Belgium Raises Security Alert


Belgian authorities raised the terror alert level for Brussels today to the highest level, warning of a possible attack similar to the one in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded 351 eight days ago.

Prime Minister Charles Michel said the alert level was raised to category 4 in response to “quite precise information about the risk of an attack like the one that happened in Paris.”

Worth reading my piece Friday on the shortcomings of the Belgian security and intelligence services.

“The Belgian government admitted this week it had lost control of a rundown Brussels district linked to a series of terror attacks in Belgium and neighboring France, including those last Friday in Paris.

But while the government has promised to ‘clean up’ the Molenbeek neighborhood, that will be a tall order for the country’s demoralized and fractious security services.
And Molenbeek, where at least three of the Paris attackers lived, isn’t the only problematic neighborhood.

‘There are several other neighborhoods and towns in Belgium exhibiting the same high levels of radicalization,’ warned Roberta Bonazzi of the Counter-Extremism Project, a nonprofit policy organization.”

You can read the full VOA story here.

Realism and Syria

An interesting New Yorker look at Obama thinking on Syria and the so-called “realist” school of foreign policy. And John Cassidy has some clear-eyed perceptions, including this:

“Safeguarding the stability of Europe is surely a vital U.S. interest. Indeed, there is strong realist case for regarding it as part of an extended clean-up operation made necessary when the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.”

But as ever with commentators who are only US-based there is this stand-out on the Washington-backed international talks in Vienna:

“It is hard to hold out much hope that these talks will succeed unless the United States drops its demand for regime change.”

Actually, aside from the moral argument about why Assad and his inner circle should have to go, there is a practical one: Syrian rebels won’t settle for anything less. So it isn’t up to Washington or any outsider to drop this demand: rebel commanders and fighters are determined not to finish their fight until Assad is history and are even prepared, they tell me, to fight on, even if all their off-and-on-again foreign backers desert them.

Assad Offensives Seek to Stretch Rebels

Gaziantep, Turkey

My latest dispatch for VOA explores what is happening on the ground in Syria as Assad offensives unfold with Russian air support.

Militia commanders say they suspect the strategy of the government of President Bashar al-Assad is focused on stretching the rebels, seizing control of key highways and encircling larger insurgent-held towns in northern Syria….

A Turkey-based European diplomat agrees with the rebel assessment of the Assad regime strategy.

“I think the aim is to create a cordon sanitaire in parts of central and northern Syria stretching from Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib through to the Aleppo countryside involving the isolation of some insurgent-held towns and reasserting control of the M5 highway linking Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.  It is very tactical,” the diplomat told VOA.

Read the full report here

An Improbable Week

As the cliche has it — truth is the first casualty of war.

And this week officials in Moscow, Ankara and Washington DC appeared determined to prove the saying true.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman claimed Tuesday a remarkable victory over Islamic State militants — despite the fact that 90 percent of Russia’s airstrikes have been targeting anti-Assad rebels of the Free Syrian Army or the Islamist Army of Conquest. IS had lost “most” of its ammunition, heavy vehicles and equipment in Russian airstrikes, the Defense Ministry baldly bragged Tuesday. So 86 claimed Russian airstrikes on IS the previous 48 hours — plus a few the previous two weeks — managed to achieve what 7000 US-led coalition airstrikes had failed to do!

Just putting aside how improbable that sounds, it doesn’t square with field actions of ISIS to the north-east of Aleppo, where Russian airstrikes have assisted the terror group to capture from Syrian rebels a chunk of important real estate. Nor does it square with what anti-IS activists inside Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor tell me. Yes, damage is being done to ISIS by coalition and Russia airstrikes but the group is hardly on the ropes yet and won’t be until they are challenged on the ground by a serious force.

And that leads into the second great improbable of the week — this time coming from Washington. Namely that a US air-drop this week of 45 tonnes of ammunition in northern Syria did not go to the Kurds’ YPG forces. A Pentagon spokesman insisted Thursday that the US military was confident the supplies got to the so-called Syrian Arab Coalition. Earlier, another Pentagon official, Peter Cook, had admitted to reporters that some of the ammunition might have ended up with other groups, including the Kurds.

The Pentagon’s “correction” neither squares what the YPG/PYD is saying — including their leader Salih Muslim — nor does it make any sense, if, as US officials have said, they are pushing the YPG and Syrian Arab Coalition to march towards Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, encircle and isolate it. The YPG is the dominant force in that grouping, able to field 25,000 or so fighters. The Syrian Arab Coalition can field according to Washington 5000 fighters and is basically a YPG catspaw.

And if you want to know what a dubious group the Syrian Arab Coalition is, read my report here.

The last great improbable of the week came from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who offered one of the most unlikely pairings ever when he suggested on Thursday that ISIS and the PKK, Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish separatists, may have both had a hand in last weekend’s suicide bombing in Ankara, the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkish history.

Among those detained, he said on TRT television, are “people linked to the PKK and linked to ISIS,” he said.

