets as used in Iron Dome, Sacher said, estimating their “commonality at more than 99.5 percent”. At sea, it can intercept “anything above the water,” including guided weapons, he said. In contrast, Palestinian rockets from Gaza were relatively crude, unguided weapons.

One analyst said it was important not to overplay its capacities on the seas just yet. “I don’t think you would want to overcook this as ‘Iron Dome for naval vessels’,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East and Africa editor at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. But he acknowledged that protecting oil platforms with on-board intercept systems — if confirmed — would appear to be an important advance.

The new system is more about protecting maritime economic interests than blocking Palestinian projectiles. “The most strategic sites for the future right now will be gas platforms and oil platforms,” said reserve Israeli Navy Capt. “Meir,” a Rafael business development director for naval warfare systems, waving his hand over the C-Dome static display as a video behind him showed colorful animated images of fired missiles exploding on impact with torpedoes, missiles and drones.

“You have to secure them from missiles; Missiles that will be from terror organizations, from mother boats, from enemy countries, from drones — or any other aerial threat,” said Meir, who declined to give his surname for security reasons.

For security and competitiveness reasons, he and other Rafael executives declined to say how many missiles the system could carry, but it would depend on customers’ requests. Rafael executives also declined to say when the system was activated or whether the navy of Israel — which has developed a number of large natural gas fields off its Mediterranean coast — was using it.

Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Small Iraqi peshmerga force enters Syrian town

October 30, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — A vanguard force of Iraqi peshmerga troops entered the embattled Syrian border town of Kobani from Turkey on Thursday, part of a larger group of 150 fighters that the Kurds hope will turn back an offensive by militants of the Islamic State group.

The deployment, accompanied by 50 members of the Free Syrian Army, was condemned by Syria’s government as an act of Turkish aggression and a “blatant violation of Syrian sovereignty.” The first group of Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria following heavy overnight clashes as Islamic State extremists unsuccessfully tried to capture the frontier post, the only gateway in and out of the town.

Kobani is under attack by the militants from three sides despite weeks of airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition. Mustafa Bali, an activist based in the town, said the remaining troops will follow later in installments as a security precaution because the IS fighters were targeting the border area.

“The first 10 are now with the People’s Protection Units and they include doctors and fighters and the rest are expected to enter in the coming hours at night,” Bali told The Associated Press. The People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG, are the main force in predominantly Kurdish regions of northern Syria.

Other peshmerga forces were assembled in a facility on the outskirts of the Turkish border town of Suruc, about 12 kilometers (7½ miles) from the Syrian frontier. The Kurds have high expectations for the mission of the peshmerga troops, despite their low numbers. They are hoping that some of the more advanced weaponry they carry with them can help break a stalemate with the extremists, who outnumber and outgun the Kurds.

Activists say there are about 1,000 Syrian Kurdish fighters and more than 3,000 jihadis in the Kobani area. Most civilians fled in the first days of the IS onslaught. The ability of the small force to turn the tide of battle will depend on the effectiveness of their weapons and the continued bombardment from the coalition.

The coalition has carried out more than 150 airstrikes against the militants in and around Kobani, killing hundreds of them and helping stall their advance. But Syrian Kurds have pleaded for advanced weapons to help them gain the upper hand.

The U.S. Central Command said there were 12 airstrikes in Syria, with 10 of those in the Kobani area since Wednesday. The coalition also is conducting airstrikes on IS positions in Iraq, where the group controls large parts of territory.

Islamic State militants launched the attack on Kobani six weeks ago, capturing dozens of Kurdish villages in addition to parts of the border town. More than 200,000 people have fled to Turkey and more than 800 people have died, activists say.

In the Syrian capital of Damascus, a political adviser to President Bashar Assad accused Ankara of trying to expand its influence in Syria by sending in anti-government forces. “I see that Turkey is continuing in its role of aggression against Syria and its very dangerous role in the region,” Bouthaina Shaaban said in an interview with the AP.

Shaaban suggested Turkey was trying to revive its dominant role during the Ottoman Empire and did not care about saving the Kurds. The Foreign Ministry in Damascus called the action “a blatant violation of Syrian sovereignty and international law.”

