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Archive for July, 2014

Afghanistan: Gunmen kill local election candidate

April 02, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An Afghan official says Taliban gunmen have killed nine people, including a candidate running for a seat in the provincial council, who had been abducted in northern Afghanistan.

The governor of Sar-i-Pul province says authorities received intelligence that the candidate, Hussain Nazari, was slain by his abductors. Nazari was seized by the Taliban three days ago while traveling to the provincial capital.

Gov. Abdul Jabar Haqbeen said on Wednesday that Nazari and eight other people were killed. No group has claimed responsibility. Haqbeen says they recovered four bodies and one man who was wounded, while the five other bodies, including the candidate’s, are in a remote area.

Haqbeen says authorities were told that Nazari and two others were beheaded, but that could not be confirmed until the bodies are retrieved.

Ex-defense minister drops out of Afghan race

March 16, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s former defense minister became the second presidential hopeful to withdraw from the race on Sunday, leaving a field of nine candidates three weeks before the vote to replace Hamid Karzai.

Karzai is constitutionally banned from seeking a third term in office, and the vote will mark the first democratic transfer of power since the Taliban were ousted by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The balloting also will be a key test of the ability of government forces to provide their own security as the international community prepares to end its combat mission by the end of the year.

Abdul Rahim Wardak, a longtime defense minister until he was removed by parliament in a vote of no confidence in 2012, gave no reason for his withdrawal and said he was not throwing his support behind any remaining candidates. The U.S.-educated Wardak, a Pashtun, was one of the top Afghan officials most trusted by Washington and was not considered a front-runner. He earlier served as a senior commander fighting against the Soviet occupation.

Karzai’s brother Qayyum also dropped out of the race earlier this month and backed former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, considered one of three leading candidates. The other two are Abdullah Abdullah, who was runner-up in the disputed 2009 election, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who chairs a commission overseeing the transition of security responsibilities from NATO to Afghan forces.

With the field still crowded, most Afghans and observers anticipate that no candidate will win an outright majority on April 5 and a runoff vote will have to be held. The Taliban have threatened to “use all force” to disrupt the election and warned voters to stay away from the polls.

Human Rights Watch called the threat “as despicable as it is unlawful.” “That threat highlights the responsibility of the Afghan government and its security forces to take all necessary measures to protect campaign activities and voters,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement.

Karzai says Afghanistan doesn’t need US troops

March 15, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — In his final address to Afghanistan’s parliament Saturday, President Hamid Karzai told the United States its soldiers can leave at the end of the year because his military, which already protects 93 percent of the country, was ready to take over entirely.

He reiterated his stance that he would not sign a pact with the United States that would provide for a residual force of U.S. troops to remain behind after the final withdrawal, unless peace could first be established.

The Afghan president has come under heavy pressure to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, with a council of notables that he himself convened recommend that he sign the pact. The force would train and mentor Afghan troops, and some U.S. Special Forces would also be left behind to hunt down al-Qaida.

All 10 candidates seeking the presidency in April 5 elections have said they would sign the security agreement. But Karzai himself does not appear to want his legacy to include a commitment to a longer foreign troop presence in his country.

Karzai was brought to power in the wake of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and subsequently won two presidential elections __ in 2004 and again in 2009. But he has in recent years espoused a combatative nationalism, with his hour-long speech Saturday no exception.

“I want to say to all those foreign countries who maybe out of habit or because they want to interfere, that they should not interfere,” he said. Karzai said the war in Afghanistan was “imposed” on his nation, presumably by the 2001 invasion, and told the United States it could bring peace to Afghanistan if it went after terrorist sanctuaries and countries that supported terrorism, a reference to Pakistan.

Pakistan has a complicated relationship with the Taliban. It backed the group before their 2001 overthrow, and although now it is at war with its own militants, Afghan insurgents sometimes find refuge on its territory.

Karzai told parliament, which was holding its opening session for this term, that security forces were strong enough to defend Afghanistan without the help of international troops. Karzai steps down after next month’s presidential elections. Under Afghanistan’s constitution, he is banned from seeking a third term.

He came to power in December 2001 following an international agreement signed in Bonn, Germany, and was confirmed by a Loya Jirga or grand council that selected a transitional government to rule while preparing for nationwide elections. He subsequently won two presidential elections.

Relations between Karzai and the United States have been on a downward spiral since his re-election in 2009, in which the United States and several other countries charged widespread fraud. Karzai in turn accused them of interference.

In his speech Karzai again urged Taliban insurgents to join the peace process, while accusing Pakistan of protecting the Taliban leadership. He suggested that Pakistan was behind the killing earlier this year of a Taliban leader who supported the peace process. No one has taken responsibility for the attack.