Of Broken Promises and Barrel Bombs and Two Brave Syrian Boys

Kilis, Turkey

My afternoon was graced by 13-year-old Ahmed and ten-year-old Nizar, a pair of courageous Syrian boys, who were torn to pieces by barrel bombs dropped on Aleppo and Homs. Ahmed is now paralyzed from the chest down: he has only recently started to use his hands and arms, but the rest of his fractured body will be forever useless. When he arrived in Turkey he was angry and inconsolable but thanks to the compassion and expertise of Syrian refugee doctors, he is now engaging and plays games on a tablet. He flashed me a thumbs up. Nizar lost his right arm; his left is in poor shape with bright scarlet wounds and holes where you can see the tendons. He helps the adult patients in the field hospital where both boys are recuperating. He is bright and open and affectionate and does not complain, I was told. What is the future for these boys? I read today an article that mixes half-truths and nonsense by Robert Fisk, who distorts the war in Syria to bash America. He says there are no good guys in this conflict so best to leave alone and let Assad remain. I hear Donald Trump say send all Syrians back to Syria because they are jihadists. But Ahmed and Nizar are the good guys; the Syrian doctors trying to help them are the good guys, and the Syrians who four years ago protested repression and asked for a modicum of freedom are the good guys. What they have got in return for their request for dignity are barrel bombs and broken bodies, blasted fathers and mothers and daughters and sons, Daesh, Cruise missiles from Russia, and broken promises from the West.

Islamic State Poised to Benefit from Refugee Crisis

From my latest VOA report — you can find it here: “The refugee crisis roiling Europe presents a win-win opportunity for Islamic State (IS) extremists, says international terrorism research consultancy TRAC.

By hiding among thousands of asylum-seekers, the Islamist militants can expand their operational presence in Europe, the consortium of analysts warned in a briefing released Thursday.

And if any of their infiltrated members are caught, the backlash could help radicalize disaffected European Muslims.

Despite fears that IS is exploiting the refugee crisis to infiltrate Europe by disguising members as asylum-seekers, only six cases have so far been reported. Analysts, however, say the apparently meager numbers shouldn’t be a cause for relief or a source of complacency — a point echoed by European intelligence officials who VOA spoke to on condition of anonymity.

Europe’s Far Right Seek to Inflame Nativist Sentiments

Mustafa is not unusual among the refugee fathers, husbands and sons placing their lives in the hands of people smugglers and making the short, but dangerous, sea crossing alone from Turkey to Greece, and then enduring a long and uncertain slog on land up through the Balkans or Hungary via Austria to Germany.

He has been watching the television news showing Hungarian and Macedonian border guards beating refugees, and has heard stories from relatives who have made it to Europe of running the gauntlet of brutal traffickers and getting robbed on the road.
The images and stories have confirmed his view that the trip is not one his daughter should share.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, the majority of those from the Mideast streaming into Europe are men, prompting some anti-immigrant and anti-Islam campaigners to argue that the continent is not facing a simple refugee crisis, but a migration designed to Islamize Europe.

At far right rallies in Germany, that imbalance is highlighted by anti-immigrant speakers and protesters alike as clear evidence that the migration crisis in Europe is a jihadist plot that will end up changing the face of European culture.

For my full report on how Europe’s far right is inflaming nativist sentiments click here.


No End In Sight for Syria

In the immediate wake of the Iran nuclear deal there was a flurry of diplomacy involving Washington, Moscow and Tehran with talk that the time might be right to hammer out an agreement to end Syria’s four-year-long civil war. But with renewed commitments from Iran and Russia to shore up President Bashar al-Assad there seems no end in sight for the ruinous war of attrition that has left an estimated 240,000 people dead.

No one is budging their hard-held positions inside or outside Syria, despite the recognition by most parties involved that defeating the extremists of the Islamic State should be among the highest priorities — and that is unlikely to happen while the civil war rages.

For the West the mounting refugee crisis roiling Europe has added urgency to the search for some kind of resolution to the barbaric conflict.

Read my full VOA dispatch here.

The New Lords of Kobani

“For the 192,000 Kurds who fled either the town or the province lies with the military defenders themselves there are bureaucratic obstacles as well. Refugees require permission from Turkish authorities to cross back into Kobani and they also need the go-ahead from the Kurdish town administrators, all members of the autocratic Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian wing of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The administrators are sparing with permissions, arguing with some justification that the town is unsafe for civilians, but locals say there is favoritism in who gains permission and who is told they can’t return.

Many returnees chafe at the high-handedness of PYD bosses and the fighters of the self-defense force, the YPG, essentially the PYD’s armed wing, which they complain is on open display on the streets of the ruined town. “The fighters do what they like and no one can say anything to them, if they order you to do something or not to do something, you can’t say no or argue that it isn’t right,” says Ali, a mustached retiree.”

Read my full Daily Beast report here on what is happening now in Kobani.