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Middle East: Is Daesh back ?

Tuesday 16 January 2018, by siawi3


Four years and one caliphate later, IS claims Idlib comeback

Author AFP

January 16, 2018

Photo: STRINGER/AFP/File A pro-government fighter observes smoke rising on the horizon in Idlib province, where the Islamic State group claims it is now making a comeback

The Islamic State group has been roundly defeated across much of Syria — which made it all the more surprising when it announced an official comeback in the country’s northwest last week.

Syrian regime troops are currently waging a fierce assault against other jihadists and rebels in Idlib province, and in the chaos, IS appears to have gained a foothold.

On January 10, IS media channels began claiming hit-and-run attacks against Syrian government forces in Idlib, from which the group was ousted in 2014.

Two days later, IS officially declared Idlib one of its Islamic “governorates” and has published news of raids against Syrian troops there with increasing pace every day.

Most notably, the organisation claims to have killed around two dozen soldiers and taken nearly 20 hostage from an area near the key Abu Duhur military airport in Idlib.

“There are probably hundreds, maybe over 1,000 (IS fighters) at most. A number of IS guys who fled territory elsewhere made it to this enclave v ia smuggling,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an academic and expert on the group.

Tamimi told AFP the new Idlib presence was an “extension” of IS’s small but established bastion in neighbouring Hama province.

More than four years ago, IS operated an Islamic “governorate” in Idlib, but it was kicked out of the province in early 2014 by Islamist fighters and allied rebels.

Those fighters went on to oust the regime from the province too, as IS extended its Islamic “caliphate” across swathes of Iraq and Syria — but not Idlib.

’Came out of nowhere’

In Syria, IS has since lost almost all that territory to Turkey-backed rebels, US-backed forces, or Syrian army troops.

In December, it made a brief incursion into Idlib for the first time since 2014, but last week’s announcement could signal something more.

A file picture shows the aftermath of an explosion at a jihadist base in a rebel-held area of the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib on January 8, 2018 (photo by: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/File)

So far, it seems IS’s territorial grip on Idlib remains limited, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying it only holds about five villages there.

The Britain-based monitor challenged IS’s claims of kidnapping government forces, saying most of the 31 troops captured during the past week in Idlib were held by rival jihadists.

But six were unaccounted for, and Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said it was possible, though not confirmed, IS was holding them.

“They came out of nowhere, but IS was long suspected to have sleeper cells in Idlib,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“I doubt IS can get significantly bigger in that area, but this is a big moment for it to build influence and revitalise its cells, some of which will probably remain clandestine,” he said.

A key factor in IS’s now-public presence in Idlib, analysts agreed, was the ongoing government offensive against rebels dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib.

HTS is led by Al-Qaeda’s one-time franchise in Syria a nd now rules over a vast majority of Idlib, but the regime’s Russian-backed assault has been chipping away at territory there for several weeks.

IS could hardly resist stealing the spotlight, Hassan said.

“Idlib is now a big rebel cause. Everyone is trying to gain popular relevance through their role in defending the area,” he told AFP.

“Such moments are perfect for IS to make some noise,” and the group “used the publicity around the offensive to play up its role there.”
’Right place, right time’

Nawar Oliver, an analyst at the Turkey-based Omran Centre, suspected IS was also trying to take advantage of infighting among Idlib’s rival jihadists to poach hardliners keen on establishing an Islamic entity.

Syrian families displaced from a village in southern Idlib head on the Damascus-Aleppo motorway towards the northern part of the rebel-held province on December 30, 2017 (photo by: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/File)

“With this announcement, extremists in other groups will find a place where they belong,” Oliver said.

“Daesh played this right — they’re saying, I set myself up in Idlib, in the right place at the right time,” he told AFP, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Since war broke out in 2011, Syria has been carved up into complex zones of control held by rebels, Kurdish fighters, pro-regime forces, and competing jihadists including IS.

For Charlie Winter, a researcher at King’s College London, it remains “too early” to predict whether IS could make a full-scale comeback across Syria.

“It is battered without manpower, resources, weapons, or the networks to do any strategic offensives like they were able to do in 2014, 2015, and first half of 2016,” he told AFP.

