Posted tagged ‘Syria war’

Trump-Putin deal imperils Israeli, Jordan borders

August 12, 2017

Trump-Putin deal imperils Israeli, Jordan borders, DEBKAfile, August 12, 2017

Local US-backed Syrian rebel groups disbanded without a shot, went over to the Syrian government side and handed in their US-supplied weapons to Syrian army and Hizballah fighters.

Sooner or later, the Sweida model will be replicated in Quneitra. Neither the Russian troops nor UN peacekeepers will fight to stop it happening. By then, the Syrian rebel groups, in whose support Israel invested for years as a buffer against hostile Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces, are already falling apart. Disowned by their Saudi backers, they are being crushed by the US-Russian “de-escalation” steamroller. Israel like Jordan will soon find three hostile forces sitting pretty just across its border, far too close for safety.

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The transformation of a small, strategic wedge of land between the Syrian, Israeli, Jordanian and Iraqi borders is going forward apace without arousing much interest – even in Israel, where it should cause the most concern, DEBKAfile reports.

On Wednesday, Aug. 8, two Russian army companies of Ingushet troops from the northern Caucasus set up a command post in the Syrian village of Tal al-Shahm, 13km from Israel’s Golan border. Its commander, Col. Alexei Kozin, has thus taken charge of Syria’s border with Israel. As DEBKAfile reported last month, his task is to set up 10 control checkpoints along that border.

This border area was designated as one of four de-escalation zones agreed on between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at their meeting in Hamburg on July 7.

According to understandings reached between Washington, Moscow and Jerusalem, the UN separation force (UNDOF) will return to its Fawar base opposite Quneitra as a buffer between IDF and Russian forces. Its past history in this role between IDF and Syrian forces was never exactly impressive.

A piece of diplomacy consistent with this process was contributed by Russian foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, Aug. 11. It was an assurance that Russia would take into account Israel’s interests in Jerusalem in the framework of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

It also fits in with the surprising statement from Washington on the same day, namely, that Donald Trump, although in the midst of a fearsome crisis with North Korea with military overtones, is planning to send his senior adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Israel-Palestinian peace broker Jason Greenblatt, on an early visit to the Middle East to continue this mission.

To see how these disparate elements fill out the whole picture, we turn 70km east from Quneitra on the Syria Golan to the battles ongoing at Sweida in southeastern Syria opposite the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. Russian troops moved into the key town of Daraa, abutting on the Jordanian border on July 13. Like in Quneitra, a month later, they set up command posts to monitor the first de-escalation or ceasefire zone to be set up under the Hamburg accord.

The Russian troops’ assignment was to stop the fighting there and execute the withdrawal of the combatant forces, the Syrian army, Iran, and its foreign Shiite militias, including Hizballah, to a distance of 40km from the border.

But that arrangement never stood up.

Nearly four weeks later, on Wednesday night, Aug. 9, on the same night that Russian troops moved into Quneitra, the Syrian army and Hizballah launched a major offensive in Sweida province. Three days later, by Saturday, they had forced the local rebel forces to retreat into Jordan and seized 57km of Syria’s southern frontier with the Hashemite Kingdom.

Neither the Russians nor the American interfered with the Syrian-Hizballah-led push, although the Russians took responsibility for maintaining the ceasefire, and US special forces were and still are posted to the east of Sweida at Al-Tanf in the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border triangle.

(See attached map)

DEBKAfile’s military sources add that the Syrian-Hizballah offensive violated the ceasefire deal. Local US-backed Syrian rebel groups disbanded without a shot, went over to the Syrian government side and handed in their US-supplied weapons to Syrian army and Hizballah fighters.

The Sweida episode demonstrated how the Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah alliance sees its way to using the Trump-Putin ceasefire zones accord as an open door for seizing control of southern Syria and grabbing the Jordanian and Israeli borders.

The Syrian rebel movement is disintegrating at an alarming rate following the “Jubeir earthquake,” as it has become known – another momentous event which Western and Israeli front pages have chosen to ignore.

Last week, Saudi Foreign Mniser Adel al-Jubeir reportedly informed a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders invited to Riyadh that his government was pulling its support from their fighting militias, in the wake of President Trump’s decision to reduce US military action in Syria solely to the war on ISIS – and therefore end US resistance to the Assad regime.

Saudi officials did not deny the report, only termed it “inaccurate.”

But meanwhile, the decisions by Riyadh and Washington to abandon the anti-Assad cause spread like wildfire among Syrian rebel groups. Many responded by laying down their arms and surrendering.

The fate of the rebel movement after six years of cruel warfare against the dictator Bashar Assad should be an object lesson to other recipients of American and Russian promises. Therefore, Lavrov’s pledge to take Israel’s interests in Jerusalem into account should be taken with a pinch of salt. He was most likely shooting a line to allay Israeli skepticism about the prospect of Russian troops keeping Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah troops at bay from its northern border – even through this pledge was underwritten by Washington.

Instead of taking the two powers at their word, Israel need only watch what is going on in the last few hours just across the border at Sweida, to appreciate the value of such promises.

Sooner or later, the Sweida model will be replicated in Quneitra. Neither the Russian troops nor UN peacekeepers will fight to stop it happening. By then, the Syrian rebel groups, in whose support Israel invested for years as a buffer against hostile Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces, are already falling apart. Disowned by their Saudi backers, they are being crushed by the US-Russian “de-escalation” steamroller. Israel like Jordan will soon find three hostile forces sitting pretty just across its border, far too close for safety.

