Islamic State continues to battle Assad regime, allies

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, May 7, 2018:

On Apr. 30, the Islamic State’s propagandists released one of their typically gruesome set of photos. The victim in this stylized killing was a soldier for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in southern Damascus, where the two sides have clashed for years. The Sunni jihadists attached an explosive-laden helmet to the soldier’s head, hung him upside down and then dropped him to his death. They expended a lot of resources to kill just one man, but it was intended to send a message: The Islamic State was not going to leave the neighborhoods in southern Damascus without a fight. In the days since then, the self-declared caliphate has advertised similar slayings — beheading and shooting Assad’s fighters captured in the area just outside the heart of Syria’s capital. The killings are just part of the Islamic State’s overall propaganda effort tied to the war in southern Damascus.

In mid-April, the Assad regime began a new offensive intended to push Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s loyalists out of southern Damascus. The regime has cut deals with other insurgents, but an Islamic State contingent is determined to fight to the death.

The Syrian government’s propaganda arm and pro-Assad sites have promoted their own media coverage from the battle. On May 3, for example, Al Masdar reported that the “Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and their Palestinian allies split the terrorist group’s large pocket.” Al Masdar, which backs Assad, claimed that the SAA was “advancing at the southeastern and western axes of Hajar Al-Aswad, along with the western axis of the Yarmouk Camp.” Similarly, social media sites associated with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist group, posted maps trumpeting the SAA’s purported gains.

However, if the Islamic State’s reports are generally accurate, then the SAA has suffered significant casualties while advancing through the neighborhoods. The 130th issue of the group’s An Naba newsletter, which was published online in early May, claimed that the SAA had suffered “huge losses” during the second week of the battle for southern Damascus. An Naba’s cover and an article on the fighting were accompanied by pictures of the corpses of several decapitated Syrian soldiers.

Since the Assad regime offensive in southern Damascus began on Apr. 19, the Islamic State has issued dozens of statements. FDD’s Long War Journal has tallied its claims. In total, Baghdadi’s jihadists allege that they have killed more than 400 SAA soldiers. Of course, it is impossible to independently verify this figure. It is possible that the Islamic State is exaggerating the efficacy of its operations to boost fighter morale. Only some of the Assad regime’s casualties were documented with photos of the dead, or pictures of their identity cards.

The Islamic State’s total casualties are similarly unknown. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claims that just over 100 ISIS fighters have been killed during the battle, but also notes that this “high death [toll] is difficult to verify.”

Still, multiple reports indicate that the fighting has been heavy in the Yarmouk refugee camp, and the neighborhoods of Hajar al-Aswad (“Black Stone”), Qadam, Tadamun, as well as some nearby locales.

The Islamic State claimed on Apr. 20 that the Syrian government and Russia had launched more than 100 airstrikes in the area. It revised that figure days later to more than 300 airstrikes. Again, it is impossible to verify the precise tally. Videos released by Amaq News Agency, a propaganda arm of the self-declared caliphate, purportedly document the damage done by the airstrikes on various apartment buildings. A screen shot from one such video can be seen below:

The Yarmouk neighborhood has been contested for years, with the Islamic State battling both its rival insurgents and the Assad regime for control of the turf. A pro-regime media outlet claimed that the jihadists’ leaders had agreed to surrender the ground after a heavy assault, and that only “rogue terrorists” continued to fight on. However, the Islamic State’s die-hards didn’t go that quietly. The jihadists claim to have destroyed or damaged multiple tanks and other armed vehicles during the clashes, while also accumulating various “spoils.”

Southern Damascus isn’t the only battleground where the Islamic State is facing off against the Assad regime and its allies.

Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), discussed the ongoing battles between the two sides during an Apr. 17 press conference. Dillon was asked a few times about the current number of Islamic State fighters inside Syria, but he punted on the question, telling reporters that he wouldn’t give them “numbers.” He did explain that the anti-ISIS coalition thinks most of the jihadists are “isolated” in or around two areas of eastern Syria: Hajin and Dashisha.

ISIS fighters are not only battling American-backed forces in eastern Syria, but also those loyal to Bashar al Assad’s government and its international allies. “We have seen also not just reports, but also corroborated through our own intelligence gathering, that ISIS is starting to conduct more attacks on the west side of the Euphrates River outside of Abu Kamal against pro-regime forces,” Dillon explained. “So that — in the pro-regime area west of the Euphrates River, we have seen a resurgence — or rather some ISIS elements coming back and attacking with success pro-regime forces.”

Indeed, Abu Kamal, which is also on the Iraqi border, has long been a flashpoint in the conflict between the Assad regime and the Islamic State. They battled each other in the area repeatedly last year, as Assad and his boosters tried to expel the jihadists from parts of Deir Ezzor province. The situation in Deir Ezzor has been tense with two competing coalitions — one led by the US and the other by Russia and Iran — attempting to secure ground from Baghdadi’s men. Russian-backed forces are stationed west of the Euphrates, while Western and US-backed fighters are east of the river.

In Sept. 2016, the US mistakenly bombed the Syrian military in an area of Deir Ezzor that was thought to be controlled by ISIS. Russia struck and killed members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last year. Then, on Feb. 7, “pro-regime forces” launched an “unprovoked attack” against a SDF headquarters “eight kilometers east of the agreed-upon Euphrates River de-confliction line.” US personnel were embedded with the SDF at the time, and responded by launching airstrikes. Dozens of Russians were reportedly killed in the bombing. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said during his recent confirmation hearing that a few hundred Russians perished.