Instead, its proclamation of an Idlib presence was an attempt to say, “we’re still here, knocking around, if we have to pull out from one place we’ll set up somewhere else,” Winter said.

“It can’t have propaganda be about nothing.”



Is Turkey aligned with al-Qaeda affiliate in Idlib?

Week in Review January 14, 2018

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Photo: Turkish army tanks and military personnel are stationed in Karkamis on the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep province, Turkey, Aug. 25, 2016.

Turkey’s uneasy ties with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

The Astana process is on the verge of collapse, as Turkey and Russia are lining up on opposite sides in Idlib, which may prove to be the decisive battle in the Syria war.

Syria’s military operations in Idlib “are making Turkey so tense that it summoned the ambassadors of Iran and Russia and warned them that the Syrian army’s moves violate the accord reached in Astana, Kazakhstan, which provides for de-escalation zones guaranteed by Iran, Russia and Turkey,” writes Fehim Tastekin.

Moscow has intimated that drones that targeted Russian facilities in Khmeimim and Tartus on Jan. 6 originated from areas controlled by Turkish-backed “moderate” opposition groups. Ankara has denied the charge, arguing that the attacks were the result of terrorist forces gaining a foothold in the region as a result of the Syrian offensive.

Turkey is the main backer of the “moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA). Power in Idlib also rests with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadi group that is linked with al-Qaeda and includes fellow travelers from Ahrar al-Sham, which lost out in the power struggle with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Both groups see the future of Syria as based on Islamic law, and their rule in Idlib has been characterized by tyranny and torture, as documented by Amnesty International and reported in this column.

In Ankara’s score, the Syrian offensive in Idlib is a violation of the cease-fire agreement and a threat to fragile peace negotiations. “Turkey’s sharp reaction to the uptick in fighting suggests that the agreement struck in Astana, at least as it relates to Idlib, is unraveling," writes Amberin Zaman. “The immediate trigger appears to be the series of mysterious drone attacks on Russian military bases in Syria’s Latakia province since the start of the year. Moscow apparently believes Turkey did not stick to its side of the bargain either, amid accusations that Turkish forces chose to coexist rather than curb when they moved into Idlib last October as peace monitors.”

As Syrian forces advance, and come into conflict with the FSA and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Turkey finds itself in an uneasy alignment with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, putting it at odds with both Russia and Iran. “The struggle at Idlib is considered by many to be the last act of the war against a jihadi group that is basically controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham under the leadership of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham,” writes Tastekin. “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham labels the Astana and Geneva peace processes as treason, so the cease-fire Russia formulated excludes Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as well as the Islamic State (IS). From the outset, Russia said the cease-fire covers only ‘moderate’ opposition groups; operations against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and IS will not cease. Turkey, on the other hand — despite its approval of the Astana process — decided to place Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in a different category. Ankara first tried to reshape that organization as it had earlier with Ahrar al-Sham. When that didn’t work, Turkey tried to split Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. When that didn’t work as well, Ankara accepted the facts of life and decided to cooperate.”

The top priority for Turkey is breaking the power of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which it considers a terrorist organization, linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey. “If the terrorists in Afrin don’t surrender we will tear them down,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Jan. 13.

“According to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sources,” Tastekin reports, “there were three conditions to allow Turkey’s army to enter the area without encountering any opposition. One was that the target would be Afrin, where the Kurds have declared autonomy. A second would be that there would be no operation against groups controlling Idlib. The third was that local groups affiliated with Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield would not enter the area. … Turkey’s deployment — approved and escorted by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — was not compatible with Iran’s and Russia’s definition of the de-escalation zone. Turkey was indirectly providing a shield for the organizations already dominating Idlib.”

In addition to divisions among the Astana parties, Turkey’s fractures with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sparked divisions within the jihadi group itself. “In such a risky atmosphere, Ankara is hoping to hold on to Idlib and the triangle of al-Bab, Jarablus and Azaz that Turkey had secured in Operation Euphrates Shield, to use them as a card against Damascus in a settlement process,” Tastekin concludes. “Such a card would have serious ramifications for the fate of the Syrian president and the future of the Kurds as they seek to build their autonomy in the north. Until he gets the concessions he seeks for these two key issues, Erdogan doesn’t want the Syrian army to approach the Turkish border and face Turkish troops.”