The statements underscored the acrimonious relations between once friendly neighbors. Turkey emerged early on as a main backer of the rebels trying to overthrow Assad, and even now has balked at joining the fight against the Islamic State militants in Syria before the U.S. commits to a plan that includes Assad’s overthrow.

On Wednesday, a group of 50 Syrian rebels entered Kobani — also via Turkey — in a push to help Kurdish fighters there against the IS militants. The rebels are from the Free Syrian Army and were meant to help the long-awaited Iraqi peshmerga fighters and the town’s Kurdish defenders.

The FSA is an umbrella group of mainstream rebels trying to topple Assad. The political leadership of the Western-backed FSA is based in Turkey, where fighters often seek respite from battle. Ankara is under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — from the West as well as from Kurds in Turkey and Syria. The Turkish government recently agreed to let the fighters cross through its territory into Syria, but only those peshmerga forces from Iraq, with whom it has a good relationship, and not those from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

Turkey sees the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani as loyal to what it regards as an extension of the PKK. That group has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.

Kurdish fighters in Syria have repeatedly said they do not need more fighters, only weapons. Kurds in Syria distrust Turkey’s intentions, accusing it of blocking assistance to the Kobani defenders for weeks before giving in to pressure and shifting its stance.

The battle for Kobani is a small part in a larger war in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people since 2011, according to activists. The conflict began with largely peaceful protests calling for reform. It eventually grew into a civil war as people took up arms following a brutal crackdown by Assad on demonstrators.

Hadid reported from Damascus, Syria. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

Alawites find their voice against Assad

October 29, 2014

TARTUS, Syria — Ever since hundreds of Alawite soldiers lost their lives in battles with the Islamic State (IS) in Raqqa and its countryside in July and August, anger and discontent has simmered. A massive protest followed in Homs, against the Oct. 2 terrorist attack that killed dozens of children in the mostly Alawite neighborhood of Akrama. Then the rise in fuel prices triggered protests in Tartus. While many parties consider these incidents collective Alawite rage that might lead to an Alawite revolution against the Syrian regime, there are more forces at play.

On the morning of Oct. 15, Al-Monitor witnessed several public minibus drivers gather in the new Tartus parking lot on a strike, and demonstrate there for an hour. About 11:30 a.m., they escalated their strike, and several of them parked in the surroundings of Al-Bassel garden, close to the municipality building in the city center, and stood in front of the building. Their complaints included the increase in the tariff from 15 Syrian pounds (9 cents) to 20 (12 cents), following the fuel price hike. This is not the first time that taxi drivers have protested the tariff in Tartus, and they have often gone on strike in the past. But this time was different, as they raised their voices and dared to protest openly in the streets. The news media reported on an anti-regime protest in Tartus and about arrests and oppression by security forces that day. Yet, not one person in Tartus told Al-Monitor they witnessed a protest against President Bashar al-Assad, and no one could name any of the alleged arrestees.

An employee in the Tartus City Council told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We were very surprised to hear about a protest against the regime in Tartus. It is true that the strike was exceptional and marked by anger, but the strikers were in front of the city hall building and they did not shout any anti-regime slogans. They even cheered for Assad when the security forces and policemen gathered around them. The governor warmly welcomed one of the strikers and promised to solve the problem, which evidently has not been solved yet. The tariff has not been increased to avoid angering the other citizens. But I wonder where the talk about an anti-regime protest in Tartus came from.”

In Tartus, there is a public minibus crisis, as the buses are scarce and service is limited. A person can wait a long time at off-peak hours for a bus that is not overcrowded. At other times, one might not find a bus at all, because most drivers only work during rush hours, when riders are going to work or returning home.

One driver told Al-Monitor, “The municipality is messing with us. We are taking 20 pounds from passengers without the approval of the parties concerned, but when passengers insist on paying the old tariff of 15 pounds, we cannot do much. It is not only about the rise in fuel prices, but also its unavailability. I wait for seven hours or sometimes more at the gas station to fill up my vehicle. Many drivers have stopped working completely. What is even more devastating is that fuel is available on the black market at prices that are much lower than the official tariff. The Syrian government is packed with thieves.”