Nevertheless, according to Dillon, the US-led coalition continues to give the Russians intelligence on ISIS locations in eastern Syria. “If we do see things that are — or ISIS rather on the west side of the Euphrates River, we will tell the Russians,” Dillon said during the Apr. 17 press briefing. “And we, you know, certainly hope they will act on the information that we have provided.” Dillon added that as a result of the ISIS attacks “west of Abu Kamal in pro-regime areas, we have seen some air support that has come in to be provided to those troops on the ground there” — meaning Assad’s air force and the Russians have provided air support against ISIS in eastern Syrian near Abu Kamal.

FDD’s Long War Journal has collected dozens of Islamic State pictures, videos, and statements on the fighting in or near Abu Kamal since the beginning of the year. The images document sniper operations targeting Syrian soldiers and irregulars, the use of SPG-9s (tripod-mounted weapons) and rocket-propelled grenades against regime-controlled positions, as well as attacks on government-owned bulldozers and other vehicles. One of these images can be seen below:

Although the US-led coalition claims that ISIS is “contained” in eastern Syria, Dillon noted that the group continues to operate elsewhere. He explained that two members of the coalition “were killed in Manbij” earlier this year as they were “going after an ISIS — an ISIS high-value target.” Manbij is in northeastern Syria. Although Dillon didn’t definitively identify the perpetrators ISIS members, he did say “there’s enough evidence to lead us to believe that it very much was a ISIS-implanted IED based off of the mission that they were doing.”

Coalition forces “continue to interdict and find ISIS fighters that are trying to transit the area” around At Tanf in southern Syria as well, according to Dillon.

Then, on Apr. 19, ISIS claimed that its men had raided a Syrian regime army barracks east of Tadmur (Palmyra), killing “multiple” soldiers, destroying a “field artillery cannon” and recovering “spoils,” including a “vehicle carrying a heavy machine gun and miscellaneous weapons and ammunition.” The claim is potentially significant as it indicates that the Islamic State is still operating near Palmyra more than a year after Assad’s forces and allies recaptured it.

On May 1, CJTF-OIR lauded the SDF, the main US-backed force opposed to ISIS in Syria, as it “commence[d] operations to clear the final ISIS territories in northeast Syria.” Many SDF fighters had relocated from the front lines in eastern Syria to fight Turkish-backed forces in early 2018. That delayed the anti-ISIS campaign and the US-led coalition was eager to jumpstart the effort once again.

But even as the SDF rolls into the Islamic State-controlled pockets of eastern Syria, it will be difficult to eradicate the jihadist group entirely. Col. Dillon recognized this fact during his mid-April press briefing. “So even though ISIS is not you know flying their black flag in certain areas, that doesn’t mean that it is not a threat in these areas,” Dillon warned. ISIS is “not going to just give up,” Dillon added. Some of its fighters will regroup in the desert and “vast rural areas” of both Syria and Iraq, while others “blend back in with population centers.”

And as the fighting in recent weeks shows, the Islamic State has enough fighters left to battle the Assad regime and its supporters, whose turf is outside of the US-led coalition’s control.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

IDF: Iranian Forces Fire Rockets at Israel

AP/Tsafrir Abayov

The events mark the first time the IDF has accused Iran of directly firing rockets into Israel, and could represent a more direct confrontation between Israel and Iran. Israel has been alarmed at Iran’s massive military buildup in Syria, where the Iranians are said to control numerous military bases.

Breitbart, by Aaron Klein, May 9, 2018:

TEL AVIV — Iranian forces operating from Syria fired about 20 rockets at Israeli army positions in the Golan Heights, the Israel Defense Forces said on Tuesday night.

Some of the missiles were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system, and there were no reports of injuries, the IDF stated.

A video posted on social media in Syria purports to show a volley of rockets from a launcher being fired into Israel.

The IDF is blaming the attack on the Quds Force, the unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that is responsible for operations outside Iran.

The Times of Israel reports on immediate Israeli retaliation:

Syrian state media reported that Israeli artillery fire targeted a military post near the city of Baath in the Quneitra border region, where Syrian regime forces were stationed.

The Israel Defense Forces spokesperson confirmed that the army had retaliated to the alleged Iranian attack, but would not comments on the specific details.

It was not immediately clear if this artillery barrage would constitute Israel’s full response to the rocket attack or if additional retaliations by the IDF against Iranian forces in Syria were to come.

 

The events mark the first time the IDF has accused Iran of directly firing rockets into Israel, and could represent a more direct confrontation between Israel and Iran. Israel has been alarmed at Iran’s massive military buildup in Syria, where the Iranians are said to control numerous military bases.

The reported Iranian missile attacks follow a series of strikes in Syria attributed to Israel targeting Iran-run bases.

Only yesterday, Syria’s state-run SANA news agency reported an Israeli attack targeting a military base south of Damascus about two hours after President Trump announced a decision to withdraw from the international nuclear agreement with Iran. Fox News citedsources saying the target of the strike was an Iranian base in Syria.

The reports of explosions also come after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on Tuesday placed Israel’s northern communities on high alert with the IDF detecting “irregular Iranian activity” and “abnormal movements of Iranian forces in Syria.”

Just before the explosion reports, Haaretz reported the IDF believes Iran is “making efforts to carry out an imminent retaliation against Israel,” according to the newspaper’s characterization.

Threats of Iranian retaliation follow numerous airstrikes against Iranian military targets in Syria that have been attributed to Israel.

Besides yesterday’s strike, ten days ago, Syrian state television reported that “enemy” rocket attacks struck military bases in Hama province and in the Aleppo countryside, with reports of 26 or more pro-regime fighters, mostly Iranians, killed in the blasts.

