Goodbye anti-ISIS coalition?

The Trump administration is considering abolishing key diplomatic posts for the Middle East, and the future bodes ill for the ISIS-defeating Kurds and their allies and for the larger region.

The key counter-terrorism post currently occupied by Brett McGurk may be abolished with McGurk’s future uncertain.

Moreover, the former powerful US diplomat John Hannah, who served under former VP Dick Cheney, has turned down the position of Syria envoy after talks with the administration.

Both McGurk and Hannah are intensely disliked by Ankara which has long lobbied the US for the former’s removal from the CT post. According to Foreign Policy magazine:

The proposed move comes at a moment of renewed bloodshed and diplomatic chaos in Syria, with a NATO ally, Turkey, locked in combat with U.S.-armed and trained Kurdish forces. Some Western government officials and experts said it was too soon to consider withdrawing the envoy, particularly when the United States has struggled to articulate a coherent political strategy following military successes against the Islamic State.

It appears Rex Tillerson has given in to Erdogan’s “Ottoman slap”, and that mending relations with Turkey is becoming a priority for Trump, as the administration shifts its focus from defeating ISIS to containing Iran.

If the State Department returns to pre-ISIS “factory settings” -no special envoys, restoring relations with traditional allies, purging the growing numbers of anti-Turkey and anti-jihadi career diplomats-, then the Kurds in Syria and Iraq will lose enormously, and the resurrection of ISIS will be all but guaranteed.

What a shame!

On the “shadowy attackers”

Associated Press report on the recent events in Deir Ezzour.

For the US the endgame is clear: to prevent re-emergence of ISIS in Syria. What is murky, however, is the “shadowy attacker” in the Deir Ezzour area that apparently neither Russia nor the Assad regime has control over.

The US killed 100 of this allegedly unkown force 2 days ago as they approached the gas field controlled by its local allies, namely the SDF. Russia and the regime condemned the bombing but not so much as to suggest that the attackers were Syrian soldiers advised and assisted by Russian special forces.

Hassan Hassan suggested that the attackers were local Arab tribesmen unhappy about the SDF’s control of the area. They could also be ex-ISIS jihadis who were turned and re-armed by the Syrian government.

There are also fresh sporadic reports that US and SDF have launched a counterattack on this shadowy group in a strip of regime-controlled territory in the east of the Euphrates river in Deir Ezzour. The pontoon bridge built by Russia last year has been destroyed, presumably by the Americans, to prevent reinforcements from reaching to the east bank.

It seems US and SDF want all regime-backed forces to go back to the west of the Euphrates river, which is the demarcation line between the US and Russia-backed forces.

On Human Rights Watch report

War is a dirty business and truth is the first casualty.

Back in August 2017, Iraqi security forces launched an offensive to retake the city of Tal Afar which is located in the north of the country. Kurdistan Regional Government forces did not take part in the operation, as was the case in the Mosul battle. Instead, they secured the lines in the north of the city to prevent ISIS jihadis escaping into Kurdistan.

The battle of Tal Afar was not a drawn-out affair as expected; ISIS lines quickly collapsed. In the 10-day battle, 2000 jihadis were killed. That is about 200 jihadis killed per day! For that to happen, either the city must have been completely flattened by the Coalition-Iraq carpet bombing, which was not the case, or the Iraqi army executed all men at arms-bearing age caught alive in the city.


Reports also emerged at the time that about 150 ISIS jihadis, including foreign fighters, were captured, either trying to escape through the KRG lines or surrendering to the peshmerga’s Asayish (internal security) wing. This was the highest number of ISIS jihadis caught by the KRG forces in a single incident that made it to the mainstream news. And it inevitably raised the question of what to do with them.

If every ISIS suspect was kept in custody for trial and punishment, the Iraqi and KRG justice systems would collapse under the sheer number of tens of thousands who were captured in the combat zone. And we did not see the images of tens of thousands of ISIS suspects being held in jails. So what happened to them?

The rumours circulating throughout the war against ISIS in Iraq (and in Syria) can be summarised thus: 1- Foreign fighters were executed to prevent them returning to the West where they can commit terrorism, 2- Local high-level ISIS operatives who were captured alive were held for interrogation and trial, some of whom were found guilty and executed, and 3- Local low-level elements were either turned to fight for the government or were released back to their families following ransoms and sponsorships that they would no longer engage in armed insurrection.

Now, however, we have a Human Rights Watch report on the specific instance of 100+ ISIS jihadis who were captured by the KRG during the battle of Tal Afar. The report details allegations of how they were taken into custody, where they were held, and where they were executed and buried. The evidence is too thin to justify the charges of war crimes, but it is compelling enough to warrant further investigation, which the HRW calls for.

War crime is not something Kurds are known for, even against Saddam’s army during the genocidal Anfal campaign of 1986-88. The HRW did a lot of credit to itself by meticulously documenting Iraq’s crimes against the Kurds at the time, including the Halabja gas attack. No independent observer ever charged the Iraqi Kurds of any criminal wrong-doing during and for this period.