The pro-regime citizens in Tartus also seem angry. Everyone in the city is talking about the fuel price hike and the subsequent increase in the prices of products, while the minimum wage is still the same. People are saying, “We can’t take it anymore,” “We are going to starve if things continue this way” and “Our fellow citizens are dying at war in vain.” The poverty and ongoing war have started a wave of rage, but might this lead to rebellion against Assad’s regime?

About 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Tartus, Latakia city seems more vibrant. Its streets are crowded, especially near Tishreen University at the city’s south entrance, where dozens of buses of varying sizes park, ready to transport students. It seems that there is no fuel or transport crisis there.

In Latakia, life seems normal in the markets and on the roads, except for the presence of dozens of armed men affiliated with the army and the National Defense Forces. An engineer told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity for security reasons, “The situation in Latakia has not changed, despite the anger among Alawites, but talk about a possible revolution against Assad indicates a complete ignorance of the facts. There are no direct protests against the Syrian regime, but some Alawites let out angry cheers and intermittent cries when gathering to receive the bodies of their relatives or sons at the military hospitals.”

The pro-regime militants in the city streets, especially at the entrance of the mostly Sunni neighborhoods, which have already witnessed clashes and protests, are intimidating. Sand barricades can still be seen at the entrances of the streets leading to the neighborhoods of Al Ramel al-Janoubi, Qnaines and al-Sakantouri. The regime, with the support of its advocates, is still tightening the noose on the city.

What have the Alawites’ complaints changed?

“Well, at the onset of the revolution, I could not criticize the regime or Assad,” the engineer said. “But today, I can do that without being labeled as pro-revolution. For me, nothing has changed, though. Most Alawites still believe that their main enemies are the rebels and the opposition members, be they secular or Islamists. But they are gradually losing faith in the regime, and they seem more at peace with the open criticism of the regime. The deteriorating economic and security situations and the failure to settle the war are to blame.”

In Syria, both pro- and anti-regime citizens are equally devastated by the war. We can say that the Alawites’ protests against the regime mainly stem from its mismanagement of the war. Others’ protests center on demands stirred by the price increases and economic deterioration. The regime has managed until now to control these protests and avoid their escalation, as the photos of Assad and slogans supporting him in the streets of Latakia and Tartus show.

Source: al-Monitor.


Women on front lines in Syria, Iraq against IS

October 25, 2014

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Just over a year ago, Afshin Kobani was a teacher. Now, the Kurdish Syrian woman has traded the classroom for the front lines in the battle for Kobani, a town besieged by fighters from the Islamic State extremist group.

The 28-year-old Kurdish fighter, who uses a nom de guerre, said she decided to join the fight in her hometown when she saw IS advances in Syria. “I lost many friends to this, and I decided there was a need to join up,” said Kobani, who declined to reveal her birth name. “This is our land — our own — and if we don’t do it, who else will?”

Perched on the other side of the Turkish border, the Syrian town of Kobani has been under an intense assault by IS for more than a month. The town — surrounded on the east, south and west by IS — is being defended by Kurdish forces in Syria.

Among those fighters are thousands of women, an unusual phenomenon in the Muslim world in which warfare is often associated with manhood. In April, Kurdish fighters created all-female combat units that have grown to include more than 10,000 women. These female fighters have played a major role in battles against IS, said Nasser Haj Mansour, a defense official in Syria’s Kurdish region.

The Kurdish women now find themselves battling militants preaching an extreme form of Islam dictating that women only leave the house if absolutely necessary. Earlier this month the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors events in Syria, reported IS militants beheaded nine Kurdish fighters, including three women, captured in clashes near Turkish border.

After more than a year of fighting, Kobani has risen through the ranks to become a commander of a mixed-gender unit. “We are just the same as men; there’s no difference,” she said. “We can do any type of job, including armed mobilization.”

There is nothing new about Kurdish women fighters. They have fought alongside men for years in a guerrilla war against Turkey, seeking an independent Kurdistan which would encompass parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The campaign for Kurdish independence has been pursued mainly by leftist militant groups that championed gender equality, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey.