Russia flies 2,000 mercenary troops into Syria

August 2, 2017

Russia flies 2,000 mercenary troops into Syria, DEBKAfile, August 2, 2017

Dmitry Utkin, director of the Wagner Group

President Vladimir Putin and his defense minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu have ramped up the Russian military presence in Syria without adding ground and armored troops – even though the Russian constitution bars the recruitment of mercenaries to fight overseas for profit.

Moscow is a veteran client of the Wagner Group contractors, which largely resemble the US Blackwater security contractor now calling itself Academi. It was hired to provide military personnel during 20014 and 2015 for Moscow’s battle to conquer Crimea and in support of the pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

The placement of Russian Muslim forces or hired mercenaries on Israel’s northern border – in the guise of ceasefire monitors – poses a serious problem for Jerusalem.

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Russia is engaged in a major buildup in Syria, both in support of the de-escalation zones established in conjunction with the United States, and in order to solidify its military control of the country.

DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources reported exclusively on Wednesday, August 2, that 2,000 mercenaries had just been airlifted into the country, boosting to a total of 5,000 the number of mercenaries on hire from the Wagner Group private contractors for service under the Russian flag in Syria. They are all retirees from elite units of the Russian ground forces, air force or navy.

In another new Russian project, our military sources also report the arrival in the past few days of Muslim troops from the republic of Ingushetia. Although clad in Russian military police uniforms, they are actually commandoes trained in anti-terror warfare. They have been posted as “ceasefire monitors” at the three de-escalation zones established by Russia and the United States along the Syrian borders with Israel, Jordan and Iraq.

President Vladimir Putin and his defense minister Gen. Sergei Shoigu have ramped up the Russian military presence in Syria without adding ground and armored troops – even though the Russian constitution bars the recruitment of mercenaries to fight overseas for profit.

Moscow is a veteran client of the Wagner Group contractors, which largely resemble the US Blackwater security contractor now calling itself Academi. It was hired to provide military personnel during 20014 and 2015 for Moscow’s battle to conquer Crimea and in support of the pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Their mercenaries first arrived in Syria in October 2015, right after Moscow stepped up its intervention in the civil war. In March 2016, several hundred of them fought in the big battle that wrested Palmyra from ISIS.

Ironically, the Wagner Group does not officially exist and is not listed anywhere in Russia. However, a company bearing that name operates out of Argentina, even though its recruits receive training in Russia. They are trained, our sources reveal, at a base of the 10th special forces brigade of GRU military intelligence, located near the village of Molkino in the Krasnodar area of southern Russia, about 150km northeast of the Black Sea. The identity of Wagner’s boss is held secret, but Western intelligence sources name him as Dmitry Utkin, who until 2013 was a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd Spetznaz brigade.

The placement of Russian Muslim forces or hired mercenaries on Israel’s northern border – in the guise of ceasefire monitors – poses a serious problem for Jerusalem. Russia’s record for keeping its promises and commitments on its military moves in Syria is far from good. The US has confirmed that Russia gave Israel a commitment that Iranian and pro-Iranian forces, including Hizballah, would not be allowed to approach the Syrian-Israeli border. But Israel can’t be certain how the Ingushets or the mercenaries will react if confronted with such troops. Will they resort to arms to evict them or let them stay?

The coming DEBKA Weekly out on Friday, Aug. 4, expands on the Russian buildup in Syria and its repercussions. To sign up to this exclusive publication, click here.

State Department Lawyers Removing References to ISIS ‘Genocide’ Against Christians, Other Religious Minorities

July 25, 2017

State Department Lawyers Removing References to ISIS ‘Genocide’ Against Christians, Other Religious Minorities, Washington Free Beacon , July 25, 2017

(Please see also, Trump State Dept Unsure Why Palestinian Terrorists Kill Israelis. — DM)

Yazidi refugees carry their belongings in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, as they change their refugee camp / Getty Imagesfood or water. / AFP / ILYAS AKENGIN (Photo credit should read ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama holdovers in State Department’s legal office are responsible, critics say

The State Department’s top lawyers are systematically removing the word “genocide” to describe the Islamic State’s mass slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, and other ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria from speeches before they are delivered and other official documents, according to human rights activists and attorneys familiar with the policies.

Additionally, Democratic senators are delaying confirmation of Mark Green, Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Agency for International Development who has broad bipartisan support.

These efforts guarantee that Obama-era policies that worked to exclude Iraq’s Christian and other minority religious populations from key U.S. aid programs remain in place, the activists said.

Richard Visek, who was appointed by President Obama as head the State Department’s Office of Legal Adviser in October 2016, is behind the decision to remove the word “genocide” from official documents, according to Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer who directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

“I don’t think for a minute it’s a bureaucratic decision—it’s ideological,” said Shea, who also spent 12 years as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or CIRF, from 1999 to 2012.

A State Department spokesman on Monday said he would look into the matter and respond.

The latest moves from the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser appear aimed at rolling back then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s March 2016 genocide determination. Kerry’s much-anticipated genocide designation came after months of equivocation and detailed documentation by interested parties that the Islamic State is responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.

It was one of the few times in history that the United States designated ongoing mass murders against ethnic or religious minorities as meeting the legal definition of genocide laid out in a 1948 treaty. That agreement requires signatories, including the United States, to take steps to “prevent and punish” genocide.