On April 14, there were reports of a “violent explosion” in the southern section of Aleppo province in Syria in an area where Iranian forces were present. Hezbollah-affiliated media outlets at the time claimed the incident involved a controlled explosion.

On April 9, strikes blamed on Israel hit the Iran-run T-4 military base that was reportedly used to operate Iran’s advanced drone fleet. The strikes came after the base was brazenly used by Iran to send an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Israeli territory in February before it was quickly shot down by the Israeli military. The IDF revealed its investigation concluded the Iranian drone sent from T-4 was carrying explosives and seemingly deployed to attack an Israeli target.

Aaron Klein is Breitbart’s Jerusalem bureau chief and senior investigative reporter. He is a New York Times bestselling author and hosts the popular weekend talk radio program, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronKleinShow. Follow him on Facebook.

Assad’s Horror, and Those Who Enable It

hoto credit: Muhammed es Sami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Demonstrators draw picture on a wall to describe the poisonous gas attack and protest against the Assad regime’s alleged gas attack on Douma in Syria on April 08, 2018

Russia, Iran, and North Korea all play a role in the Syrian regime’s chemical attacks on its own people.

The Weekly Standard, by Thomas Joscelyn, April 8, 2018:

Horrific images from the aftermath of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria are once again circulating online. The scene of this gassing is the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus. Both the location and the timing of this apparent war crime are symbolically important. And while the immediate focus will be on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his willingness to gas his own people, any long-term solution will require understanding the role of the rogue states that enable and support him.

It was one year ago, on the morning of April 7, 2017, that the Trump administration launched punitive airstrikes against Assad’s regime at the Shayrat Airfield in response to a Sarin gas attack days earlier. Those targeted bombings were intended to send a message to Assad: Stop using banned weapons of war against your own people. Assad was undeterred.

He had failed to adhere to a previous deal, negotiated by the Obama administration and Russia, that was intended to end his chemical weapons capability. The concord was struck in the aftermath of the August 21, 2013, nerve agent attack on eastern Ghouta–the same suburb hit in the last 24 hours. The U.S. government determined that the Assad regime was responsible and “that 1,429 people were killed … including at least 426 children.”

Just a few weeks later, in September 2013, the U.S. and Russia agreed to “special procedures” for the “expeditious destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons program and stringent verification thereof.” Secretary of State John Kerry claimed in 2014 that the agreement had worked, saying “we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out” of Syria. That obviously wasn’t true, or at least highly misleading, as Assad retained the capability to regenerate and use certain weapons.

And now—one year after the U.S. attempted to punish Assad with airstrikes, and in the same neighborhood that was terrorized in 2013— the Syrian regime has seemingly struck again.

Many details concerning this most recent attack remain to be confirmed. But the world has already learned some valuable lessons regarding the behavior of rogue actors when it comes their pursuit and use of banned weapons.

There is no real question that Assad has continued to use chemical weapons even after he agreed to give them up. As the State Department was quick to note yesterday, the U.S. has concluded that he was responsible for the April 4, 2017, Sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun—the same incident which prompted the Trump administration’s bombing. And both the U.S. government and the UN have found that Assad’s goons used other chemical weapons, namely crude chlorine bombs, more than once. While some of these bombs struck areas held by jihadi rebels, they have also indiscriminately killed civilians.

Assad’s principal international backer, Vladimir Putin, hasn’t stopped him from using of them. Nor has Iran, which is deeply embedded in Syria alongside Assad’s forces. In fact, the Assad-Putin-Khamenei axis has a legion of online apologists who argue that the high-profile chemical weapons assaults aren’t really the work of the Syrian “president” at all. This noxious advocacy on behalf of mass murderers is readily available on social media.

It gets even worse, as another rogue state has reportedly facilitated Assad’s acquisition of chemical weapons: North Korea. This facilitation is especially worrisome in light of the two nations’ previous cooperation on a nuclear reactor that was destroyed by the Israelis in 2007.

In March, the U.N. issued a report on North Korea’s active “prohibited military cooperation projects…stretching from Africa to the Asia-Pacific region, including ongoing ballistic missile cooperation with the Syrian Arab Republic and Myanmar, widespread conventional arms deals and cyberoperations to steal military secrets.”

The U.N. traced a number of visits by North Korean officials to Syrian soil, finding that “multiple groups of ballistic missile technicians” have been inside Syria. Citing intelligence received from a “Member State,” the U.N. explained that these “technicians … continued to operate at chemical weapons and missile facilities at Barzah, Adra and Hama.” The Assad regime tried to deflect this accusation by claiming the North Koreans were in town simply for “training athletics and gymnastics.”

But the U.N. documented additional suspicious details, including previously unknown illicit shipments and transfers. The U.N. investigative body’s “investigations into several cases of hitherto unreported arms shipments and cooperation with front companies of designated entities between 2010 and 2017 showed further evidence of arms embargo and other violations, including through the transfer of items with utility in ballistic missile and chemical weapons” programs.

In one such transfer, the North Koreans provided the Assad regime with “special resistance valves and thermometers known for use in chemical weapons” programs. U.N. member states also interdicted suspicious shipments, including bricks and tiles that may be used as part of a chemical weapons program. Although the U.N. found these specific materials weren’t banned, a member state noted that they “can be used to build bricks for the interior walls of [a] chemical factory.”

The U.N. found it especially suspicious that North Korean front companies were doing business with the Syrian government’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which oversees Assad’s chemical weapons development.

