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ISIS Fight Against al-Qaeda Spills Over From Syria into Lebanon

by Jason Ditz

While most of the factions within the Syrian Civil War are party to an ongoing ceasefire, neither ISIS nor al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front were invited to take part. As those two factions continue to clash with myriad other groups, they’re also finding time to fight against one another.

Heavy fighting erupted in the Syrian Qalamoun Mountains on Sunday, with ISIS pushing into regions held by al-Qaeda. The fighting raged into Monday, and moved further west, with both sides crossing into Lebanon, where al-Qaeda forces aimed to take ISIS territory along the border.

Lebanon has struggled with spill-over violence throughout the Syrian Civil War, with both ISIS and Nusra operating around the hills in the Bekaa Valley, and occasionally clashing with Lebanese security forces in the town of Arsal.

All told, at least 18 Nusra fighters were killed, along with 14 ISIS fighters. Six Nusra fighters were also reported captured in the battles. Though the fighting appears to have reached a lull by Monday evening, it is liable to pick up again at any moment.

ISIS Kills 18 Iraqi Soldiers in Attack on Key Anbar Base

by Jason Ditz

A group of 10 ISIS fighters, at least two of them suicide bombers, attacked the main Anbar Province air base of Ayn al-Assad over the weekend, killing at least 18 Iraqi soldiers and wounding an unknown number of others.

Ayn al-Assad has several hundred US troops, labeled “trainers,” though the Iraqi Defense Ministry insisted that the ISIS fighters, who did briefly seize some buildings on the base, didn’t actually reach any US facilities.

According to Iraqi officials, eight of the 10 attackers were killed by Iraqi troops defending the base, while the other two blew themselves up. It is unclear how they got inside the base, let alone seized several important offices on such a major base.

Despite claims that ISIS is “on the run” in Anbar Province after the fall of Ramadi, the group has continued to launch major attacks in both Anbar and Baghdad.

US Marines Enter Ground Combat in Iraq to Defend Oil Fields

by Jason Ditz

Even as Pentagon officials have sought to emphasize their claims of ISIS being “on the run,” ever more US ground troops are being deployed into Iraq to try to cope with ISIS offensives, with the battle of Makhmur leading to the introduction of US Marines in front-line combat roles.

Officials are trying to downplay the operation as “force protection” for Iraqi ground troops, who have been massing in the area in an effort to ultimately launch an attack on the ISIS-held city of Mosul, not far away.

The explanation is unsatisfying for several reasons, but primarily because this “tactical assembly area” already includes thousands of Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga, and these are the same troops who are supposed to attack Mosul. Yet these troops are apparently unable to even hold Makhmur, let alone advance toward Mosul.

The Makhmur District is also a key to holding oil fields around Kirkuk, and the ISIS offensive is seen by many analysts as part of an effort to ultimately regain control over those lucrative oil fields, and have been “outgunning” the thousands of Iraqi troops in the area.

Whether they’re trying to save Iraqi ground troops who still can’t stand up to ISIS, or save oil fields, however, the latest escalation puts US troops even further in harm’s way, and has put the war even further afield from the “no boots on the ground” affair initially promised by the Obama Administration.


Clinton Email Shows US Sought Syria Regime Change for Israel’s Sake

by Jason Ditz

It is rare for a succinct foreign policy platform paper to so fully encapsulate a candidate’s thinking process. A State Department email of Hillary Clinton, available on WikiLeaks, lays out the Democratic front-runner’s strategy as an architect of US intervention in Syria, shows the flawed reasoning that beget the scheme. Perhaps most importantly, the document shows utter blindness to the huge problems that the war ultimately led to.

As with so many US wars in the Middle East, it all starts with Israel, and then-Secretary of State Clinton saw the US imposing regime change in Syria as primarily about benefiting Israel and spiting Iran, a position that closely mirrors that of several Israeli officials.

The Clinton ideal was that the US would impose regime change by supplying arms, but without US troops, and that Russia wouldn’t dare oppose America (noting Russia did nothing during Kosovo), that the new US-backed Syrian government would abandon ties with Iran, turn against Hezbollah, and potentially negotiate a peace settlement with Israel, while the rest of the Arab world cheers America “as fighting for their people.”