A bipartisan group of Capitol Hill lawmakers and activists, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) were hoping the designation would help direct millions of dollars in U.S. relief funds to Christian, Yazidi, and other persecuted religious minority communities.

ISIS murders and kidnappings have decimated the Christian population in Iraq, which numbered between 800,000 and 1.4 million in 2002, reducing it to fewer than 250,000 now. Without action, activists and charities say, Christians could disappear completely from Iraq in the near future.

After meeting with Pope Francis in May, President Trump vowed to do everything in his power to defend and protect the “historic Christian communities of the Middle East.”

Activists and Catholic leaders are now calling on Trump to turn the rhetoric into action on the ground and help get U.S. aid to these persecuted communities trying to rebuild their homes and their lives in Iraq.

These advocates want the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the United Nations to allow church groups and other religious-affiliated relief organizations to receive government aid, a practice prohibited during the Obama administration.

In early May, Congress allocated more than $1.3 billion in funds for refugee assistance and included specific language to try to ensure that at least some of the money is used to assist persecuted religious minorities, including Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims—all groups the State Department deemed victims of genocide in 2016.

Nevertheless, only $10 million is specifically earmarked for Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. The Trump administration has until the end of September, when the stop-gap funding bill runs out, to ensure it distributes the funds in the most effective way.

“There is congressional legislation … that calls for the U.S. government to stop excluding the genocide-targeted minorities in Iraq,” Shea said. “This has been a pervasive problem that this aid has not been getting to them.”

“Iraq is home to one of the four largest remaining Christian communities in the Middle East that are about to become extinct,” she said. “Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama made catastrophic mistakes that left these communities on the brink of extinction, but it’s going to be on President Trump’s watch as to whether they survive or become extinct—it’s going to be his policies that make or break the situation.”

Instead of going through Iraqi government agencies or other internationally recognized groups, activists say the best way to get the aid to Christians and other persecuted minorities is through local Iraqi Catholic dioceses and parishes and other religious organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus, which have spent years on the ground working with these communities.

The money would be specifically designated for relief efforts for these persecuted communities and could not be used for other purposes, such as church-building or more general church operations.

Groups say the special allocation is needed because Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities often do not go to Muslim-dominated refugee camps out of fear they will be targeted, killed, or kidnapped.

After the Iraqi army retook Mosul from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. forces, much international attention has focused on helping rebuild the Sunni community so that ISIS cannot regain its influence there through sleeper cells or other supportive Islamic terrorist groups.

Shea said Christians will also play a key role in stabilizing the area in and around Mosul if they have enough aid to rebuild their homes in the area and other parts of Northern Iraq.

They could also combat Iran’s colonization of northern Iraq, where pro-Iranian militias are buying up Christian land in the area to try to broaden their influence.

“Christians and Yazidis need to be able to go back to their towns just to hold them—it’s a big national security priority for the U.S.,” she said.

In late June, Rubio, along with GOP Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to ensure that the 2017 omnibus appropriations are distributed to “vulnerable and persecuted religious minorities, including victims of genocide designated” by former Secretary of State Kerry.

“It would be a deathblow to pluralism and the prospect of religious freedom and diversity in any future Iraq,” the senators wrote, if these victims of genocide don’t receive the humanitarian aid Congress tried to direct to them.

In responding to the senators’ letter on July 10, the State Department avoided the question of whether it would allow Catholic or other charitable organizations to receive the appropriations in order to help the Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities.

Instead, Charles Faulkner of State’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs cited a list of U.S. efforts to help the “plight of religious minorities in Iraq” and said the department “shares your grave concern about the situation facing Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities.”

The letter also restates the State Department’s policy and that of the United Nation’s of distributing U.S. relief based on means-tested need, instead of the genocide designation providing some priority for targeted communities on the verge of extinction.

“The U.S. government has also provided more than $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance since 2014 for vulnerable Iraqis in Iraq and in the region,” the letter stated. “This assistance is distributed according to individual need, and many members of minority groups have benefited from it because of their unique vulnerabilities.”

Faulkner said the State Department “makes efforts” to ensure that the needs of “minority community members” are “taken into consideration,” when there are concerns that these communities don’t have access to assistance.

In addition to U.N. stabilization projects in Iraq, he said State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor is managing 22 grants and “interagency agreements” in Iraq, and “since 2004 has been the lead U.S. government entity programming directly to support inclusion of religious and ethnic minorities and other marginalized populations in Iraq.”

Russia vies with Israel over aid for Quneitra

July 19, 2017

Russia vies with Israel over aid for Quneitra, DEBKAfile, July 19, 2017

(Please see also, Operation Good Neighbor: Israel’s part in Syria.– DM)

On their arrival in Quneitra, the Russians found a population that was better fed and cared for than Syrian civilians on any other of the country’s warfronts. They are nonetheless challenging Israel for the locals’ hearts and minds.

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As Russian troops began moving into the Quneitra ceasefire sector opposite Israel’s Golan border on Wednesday, July 19, they found they were in hot competition with Israel over … humanitarian aid for the sector’s rebel-held villages.

