Euro Word Games

Interesting to watch how European leaders and diplomats are careful to avoid using the word “refugee” when it comes to the Aegean interdiction they are planning and hope to have fully operational by March 7. The word always used is “migrant.”

Also, they talk not about interdiction but “rescue” — they want to rescue “migrants”, not stop them going to Europe. Although that is what they will do, plucking them from the seas and depositing them back in Turkey.

And then, of course, the whole operation is about stopping “illegal migration” and combating “human traffickers” not about blocking Syrian and Iraqi war refugees. Perish the thought.

 

 

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.

ISIS Threatens Syrian Rebel Supply Lines From Turkey

Islamic extremists overran three towns in northern Syria this weekend, capturing them from Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels and Islamist brigades as Syrian warplanes struck widely across the north of the country, dropping barrel bombs on towns controlled by both competing insurgent groups.

Despite FSA claims that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, were coordinating their attacks, two of the biggest barrel bombs were dropped on the town of Al Bab, controlled by Islamic State.

Read my full VOA dispatch here

The Battle for Kobani

Suruc

From my VOA dispatch last night:

“The days of battle are falling into a pattern.

The mornings start off quietly, but by lunchtime a crescendo builds of furious small-arms fire and airstrikes only to subside.

Then the battle resumes in early evening as the sun begins to fall – the nights are full of fury, explosions and intense gunfire.

This week Islamic State militants tried to bomb their way through Kurdish defenses by using suicide bombers. There have been nearly a dozen efforts.

In low-lying Turkish villages and hills along a 15-kilometer stretch of the border facing Kobani, refugees from the town and local Kurds have been watching the raging battle unfold with a mixture of feelings.

They cheer when an airstrike sends black plumes of smoke into the sky and crane to see where the ordnance struck. They seesaw between hope and despair, expressing one moment confidence the town won’t fall and then conceding they don’t know how the outgunned and outnumbered defenders can hold out.”

Full story here.

Turkish President and ISIS Share Hatred of Lawrence of Arabia

Gaziantep

My Daily Beast piece yesterday on President Erdogan’s remarkable rant against T.E. Lawrence and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Turkish leader appears oblivious to the fact that Lawrence did all he could to sabotage the Anglo-French deal and kill it at birth.

Article Here

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.

Syria: Online Videos Just Get Worse

These past few weeks have been grim not only in terms of the carnage in Syria but the brazen bragging and video recordings of atrocities by those carrying them out. Combatants on both sides of the horrific two-year-long civil war have acted with bestial cruelty.

Government bombing and strafing of civilians and of targets that had no obvious military value has been recording by human rights workers and numerous journalists, including myself. Back in December as I crossed the border into Syria from Turkey a refugee camp was strafed by a Syrian air force warplane: the cannon shot ripped 50 meters from me and my translator and then went right through refugee tents. It was sheer chance that no one was killed that day.

Rape as a weapon of terror has also been used by government forces: how systematic remains to be seen. I interviewed a woman back in August who witnessed the aftermath of a gang rape of a neighbor in Homs. In March, bodies of men shot apparently by gunmen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were floating down a river in Aleppo.

Government forces are no doubt responsible for more deaths than the rebels with many of those casualties killed in indiscriminate air strikes and artillery barrages. But rebel brigades, jihadist and otherwise, have engaged in atrocious acts as well — and they are not hiding them.

This week a particularly chilling Internet clip surfaced of the filming of a rebel brigade commander ripping open the torso of a dead pro-government fighter and removing from the corpse the man’s heart. It appears it may have been more lung than heart but that is neither here nor there. He then proceeded to chew on it.

A link to the clip is here for those who have strong stomachs. I strongly advise any kids reading this post not to watch.

The gratuitous act is not only disturbing in itself. The man you see doing this unashamedly is Abu Sakkar, commander of the independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade, an offshoot of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) Al-Farouq Brigades. He’s a significant commander and last month was pictured on videos firing rockets at Shia villages in Lebanon. “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog,” he says after mutilating the body. He issues also blood-curdling threats against Alawites, the minority Muslim sect that forms the backbone of the Assad regime.

The act – a war crime – will add to sectarian hatred. You can see the cycle in an interview Abu Sakkar gave Time magazine this week.

His real name is Khalid al Hamad and in the interview he justifies his actions by arguing that he found evidence on the man’s cell phone of rape. “We opened his cell phone and I found a clip of a woman and her two daughters fully naked and he was humiliating them, and sticking a stick here and there.”