War crime is what ISIS did during their short tenure in Syria and Iraq, especially after the capture of Mosul and Tikrit. War crime is what Turkey did during the 30-year civil war on Kurds, as recently as last year in Cizre and Sirnak. War crime is what the fascist Assad regime is known for, what the FSA jihadi rebels gleefully displayed, and what Iraq’s sectarian security forces did, in the combat zone of Tal-Afar, where 2000 were killed in 10 days.

As Kurds, we like to think we set the best standards in the region; in the way we conduct the war and prosecute the prisoners. We are supposed to be the beacon of civility in the sea of barbarism. If these allegations are true -it’s too early for that yet- then that beacon will not have been extinguished but dimmed somewhat.

Fortunately, the HRW report also acknowledges that this might be a local incident carried out by local commanders in the following terms:

“About 20 days after the last executions, Nadim’s Asayish friends told him that a very senior security officer made a high-level visit to the Asayish office in Zummar, he said. He said that several senior local Asayish officers have not been seen in Zummar since the meeting, and his contacts in the Asayish have told him they have been detained. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify if any officers were punished, and for what.”

The areas where the alleged executions and burials of ISIS jihadis took place is now under Iraqi government’s control. The area is also subject to seasonal flooding. Baghdad may well use this opportunity to discredit Erbil, while hiding its own war crimes in Tal Afar, but that is no reason why the bodies should not be exhumed and further investigation should not be carried out.

I should state without equivocation and prevarication that I am with the Human Rights Watch in this matter. The fate of this group did cross my mind at the time of their capture/surrender, but that they might be executed did not. If this is what the HRW alleges happened then the matter should be investigated straightaway before the evidence washes away.

That is the only way to ensure that truth does not also remain buried as the last casualty of war.

Continue reading “On Human Rights Watch report”

On Tabqa and Raqqa

Tabqa airbase liberation2 2017-03-26

Several days ago, following a brilliant surprise air and water borne raid, US-backed Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) landed to the south of Tabqa Dam, securing it before Islamic State (ISIS) jihadis could cause any damage to the structure. Now SDF has taken Tabqa airbase too.

Long-term observers of the war in Syria will agree that the fall of Tabqa airbase to ISIS in August of 2014 was one of the more infamous episodes of the war. The Assad regime had just lost Raqqa city and had withdrawn to the surrounded airbase—their last holding in the entire province. There were over a thousand soldiers trapped in the base with dozens of aircraft, tanks and artillery—not enough to stop the ISIS juggernaut.

Continue reading “On Tabqa and Raqqa”

From Kobani to Raqqa

Remember the jihadi selfie at the gate of Kobani? How times have changed! This is me writing on 16 November 2014 when the battle was raging on inside Kobani:

“There is still a long way to go in this battle. Once the Kurdish Stalingrad is completely liberated, the YPG and allied forces will begin to expel ISIS from nearby villages and the country side until the entire Kobani canton is also freed from medieval barbarian invaders. This war will not end until the forces representing life, liberty and modernity march into Raqqa, and destroy the forces representing medievalism, death and darkness in their place of origin.”

raqqa kobani

Duplicitious Alliances

The chief of US Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel visited Kobani and Raqqa front lines in Syria yesterday to reassure Kurdish and Arab allies in Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that the US is still with them. While he urged the SDF to continue the offensive against ISIS-held city, SDF commanders warned him in no uncertain terms that should the Turkey-backed jihadis attack Manbij, the Raqqa offensive will be over and their forces will withdraw to defend their territory in the north.


 Taking pressure off Raqqa is precisely the outcome both Turkey and ISIS sought when they agreed to a deal to surrender al-Bab to FSA jihadis in secret talks with Turkish chief of staff in the United Arab Emirates last week. ISIS fighters will retreat and consolidate their forces around Raqqa while Turkey, having caused the failure of the Raqqa offensive by attacking Manbij, can re-portray itself as the only force capable of taking on ISIS. Thus the western efforts to destroy ISIS can be hampered, delayed or otherwise abandoned.

Is the US too blind to see this ploy? On the contrary, Turkey has long signaled that it considers the SDF as greater threat to its interests than ISIS. Turkey only started its campaign to drive ISIS from border areas with Syria when they realised that, after Manbij, the US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance were going to liberate al-Bab. The US is too wrapped up in its formal NATO alliance with Turkey to acknowledge Turkish president Erdogan’s destabilising duplicity for what it is.

Following General Votel’s visit CENTCOM twitter account published several photographs showing SDF fighters fresh out of their training and getting their uniforms and AKs. An image of a US-made anti-IED mine vehicle being delivered to the SDF also circulated. These are not necessarily positive developments for Kurds. In the photo captions, the Arab part of the SDF, Syrian Arab Coalition, was specifically mentioned several times, while Kurds and their Peoples’ Protection Force (YPG) went distinctly unnamed.

Kurds and their Arab allies have every reason to be wary of the strength of the US commitment for the SDF. The so-called real-politik may yet cause the Americans to abandon the only trusted pro-western secular force in Syria in favour of a motley crew of jihadis backed by an unreliable NATO ally.