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned 271 SSRC staffers in the aftermath of the April 2017 Sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun. Treasury explained that the SSRC is “the Syrian government agency responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.” And the sanctioned SSRC employees “have expertise in chemistry and related disciplines and/or have worked in support of SSRC’s chemical weapons program since at least 2012.”

Therefore, the U.N.’s conclusion that North Korea has been working with the SSRC is especially noteworthy.

The U.S. and its allies will continue to face daunting challenges when it comes to restraining rogue nations and their pursuit of banned weapons. As Syria’s ongoing work on chemical weapons shows, such proliferation concerns often involve multiple rogue states. Assad’s chemical weapons attacks inside Syria are principally his own doing, but not solely. He has friends outside of Syria who are willing to help.

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Also see:

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Hayward: Free Syrian Army, Once the Great ‘Moderate’ Hope, Joins Turkey to Attack Kurds

Huseyin Nasir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Breitbart, by John Hayward, Feb. 6, 2018:

Turkey has conducted its “Operation Olive Branch” military incursion into Syria in concert with the Free Syrian Army, which has helped Turkish forces take control of several villages in the Afrin region.

This is an uncomfortable development for U.S. policymakers because both the Kurds and Free Syrian Army were considered battlefield allies of the United States in the war against the Islamic State, and the FSA was seen as the model white-hat rebel group when the Obama administration and intervention-minded Republicans were desperately seeing “moderate” forces in the Syrian rebellion to support.

In fact, as recently as last spring, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) strongly urged increased support for the Free Syrian Army as part of the U.S. strategy for stabilizing Syria while holding the regime of dictator Bashar Assad at bay.

McCain has long been prominent among those convinced the Free Syrian Army was America’s best bet for a terrorist-free moderate rebel group to arm and support, a step he felt the Obama administration was much too reluctant to take while Russia was busy shipping arms to the Syrian regime.

He made a surprise visit to the Turkey-Syria border in 2013 to meet with FSA leaders who wanted American heavy weapons, up to and including anti-aircraft weapons, and American air support against FSA adversaries such as Hezbollah. At the time, the FSA claimed to be running perilously low on munitions, which does not seem to be a problem now that they are fighting on Turkey’s behalf against the Kurds.

McCain has not responded well to contrary arguments about the FSA, as when he reportedly stormed out of the room during a 2014 presentation by Syrian Christians who said there were Islamist fighters among the FSA’s ranks.

There was a good deal of confusion surrounding support for the Free Syrian Army in the Obama administration, which occasionally seemed uncertain about what kind of support it was sending them. Critics complained effective support for moderate rebel groups was announced too late, after too much dithering, and was delivered too long after it was finally announced. The aid program that eventually materialized was an unserious disaster.

Whether reluctantly as with Obama, or eagerly as with McCain, plans for zero-footprint Syrian intervention kept circling back around to the Free Syrian Army, despite persistent warnings it contained some unlovely people and outright terrorists. One reason for this default support is that many of the other options for American support were Kurdish groups or members of Kurdish-dominated umbrella organizations, which was problematic because U.S. policymakers wanted to avoid conflict with the Turkish and Iraqi governments. Going all-in on the Kurds would inevitably bring accusations that America was supporting Kurdish nationalists, separatists, or terrorists (as Turkey would have it).

To this very day, Turkey denounces American support for the Kurds as direct support for terrorists, no different in principle from shipping arms to the Islamic State, which is something the Turks also charge America with doing when they are especially upset. It may come as some small consolation to know that everyone involved in the Syrian quagmire accuses everyone else of supporting terrorism, and they quite frequently have a point, since even the better rebel groups have been known to cooperate with powerful terrorist forces like al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front from time to time. It is difficult for outside powers to be certain that a weapon given to a white-hat moderate rebel today will not be handed over, voluntarily or involuntarily, to a terrorist or war criminal tomorrow.

In a 2013 profile of the Free Syrian Army, the BBC noted it was a “loose network of brigades rather than a unified fighting force,” with very little operational control exercised by appealing and high-minded spokesmen like Brigadier General Salim Idris.

Brigades aligned with the Free Syrian Army and its spinoff organizations retained “separate identities, agendas and commands.” The BBC noted that some of them “work with hardline Islamist groups that alarm the West, such as Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.”

Deutsche Welle recalls that, a few weeks ago, a delegation from the Free Syrian Army came to Washington and argued that if the CIA did not resume military aid frozen by the Trump administration, its “moderate” forces would have no choice but to look elsewhere for support. Virtually overnight, the FSA signed up with Turkey to work as mercenaries in its war against the Syrian Kurds, which DW notes is difficult to square with the FSA’s nominal mission of battling the tyranny of Bashar Assad on behalf of the Syrian people. It also argues against viewing the FSA as the kind of staunch moderate ally who can be entrusted with American weapons as they fight a noble battle to liberate Syria from cruel dictatorship.

“The Free Syrian Army practically doesn’t exist,” DW quotes Mideast expert Kamal Sido telling a German broadcaster. “The Free Syrian Army is a smokescreen hiding various names, and if you look at the names, at these groups’ videos, you’ll find they are radical Islamist, Jihadist groups.”

Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution contributed the observation that nearly 80 distinct factions now identify themselves with the FSA brand, and while some are moderate in outlook, others are hardline Islamist radicals. The group as a whole is moving inexorably into the orbit of radicals, and Islamist patrons like Turkey’s Erdogan, simply because they tend to be better-armed and more ruthlessly effective on the battlefield.