Then today Internet clips posted by jihadists surfaced showing the summary execution in the city of Raqqa of three captured pro-government fighters – they are described as “Assad officers.” Summary executions are technically also war crimes. The justification given for the executions is retaliation for massacres carried out by government forces. Here is a link to the clip. Again children are advised strongly not to watch.

The executions were carried out in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq – in other words Al Qaeda in Iraq. Last month, the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra formally merged with the Islamic State of Iraq, and this is one of the first instances that al-Nusra has used its new merged name of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Some background on this merger can be found here in a Daily Beast article I wrote examining the merger and its implications.

All of this bodes badly for the future course of the fighting and for eventually what will happen in Syria when and if the Assad regime falls. Such barbarity on the rebel side will not help Western policymakers as they try to work out what they should be doing. How can they make the case to their publics that the West has to get more involved when the side they will be boosting are exulting about the atrocities they commit?

Britain – Closed For Business

Sunset over Tripoli

 

Tripoli

From the perspective of Tripoli, which hosts this week a huge construction and building trade fair that has attracted 427 foreign companies drawn from 26 countries, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague would seem to have a point when urging British businesses to “worker harder” to compete against overseas rivals for deals.

Of those 427 foreign companies participating in Libya Build 2012, not one – yes, you read that right – not a single one is from Britain. Not that the U.S. has distinguished itself either, the business of America is apparently not business, when it comes to Libya at the moment.

Hague’s comments about the need for British business to get stuck in – an updating of Norman Tebbit’s “get on yer bike” remark — hasn’t gone down well with British business.

Former CBI director general Lord Digby Jones, who served in the Brown government as a trade minister, lashed out Hague, complaining on BBC Radio 4 about the weakening of his former department, UK Trade & Investment. “To absolutely decimate that and cut it and then stand up and say ‘come on, get on and do it’, that’s a bit rich.”

But Libya Build 2012 organizers don’t blame the UK embassy in Tripoli or UK Trade & Investment for the non-show of British business. They say that British diplomats were highly supportive and that the 4-day exhibition was well marketed in the UK.

“I was surprised at the lack of take-up by British firms,” says Rania Mohamad, head of international sales for Libya Build 2012. “What we heard was that they were anxious about the security situation.”

Not that nervousness – and believe me it is misplaced when it comes to Tripoli – deterred the more robust Italians or French. There are 134 Italian companies here – from large construction concerns to small furniture businesses and environmental solutions firms.

According to Maria Carmela Ottaviano, head of special projects at the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade, Italy’s trade promotion agency, Italian exhibitors were keen to maintain good commercial ties between Italy and Libya that were fostered by Silvio Berlusconi.

The Italians have two pavilions exclusively for their own use and were so over-subscribed that some exhibitors from Italy have had to take refuge in other pavilions – there are 35 pavilions in all covering 17,000 square meters.

A saleswoman for an Italian manufacturer of security doors told me that they had not done work in Libya before the toppling of Col. Gaddafi but that they were keen to test the waters. She praised the Italian promotion agency for playing a big role – from helping with transportation to visa facilitation and with translation services.

The French have not been shy either to explore opportunities in Libya’s new business environment, nor to remind Libyans of France’s support for their “Arab Spring.”

There are more than 40 French companies exhibiting as well as wheeling and dealing at Libya Build 2012.

“I am very surprised at the absence of British and American firms here,” said Audrey Corriger, an export specialist with Chambon, a manufacturer of factory tools for assembly-line woodcutting and wood-design. “We are hoping to find an importer for our machines,” she says. Chambon hasn’t worked in Libya before, although it has in other North African countries.

“We decided to test the waters,” she says. She admitted that they had wondered if this would be premature to be doing ahead of the assembly elections slated for June 19 but they decided “you can never promote too early.”

Chambon is hoping also to capitalize on French support for the rebels. “As Sarkozy was so supportive of the revolution, we hope this will benefit us.”

Apparently, however, David Cameron’s backing for the overthrow of Gaddafi didn’t strike British firms as a selling point.

Some 632 companies in all are taking part in Libya Build 2012. There are large contingents from Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and UAE, which is fielding 110 companies. Tiny Malta has its own pavilion where 40 companies are showcasing their products, from lifts and electromechanical systems, to construction materials and furniture and fittings.

“Maybe it was a bit far for the British to travel,” mused Corriger.