Al-Monitor detailed financial roots of Iranian demonstrations in June

The Wall Street Journal this week provided an in-depth report on the role of Iran’s unregulated financial and credit institutions in the current demonstrations.

The article reminded us of the outstanding and prescient analysis by Al-Monitor columnist Bijan Khajehpour, who in June 2017 warned of the risks if the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) did not license Iran’s unregulated credit and financial institutions.

Khajehpour wrote that “a sizable segment of the Iranian financial sector has become dominated by mostly unlicensed CFIs [credit and financial institutions]. These are usually affiliated with religious foundations, which claim the financial institutions are an extension of the religious responsibility of their umbrella organizations to extend interest-free loans to applicants. For a long time, the CBI was unable to challenge these entities as they claimed they were not engaging in mainstream banking and financial activities.”

Khajehpour wrote, “One apparent reason why there is a market for such institutions is that licensed public or private banks are not fully equipped to satisfy the demand for personal and business loans in the market, hence pushing many loan applicants to enter into a contract with CFIs. In other words, CFIs have filled a gap that has existed in the country’s money market in the absence of a more developed financial sector. At the same time, the mushrooming of unregulated CFIs and various cooperative funds across the country has led to unhealthy disruptions in the money market.”

He concluded, “Beyond the planned mergers and a potentially more stringent supervision by the CBI over CFIs and banks, the remaining core problem is a culture of corrupt dealings that needs to be addressed. In particular, entities closely affiliated with religious and political power centers have engaged in embezzlement schemes that have undermined the economic and social well-being of the country and further delegitimized the Islamic Republic as a political regime that can manage the complexities of a modern economy.”

AUB dedicates Halim and Aida Daniel Academic and Clinical Center

The American University of Beirut (AUB) this week dedicated the Halim and Aida Daniel Academic and Clinical Center, made possible through a generous gift from the Levant Foundation.

The center is named in honor of the parents of Jamal Daniel, the founder and chairman of Al-Monitor and founder and principal benefactor of the Levant Foundation.

AUB President Fadlo Khuri said, “The inauguration of the Aida and Halim Daniel ACC allows us to elevate our clinical care to a genuinely world-class level, and to launch clinical trials of the highest caliber. This is truly transformative change for the university, and we are grateful to the Daniel family for making this possible.”

Jamal Daniel said, “We are delighted that the Halim and Aida Daniel Academic and Clinical Center will touch the lives of future generations by providing both world-class education and the very best medical care for Lebanon and the Region, with the benefit of this first-class building and facility. The AUB institution is part of our collective history, and we need altogether in the Levant Region to go on reclaiming that history, because only when we see the world as it really is, can we begin to imagine what it could be.”



Turkish forces take fire in Idlib

Amberin Zaman

January 8, 2018

Article Summary
Unnamed forces attacked a Turkish military convoy in Idlib today in the wake of Sunday’s car bomb that killed 34.
REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Photo: A Turkish military convoy is seen in the northern Syrian rebel-held town of al-Bab, Syria, Sept. 28, 2017.

A Turkish military convoy came under fire in Idlib today as Russian-backed regime forces pressed on with their offensive to rout al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups from the eastern half of the northwestern Syrian province. Idlib is one of the few areas to remain under Sunni opposition control since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

According to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, a rocket landed just 20-30 meters (66-98 feet) from the convoy in the Darat Izza district and no injuries have been reported. Anadolu did not name the attackers and there have been no claims of responsibility so far.

In separate news, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which monitors the conflict, reported that the death toll from Sunday’s car bomb attack on the Idlib headquarters of a Chechen jihadi group had risen to 34, of which 18 were civilians.

Turkish troops moved into Idlib in October, ostensibly to establish observation points to monitor a cease-fire between the regime and the opposition and to ease the flow of humanitarian supplies, among other things, for millions of internally displaced Syrian sheltering in the province.

Through its military presence, Turkey was also expected to pressure the al-Qaeda-linked militia known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) to disarm and disband, or at the very least move to the western part of Idlib under the informal terms of the Astana talks Turkey co-sponsors with Russia and Iran.