Since Israel is adamantly opposed to the Russian presence in the Quneitra demilitarized zone – although it was endorsed by the Trump administration, as DEBKAfile reported exclusively on Tuesday, July 18 – Moscow decided to take it slowly and meanwhile try and win over the Syrian rebel groups whom Israel has succored for years. The Kremlin figured that if these anti-Assad groups could be weaned away from Israel, they might be persuaded to cooperate with the Russian troops in setting up the Quneitra ceasefire zone, and the Russians would not need Israel’s compliance.

On Tuesday, therefore, a Russian military convoy drove into Jabah, a village northeast of Qunetra town and 4km from Israel’s Golan border. Officers described as belonging to the “Russian Defense Ministry’s reconciliation center” alit from the trucks and began handing out food packages to the villagers.

The civilians received necessities and were treated by Russian doctors, a Syrian officer announced. Russian and Syrian officers promised that more humanitarian aid would be delivered to “settlements across the Quneitra province” and Russian doctors would visit all the villages in the ceasefire zone.

Israel, who has been sending aid across these Syrian villages which were cut off by the civil war from basic necessities, has mostly kept its humanitarian program under wraps, except when witnesses reported what they saw to the media. On Wednesday, the IDF officers running the program asked sardonically: “Where were the Russians all these years when Israel alone helped the beleaguered villages across its border?”

After watching the Russian troops hand out packages to the people of Quneitra, the Israeli government and military chiefs decided to challenge the Russian belated propaganda move.

Up until now, Israel has supplied regular humanitarian aid to some 200,000 Syrian villagers living in 80 non-ISIS rebel-controlled villages 15km deep inside the Syrian Golan. Last year alone, Israel sent over half a million liters of heavy fuel, 360 tonnes of foodstuffs, 77 tonnes of clothing and shoes, tens of generators and water system, as well as providing them with medical treatment, including hospital care for sick and injured Syrians and a field hospital on the border.

Wednesday, Israel formalized its assistance program under the title “The Good Neighbor” and disclosed it had been administered since 2016 by a special unit of the Bashan Division which is in charge of the Golan sector.

The IDF released footage of trucks ferrying across the border supplies of medical equipment, medicines, foodstuffs and fuel, as well as pictures documenting IDF medics lifting Injured Syrians off the battlefield for treatment in Israeli hospitals.

According to IDF statistics, at least 3,000 Syrians crossed the border in the past four years for medical treatment. And Israel sent over as needed incubators, respirators and ambulances. In the same period, the IDF conducted 150 assistance operations on Syrian soil.

On their arrival in Quneitra, the Russians found a population that was better fed and cared for than Syrian civilians on any other of the country’s warfronts. They are nonetheless challenging Israel for the locals’ hearts and minds.

To undercut Iran, Russians pressure Assad to cut Syria’s longtime ties to Hezbollah

July 18, 2017

To undercut Iran, Russians pressure Assad to cut Syria’s longtime ties to Hezbollah, Washington Times, Assad Hanna and Jacob Wirtschafter, July 17, 2017

Hezbollah supporters mourned their commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in an explosion last year in Damascus.

ISTANBUL — The Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and the Syrian government have enjoyed a close, fruitful relationship for nearly 40 years. But six years into the Syrian civil war, there are signs that battle fatigue and diverging strategic visions are fraying their alliance.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is coming under increasing pressure from pro-Russian factions in his ruling circle to dump pro-Iranian Hezbollah, as a U.S.-Russia accord to establish a de-escalation zone in southern Syria gets underway this week.

It’s a different kind of proxy war playing out in Syria: Instead of Sunni versus Shiite, or the U.S. versus Russia, it’s Russia versus Iran.

“There is a pro-Moscow faction that wants Syria to be secular and includes officers who trained in Russia,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, publisher of the largest anti-Assad Syrian news portal and leader of the country’s exiled Christian community based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “Those who support Iran are people bought by the Iranians or [who] reached their positions of power with Iranian help.”

Incidents of rivalry and strain between Hezbollah forces and Syrian government allies have been increasing since June 2016, when they openly clashed during what was supposed to be a joint operation in the Aleppo countryside.

Hezbollah has balked at implementing Russian-brokered cease-fire agreements, such as one in December in Aleppo, and occasional firefights have broken out between the two forces in the northwestern suburbs of Damascus on the road from the capital to Beirut.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry has ordered aerial bombings of Shiite militia positions when Iran-backed forces interfered with plans to evacuate civilians to safe areas.

“The Hezbollah message has been: ‘Don’t think you can make a deal without us. We are on the ground, and we control what’s going on,’” said Ahmad Hardan, a 20-year-old ambulance driver from Aleppo detained by Lebanese Shiite fighters as he and his family fled their home.

“They took all the young men from the cars and drove us to the opposite side of the road. All those who tried to resist were killed,” Mr. Hardan said. “But suddenly there were Russian fighter jets in the sky, the Hezbollah troops started shooting in the air, and then they let the evacuation proceed.”

The situation is new for the two longtime Middle East allies. Hezbollah and the Assad regime have been close since the mid-1980s, when Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, became a patron of the Lebanese Shiite faction. He allowed Syria to be the transit point for Iranian weapons as Hezbollah armed itself against Israel and its domestic rivals in Lebanon.

The power dynamic reversed as the Syrian civil war turned into a sectarian bloodbath, with many Russian-trained Sunni officers deserting to the rebel side. Mr. Assad turned to Hezbollah for ideologically motivated and battle-tested reinforcements.

‘An Iranian pawn’

But over the years, Hezbollah’s role has been shrinking in Syria’s war, which began in 2011.