Throughout his speech Karzai spoke of his accomplishments over the last 12 years, saying schools were functioning, rights were being given to women, energy projects were coming online and the Afghan currency had been stabilized. Karzai said that when he first took power his country was isolated and nothing was functioning.

“I know the future president will protect these gains and priorities and will do the best for peace in the country and I, as an Afghan citizen, will support peace and will cooperate.” Afghanistan’s current parliament plans to tackle a number of key issues, including a controversial law on the elimination of violence against women.

Meanwhile the Taliban released two Afghan army personnel, captured during last month’s deadly raids on two military check points, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement Saturday. The men were freed after elders in the region interceded on their behalf and the military agreed to hand over to the Taliban the bodies of their colleagues left behind on the battlefield.

The attacks on Feb. 23 left 21 Afghan army personnel dead. Several insurgents were also killed.

Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan

Syria rebels advance towards Hama military airport


BEIRUT – Syrian rebels pressed on with a fresh advance in the central province of Hama, as they bid to take out its military airport, a rebel commander and a monitor said Tuesday.

“The rebels are now nine kilometers (six miles) away from Hama military airport, which they want to put out of action,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

A rebel leader in the area, who gave his name as Hassan, said Hama military airport was important because “that is where the regime makes its barrel bombs, and warplanes take off from there to carry out air strikes on (opposition-held) areas across Syria”.

Barrel bombs have killed hundreds of civilians, especially in rebel areas of the divided northern city of Aleppo, in recent months.

According to the Observatory, rebels and their Al-Qaeda ally, the Al-Nusra Front, took over a major checkpoint north of Hama city, which is firmly under regime control, on Monday night.

The takeover of the checkpoint at Tarabih comes on the back of Sunday’s capture of a weapons depot in the area.

“The regime has suffered several defeats in Hama province in recent days,” said Abdel Rahman.

As they have advanced, rebels have cut off the road linking Hama city, the provincial capital, to a string of regime-controlled Christian and Alawite villages in the west of the province, he added.

According to Hassan, the regime is sending reinforcements.

“They are stepping up their troop presence here, which will limit the regime’s capabilities in other areas, such as Aleppo”, said the rebel commander.

As for the military airport: “We are already striking it with Grad missiles”, said Hassan.

The air force has used deadly barrel bombs, which are being manufactured in Hama military airport, to strike opposition-controlled areas across Syria for many months.

In Aleppo alone, air strikes including barrel bomb attacks have since December killed hundreds of civilians including children, and forced thousands of families to flee, as the regime has unleashed a massive aerial offensive there.

Rights groups have hit out at the regime for its use of barrel bombs, which they describe as failing to discriminate between civilian and military targets.

Syria’s war has killed more than 170,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.

Source: Middle East Online.


Jihadists advance amid escalation in Syria anti-regime offensive


BEIRUT – The extremist Islamic State (IS) on Sunday seized an army position in the northeast Syrian city of Hasakeh, amid a major escalation in the jihadist offensive against regime bases, a monitor said.

On another front in Syria’s complex civil war, rebels seeking President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster captured a weapons depot in Hama province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Just south of Hasake city, “IS jihadists took over the army Regiment 121 at Maylabiyeh, after fierce clashes with regime troops”, said the Britain-based Observatory, adding that the battle lasted three days.

On twitter, supporters of IS, which first emerged in Syria’s war in spring 2013, celebrated the army position’s “liberation” at the hands of the jihadists.

The latest advance comes a day after IS took over Division 17 in Raqa province. According to the Observatory, at least 85 regime troops were killed during the IS takeover, among them more than 50 who were executed after their capture.

But also on Saturday, the regime recaptured the Shaar gas field in Homs province. The field had fallen into IS’ hands nearly two weeks ago, and the jihadists killed some 270 guards, pro-regime paramilitary and civilian employees there.

While IS has escalated its offensive against the regime in some parts of Syria in the past fortnight, it has been at open war against rebels seeking President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster since January.

On another front, rebels in Hama province captured Khattab and Rahbeh villages, taking over arms depots there, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Rebels, he added, are now “advancing towards Hama military airport”, which is a key army position and home to one of the country’s most feared prisons.

Amateur video posted by activists on YouTube showed some of the weapons seized by the rebels in Hama, among them rockets, ammunition and mortars.

The Observatory meanwhile said the toll from a Saturday car bomb in Atme, on the Turkish border, rose to seven, among them an Islamist rebel commander.

Another seven were killed in a separate car bomb on Saturday in Azaz, also on the Turkish border, the group said.

Syria’s war has killed more than 170,000 people in three years, and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.

Source: Middle East Online.