Suicide bombings have long been part of the Kurdish women fighters’ battleground repertory. Early this month, Deilar Kanj Khamis, better known by her military name Arin Mirkan, blew herself up outside Kobani, killing 10 IS fighters, according to Kurdish forces. Haj Mansour, the Kurdish defense official, recounted that Kurdish fighters were forced to withdraw from a strategic hill south of the besieged town. Khamis stayed behind, attacking IS fighters with gunfire and grenades as they moved in. Surrounded, she detonated explosives strapped to her body. The Kurds then recaptured the position — but lost it again on Wednesday.

In Kobani, Sheikh Ahmad Hamo’s daughter Rukan signed up for the fight for Kurdish independence at the age of 18, and was quickly sent to Iraqi Kurdistan, in Iraq’s north. That was eight years ago. For the first six years, she didn’t contact her parents or her nine siblings. Her mother, Salwa Moussa, traveled to northern Iraq in March last year in the vain hope of seeing her daughter.

Five months after that, she phoned home. “When she called, she had a mountain accent. Her mother didn’t recognize her,” said Hamo. “When we talked to her, we were happy, but we were also crying.” Rukan Hamo’s 23-year-old brother Ferman was killed fighting in Kobani this month. The sister didn’t make it to the brother’s funeral. Her parents don’t know when, or if, they will see her again.

In the dust-blown cemetery of the Turkish border town of Suruc, a corner has been laid out for the casualties among Syrian Kurds fighting in Kobani. Of more than 30 dead, 10 are women. “It’s not strange that women are fighting,” said Wahida Kushta, an elderly woman who recently helped prepare the body of a young female fighter, 20-year-old Hanim Dabaan, for burial. “There is no between a lion and a lioness.”

Mroue reported from Beirut.

Coalition airstrikes in Syria killed over 500

October 23, 2014

MURSITPINAR, Turkey (AP) — U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Syria have killed more than 500 people since they began last month, mainly Islamic militants, activists said Thursday, as fighting flared yet again in the northern Syrian border town of Kobani.

Despite the large death toll and international intervention to aid Kurdish forces fighting to defend Kobani, Islamic State forces on Thursday seized a hilltop overlooking the town along the Syria-Turkey border, activist said.

To aid their brethren, Iraqi Kurds pledged to send dozens of fighters over the coming days to battle alongside Syrian Kurdish forces in Kobani. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, said 553 people have been killed in airstrikes since they began Sept. 23, including 32 civilians. The civilians included six children and five women.

The group said it documented 464 deaths among fighters of the Islamic State group but said the number could be much higher. Also, 57 fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front were killed in airstrikes elsewhere in northern Syria, the Observatory said.

Many of the Islamic State fighters died in the battle for Kobani, which the militants have been trying to seize since mid-September. The IS group also captured dozens of surrounding Kurdish villages, compelling more than 200,000 people to flee to neighboring Turkey.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Central Command said its forces conducted more than 135 airstrikes against the militants in and around Kobani, killing hundreds of fighters. “Combined with continued resistance to ISIL on the ground, indications are that these strikes have slowed ISIL advances into the city, killed hundreds of their fighters and destroyed or damaged scores of pieces of ISIL combat equipment and fighting positions,” Central Command said in a statement, using one of the acronyms for the militant group.

In northern Iraq, Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff for the Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, told The Associated Press that the largely-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish government would send some 150 peshmerga fighters to Kobani through Turkey to support Syrian Kurds there.

Hussein said they would take light weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, and in a response to Turkish concerns about armed Kurds on their territory, said the peshmerga would bring the weapons back once they returned.

“The fight in Kobani is very important to us,” he said. “We are fighting the same enemy.” On the Turkish side of the border, heavy machine gun fire was heard on Thursday coming from Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab in Arabic.

The clashes were some of the fiercest since the battle for the town began, Kurdish activist Farhad Shami said over the phone. Speaking from the area, he said the Islamic State group launched an attack from three fronts late Wednesday.

By Thursday, the militants captured the Tel Shair hill that overlooks parts of Kobani, closing in on the town from the west, the Observatory reported. Shami said the Kurdish fighters had withdrawn from the area. The Observatory said Islamic State fighters were also trying to advance from the eastern side of the town.

