By Jason Ditz
Desperate to claim some “progress” in the ongoing ISIS war, US defense officials are claiming that their assessment on the size of the ISIS force between Iraq and Syria has declined, and that the best estimates are now between 19,000 and 25,000 fighters.
In 2014, the intelligence estimate was that they believed there were around 20,000 ISIS fighters, though they later conceded that it could’ve been “as high as 31,000,” though there was never really a good effort to square the rather broad estimates.
In that regard, the claim of declining fighters might simply be untrue, with the 2016 estimate just the lower half of the over-broad 2014 estimate. US officials say they aren’t sure the reason of this, but say it could be a combination of the massive number of people they’re killing in airstrikes and efforts to make it harder to get into Syria.
The estimate also does not account for the soaring number of ISIS fighters outside of Iraq and Syria, with large numbers now in Libya, and significant affiliates also setting up shop in Yemen and Afghanistan. All told, ISIS is definitely getting bigger.
by Jason Ditz
UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura today declared a “pause” of the Geneva-based Syrian peace talks, saying both sides need to do more before there can be a serious effort. Mistura added he didn’t want talks just for the sake of talks.
The talks cap a week and a half process in which talks were initially scheduled for last Monday, invites were sent out Tuesday, rebels declined the invitation Wednesday and then showed up over the weekend insisting they weren’t officially “at” the talks, and both sides disputing assessments from earlier this week that the talks had “formally begun.” Indeed, to this point neither side was willing to concede that talks ever happened at all.
The effort was long delayed over arguments among nations over who would be allowed to attend, with Turkey threatening to boycott the talks if any Kurds were allowed in. The Kurds showed up over the weekend too, but were told to leave.
The US, for its part, insists the pause is wholly Russia’s fault with a faction of them continuing airstrikes in Syria during the talks, even though there was never a ceasefire agreed to beforehand and US warplanes too continued airstrikes throughout the period.
by Jason Ditz
Heavy fighting has erupted in northeastern Lebanon over the weekend between the major Islamist factions in the Syrian Civil War, ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, who fought on the outskirts of the town of Arsal, which is housing tens of thousands of refugees.
Reports from the area suggest at least nine ISIS and seven Nusra fighters were killed in the weekend fighting, and local Sheikh Mustafa Hujeiri, seen as close to Nusra, is said to be trying to broker some sort of local truce between the two sides to end the fighting.
ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front have years of acrimony fueling these fights, dating back to ISIS’ attempt to absorb Nusra and become the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq and Syria, an attempt which led to ISIS’ ultimate split from al-Qaeda.
Since then, the two have fought over territory in Syria repeatedly, fighting which only really ended when their respective territories no longer had a common border. Even now, Nusra is said to be trying to establish mergers with other Islamist outlets to try to more directly compete with ISIS.
Both are keen to carry out strikes in Lebanon, and have a presence in Arsal, but this close proximity to one another seems to have boiled over into another round of fighting.
by Jason Ditz
Last week, Pentagon officials were talking up a few hundred additional “trainers” for the ISIS war in Iraq and Syria. This appears to have just been the start, as reports now suggest that over the last several weeks, the Pentagon has sought another 800 US troops for the war.
800 would be a big deployment for a war in which the “no boots on the ground” mantra has continued to be repeated by the administration, so the plan is to split this up over several deployments. Over the past 18 months, the US has brought some 3,700 troops into Iraq, over a large number of small escalations.
In all of this the Pentagon has repeatedly suggested coalition partners would make up a lot of these deployments, though recently they’ve complained that many in the coalition are doing “nothing at all” for the war effort, and several have spurned requests for more troops.
Even this effort to get up to 4,500 troops on the ground is just the near-term goal, and doesn’t seem like it’s going to be anything close to the end of the ongoing escalation of the war.
Absent from the Pentagon push for ever more troops is the question of if the Iraqi government will go along with it. Several times in the past they’ve expressed annoyance at the US announcing escalations before asking them, and several Shi’ite militias in Iraq have complained that the US presence is already far too large.
by Jason Ditz
A leaked report by a UN panel of experts is calling for a formal inquiry into Saudi human rights abuses, saying the nation is “deliberately starving” Yemeni civilians in its war, and targeting civilians in airstrikes in a “widespread and systematic manner.”