There are myriad flaws in this reasoning, and in hindsight very few of Clinton’s predictions came to pass, from her declaration that the Iran nuclear talks wouldn’t lead to a deal, that Russia wouldn’t defend the Assad government from US-backed rebels, that US pledges of arms would lead to more defections from the Syrian military, etc.

Perhaps the most glaring mistakes was the failure to acknowledge even to the prospect of Islamist groups getting involved. Five years into the civil war, US-backed rebels are still comparatively ineffectual, despite huge weapons shipments, and ISIS and other Islamist groups control more than half of the country.

Clinton’s position seems to be wrong at nearly every turn, with her one correct analysis being the fairly trite observation that Israel wants to retain a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East, without offering any plausible reason for why the US should commit forces to supporting of this objective

While the paper reveals Clinton’s interventionist leanings, it may also be elucidative regarding interventionist mentality in general, showing how quickly the notion of a “low cost” war becomes official policy, and that policymakers are ultimately blind not just to the reality on the ground, but also to the bigger risks of their schemes.

Report: Yemenis Agree to Ceasefire, Peace Talks

by Jason Ditz

Reports from pro-Saudi Yemeni officials suggest that both they and the Shi’ite Houthis they’ve been fighting since last year’s Saudi attack have agreed to a ceasefire for “a week or two” in anticipation of peace talks to be held in April.

Details are still scant, but the UN has reportedly been informed of the planned talks, and they are to be hosted in Kuwait. It is unclear so far if the Saudi coalition is included in the truce, or simply their Yemeni allies.

Previous proposals for talks had stalled on demands from the pro-Saudi faction that the Houthis agree to unilaterally disarm and surrender all of their territory. Though it seems unlikely to be the case, the pro-Saudi officials claimed that the Houthis have agreed to do so this time around, and that they agreed to the ceasefire to show “good intentions.”

The Saudis attacked Yemen in late March 2015, vowing to reinstall President Hadi in power. Hadi was installed for a two-year term in office in 2012, and resigned in January 2015, long after that term was supposed to be over. Despite this, Saudi officials insist he is the rightful ruler of Yemen.

Saudis Say They Will Soon Scale Back Yemen War

by Jason Ditz

Saudi Arabia’s military spokesman today announced their intention to scale back military operations against Yemen at some point in the future. They suggested this would happen soon, but that airstrikes against Yemen would continue.

The announcement comes as UN officials took the Saudi military to task for a series of Tuesday airstrikes against a Yemeni marketplace, killing at least 119 civilians. This was the latest in a number of embarrassing incidents of major civilian deaths in Saudi attacks.

[RELATED: Saudi Airstrikes Hit Yemen Market, Killing at Least 41 Civilians]

The US praised the announcement, saying they’d been concerned about the loss of innocent life in Yemen, and welcome the Saudi statement for vowing to bring stability to the country they attacked last year. The US, of course, has participated in the Saudi war, both refueling Saudi warplanes during airstrikes and participating in the naval blockade.

The Saudi war’s stated goal was to reinstall Yemen’s President Hadi, who was appointed to a two-year term in office in early 2012, and resigned in January of 2015 after spurning Shi’ite calls for elections. The Saudis insist Hadi remains the legitimate ruler of Yemen, and expected to put him back in power quickly. A year into the war, however, they only control the city of Aden and some of the surrounding area.

Saudi Airstrikes Hit Yemen Market, Killing at Least 41 Civilians

by Jason Ditz

Saudi warplanes attacked a crowded marketplace in the northwestern Yemeni province of Hajjah today, killing at least 41 people, all of them civilians, and wounding scores of others. Local officials say many of the wounded are severely so, and are not expected to survive.

The attacks centered on an outdoor marketplace and a nearby restaurant, and overwhelmed two nearby hospitals with the number of casualties. Saudi officials expressed “regret” for any “injuries or loss of life,” but insisted they weren’t sure it was true.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) confirmed the incident, however, saying 40 of the wounded civilians were admitted to Abs Hospital, one of the two hospitals which took in casualties. Amnesty International reiterated their call for the US to stop sending arms to the Saudis, saying both unexploded US bombs and fragments of exploded US bombs are showing up around civilian targets in Yemen.

This is the latest in a large number of Saudi airstrikes against targets that ended up being civilian in nature. Over the course of the first year of the Saudi war in Yemen, over 6,000 people have been killed, roughly half civilians, and those overwhelmingly the result of airstrikes.

