Archive for November, 2014

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.

Clashes in northern Lebanon kill 5, wound others

October 25, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese troops battled Islamic militants in the northern city of Tripoli for a second day Saturday, with five people killed and more than a dozen wounded in the clashes, the Lebanese army and state media said.

An army statement said troops surrounded the gunmen in Tripoli’s old market, exchanging fire and wounding several of them. It said it also had detained some of the fighters and seized weapons and ammunition, although some gunmen were able to flee the area.

The fighting came two days after troops killed three militants and detained a local leader in a raid in the northern Dinniyeh region. One of the three killed was Abdul-Qadir Akkoumi, a Lebanese soldier who announced in a video released earlier this month that he had defected and joined the Islamic State group, the army said.

“It was a very fierce night,” said a Tripoli resident who asked that his name not be published because of security concerns. Speaking by telephone, the man said the city’s streets were mostly empty Saturday and people avoided going near the historic market where the fighting was concentrated.

The army said later Saturday, that gunmen fired a rocket propelled grenade at an army vehicle in the nearby town of Minye, killing an officer and wounding two others. Troops also clashed with gunmen in the nearby town of Mhamra, where two soldiers were killed and several others wounded, the army statement said.

The state-run National News Agency said two civilians were killed and five civilians wounded. It was not immediately clear if there were casualties among the gunmen. Sunni militants inspired by al-Qaida and the Islamic State extremist group have killed and wounded several soldiers in a string of attacks in recent months.

The deadliest was in August, when jihadi fighters from Syria briefly overran the Lebanese border town of Arsal, capturing some 20 policemen and soldiers and killing several others. That attack was the most serious spillover of the civil war in neighboring Syria since the uprising there began in March 2011.

Lebanon is bitterly divided over the war, with Sunnis supporting the Syrian rebels and Shiites siding with President Bashar Assad’s government. The Shiite movement Hezbollah has sent fighters to support Assad’s troops. Sunni militants in Lebanon have responded with attacks on Shiites as well as security forces, who they believe are secretly dominated by Hezbollah.

Lebanon says it won’t accept more Syrian refugees

October 23, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon announced on Thursday it will not accept any more refugees from neighboring war-torn 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.

Information Minister Ramzi Jreij said Lebanon can simply not handle any more refugees. The tiny Mediterranean country has 1.1 million officially registered Syrian refugees, although the number is believed to be far higher. They make up almost a quarter of the country’s population of 5 million.

The refugees have stretched the country’s already fragile infrastructure and compete with Lebanon’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.

The Syrian refugees already in Lebanon would be encouraged to leave, said Jreij. The government would “encourage the displaced Syrians … to return to their countries, or go to other countries, by all means,” he said.

Ninette Kelley, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Lebanon, said the country had begun restricting the entry of Syrians since August. As a result, she said the UNHCR was receiving 75 percent to 90 percent less people seeking refugee status.

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. European countries and the U.S. have been extremely reluctant to accept Syrian refugees, leaving the burden to countries neighboring Syria — Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, which are ill-equipped to deal with the floods of people.