The report went on to document 119 attacks on civilians that were likely violations of international law, saying some of the attacks could amount to “crimes against humanity.” They also faulted the Saudis for failing to respect any of the brokered ceasefires.
The incident is just adding to calls among human rights groups for Western nations to stop selling arms to the Saudis, and to stop blocking efforts to get a formal international investigation into the abuses. During the UN General Assembly, an attempt to start a probe into Yemeni war crimes ended when the Saudis complained, and it was agreed the Saudis could investigate themselves.
So far, the Saudis have not commented on the matter, and the US State Department has refused to discuss the report because it wasn’t supposed to be public, saying only that they’re concerned about “allegations of abuse.” The US has repeatedly endorsed the Saudi war, and is continuing to provide both arms and logistics support.
by Jason Ditz
Speaking at a news conference today in Turkey, Vice President Joe Biden sought to downplay the remote chances of any sort of political settlement coming out of this week’s planned Geneva peace talks, saying the US and Turkey are fully prepared to bypass the process and impose a “military solution” on Syria.
“We do know it would be better if we can reach a political solution,” Biden told the conference, insisting that absent that the US military was still fully capable of “solving” the situation.
US officials later sought to clarify that Biden only meant to say that the US could wipe out ISIS, and not that they were planning to impose a new government on Syria as a whole absent a deal from the international community.
Even that seems like an uphill battle, particularly if it’s to be the US and Turkey working together on the war, as the primary force on the ground fighting ISIS is the Kurdish YPG, and Turkish officials have attacked them multiple times in recent weeks, and warned the US against backing them against ISIS in certain key cities.
Biden made an effort to downplay the differences between the US and Turkey on Syria, even equating ISIS to the Kurdish PKK rebels. This echoes what President Erdogan has said, but in his comments he included the YPG, a close US ally, as equal to both ISIS and the PKK.
While the Obama Administration has repeatedly insisted they intend to “wipe out” ISIS, there is no suggestion that this is anything but a hugely long-term ambition, and Biden’s comments suggest that leaving the war open-ended is something the US is perfectly comfortable with.
by Jason Ditz
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren has confirmed that on Monday, the US launched its second attack on an ISIS “cash collection point” in as many weeks, destroying another pile of unspecified cash in the middle of the large city of Mosul.
As with the previous incident, there were reports of civilian casualties in the attack, though Col. Warren insisted the Pentagon was willing to accept some civilian deaths in the attack, and that the initial estimates were that they only killed “in the single digits.”
Pentagon officials had similarly indicated that in the previous attack they were “comfortable” with civilian casualties in the scores, but that they believed they’d only killed between 7-9. Those deaths have not been formally confirmed by the Pentagon, however, who usually denies reports of civilian deaths as a matter of course.
Col. Warren termed the killings “tragic” but did not indicate that the Pentagon had any qualms about launching such attacks, but warned that ISIS was likely to keep its cash in smaller amounts spread around multiple locations in the future to keep it from getting blown up.
While the first such strike was believed to have destroyed a few million dollars in cash, this latest strike is conspicuous in its lack of details, with officials making no attempt to estimate what they actually destroyed, suggesting the figure will seem less impressive, and less worth the casualties inflicted on the civilian population.
Of course, launching strikes that they know will kill civilian bystanders is widely held to be illegal under international law, and officials made a big deal with the previous attack about launching the strike late at night to limit the number of people around the area. In this case, no such assurances were given.
by Jason Ditz
The Iranian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement today condemning the US for following up its Saturday removal of nuclear sanctions against Iran with the imposition of a new round of sanctions on Sunday, saying the move was “aggravating and propagandistic.”
There is considerable dispute over the US sanctions, which cite a UN resolution forbidding Iran from developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. It was been argued that this makes the sanctions nuclear-related, and a violation of the P5+1 nuclear deal, and Iran insists that the missile isn’t nuclear capable in the first place, meaning the resolution doesn’t apply.