Syria Peace Talks Begin in Geneva, With ‘No Plan B’

by Jason Ditz

The latest round of Syrian peace talks began Monday in Geneva, with UN officials saying there is no plan for the government and rebels to actually meet face-to-face at all during the talks, with the UN simply ferrying messages back and forth.

The talks come amid an ongoing ceasefire, with UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura warning ominously that the only plan B is to return to war, “and to an even worse war than we had so far.” Still, the talks appear to be an uphill battle.

That’s because the rebels are demanding an immediate ouster of President Bashar Assad and the installation of a “transitional government,” which they of course intend to dominate. Syrian government officials have urged the talks to go slow, and deal with other issues, saying Assad’s ouster is a “red line.”

The Russian proposed plan which formed the basis for the talks was to unify government and rebels, pen a new constitution, and hold free elections. The rebels have so far expressed an aversion to that plan unless they are guaranteed that Assad, and potential other top officials, are barred from taking part in the vote.

Syrian al-Qaeda Seizes US-Made Missiles in Fight

by Jason Ditz

Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, Jabhat al-Nusra, has turned on one of their traditional allies in Idlib Province, the US-backed Free Syrian Army wing called Division 13, accusing the group of planning to attack its own bases.

Nusra followed this up with attacks on the Division 13 bases, seizing both bases and a number of US-made anti-tank missiles from the group. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a number of FSA fighters were detained.

Nusra dominates the Idlib Province as the head of a coalition of Islamist-leading rebel factions. This coalition includes, or at least included multiple US-backed factions who are recipients of US arms. The US has expressed concern about Russian airstrikes against Idlib, even if targeting al-Qaeda, on the grounds they threaten American allies.

This purge of Division 13 suggests this may soon be a concern of the past, with al-Qaeda apparently looking to further centralize their control over their “emirate” in Idlib, and other US allies in the coalition must likely be sleeping with one eye open tonight.

Obama Defends US Involvement in Libya, Blames Europe for Aftermath

by Jason Ditz

A new round of wide-ranging comments on his assorted wars in The Atlantic saw President Obama defending America’s involvement in the 2011 NATO-imposed regime change in Libya, saying he had a UN mandate and it only cost $1 billion, which “is very cheap.”

And while Obama conceded that Libya turned into a “mess” in the aftermath, he sought to shift blame for that onto Europe, particularly Britain and France, saying he had “more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.”

He was particularly open about France’s involvement, saying then-President Nicholas Sarkozy wanted to brag about all the flights France was launching, dispute waiting until the US wiped out all air defenses in the country. Obama said allowing France to take credit for more than they actually did was a way to “purchase France’s involvement” in the war.

He also took shots at British Prime Minister David Cameron, who he said “stopped paying attention” in Libya after the war, and ended up “distracted by a range of other things,” as well as other unnamed nations who were pushing the US to act but didn’t “have any skin in the game.”

Al-Shabaab Rejects US Claim of 150 Killed in Drone Strikes

by Jason Ditz

Somali Islamist faction al-Shabaab confirmed US claims of a series of drone strikes against one of their training camps, but insisted US claims of “over 150” militants killed was far overstated, and simply “American propaganda.”

The Shabaab spokesman insisted that the group never has that many fighters concentrated into a single spot because of the threat of imminent attacks like the one the US launched over the weekend.

[RELATED: Pentagon: Drone Strike in Somalia Kills Over 150 Militants]

Witnesses confirmed that there were major explosions and a lot of fire, but were unable to confirm or deny the death toll. Somali commanders claimed that over 200 fighters were certainly killed in the incident, but didn’t provide any evidence for that.

The Pentagon claimed the attack on the base was “defensive in nature,” and that they believe the militants were an imminent threat against US troops, though they did not say where those US troops actually were.

Pentagon: Drone Strike in Somalia Kills Over 150 Militants

by Jason Ditz

US drones launched a massive attack against an al-Shabaab training camp 120 miles north of the Somali capital city of Mogadishu, according to the Pentagon. Spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis claims over 150 militants were slain in the attack.

Officials say that they were watching the camp “for several weeks” prior to the attack, and the Pentagon claimed they posed “an imminent threat to US forces.” It’s not clear where those US forces are that were at risk.