Turkey has instead eased into a modus vivendi with HTS, and raised many eyebrows when its troops were escorted by the jihadis as they first moved in. Turkey has used its presence mainly to hem in Afrin, the Syrian Kurdish-controlled enclave Ankara has repeatedly threatened to invade.

The looming question is whether Russia will lean on Turkey for having failed to keep its side of the deal to move its troops out of the approximately 2,000 square kilometers (1,200 miles) of territory it controls in the so-called Euphrates Shield zone covering Jarablus, al-Bab, Dabiq and Azaz.

A commander with the Syrian Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which are partnering with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS), said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor, “After Idlib, Jarablus and Azaz will be next.” He insisted, “Turkey and the [opposition] Free Syrian Army gangs have no place in Syria’s future.” And now that Iran is facing internal strife at home its power to influence events in Syria has receded, the commander said. “Therefore the notion that Turkey serves Russia as a counterbalance to Iran in Syria no longer holds.”

Gonul Tol is the executive director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute. She concurred in an interview with Al-Monitor that “Turkey can only stay in Syria for as long as the Russians agree. And having failed to do anything to counter HTS, Turkey has outlived its use. Moreover, its activities in Idlib are opaque to say the least.” Tol noted that if Russia is calling for the United States to withdraw its forces from Syria it will need to demand the same of Turkey, if only for the sake of consistency. Unlike Russia, which is in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, Turkish and US forces are not.

Either way, the status quo is now being upended as Syrian government forces and allied militias are advancing on eastern Idlib, forcing thousands of civilians to flee toward Turkey. With 3 million Syrian refugees already, Turkey is keen to avoid a further influx and is setting up field hospitals and erecting tents along its border to keep them on the opposite side.

The main target of the current offensive appears to be the rebel-held air base of Abu al-Duhour on the southeastern edge of Idlib and securing the road linking Damascus to Aleppo.

Regime forces have reportedly captured nearly 100 villages from the insurgents in Hama and Idlib since late October. SOHR confirmed that 14 villages were wrested from them today alone and regime forces were now some 11 kilometers (7 miles) away from the rebel-held air base. Turkish authorities have blocked access to the website, ostensibly because of its reporting on Turkey, including a recent report that several senior leaders of IS had managed to find sanctuary there.

Amberin Zaman is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse who has covered Turkey, the Kurds and Armenia for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist’s Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016. She was a columnist for the liberal daily Taraf and the mainstream daily Haberturk before switching to the independent Turkish online news portal Diken in 2015.



Fighting in northwest Syria causes 200,000 displacements: UN

Author AFP

January 16, 2018

Displaced Syrians who fled fighting in Idlib province’s southeastern town of Sinjar drive on a road in a rebel-held area near the city of Saraqib in this file photo from January 7, 2018

Escalating violence in northwest Syria has caused more than 200,000 displacements since mid-December, the United Nations said on Tuesday, warning that medical facilities in the area were struggling to cope.

Russian-backed Syrian troops launched an offensive in late 2017 against jihadists and allied groups in Idlib, the last province in the country still fully outside the government’s control.

The assault has seen tens of thousands flee, with many displaced multiple times.

In a new situation report published Tuesday, the UN’s humanitarian coordination branch (OCHA) said it had recorded 212,140 instances of displacement between December 15 and January 16.

The largest displacement — 58,338 people — was to the village of Dana in Idlib province, but other waves of civilians fled to areas in the adjacent provinces of Aleppo and Hama.

In a first, OCHA said, around 6,700 families fled rebel-held areas of Hama province to nearby government-controlled territory.

Idlib and slivers of the neighbouring provinces are now hosting more than 1.1 million internally displaced Syrians, according to the UN.

As hostilities between Syrian troops and anti-regime forces escalate, OCHA said it had received reports of several health clinics in the area being rendered out of service in bombardment.

Other facilities, it warned, were “running low” on medical supplies.

“Facilities are strained due to the increasing caseload because of the recent displacement,” the situation report said.

“The low winter temperatures and the lack of shelter is exacerbating the health situation of the IDPs (internally displaced people) causing winter-related illnesses.”

More than 340,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Syrian war, which began in 2011 as the regime brutally crushed anti-government protests.