Nawar Oliver, an analyst at the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, said Hezbollah’s estimated 10,000-member force in Syria is just one component that includes a 70,000-strong contingent of local Shiite militias deployed with Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani fighters.

“The number decreased from an apex of about 15,000 to 20,000 because Hezbollah started recruiting and funding local Shiite militias in order to pull back some of their troops from Syria,” said Mr. Oliver, pointing to more than 1,000 Lebanese battle casualties and a desire to prepare for a likely conflict on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Moscow wants Mr. Assad to change the arrangement with Hezbollah and other Iranian-funded Shiite militias that give Tehran nominal control of the country in exchange for little direct supervision by the regime’s officer corps.

“The Russians have been pressuring the Syrian regime to integrate the militias it created since the inception of the uprising into its armed forces,” said Hilal Khashan, a politics professor at the American University of Beirut.

Command and control functions over Hezbollah fighters are directed by an officer corps drawn from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Hezbollah operates in Syria simply as an Iranian pawn,” Mr. Khashan said. “It uses Hezbollah as part of its scheme to establish a ground corridor from Iran to Lebanon. This is not something that sits well with the Russians, who are keen on limiting Tehran’s preponderance. Russia will not allow Iranian influence in Syria to become similar to Iraq.”

A tentative U.S.-Russia consensus on Syria seems destined to further strain the Hezbollah-Iran-Assad alliance.

Last month, the Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar broadcast footage of what it said was an Iranian drone tailing an American drone over eastern Syria. The announcer’s voice-over included a warning that Hezbollah will strike at U.S. positions inside Syria if America crosses any “red lines.”

“Of course, there are no free lunches in this area,” said Mordechai Kedar, a former Syria desk officer for Israel’s military intelligence agency. “Hezbollah wants to take its share in what seems to be the division of Syria. Three things will be required to get them to leave: Assad’s army will have to regain its power and self-confidence, the Russians have to demand it and the Iranians have to consent.”

For the rebels and other anti-regime figures, it’s crucial that Hezbollah is forced out of Syria.

“Getting Hezbollah and the Iranians out is now our No. 1 priority,” said Mr. Abdul Nour, the anti-Assad news portal editor. “They want to convert all of Syria to Shiism, which is an ideology that [will lead to] them fighting with the majority of Sunnis in the country forever — and we don’t want that.”

The terrorist diaspora: After the fall of the caliphate

July 14, 2017

The terrorist diaspora: After the fall of the caliphate, Long War Journal, July 13, 2017

The cult of martyrdom has grown. A disturbingly large number of people are willing to kill themselves for the Islamic State’s cause. The number of suicide bombings claimed by the so-called caliphate dwarfs all other jihadist groups, including al Qaeda. In 2016, for instance, the Islamic State claimed 1,112 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria alone. Through the first six months of 2017, the organization claimed another 527 such bombings (nearly three-fourths of them using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs) in those two countries. These figures do not include suicide attacks in other nations where Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists are known to operate.

To put the Islamic State’s current “martyrdom operations” in perspective, consider data published by the Washington Post in 2008. According to the Post, there were just 54 suicide attacks in all of 2001, when al Qaeda’s “martyrs” launched the most devastating terrorist airline hijackings in history. The Islamic State currently eclipses that figure every month in Iraq and Syria, averaging 93 suicide bombings per month in 2016 and 88 per month so far in 2017. Many of these operations are carried out by foreign fighters.

[I]t is reasonable to conclude that the number of people willing to die for the sake of the so-called caliphate is disturbingly high – much higher than the number of willing martyrs in 2001 or even much more recently. Even though most of these people have been deployed in war zones, it is possible that more will be used outside of Iraq and Syria if they survive the fight and are able to travel to other countries. The Islamic State has already had some success in instigating would-be recruits to die for its cause in the West after they failed to emigrate to the lands of the caliphate. It is certainly possible that more will be sent into Europe or the U.S. in the future.

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[Editor’s Note: Below is Thomas Joscelyn’s testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Task Force on Denying Terrorists Entry into the United States. The hearing is titled, “The Terrorist Diaspora: After the Fall of the Caliphate.” A version with footnotes will also be posted.]

Chairman Gallagher, Ranking Member Watson Coleman, and other distinguished Committee Members, thank you for inviting me to testify today concerning foreign fighters and the threat some of them pose to the U.S. and Europe.

The fall of Mosul and the likely fall of Raqqa won’t be the end of the Islamic State. The group has already reverted to its insurgent roots in some of the areas that have been lost. It also still controls some territory. The Islamic State will continue to function as a guerrilla army, despite suffering significant losses. In May, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) assessed that even though it was losing significant ground, the Islamic State “will likely have enough resources and fighters to sustain insurgency operations and plan terrorists [sic] attacks in the region and internationally” going forward. Unfortunately, I think ODNI’s assessment is accurate for a number of reasons, some of which I outline below. I also discuss some hypothetical scenarios, especially with respect to returning foreign fighters or other supporters already living in Europe or the U.S.

Recent history. The Islamic State’s predecessor quickly recovered from its losses during the American-led “surge,” capitalizing on the war in Syria and a politically poisonous environment in Iraq to rebound. Indeed, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization grew into an international phenomenon by the end of 2014, just three years after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was completed. Baghdadi’s men did this while defying al Qaeda’s leaders and competing with rival jihadist groups. This recent history should give us pause any time we hear rhetoric that sounds too optimistic about the end of the Islamic State’s caliphate. The enterprise has had enough resources at its disposal to challenge multiple actors for more than three years. There is no question that the Islamic State’s finances, senior personnel, and other assets have been hit hard. But it is premature to say its losses amount to a deathblow.