Jabhat al-Nusra, IS compete for foreign fighters

Mohammed al-Khatieb

July 18, 2014

ALEPPO, Syria — Jabhat al-Nusra did not deny the authenticity of the audio recording attributed to its leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani, in which he announced that he is seeking to establish an Islamic emirate in the areas where his militants are deployed. However, a statement issued on July 12 by the Manara al-Bayda, Jabhat al-Nusra’s media channel, implicitly affirmed the authenticity of the recording and announced clearly that Jabhat al-Nusra is “seeking to establish an Islamic emirate,” adding, “We have yet to declare its establishment.”

According to the Aleppo Media Center, Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership and militants held a high-profile meeting to discuss the restructuring of the organization. During the meeting, the attendants were surprised to see Golani unveil his face and promise his soldiers that they would establish an Islamic emirate.

The statement ended all doubts about the authenticity of the audio recording. The similarities between the wording of the statement and Golani’s speech were striking, with Golani saying, “We will not allow any person to reap the fruits of your jihad, whatever happens to us.”

Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to pull the rug from under the feet of its jihadist rival, the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), especially following the great losses inflicted upon Jabhat al-Nusra in the last battles of Deir ez-Zor. Jabhat al-Nusra wants to attract “migrants” — or foreign militants who came to Syria for jihad — and put them to work under its leadership. IS’ striking announcement of the establishment of an Islamic caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on June 30 has galvanized foreign fighters and led them to join IS, which concerns Jabhat al-Nusra.

According to a source close to Jabhat al-Nusra, who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “The announcement of the caliphate differs largely from the announcement of the emirate.” He continued, “[The] emirate is established in the areas where militants are deployed. The caliphate, however, is general.”

An important point raised by the source was that the “[establishment of the] emirate does not compel the other factions on the ground to pledge allegiance to the emir. The caliphate state, however, requires all militants to work under the umbrella of the caliphate.”

He continued, “Jabhat al-Nusra does not want to clash with the other opposition factions with which it shares control over the liberated areas in Syria, especially because it is only a single faction that doesn’t seem to be the strongest among the scores of groups in Syria, such as the Islamic Front, the Mujahideen Army and Ajnad al-Sham. In addition, there are the large number of factions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, such as the Hazem Movement, Syrian Revolutionaries Front and others. These are deployed along with Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo, north of Idlib, Daraa and south of the Rif Damascus governorate.

However, what was striking is that the Manara al-Bayda statement specified a period of 10 days to establish “a role for the judiciary, security stations and the provision of public services to replace the ‘legitimate committees,’ which Jabhat al-Nusra share with other factions to manage the affairs of the liberated areas.” The announcement by Jabhat al-Nusra affirmed that it had withdrawn from the Sharia Council in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo on July 8.

In addition, Jabhat al-Nusra owns an independent services institution called the Public Management for Services. It has been operating since last December in the rebel-held areas in Aleppo, providing residents with water, electricity and other services. It also provides flour for bakeries and fixes the daily damage that befalls the electricity and water networks caused by the continued bombardment of barrel bombs that Aleppo has been suffering for seven months.

Although Jabhat al-Nusra is not accepted by many opposition currents, it nevertheless enjoys a significant popular base that has to an extent helped them to establish the emirate. The residents of Aleppo trust Jabhat al-Nusra because of its militants, who are known for being fierce and determined in their battles against the regime. Moreover, the way it held corrupt brigades accountable for its actions, including militias that rob, extort money and exploit the state of war and its chaos, has led many to support the organization.

Othman, a resident in the al-Mayssar neighborhood in Aleppo, said, “Jabhat al-Nusra sacrificed a lot in its war against the regime and Baghdadi’s state. I think that it has the right to declare the Islamic emirate after hundreds of martyrs fell.”

Safwan, who is still in college and works in the aid field, offered Al-Monitor another point of view, saying, “The fighters have no right to determine the shape of the state, and I don’t think that the time is right to declare the establishment of states and emirates.”

Safwan added, “All efforts should be concentrated on bringing this murderous regime down. When this has been accomplished, the shape of a new state will be determined through ballot boxes, while partisanship and the division of forces will only benefit [President] Bashar al-Assad.”

Despite the poor sound quality, Golani’s audio recording raises many important issues. Golani identified his enemies by saying, “This emirate, my brothers, will take exception with whomever wishes bad things for Muslims. These will be comprised of the regime, the exaggerators, the criminals and the [Kurdistan Workers Party].”

Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to compete with IS to attract jihadis from around the world by announcing its Islamic emirate after IS stole the spotlight with the announcement of the Islamic caliphate.

The possibility of clashes with the opposition factions seems low, especially since Jabhat al-Nusra has good ties with the majority of the factions.