The attack reported took place on Saturday, and US officials are insisting that there are no indications of any civilian casualties. This is a common claim after US strikes, though time and again civilian tolls start cropping up in the days that follow.

The Australian government also reported having seized a shipload of weapons that were on a fishing boat near Oman, claiming that they believe the weapons were heading for Somalia. This is adding to talk that al-Shabaab is on the rise as a regional force.

Syrian Rebels Furious as Ceasefire Continues to Hold

by Jason Ditz

After five years of civil war, Syria is experiencing a temporary return to normalcy, with a ceasefire now in its fifth day and still holding steady. There is a lot of negativity about the chances of making a peace deal, but everyone is enjoying the dramatic reduction in violence the ceasefire has provided.

Everyone except the rebels, that is. Having resisted international efforts to broker a settlement of the war, many rebel factions were dragged kicking and screaming by the international community into this truce, insisting all the while it wouldn’t work.

The rebels who were blasting the US for “betraying” them by supporting a doomed ceasefire last week are now blasting the US for “betraying” them by supporting a ceasefire which is working, and is heading toward some settlement short of installing them as the new government.

Rebels now say they’re convinced the US, Russia, and the Assad government are all plotting against them, and after previously making their participation in peace talks conditional on a ceasefire, they are hunting for a new excuse to keep the war going.

18 Rebels Killed in South Syria Car Bombing

by Jason Ditz

18 moderate rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army were killed in a car bomb attack in the southern Quneitra province today. The bombing targeted a base in the village of al-Isha, not far from the Israeli border.

There has yet to be any claim of responsibility, but one of the spokesmen for a rebel group in the area suggested it was likely the work of “ISIS sleeper cells.” ISIS has forces in this region, but no territory of their own so far south in Syria.

The FSA Southern Front reported that some key personnel were among the slain, including the Southern Front’s main commander, Abu Hamza al-Naimi, which suggests the attack was likely an assassination attempt as opposed to a random strike against an FSA base.

Though there was initially some talk of the attack being related to the ongoing ceasefire, most now say that is unlikely to be the case. ISIS is not a party to the ceasefire, and never suggested any intention of stopping their attacks.

Rights Groups Fault NATO General for Hyping ISIS in Refugees

by Jason Ditz

Adding to a flurry of claims of ISIS infiltration by way of the influx of refugees into Europe, and as usual providing no evidence to back it up, NATO Gen. Philip Breedlove claimed the refugees are “masking the movement” of ISIS and allowing the group to “spread like a cancer” across Europe.

Breedlove’s comments are in keeping with those of a number of NATO member nations looking for an excuse to stop the flow of refugees, or at least confine them to Turkey, but human rights groups were quick to fault him for making it sound like the refugees were a large security problem, when almost no militants have been confirmed to have infiltrated with them.

Indeed, it was only yesterday that the Netherlands confirmed that out of the 60,000 refugees they accepted, 30 “suspects” were found, and as yet none have conclusively been linked to ISIS. In the meantime, the Netherlands has faced violent anti-refugee protests led by far-right political figures.

When pressed to defend his own assertions, Gen. Breedlove simply insisted he’s “not going to talk to you about intelligence,” even though he couched his previous claims as intelligence, as opposed to just random xenophobic rhetoric.

Pentagon Proposes Further Expansion of Role in Iraq War

by Jason Ditz

Always on the look out to escalate their involvement in the war against ISIS, Defense Secretary Ash Carter today told reporters that the Pentagon is planning a series of proposals for the Obama Administration to approve more activities for the thousands of US troops on the ground in Iraq.

“We’re talking about more of the things that we did in Ramadi, but we are talking about additional things of the kind that we’ve offered previously,” Carter insisted. Though that seems deliberately vague, he is known to have pushed the idea of US attack helicopters and embedded US troops in Iraqi combat units previously, and those are likely among the proposals.

The administration’s efforts to sell “no boots on the ground” to the American public, at least early in the war, has meant it has taken dozens of small deployments to get the US up to its 5,000 or so ground troops in Iraq, and myriad efforts to get them out of the bases and onto the battlefields.

Selling the White House is likely the easy task, however, as the Iraqi government has repeatedly resisted giving the US ground troops too much direct involvement in the war, and is facing strong pressure from Shi’ite militias to keep the US at arm’s length, at least as far as the ground war is involved.