Uncertainty regarding size of total membership. While it is no longer at the peak of its power, the Islamic State likely still has thousands of dedicated members. We don’t even really know how many members it has Iraq and Syria, let alone around the globe. Previous U.S. estimates almost certainly undercounted the group’s ranks. In September 2014, at the beginning of the US-led air campaign, the CIA reportedly estimated that the Islamic State could “muster” between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. This figure was “more than three times the previous estimates,” CNN noted. By December 2016, the U.S. military was estimating that 50,000 Islamic State fighters had been killed. By February 2017, U.S. Special Operations command concluded that more than 60,000 jihadists had perished. Two months later, in April 2017, the Pentagon reportedly estimated that 70,000 Islamic State fighters had been killed.

Taken at face value, these figures (beginning with the September 2014 approximation) would suggest that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s enterprise was able to replace its entire force structure more than two times over, while fighting multiple enemies on numerous fronts. This is, of course, highly unlikely. Even with its prolific recruiting campaign, it would be impossible for any cohesive fighting organization, let alone one under the sustained pressure faced by the Islamic State, to train, equip and deploy fighters this quickly. It is far more likely that the U.S. never had a good handle on how many jihadists are in its ranks and the casualty figures are guesstimates. The purpose of citing these figures is not to re-litigate the past, but instead to sound a cautionary alarm regarding the near-future: We likely do not even know how many members the Islamic State has in Iraq and Syria today.

The Islamic State is an international organization. Since November 2014, when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi first announced the establishment of “provinces” around the globe, the Islamic State’s membership grew outside of Iraq and Syria. This further complicates any effort to estimate its overall size. Some of these “provinces” were nothing more than small terror networks, while others evolved into capable insurgency organizations in their own right. The Libyan branch of the caliphate temporarily controlled the city of Sirte. Although the jihadists were ejected from their Mediterranean abode by the end of 2016, they still have some forces inside the country. Similarly, Wilayah Khorasan (or Khorasan province), which represents the “caliphate” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, seized upwards of ten districts in Afghanistan as of early 2016, but has since lost ground. More recently, jihadists in the Philippines seized much of Marawi, hoisting the Islamic State’s black banner over the city. Wilayah Sinai controls at least some turf, and is able launch spectacular attacks on security forces. It was responsible for downing a Russian airliner in October 2015. Other “provinces” exist in East Africa, West Africa, Yemen and elsewhere.

In May, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) reported that the so-called caliphate “is seeking to foster interconnectedness among its global branches and networks, align their efforts to ISIS’s strategy, and withstand counter-ISIS efforts.” Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, has said that Wilayah Khorasan went through an “application process” and the Islamic State mothership provided it with “advice,” “publicity,” and “some financial support.” Although it is impossible to judge the extent of the Islamic State’s cohesion, as much of the data is not available, there is at least some connectivity between the group’s leadership and its “provinces” elsewhere. This is best seen on the media side, as the organization is particularly adept at disseminating messages from around the globe in multiple languages, despite some recent hiccups in this regard.

While their fortunes may rise or fall at any given time, this global network of Islamic State “provinces” will remain a formidable problem for the foreseeable future. Not only are they capable of killing large numbers of people in the countries they operate in, this structure also makes tracking international terrorist travel more difficult. For instance, counterterrorism officials have tied plots in Europe to operatives in Libya. This indicates that some of the Islamic State’s “external plotters,” who are responsible for targeting the West, are not stationed in Iraq and Syria. The U.S.-led air campaign has disrupted the Islamic State’s “external operations” capacity by killing a number of jihadists in this wing of the organization. But others live.

The cult of martyrdom has grown. A disturbingly large number of people are willing to kill themselves for the Islamic State’s cause. The number of suicide bombings claimed by the so-called caliphate dwarfs all other jihadist groups, including al Qaeda. In 2016, for instance, the Islamic State claimed 1,112 “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria alone. Through the first six months of 2017, the organization claimed another 527 such bombings (nearly three-fourths of them using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs) in those two countries. These figures do not include suicide attacks in other nations where Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists are known to operate.

To put the Islamic State’s current “martyrdom operations” in perspective, consider data published by the Washington Post in 2008. According to the Post, there were just 54 suicide attacks in all of 2001, when al Qaeda’s “martyrs” launched the most devastating terrorist airline hijackings in history. The Islamic State currently eclipses that figure every month in Iraq and Syria, averaging 93 suicide bombings per month in 2016 and 88 per month so far in 2017. Many of these operations are carried out by foreign fighters.

These suicide bombers have been mainly used to defend Islamic State positions, including the city of Mosul, which was one of the self-declared caliphate’s two capitals. For instance, half of the “martyrdom operations” carried out in Iraq and Syria this year (265 of the 527 claimed) took place in the Nineveh province, which is home to Mosul. The “martyrs” were dispatched with increasing frequency after the campaign to retake the city began in October 2016, with 501 claimed suicide bombings in and around Mosul between then and the end of June 2017.

