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.

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.

Can We Afford Such Success?

Gaziantep

According to The Hill newspaper, the White House says its war on ISIS is succeeding: hate to see what failing would look like.

Let’s do a quick rundown: ISIS is advancing in Iraq’s Anbar province, they are close to taking Baghdad airport or at least are in range to bomb it; they are launching suicide bombing runs on the capital; for all the favorable Western press the Pesh (and Iraqis) have made no serious advances since the Mosul Dam; the Iraqi army (which we spent a fortune on) remains in disarray; Kobani is holding on by dint of an extraordinary stand by YPG fighters; the Turkish-Kurdish peace process is on the brink of collapse; Assad is taking advantage; the Syrian rebels are demoralized and ignored; the Syrians feel they are being sacrificed, which they are. Did I leave anything out?

Kobani Kurds Hold On

SURUÇ, Turkey—He gazes at the photograph of his daughter Evan on his cellphone as he offers to let me look. She is 18 years old with long dark wavy hair. It isn’t a snapshot but a more formally posed picture. The girl has lively eyes, a pleasant smile. It was taken shortly before she left a note for her parents telling them she was crossing the border into Syria to join the Kurdish defense militia, the YPG. That was six months ago and last week she contacted him and explained she was fighting the militants of the Islamic State in the besieged town of Kobani.

My latest piece for the Daily Beast can be read here.