Violations Reported, But Syria Ceasefire Mostly Holds

by Jason Ditz

Both Syrian rebels and government allies reported multiple ceasefire violations over the weekend, each blaming the other side for all violations, but by and large the ceasefire held through the weekend, with fighting enormously down from pre-ceasefire levels.

Russia announced late on Saturday that it is grounding all its warplanes in Syrian territory, despite the ceasefire allowing them to continue attacks on ISIS and al-Qaeda targets, saying they didn’t want there to be any “mistakes” to threaten the truce.

The rebels also say that they are going to stick to the ceasefire for the time being, but that they also intend to complain to the United Nations about “Russian violations” and also complained about the US not keeping them more directly involved in the negotiations.

The UN had suggested that if the ceasefire lasted through this first week they are going to attempt to get a new round of peace talks going. Though there are still several days left, the chances look a lot better now than they were expected to be.

The biggest incidents of fighting over the weekend where with parties not directly involved in the ceasefire, as ISIS attacked a major Kurdish-held town, and al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front launched attacks against coastal Latakia.

Syrian Rebels Backtrack on Endorsement of Ceasefire

by Jason Ditz

Yesterday, the Syrian rebel faction the “High Negotiations Council” (HNC) announced that it intended to abide by the ceasefire deal announced by the US and Russia. Today, they have backed off of that, saying they support the idea in theory, but haven’t committed to it.

Instead, the group says that they are willing to accept a separate two-week ceasefire as opposed to this open-ended one, to see if everyone is “serious.” They also rejected the idea of Russia being one of the nations negotiating the ceasefire.

The Syrian government has confirmed they are going to abide by the ceasefire, and today the Kurdish YPG also affirmed their intention to go along with the deal. Other rebel factions not part of the Saudi-backed HNC have not gone public about their intentions.

Officials say that factions have until noon Friday to announce whether or not they intend to take part in the ceasefire. It’s not clear what will happen to factions that don’t endorse the deal, though the terms explicitly exclude both ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, meaning fighting will continue against them at least.

Kerry: If Ceasefire Fails, Partition of Syria is ‘Plan B’

by Jason Ditz

Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested the latest push for a ceasefire in Syria could amount to the last chance for one, and suggested that the US would see a partition of the country as “plan B.”

Kerry didn’t offer any details on how this would work, of course, but that fact that the US is mentioning partition at all is a huge step, as the US has fiercely resisted similar considerations in neighboring Iraq, which itself is facing a near identical war with many of the same combatants.

Kerry said if the ceasefire didn’t get into place, it would soon be “too late” to allow Syria to remain whole, and that the partition of the country could form an “eventual solution” to the civil war, which has raged for the past five years.

Though a de facto partition has existed in Syria for months now, with fighting along the margins, it’s unfathomable that the international community could recognize it as a de jure separation so long as ISIS controls around half of the country, and al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front has its own contiguous statelet in the north.

Though “partition” is meant to suggest a split on government-rebel lines, the reality is the rebels don’t hold enough territory to be a country, and the partition would amount to a recognition of the ISIS caliphate as a state of its own.

NATO: Afghan Troops Should Defend Less, Attack More

by Jason Ditz

As Afghan troops continue to lose ground to advancing Taliban forces, NATO advisers say they want the Afghan military to spend even less time defending territory they already hold, and spend more time on the offensive against the Taliban.

NATO says that the Afghan military is dedicating too many troops to “poorly defended checkpoints,” and insisting that their effort to defend the entire country effectively means they aren’t able to defend anything particularly well.

Afghan forces today withdrew from the Nawzad District of Helmand Province, just days after ceding the neighboring Musa Qala District to the Taliban as well. The Taliban has repeatedly pushed into those districts, forcing the Afghan military to send reinforcements to try to recover them, but seems to have withdrawn for the near term now, saying defends the other districts are the priority.

Despite NATO’s goal of turning the war back into an offensive one, the big problem with the Afghan military seems to be one of numbers, as some 40% of the military exists only on paper, and in many cases this has meant the checkpoints have half the troops they were supposed to defending them.

Afghan officials warn they can’t really abandon their defense, imperfect as it is, because they’re losing enough ground to the Taliban as it is. Even if NATO can convince them, it’s not clear how these security forces, used to hanging out in ramshackle forts with no vehicles, are suddenly going to be able to go “offensive” anywhere not within walking distance.