Some caveats are in order. It is impossible to verify the Islamic State’s figures with any precision. The fog of war makes all reporting spotty and not every suicide bombing attempt is recorded in published accounts. Some of the claimed “martyrdom operations” likely failed to hit their targets, but were counted by the Islamic State as attacks anyway. The U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces have routinely taken out VBIEDs before drivers could reach their mark. Not all “martyrs” are truly willing recruits. For instance, the Islamic State’s figures include numerous children who were pressed into service by Baghdadi’s goons.

Still, even taking into account these caveats, it is reasonable to conclude that the number of people willing to die for the sake of the so-called caliphate is disturbingly high – much higher than the number of willing martyrs in 2001 or even much more recently. Even though most of these people have been deployed in war zones, it is possible that more will be used outside of Iraq and Syria if they survive the fight and are able to travel to other countries. The Islamic State has already had some success in instigating would-be recruits to die for its cause in the West after they failed to emigrate to the lands of the caliphate. It is certainly possible that more will be sent into Europe or the U.S. in the future.

Children used in suicide attacks, executions and other operations. The Islamic State has a robust program, named “Cubs of the Caliphate,” for indoctrinating children. It is one of the most disturbing aspects of the organization’s operations. Not only does the Islamic State’s propaganda frequently feature children attending classes, its videos have proudly displayed the jihadists’ use of children as executioners.

Earlier this month, for instance, the group’s Wilayah Jazirah disseminated a video entitled, “They Left Their Beds Empty.” Four children are shown beheading Islamic State captives. The same production is laced with footage of the terrorists responsible for the November 2015 Paris attacks, as well as other plots in Europe. Indeed, the children are made to reenact some of the same execution scenes that the Paris attackers carried out before being deployed. The Islamic State’s message is clear: A new generation of jihadists is being raised to replace those who have fallen, including those who have already struck inside Europe.

The “Cubs of the Caliphate” program is not confined to Iraq and Syria, but also operates in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This means that numerous children who have been indoctrinated in the Islamic State’s ways will pose a disturbing challenge for authorities going forward. As I noted above, some have already been used in “martyrdom operations” in Iraq and Syria. It is possible that others could be used in a similar fashion outside of the group’s battlefields, in Europe or the U.S. One purpose behind making children or adults commit heinous acts is to shock their conscience into thinking there is no way back, that they have crossed a threshold and there is no return. There are no easy answers for how to best deal with this problem.

Diversity of terrorist plots. There are legitimate concerns about the possibility of well-trained fighters leaving Iraq and Syria for the West now that the Islamic State is losing its grip on some of its most important locales. We saw the damage that a team of Islamic State operatives can do in November 2015, when multiple locations in Paris were assaulted. Trained operatives have had a hand in other plots as well. This concern was succinctly expressed by EUROPOL in a recent report. “The number of returnees is expected to rise, if IS [Islamic State], as seems likely, is defeated militarily or collapses. An increasing number of returnees will likely strengthen domestic jihadist movements and consequently magnify the threat they pose to the EU.” While a true military defeat will be elusive, the central point stated here has merit, even though the number of arrests of returnees across Europe has recently declined. According to EUROPOL, “[a]rrests for travelling to conflict zones for terrorist purposes…decreased: from 141 in 2015 to 77 in 2016.” And there was a similar “decrease in numbers of arrests of people returning from the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq: from 41 in 2015 to 22 in 2016.”

However, the overall number of arrests “related to jihadist terrorism” rose from 687 in 2015 to 718 in 2015, meaning that most of these terror-related arrests do not involve returnees.

Still, returnees and the logistical support networks that facilitate travel to Iraq and Syria were prominently represented in court cases tried by EUROPOL member states. “As evidenced in the past couple of years, the majority of the verdicts for jihadist terrorism concerned offences related to the conflict in Syria and Iraq,” EUROPOL reported in its statistical review for 2016. “They involved persons who had prepared to leave for or have returned from the conflict zone, as well as persons who have recruited, indoctrinated, financed or facilitated others to travel to Syria and/or Iraq to join the terrorist groups fighting there.” In addition, “[i]ndividuals and cells preparing attacks in Europe and beyond were also brought before courts.”

These data show that while the threat posed by returnees is real, it is just one part of the overall threat picture. The Islamic State has encouraged supporters in the West to lash out in their home countries instead of traveling abroad, directed plots via “remote-control” guides, and otherwise inspired individuals to act on their own. These tactics often don’t require professional terrorists to be dispatched from abroad. The Islamic State has also lowered the bar for what is considered a successful attack, amplifying concepts first espoused by others, especially al Qaeda. A crude knife or machete attack that kills few people is trumpeted as the work of an Islamic State “soldier” or “fighter.” On Bastille Day in Nice, France last year, an Islamic State supporter killed more than 80 people simply by running them over with a lorry. Other Islamic State supporters have utilized this simple technique, repeatedly advocated by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s propagandists, as well.

However, I would urge caution. While the amateurs or individual actors have become more lethal over time, the risk of professionally-trained jihadists carrying out a mass casualty attack remains distinct. On average, the professionals can still do more damage than their amateur counterparts – if they are not stopped beforehand. The threat to aviation demonstrates the point. In October 2015, the Islamic State’s Wilayah Sinai downed a Russian airliner, killing all 224 people on board. Although the jihadists claim to have used a crude improvised explosive device, the plot required that well-placed personnel implant it at an optimal location within the aircraft. U.S. officials are attempting to stop even more sophisticated devices, built by either the Islamic State or al Qaeda, from being placed on board flights bound for Europe or America. Other professionally-planned attacks could involve bombing commuter trains, Mumbai-style sieges, or multi-pronged assaults. Therefore, if the professionals are able to evade security measures, they could easily kill more people than the average amateur.