If such groups ever succeeded in overthrowing Assad, they would likely either replace him with an Islamist tyranny or turn their guns against their erstwhile moderate allies – which is essentially what the FSA is doing to the Syrian Kurds right now. At this point, with Russian and Iranian support firmly behind Assad, his ouster seems unlikely, so the “rebels” are largely fighting for concessions at the negotiating table and perhaps a degree of autonomy to run their own little fiefdoms within postwar Syria. Every proposal to arm Syrian groups must carefully consider what those groups actually intend to fight for.

It should also consider how they fight. Syrian Kurds are protesting the brutality of the Turkey-FSA invasion of Afrin, which threatens to push even further into Syria, as President Erdogan has openly called for American troops to get out of his way.

Over the weekend, video footage surfaced that appears to show Free Syrian Army fighters fondling and abusing the corpse of a female Kurdish fighter killed in the Afrin operation. One of them described the woman’s body as “the spoils of war from the female pigs of the PKK,” which is the violent Kurdish separatist organization in Turkey. The Turks insist that all Syrian Kurdish militia forces are allied with the PKK, including those directly supported by the United States.

The Free Syrian Army high command promised to investigate the incident and hold those involved accountable, “if it is verified in accordance with Sharia law and our principles.” The use of Islamic law to decide whether clearly heinous activity constitutes a war crime is not what the Western world should be looking for in a “moderate” ally.

Conversely, the Turks and their allies accuse the Kurds of fighting dirty and allying themselves with the brutal Assad regime, and Kurdish forces have been blamed for civilian deaths from a rocket barrage that struck a refugee camp near the Turkish border on Monday.

Syria is a bloody mess, and white hats are hard to find, but the hellish conundrum is that failure to intervene unleashed a refugee wave that threatens to drown Europe, not to mention a humanitarian disaster within Syria that should be utterly intolerable to the civilized world. The Free Syrian Army clearly is not the easy answer that so many people have so desperately wanted it to be for the past five years. They proved it by joining a Turkish operation that may soon put the lives of American troops at risk and threaten the future of NATO.

Also see:

Civilians in Northern Syria Flee to Caves as Turkish Invasion Barrels On

Russian-Turkish axis in Syria faces meltdown

Syrian Kurds: Russia Pressured Us to Give Afrin to Assad ‘One Day’ Before Turkish Attack

Israeli airstrikes target suspected chemical weapons facility in Syria

GETTY

Long War Journal, by Thomas Joscelyn, Sept. 7, 2017:

Israel struck a suspected chemical weapons facility maintained by Bashar al Assad’s regime near Masyaf, Syria earlier today. The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), a propaganda arm for Assad’s regime, quickly confirmed the strikes, claiming that “Israeli warplanes fired several rockets from the Lebanese airspace.” SANA did not mention that Masyaf reportedly houses a chemical weapons facility, but claimed that “two army personnel” were killed and “material damage” was done “to the site.”

The airstrikes were launched less than a day after the United Nations released a report saying it has documented “25 incidents of chemical weapons use in the Syrian Arab Republic” between Mar. 2013 and Mar. 2017. Twenty of these “were perpetrated by government forces and used primarily against civilians.” The UN also held the Assad regime responsible for Apr. 4 sarin attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. At least 83 people were killed and hundreds more injured in the bombing. Both the Syrian and Russian governments have denied the regime’s culpability, but the UN found that their explanation was not credible.

The facility near Masyaf, which is located in the Hama province, is one of several suspected chemical weapons sites maintained by the Syrian regime. Both the UN and the US say that despite agreeing to give up its chemical weapons, the regime continues to operate a weapons of mass destruction program.

In January, the US Treasury Department sanctioned “18 senior regime officials connected to Syria’s weapons of mass destruction program.” The sanctions were announced after a UN body “found that the Syrian government, specifically the Syrian Arab Air Force, was responsible for three chlorine gas attacks” on Apr. 21, 2014 and Mar. 16, 2015.

Among those sanctioned were several officials who work for the regime’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which reportedly manages the sites in Masyaf and elsewhere.

In late April, just weeks after the Sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Treasury announced “one of the largest sanctions actions in” history. 271 SSRC employees were sanctioned. Treasury explained that they “have expertise in chemistry and related disciplines and/or have worked in support of SSRC’s chemical weapons program since at least 2012.”

Treasury’s designations did not specifically mention Masyaf as one of the SSRC’s chemical weapons facilities, but other reporting has pointed to the location.

In May, BBC News cited a document prepared by a “western intelligence agency” as indicating that Assad’s men were producing chemical weapons at three primary locations. In addition to Masyaf, two other facilities, Dummar and Barzeh, are reportedly located outside of Damascus. The same document “alleges that both Iran and Russia, the [Syrian] government’s allies, are aware” of the ongoing chemical weapons production, according to the BBC.

Israel has closely tracked the facilities in Masyaf and elsewhere for years, fearing that the Syrian military may transfer some of the know-how to Hezbollah or other Iranian-backed terrorists. This concern has only grown as Hezbollah has increased its footprint inside the country. In 2012, Spiegel Online reported that Masyaf was one of the locations being closely monitored by Israeli intelligence and Israel was “weighing whether to strike.”

Israel has repeatedly bombed other locations inside Syria since the beginning of the war.

In May, for example, the Israeli Air Force struck an apparent weapons shipment to Hezbollah at the T-4 military base near Palmyra. In Dec. 2015, the Israelis reportedly bombed a Hezbollah position, killing a long-wanted terrorist. These are just two of Israel’s suspected bombings in Syria. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports: Israel’s airstrikes in Palmyra likely targeted Hezbollah weapons shipments
 and Israeli Air Force kills notorious Hezbollah commander in Syria.]