The statement by Iran’s foreign ministry is that they consider the sanctions “illegitimate” at any rate, and that Iran intends to continue to develop its conventional missile systems to improve its overall defensive capabilities.
That the US waited less than 24 hours after ending sanctions to impose new ones is a big boost to Iran’s ultraconservative factions ahead of next month’s elections, as they declared them vindication to their opposition to the nuclear deal on the grounds the US couldn’t be trusted to keep up its end of the bargain.
by Jason Ditz
Yesterday’s attack in the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta has been claimed by ISIS, with the attackers apparently having links both to the ISIS parent organization in Syria and to Indonesian extremist Bahrum Naim, who some officials are speculating may have been involved in plotting the incident.
The attackers, a group of suicide bombers and gunmen, hit an area around a Jakarta Starbucks, and a nearby police post, killing two civilians, a Canadian citizen and an Indonesian. Five attackers were also reported killed in the incident.
The Indonesian government responded to the incident with deployments of some 150,000 security personnel, and reported an unspecified number of arrests related to the attack. Australia was the first nation to raise a travel alert warning against vacationing in Indonesia for the time being.
The incident is far afield of usual ISIS haunts, but in keeping with their constant efforts to expand. Despite the comparatively small death toll, the high-profile of the incident, in a major nation’s capital city, is fueling a new round of panic across the world about the possibility of overseas strikes.
by Jason Ditz
Syrian military forces, backed by Hezbollah forces on the ground and Russian airstrikes, have retaken the Latakia Province town of Salma, along with strategically important hillsides around the town’s outskirts.
The Latakia Province, along the Mediterranean coast, is hugely important to the Syrian government, and has been contested by the coalition of rebels dominated by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which holds the adjacent Idlib Province.
Holding Latakia is also a top priority for Russia, as they have a naval base further south along the coast, and want to ensure that there is a secure path between the capital city of Damascus and the coast. This is why, despite the lack of ISIS in the area, Russia has heavily supported offensives against other Islamist rebels in and around this area.
In addition to the al-Qaeda coalition, Turkmen rebels are also active in northern Latakia. The Turkmen are heavily backed by neighboring Turkey, and have been targeted heavily by Russia since Turkey destroyed one of their warplanes over Syrian territory.
by Jason Ditz
A suspected ISIS suicide bomber detonated a bomb in a historic district of Istanbul, Turkey today, killing 10 people, all tourists, and wounding 15 others. The slain were identified as nine Germans and one Peruvian. The wounded haven’t all been identified but are also believed to be chiefly tourists.
Turkish deputy prime minister Numan Kurtulmus identified the attacker as a 28-year-old from Syria. Though no other officials directly confirmed this, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also said the attacker was an ISIS member.
There has been no claim of responsibility yet, however, and Turkey isn’t exactly short on would-be attackers, with an ongoing war against their Kurdish minority and intermittent suicide attacks from a Marxist-Leninist group that also operates around Istanbul.
Still, targeting tourists in general does seem in keeping with ISIS strategy, and is likely to damage Turkey’s tourism industry, as ISIS attacks have in the past in places like the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. The Turkish government announced an array of new security measures in the district, but panic prevails for the time being.
by Jason Ditz
A new statement from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) reported a Saudi rocket strike, likely an airstrike, hit one of their hospitals in the Yemeni capital city of Sanaa, killing four people and wounding 10 others, including three MSF staff members.
MSF said they couldn’t yet confirm if the incident was an airstrike or a ground-based rocket firing, but did say Saudi warplanes were flying overhead at the time, and that in addition to the strike that hit the hospital, a second one landed nearby.
MSF Director Raquel Ayora described it as part of a “worrying pattern” of Saudi attacks against medical services, warning that the destruction of the hospital will leave residents in the area without access to healthcare for weeks.
Saudi officials have not commented yet on this latest strike, though historically they’ve offered blanket denials whenever a strike gets them too much negative publicity. This has been particularly true of attacks on hospitals and other obvious civilian targets.
by Jason Ditz
On Tuesday, US special forces accompanying Afghan troops engaged in a protracted firefight with Taliban forces in the Helmand Province. One of the soldiers was killed and two others wounded, and a helicopter was virtually destroyed.