Counterterrorism services in Europe and the U.S. have stopped a number of professional plots through the years. Some of those foiled in the past year may have been more serious than realized at the time. However, there is a risk that as counterterrorism authorities deal with a large number of individual or amateur plots, the professional terrorists will be able to find another window of opportunity. The various threats posed by the Islamic State have placed great strains on our defenses.

The Islamic State could seek to exploit refugee flows once again. “The influx of refugees and migrants to Europe from existing and new conflict zones is expected to continue,” EUROPOL reported in its review of 2016. The Islamic State “has already exploited the flow of refugees and migrants to send individuals to Europe to commit acts of terrorism, which became evident in the 2015 Paris attacks.” The so-called caliphate and “possibly other jihadist terrorist organizations may continue to do so.” While the overwhelming majority of migrants are seeking to better their lives, some will continue to pose a terrorist threat. European nations are dealing with this, in part, by deploying more “investigators” to “migration hotspots in Greece and soon also to Italy.” These “guest officers” will rotate “at key points on the external borders of the EU to strengthen security checks on the inward flows of migrants, in order to identify suspected terrorists and criminals, establishing a second line of defense.”

This makes it imperative that U.S. authorities share intelligence with their European counterparts and receive information in return to better track potential threats. The U.S. has led efforts to disrupt the Islamic State’s “external attack” arm and probably has the best intelligence available on its activities. But European nations have vital intelligence as well, and only by combining data can officials get a better sense of the overall picture. Recent setbacks with respect to this intelligence sharing, after details of British investigations were leaked in the American press, are troubling. But we can hope that these relationships have been repaired, or will be soon.

It should be noted that would-be jihadists who are already citizens of European countries could have an easier route into the U.S. than migrants fleeing the battlefields. It is much easier for a British citizen to get on a plane headed for the U.S. than for an Islamic State operative posing as a Syrian refugee to enter the U.S. clandestinely through Europe. Given recent events in the UK, and the overall scale of the jihadist threat inside Britain, this makes intelligence sharing on potential terrorists all the more crucial. British officials have said that they are investigating 500 possible plots involving 3,000 people on the “top list” of suspects at any given time. In addition, 20,000 people have been on the counterterrorism radar for one reason or another and are still considered potentially problematic.

Exporting terror know-how. It is possible that more of the Islamic State’s terrorist inventions will be exported from abroad into Europe or the U.S. As the self-declared caliphate sought to defend its lands, it devised all sorts of new means for waging war. It modified drones with small explosives and built its own small arms, rockets, bombs and the like. Al Qaeda first started to publish ideas for backpack bombs and other IEDs in its online manuals. The Islamic State has done this as well, but we shouldn’t be surprised if some of its other inventions migrate out of the war zones. The group could do this by publishing technical details in its propaganda, or in-person, with experienced operatives carrying this knowledge with them.

Russians enter Daraa, Syrians/Hizballah move out

July 12, 2017

Russians enter Daraa, Syrians/Hizballah move out, DEBKAfile, July 12, 2017

Israel has so far objected to any Russian military presence along its borders with Syria, even in the capacity of ceasefire monitors, preferring Americans to police the truce in the Qunetra region. If that proved unfeasible, then Israel would leave the Syrian rebels controlling this area in place.

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Russian troops stepped into southern Syria for the first time Wednesday, July 13, when they entered the embattled town of Daraa to start enforcing the partial ceasefire agreed by Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg on July 7.  DEBKAfile’s military sources report this exclusively.

The Russians, including military police and Chechen paratroopers, were sighted getting out of the vehicles of their convoy and taking up positions in the center of Daraa. As they moved into the town, our sources report that tank units of the pro-regime Syrian army’s 5th Armored Division were seen driving out, along with Hizballah.

Their withdrawal cut short the Syrian military’s Operation Big Dawn against the Syrian rebels in Daraa, which breached the ceasefire Monday, July 11 – less then 24 hours after it went into force.

The Russian deployment in a southern Syrian border town Wednesday was the first step in their posting along Syria’s Israeli and Jordanian borders, as agreed between Washington and Moscow. President Trump had assented to this arrangement to bolster the first stage of the Syrian ceasefire going into effect in the de-confliction zone of the southwest.

Jordan also assented, in the interests of de-escalating tensions on its border with Syria.

The Russian troops and Chechens in Russian military police uniforms were armed only with light weapons. On July 5, Putin’s special envoy for Syrian affairs, Alexander Levrentiev, said that the Russian troops deployed in Syrian ceasefire zones would be lightly armed for self-defense. Most would consist of Russian military police. This description was intended to cover the presence of Chechen paratroops, who were seconded to the Russian police force for this mission.

Israel has so far objected to any Russian military presence along its borders with Syria, even in the capacity of ceasefire monitors, preferring Americans to police the truce in the Qunetra region. If that proved unfeasible, then Israel would leave the Syrian rebels controlling this area in place.

But our sources predict that, after the arrival of Russian troops in Daraa to preserve the ceasefire, both Washington and Moscow will lean hard on Jerusalem to accept Russian troops at Quneitra too, that is, opposite the Golan.