Capturing Kobani would give the Islamic State group, which already rules a huge stretch of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border, a direct link between the Syrian province of Aleppo and its stronghold of Raqqa, to the east.

NATO’s supreme military commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said in Turkey on Thursday that the alliance was ready to come to Turkey’s defense if the situation on its border deteriorated and it sought help from the organization.

He said that NATO had already provided Turkey will a Patriot missile defense system that it had deployed on the border with Syria. “NATO is ready,” Breedlove said. “We will work together to face this challenge that we see on the border.”

The Observatory meanwhile reported four coalition airstrikes on oil wells in the Jafra field in eastern Syria late Wednesday. Central Command said they had conducted six airstrikes since Wednesday; four near Kobani, and two that targeted oil-holding tanks.

The U.S.-led coalition has been shelling IS-held oil facilities in Syria, which provide a key source of income for the militants. But such strikes also endanger civilians, which could undermine long-term efforts to destroy the militant group.

The attacks on the oil industry, including refineries, have also led to a sharp rise in the price of oil products in rebel-held areas of Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad has stepped up its efforts to reclaim rebel-held areas surrounding major cities. On Thursday, state-run media said government forces wrested the town of Morek in central Syria from rebels. The town is seen as a strategic prize, because it lies on the highway between the key cities of Hama and Aleppo.

Also Thursday, neighboring Lebanon said it would not accept any more refugees from Syria, except in what authorities deem to be “exceptional” cases — a move that could prevent tens of thousands of Syrians from escaping the civil war.

There are over 3 million Syrian refugees from the war, mostly in neighboring countries. Another 6 million have been displaced within Syria, making it one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Lebanon itself has at least 1.1 million Syrian refugees, forming a quarter of the tiny Mediterranean country’s population of 5 million. The refugees have stretched Lebanon’s already fragile infrastructure and compete with the country’s poorest for low-paid jobs, causing tensions. Tens of thousands of Syrian children are out of school because there is nowhere to place them.

Lebanese Information Minister Ramzi Jreij said Lebanon can simply not handle any more refugees. Ninette Kelley, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Lebanon, said the country had begun restricting the entry of Syrians since August.

Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Patrick Quinn in Izmir, Turkey, and Bram Janssen in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.

IS fighters seize weapons cache meant for Kurds

October 21, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State group fighters seized at least one cache of weapons airdropped by U.S.-led coalition forces that were meant to supply Kurdish militiamen battling the extremist group in a border town, activists said Tuesday.

The cache of weapons included hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, according to a video uploaded by a media group loyal to the Islamic State group. The video appeared authentic and corresponded to The Associated Press’ reporting of the event. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which bases its information on a network of activists on the ground, said the militants had seized at least one cache.

The caches were airdropped early on Monday to Kurds in the embattled Syrian town of Kobani that lies near the Turkish border. The militant group has been trying to seize the town for over a month now, causing the exodus of some 200,000 people from the area into Turkey. While Kurds are battling on the ground, a U.S.-led coalition is also targeting the militants from the air.

On Tuesday, IS loyalists on social media posted sarcastic thank you notes to the United States, including one image that said “Team USA.” But the lost weapons drop was more an embarrassment than a great strategic loss. The Islamic State militants already possess millions of dollars-worth of U.S. weaponry that they captured from fleeing Iraqi soldiers when the group seized swaths of Iraq in a sudden sweep in June.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. had seen the video but couldn’t confirm its accuracy and was seeking more information. On Tuesday, the U.S. Central Command said U.S. military forces conducted four airstrikes near Kobani that destroyed IS fighting positions, an IS building and a large IS unit.

Also Tuesday, Syrian government airstrikes hit a rebel-held town along the country’s southern border with Jordan, killing at least eight people. Activists with the Local Coordination Committees and the Observatory said the number of those killed was likely to rise as there are more victims under the rubble.

The LCC said Syrian government planes dropped crude explosives-laden canisters on the town of Nasib on the Syria-Jordan border. The airstrikes are part of battles between Syrian government forces and Islamic rebel groups for control of the area.

Syrian government forces have been heavily bombing rebel areas in recent weeks, while the U.S-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes against Islamic State militants elsewhere in Syria.