Don’t call it combat though. Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook, pressed on the matter, appeared increasingly desperate to avoid the “c-word” when talking about Afghanistan, labeling the mission a “train, advise and assist” operation, and shrugged off the fact it was a gunbattle by saying Afghanistan “is a dangerous place.”
The troops were deployed in response to Taliban gains in Helmand, with an explicit eye toward fighting them off. US warplanes have been increasing their airstrikes against Helmand all the while, so why the pretense of a “non-combat” situation?
Despite being 14+ years into the Afghanistan occupation, Pentagon officials are increasingly loathe to present anything the US is doing as combat, even when it involves shooting people and blowing stuff up. The narrative in Afghanistan in particular is one of the US taking a “support” role, and the admission that US troops have to get into combat to keep the Taliban from seizing important parts of the country undercuts the pretense of progress.
Yet this isn’t just an Afghanistan matter. The Pentagon has similarly struggled with “combat” operations in Iraq, labeling gunbattles against ISIS there as “training” operations too.
by Jason Ditz
Though it’s unclear if the timing is more a function of regional sectarian tension or of the Saudis canceling the mostly ineffective ceasefire in Yemen, Saudi warplanes have dramatically escalated the number of airstrikes against targets inside Yemen today, hitting a number of civilian buildings in Shi’ite-held territory.
While airstrikes continued in the contested area around Taiz, much of the increase was deep in Houthi territory, around the capital city of Sanaa and the port of Hodeida. One of the Sanaa strikes destroyed the Noor Center for Care and Rehabilitation of the Blind, wounding three people. The chamber of commerce was also hit.
The Saudis have been facing growing international criticism of the huge civilian toll in their war against Yemen, and the tendency of strikes to hit obviously civilian targets like the blind center are only going to add to the criticism of their targeting methods.
Meanwhile, the “curfew” imposed by pro-Saudi forces in Aden doesn’t appear to be going well, as ISIS bombers attacked the city governor’s convoy in the city today, killing at least one, and according to some accounts two, of his bodyguards.
by Jason Ditz
Three different bombing attacks, at least one involving a suicide bomber, were carried out today against restaurants in the Hasakeh Province city of Qamishli, primarily under the control of the Kurdish YPG. ISIS is believed to be responsible for the attacks.
Preliminary reports are that at least 16 people were killed and 30 others wounded. A statement from a pro-ISIS outlet claimed “dozens” were killed but offered no specifics.
Qamishli, like some other parts of the Hasakeh Province, is co-defended by Kurdish forces and the Syrian government against ISIS, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the attacks targeted a government-held district, and primarily a Christian one.
Qamishli is close to the Turkish border in Hasakeh, and one of the few jointly-held sites still under government control that is along the border. ISIS has been keen to expand its border holdings with neighboring Turkey, and Turkey is seemingly eager to see less Kurdish presence there.
by Jason Ditz
A pair of car bombings shook the Syrian city of Homs today, killing at least 32 people and wounding 90 others. Reports from the Syrian government referred to at least one of the incidents as a suicide bombing.
This is the second major bombing attack against Homs since this month’s ceasefire deal was signed, which handed the last of the city’s districts back to the military after years under the control of Islamist rebels. ISIS claimed credit for the previous attacks, but so far no one has claimed today’s.
ISIS, interestingly, was not believed to have much of a presence at all in Homs before this previous attack, though the group has established a foothold in the easternmost parts of the Homs Province in recent months. The city, however, has mostly been in the sway of rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and its coalition in Idlib.
The recovery of Homs in the ceasefire deal was a huge boost for the Syrian military, and gave them a better supply line from their power base around Damascus to the contested areas in Aleppo and Idlib Province.
by Jason Ditz
According to Pentagon officials, they are feverishly at work on a “new narrative” for public discussion about the ongoing war against ISIS, centering on growing criticism of the apparent lack of a concrete plan for how to win the war or any end-game theory.