The facilities at Masyaf reportedly store not only chemical weapons, but also the means for delivering them. Jane’s Defence Weekly reported in 2014 that various Syrian regime development projects, including those related to “missile and rocket production,” were relocated to Masyaf as a result of the ongoing war. Projects related to manufacturing Scud missiles, armor, and surface-to-air missiles were already based in Masyaf, according to Jane’s.

In April, the US launched its own airstrikes on a Syrian airbase. The bombings were carried out after the sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.

Also see:

Iran, operating from Syria, will destroy Europe and North America

There is a long term plan at work here aimed at destroying the West and it can work.

Israel National News, by Dr. Mordechai Kedar, Aug. 28, 2017:

Iran and Russia plan to destroy Western Europe, the US and Canada by means of a new wave of millions of Syrian Sunnis fleeing to the West to escape the Shiite takeover of Syria.

In my weekly column two months ago, I claimed that Iran is the real victor in the Syrian civil war.  Using the war against ISIS as a smokescreen, it is taking over large swathes of Syrian territory, mainly in the scarcely populated middle and eastern parts of the country. In the more fertile and densely populated west of Syria, there are  Iraqi, Afghan, and Iranian Shiite militias augmenting  Lebanese Hezbollah fighters who were given carte blanche to do whatever Hassan Nasrallah decides to do there.

Assad’s strength continues to increase as ISIS and the other rebel forces lose ground.  The brutality of Russian involvement and the cruelty of Shiite militias overcame the anti-Assad forces, the turning point occurring when in 2015, Turkey’ s Erdogan was forced by Russia to cease his aid to the rebels and ISIS. Today, although Erdogan is an unwilling ally of Russia, Alawite Assad still sees him, justifiably, as an Islamist enemy.

The Kurds of northeast Syria, treated as below third class citizens until 2011, will never agree to live under Arab mercy once again and it is reasonable to assume that should Syria remain an undivided country under Assad’s rule, the Kurds will preserve relative autonomy in their region – or fight the regime for their rights.

That is certainly a problem, but the main issue facing a united Syria is going to be the drastic demographic changes the country is going to face.

First of all, about half of Syria’s citizens – close to 10 million – are refugees, half located in Syria and the other half in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, other Arab countries, Europe, North and South America, Australia and even Israel.  Syrian refugees who reached points outside the Arab world will in all probability stay put, benefitting from the secure and orderly lives they can now lead. On the other hand, the 3.5 million now in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are awaiting the end of hostilities in order to return to their homes.

Those expectations may be dashed, however, because Syrian reality is totally changed, and large parts of its cities are in ruins after six and a half years of a cruel and bloody war.  Countless bombs dropped from planes and helicopters, artillery and tank barrages, mines and explosives planted by both sides have made much of urban Syria, where most of the fighting took place, unsafe to live in. In Homs, Aleppo, Adlib, Hamat and many other cities, entire neighborhoods will have to be razed and their infrastructure rebuilt from scratch. Decades and billions of dollars are needed to rebuild the country and I, for one, do not see the world’s nations standing on line to donate the necessary funds.  Refugees will not agree to switch their tents in Jordan for ruined buildings lacking basic infrastructure in a desolate and destroyed Syria.

The other reason the refugees will not return is their justified fear of the new lords of the land – the Shiites. Iran has been moving Shiites from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to Syria for a long time in a clear attempt to change the demographic makeup of the country from the Sunni majority it had before the civil war broke out in 2011. The issue could not be more clear because it is no secret that the pre-civil war Sunni majority considered the Alawite rulers heretic idol worshippers who had no right to live in Syria, much less rule over it.

The Alawites know well that the Sunnis rebelled against them twice: The first time was from 1976 to 1982, a rebellion that took the lives of 50,000 citizens. The second time, slowly drawing to an end, has cost the lives of half a million men, women, children and aged citizens of Syria.  The Alawites intend to prevent a third rebellion and the best way to do that is to change the majority of the population to Shiites instead of Sunnis.  They will not allow the Sunni refugees to return to their homes, leaving them eternal refugees whose lands have been taken over by the enemy. Iran, meanwhile, will populate Syria with Shiites from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

This ethnic cleansing is the Ayatollah’s dream come true, the dream that sees a Shiite crescent drawn from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. This will cover the eastern Arab world from the north, while the war in Yemen is being fought in order to create a parallel southern crescent, entrapping Saudi Arabia and Jordan between the two. With the help of Allah, both those countries and Israel, the Small Satan, will soon fall into the hands of the Shiites, while Europe and America do nothing because who cares when Muslims fight other Muslims?

The Shiite majority in Syria will play along with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, their natural allies, and it is possible that some form of federation might be created between the two in order to push the Lebanese Christians out of the picture, “persuading” them to flee to other countries, leaving Lebanon to its “rightful” Shiite masters. This explains Nasrallah’s eager willingness to fight on Syrian soil as well as the opposition of those against Nasrallah to his involvement there.

The new demographic situation in Syria will convince the Sunni refugees that they have no place to which to return. They will try their best to be allowed to leave Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey for any country, preferably North America and Europe, willing to allow them entry.  I predict a process that is the exact opposite of the one the world expects to take place when “peace” breaks out in Syria:  Instead of refugees returning to their birthplace, expect the mass flight of Sunni refugees from the region, and expect a heightened incidence of Islamist terror in the countries that allow them in.

The reasons are obvious:

1. Former ISIS and rebel forces will infiltrate along with the refugees, because they, too,  are Sunni. They are filled with fury and hatred for the Western countries  who were part of the coalition that fought ISIS or stood by without aiding the rebels. Some of them will continue their Jihad on European and North American soil. Expect shootings, explosives and ramming attacks against citizens of these countries.