A rebel leader, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor that a clash with Jabhat al-Nusra was unlikely in the wake of the declaration of an emirate. According to him, Jabhat al-Nusra is part of Syrian society as the majority of its members and leaders are Syrian. He said, “We had already agreed to only fight Assad’s regime and the corrupted.”

He noted that the potential announcement of the Islamic emirate does not mean the establishment of a state for Jabhat al-Nusra, saying, “There is no region in Syria that Jabhat al-Nusra is controlling alone. Thus, I do not think that our relations will be affected by this announcement.”

Source: al-Monitor.


Gloves come off between Syrian regime, Islamic State

Edward Dark

July 21, 2014

ALEPPO, Syria — The Islamic State (IS), arguably the most dangerous and brutal terrorist group in modern history, now controls more than a third of Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a prominent opposition nongovernmental organization. The group’s stunning victories in Iraq have been repeated in Syria, though to a lesser extent and to even less media attention. IS now controls nearly all of the oil-rich eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, with regime forces controlling only a few pockets. Crucially, after ousting its rival, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, from the provincial capital, IS is now face to face with regime forces, the two sitting opposite one another on the front lines that divide this largely devastated city.

The undeclared truce between the regime and IS seems to have run its course after both sides achieved all they could in their marriage of convenience. Nothing better illustrates this than the devastating assault launched by IS on the al-Shaer gas field in Homs on July 16 that may have left up to 300 regime troops and civilian employees dead. Meanwhile, the regime continues to launch airstrikes on IS headquarters and training camps in Raqqa, an indication that the gloves are now definitely off.

As IS consolidated its grip on Deir ez-Zor, after a humiliating rout of Jabhat al-Nusra that saw its leader, Safwan al-Hant, captured and killed July 14 while trying to escape disguised as a woman — his own men having reportedly turned him over after defecting — it quickly turned its expansionist intentions elsewhere. IS has also resurfaced in rebel-controlled areas near Damascus, including the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, and threatens to derail fragile and painstakingly negotiated local cease-fires and agreements.

It is also launching its own campaign in Ghouta against the Islamic Front, headed by the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam, whose leader, Zahran Alloush, said that fighting IS is more important than fighting the regime.

IS has not yet attacked regime positions in Aleppo. It is likely waiting for an opportune moment — either after the regime roots out rebels or when it has other fronts under control and can send substantial reinforcements. It is guaranteed, however, that a confrontation is coming soon.

First Lt. Majed, an officer in the Syrian army who has been stationed in Aleppo for a while, spoke with Al-Monitor about the imminent showdown between the regime and IS. “We are ready for them, and we are prepared. We have some of our best military units now in Aleppo that have specifically been trained to combat them and have experience with the tactics they use. And of course, we have our friends, too,” he added with a smile, meaning Hezbollah and Iraqi militias.

The Syrian regime will find in IS a much tougher opponent than the rebel factions it has been fighting. IS fighters are well trained, well armed, ideologically motivated and disciplined — a far cry from some of the ragtag, corrupt and chronically undersupplied militias the Syrian army had previously faced. That IS could make short work of some of the toughest rebel groups on the ground, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, must have the regime worried, at least insofar as it would mean even heavier reliance on already overstretched elite foreign troops and militias.

Aleppo remains a prized target for IS, as it would provide the group contiguity of the territory under its control, which stretches across Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor right into Iraq, as well as an enormous cache of financial and human resources. IS has also been engaged in fierce battles with the Kurdish enclaves in the north, as it attempts to wrest control of the strategic border regions. Kobani, in Aleppo province, seems to be firmly fixed in its sights as the group begins its slow sweep from the east.

When asked about a time frame for victory, the Syrian lieutenant was vague. “No one knows. It could be months or years, but we are committed. It’s either us or them. You have seen what those dogs did to people in Iraq. They will do the same here. We won’t allow it,” he said. Majed was referring to the ethnic cleansing and pogroms against religious groups in Iraq, mostly Shiites and Christians, something that would strike a nerve with Majed, as he is a member of the Alawite sect, the Shiite offshoot to which President Bashar al-Assad and many high-ranking regime military and civilian officials also belong.

The lieutenant said that he expected the IS battle in Aleppo “very soon” and that IS would find it tougher going in Aleppo due to the lack of support for the group and the many opponents it faces in the area. “Here it is easier [for the regime’s fighters] than in the east. Here IS has less support, and more enemies. They have Kurds to contend with, as well as other local groups opposed to them. We will drive them out of here soon, just after we finish with the other terrorists [local rebels].”

The Syrian regime had always used “terrorists” as a blanket term with which to label any who oppose it. It now seems that the regime’s version of reality will come true. Indeed, the only forces left fighting against it will be Islamic extremists. If, however, the fortunes of IS continue, the regime might discover that it has bitten off more than it can chew.

Source: al-Monitor.


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