“To say there’s no strategy is just flat out wrong,” insisted Army Col. Christopher Graves, the public affairs officer for the war, and others say the goal is to present the notion that there is a strategy in place in a “concise, easy to understand way.”
The official narrative on the war has struggled mightily to find its voice so far, in no small part because officials have repeatedly ruled out things like combat troops and “boots on the ground” before announcing deployments into Iraq, and a lot of revision of what was really promised leading President Obama to eventually insist it was only a pledge for no battalions.
It remains to be seen exactly how the Pentagon aims to shift the narrative this time, but conspicuously absent from early conversation on this “new” narrative is laying out exactly what that nebulous strategy to win the war actually is.
And despite Pentagon assurances that they “welcome debate” on the strategy, that’s the one thing that’s least likely to happen, as the administration has so far seemed to base the public narrative of the war on a series of vague pledges to eventually wipe out ISIS in some unspecified way with some unspecified force, all the while escalating in ways that publicly they had insisted were ruled out. There are doubtless more escalations in the cards for the ISIS war, and the Pentagon goal is not to start a debate about that, but rather to convince the public to acquiesce.
by Jason Ditz
For years, US drone strikes were the exclusive purview of the CIA, putting them in the realm of extrajudicial assassinations, and the shift toward the Pentagon running the show was initially seen as a significant step toward accountability and abiding by the laws of war.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Rather, some lawmakers as well as some CIA officials are warning that the transition has reduced what accountability there was, effectively eliminating Congressional scrutiny of individual strikes.
Congressional oversight of the drone war was limited even when the CIA was doing it, but it appears misplaced faith in the Pentagon to “do things different” had reduced a lot of the interest in keeping an eye on them, and unlike the CIA the military doesn’t have a legal requirement to disclose individual drone strikes to Congress.
From the military’s perspective, it makes sense. They argue the drone is no different from any other warplane, and they don’t have to give Congress an individual account of every other airstrike. Yet the drones are used differently, mostly for assassinations, and there is less resistance to using them than there would be for more expensive piloted aircraft.
The military sold their takeover of the program on the idea they’d be less secretive than the CIA, but it simply hasn’t borne out, and with the military blanketly denying virtually all civilian deaths in all airstrikes, and refusing to even say how often the drones were used.
Rights groups are urging Congress to try to revue the strikes, since the Pentagon claims Congress can always request more info, but so far most of the leadership doesn’t want to show a lack of confidence in the military.
by Jason Ditz
Coalition airstrikes against the major ISIS-held Iraqi city of Mosul leveled homes in a residential neighborhood today, killing at least 20 people, including at least 12 civilians. The claim was that the homes were “used by ISIS.”
Witnesses said one of the houses belonged to the son of a local ISIS commander. Several other houses in the area were badly damaged by the attacks, and officials have conspicuously not commented on the incident so far.
US officials have generally not admitted to large civilian death tolls during airstrikes against ISIS territory, insisting the reports of eyewitnesses in those areas are “not credible” and refusing to investigate the claims more thoroughly.
Mosul is ISIS’ largest city, and has been held by ISIS since the summer of 2014. Though US and Iraqi officials have talked up an eventual counterattack, there is no timetable for trying to reclaim the city, which is still deeply entrenched in ISIS territory.
by Jason Ditz
Protests erupted in Istanbul and Diyarbakir today as Turkey continued its military offensive against Kurdish towns in the nation’s southeast, with security officials putting the death toll at 110 Kurds killed in the last six days.
The war against the Kurdish PKK has brought a growing amount of Turkish military force against towns in the southeast, with some of the towns under full curfew, cut off from electricity, and with locals reporting less and less food and water available within.
Turkish President Erdogan has vowed to “cleanse” Turkey of PKK rebels in the growing crackdown, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed today that Turkey would not get “tired” of waging war against the towns.
The war is dividing the country in an ever-growing way, however, with even the opposition HDP calling for open “resistance” to the Erdogan government. The government may remain eager to escalate the crackdown, but they are fueling growing opposition with the way they are carrying it out.