2. Some of the refugees will not find work and live on the economic and social fringes of society, in poverty-stricken Islamist neighborhoods which have already existed for years in many European cities, and where the local police fear to tread. Poverty and life on the fringe of society will turn some of the Muslim young people into easy prey for terrorist organization recruiters who arouse the desire for Jihad by describing the accepting host countries as decadent societies infected with permissiveness, prostitution, alcohol, drugs, materialism and corruption.  They present the countries that allowed the immigrants entry as having done so to take advantage of them as industrial slaves, garage hands, cashiers and other degrading occupations, while the privileged citizens are lawyers, accountant, businessmen and homeowners w ho take advantage of the migrants in humiliating ways. It is only a matter of time until young Muslims, especially those who were taught that “everyone is equal” in Western schools, enlist in terrorist organizations.

3. Countries which allow in refugees will suffer a higher crime rate as a result, including violence in public places, sexual attacks and harassment, housebreaking, car theft, substance abuse, unreported work to avoid paying taxes and illegal construction. This will all occur at the same time these countries expend a larger part of their budgets on social services for the refugees, from child allowances to unemployment, health and old age benefits. At this point in time, the percentage of second and third generation immigrants populating the prisons in Western Europe is significantly larger than their percentage in the general population.

4. Increased economic, social and security problems in Europe and North America as a result of the rise in the number of migrants will lead to a rise in the strength of the right and the extreme right.  This will in turn lead to more social tensions in the West. Members of Parliament whose only wish is to be re-elected will adapt their parliamentary activity – especially the laws they promote – to the expectations of the rapidly Islamizing constituencies, sacrificing their own people’s interests on the altar of their political careers. Many Europeans, aware of their elected leaders’ betrayal, will despair and leave those socially and economically deteriorating countries. This will increase the rate at which Europe turns into an Islamic region..

And that is how the agreements Iran and Russia will soon coerce Syria into accepting  are going to start a chain reaction increasing the number of refugees and pulling  Europe down to a point of no return, without the world understanding what  is going on. The Atlantic Ocean is not wide enough to protect North America from this debacle crossing the sea.

This is how the Iranian Ayatollahs intend to destroy the heretic, permissive, drunk and materialistic  West.  More of the unfortunate Syrian millions will find themselves exiled to the heretic  countries hated by the Ayatollahs, and Iran will operate from Syrian soil to vanquish Europe and America.

Writen in Hebrew for Arutz Sheva, translated by Rochel Sylvetsky, Senior Consultant and op-ed editor of Arutz Sheva English site.

Also  see:

Trump Got This One Right

An anti-Assad militia member loads an American-made TOW anti-tank missile southeast of the city of Tal Afar. Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP / Getty

Weekly Standard, by Thomas Joscelyn, THE MAGAZINE: From the August 7 Issue

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump was shown a disturbing video of Syrian rebels beheading a child near the city of Aleppo. It had caused a minor stir in the press as the fighters belonged to the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a group that had been supported by the CIA as part of its rebel aid program.

The footage is haunting. Five bearded men smirk as they surround a boy in the back of a pickup truck. One of them holds the boy’s head with a tight grip on his hair while another mockingly slaps his face. Then, one of them uses a knife to saw the child’s head off and holds it up in the air like a trophy. It is a scene reminiscent of the Islamic State’s snuff videos, except this wasn’t the work of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. The murderers were supposed to be the good guys: our allies.

Trump wanted to know why the United States had backed Zenki if its members are extremists. The issue was discussed at length with senior intelligence officials, and no good answers were forthcoming, according to people familiar with the conversations. After learning more worrisome details about the CIA’s ghost war in Syria—including that U.S.-backed rebels had often fought alongside extremists, among them al Qaeda’s arm in the country—the president decided to end the program altogether.

On July 19, the Washington Post broke the news of Trump’s decision: “a move long sought by Russia,” the paper’s headline blared. Politicians from both sides of the aisle quickly howled in protest, claiming that Trump’s decision was a surrender to Vladimir Putin.

There is no doubt that Putin, who has the blood of many Syrian civilians on his hands, was pleased by the move. But that doesn’t mean the rebel aid program was effective or served American interests.

The defenders of the CIA program argue that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) remains our best hope for a moderate opposition to Assad. But the FSA is not the single, unified organization its name implies. It is, rather, a loose collection of groups that have adopted the FSA brand, often in addition to their own names and branding. Although “Free Syrian Army” sounds secular and moderate, its constituents are ideologically diverse and include numerous extremists. Zenki, for example, was referred to as an FSA group well after its hardline beliefs were evident, and few FSA groups could be considered truly secular. Several prominent FSA organizations advocate Islamist ideas, meaning they believe that some version of sharia law should rule Syrian society.

To make matters worse: FSA-affiliated rebels have often been allied with Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. Some of the most prominent FSA groups, indeed, objected to the U.S. government’s decision to designate Nusra as a terrorist organization in December 2012. Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm was even then strong enough to command loyalty in the face of American sanctions. There have been episodic clashes between Nusra and America’s FSA allies, but more often than not FSA-branded rebels have been in the trenches alongside Nusra’s jihadists.

Jabhat al-Nusra, publicly an arm of al Qaeda until July 2016, has been the single strongest organization within the insurgency for some time. Well before President Trump was inaugurated, Nusra had grown into a menace. And America’s provision of arms to FSA-branded rebels worked to Nusra’s advantage—an inconvenient fact for those criticizing the president’s decision.

Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015, and the timing was not accidental. Just months earlier, in March, the “Army of Conquest” took over the northwestern province of Idlib. This rebel coalition was no band of moderates. It was led by Nusra and included its closest Islamist and jihadist partners. The Army of Conquest was on the march, threatening the Assad family’s stronghold of Latakia on the coast. Had the insurgents progressed much further south, Bashar al-Assad’s regime would have been in serious jeopardy, perhaps would even have fallen. With the backing of Russia and Iran, Assad’s forces rallied and stopped the Nusra-led coalition from taking even more ground. Russia saved Assad, but its efforts also stymied the jihadists’ offensive—a important fact that is often left out of Syria policy debates.

Since July 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra has changed its name twice and merged with other organizations to form a group known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“Assembly for the Liberation of Syria,” or HTS). The group is riven by internal rivalries, with some members even arguing that its leadership is no longer beholden to al Qaeda. But the jihadists are consolidating their control over Idlib as part of a totalitarian drive to dominate governance in the province.

HTS’s top-dog status within Idlib is no accident. Al Qaeda’s leadership and Jabhat al-Nusra have been laying the groundwork for an Islamic emirate, based on radical sharia law, in Syria since 2012. And their plan has called for exploiting Free Syrian Army groups and their CIA support.

Nusra has been happy to take advantage of the support FSA groups received from the United States and other nations supporting the multi-sided proxy war against Assad. There are dozens of videos online showing Syrian rebels firing the American-made, anti-tank BGM-71 TOW missile. The TOW is distinctive in appearance and relatively easy to identify, making it a rather public announcement of the groups involved in the CIA’s “clandestine” program. If one wants to know which FSA-branded groups have been approved by Langley, just look for TOW missiles.

Defenders of the program argue that only a small number of TOWs have been fired by al Qaeda’s men or other non-vetted rebels. Maybe. But at least some of the “vetted” groups shouldn’t have been deemed acceptable partners in the first place. Zenki received TOWs even though its extremism is obvious. Other Islamist groups within the loose-knit FSA coalition received TOWs as well.

And Nusra used such organizations to further its own designs. Abu Kumayt, who served as a fighter in the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), explained to the New York Times in December 2014 that Nusra “lets groups vetted by the United States keep the appearance of independence, so that they will continue to receive American supplies.” Another “commander” in a group that received TOWs told the Times that FSA “fighters were forced to operate them . . . on behalf of” Nusra during a battle with Assad’s forces. American-made weapons were fueling the jihadists’ gains and when Nusra finally grew tired of the SRF and Harakat Hazm, another American-supported group based in Idlib province, it quickly dispatched them, taking their weapons in the process.

American-made arms helped fuel the insurgents’ gains in Idlib province in 2015. Today, that same province is home to a nascent Taliban-style state.

Advocates for the Syrian opposition point to areas of the country outside of Idlib province where FSA-branded groups seem to hold more sway. But the story is almost always complicated by a jihadist presence. Take Aleppo, for instance, where in August 2016, insurgents temporarily broke the regime’s brutal siege. The Army of Conquest coalition—the same Nusra-led alliance that took over Idlib—played a key role in the fighting, as they would in a second attempt to break the siege later in 2016.

In October 2016, the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters that Nusra accounted for only 900 to 1,000 of the 8,000 opposition fighters in Aleppo. After objections that this modest figure was too high, the U.N. revised its estimate downward, claiming Nusra had just 150 to 200 members within the Aleppo opposition. Advocates then seized on this low figure to argue that the insurgents inside the city deserved the full backing of the West. They ignored the fact that the other, non-Nusra rebels included many extremists—such as Zenki.

It is doubtful that the U.N.’s lowball estimate for Nusra’s presence in Aleppo was accurate; Nusra produced videos showing large convoys making their way to the city, which suggested a much bigger force. But even the U.N. conceded that Nusra’s “influence” was greater than its numbers implied, because of the jihadists’ “operational capacity coupled with the fear that they engendered from other groups.” Part of the reason Nusra is so operationally effective is its use of suicide bombers, and a series of these “martyrs” were deployed by Nusra and its allies during key points in the battle for Aleppo. Without Nusra’s Army of Conquest, the insurgents would have had little hope of breaking Assad’s grip on the city, and TOW-armed FSA groups, some of them Islamist, fought right alongside Nusra’s men.

The bottom line: Sunni jihadists and extremists are laced throughout the Syrian rebellion and have been for years. While pockets of acceptable allies remain, there is no evidence that any truly moderate force is effectively fighting Assad, and President Trump was right to end the program of CIA support for the Syrian opposition.

It is a dire situation, and one might easily conclude that a full alliance with Russia in Syria makes some sense. That is clearly the president’s thinking. His administration has already explored ways to cooperate with Putin against the Islamic State, including brokering a ceasefire in southern Syria. But a partnership with Russia has its own downsides.

Russian and Syrian jets have indiscriminately and repeatedly bombed civilian targets. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons, which Trump himself objected to, bombing a Syrian airfield in response. The United States cannot endorse these war crimes by allying itself with the perpetrators of mass murder in Syria. The president has loudly denounced Iran and its sponsorship of terrorism throughout the world. But Russia and the Syrian government have sponsored Iran’s growing footprint in the country. A recent State Department report said that as many 7,000 fighters from Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terror group that is opposed to both the United States and Israel, are now located in Syria. These same Hezbollah fighters, along with Shiite militiamen sponsored by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are Russia’s and Assad’s key on-the-ground allies.

All of which is to say that there are no easy answers in Syria. But that doesn’t mean the United States should keep playing a losing hand. And that’s exactly what the program to support Syria’s rebels was—a bad deal.

Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.