TIME Military

Taking the Crisis Out of ISIS

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
An F-18 leaves it carrier for a bombing run against ISIS targets. Navy photo / Robert Burck

Pentagon reports some good news from the front

After four months of stalemate in the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, the U.S. military finally expressed measured optimism Thursday over the course of the campaign.

“We’re seeing initial successes in this fight,” Army Lieut. General James Terry told reporters at the Pentagon. “My assessment is that Daesh has been halted in transitioning to the defense and is attempting to hold what they currently have.”

The Pentagon has begun referring to ISIS—which is also know as ISIL, for the Islamic State in the Levant—as Daesh, after prodding from its allies.

In Arabic, Daesh and ISIL sound alike, although “daesh” literally means “to crush underneath the foot,” Terry said. “Our partners, at least the ones that I work with, ask us to use that, because they feel that if you use ISIL, that you legitimize a self-declared caliphate, and they feel pretty strongly that we should not be doing that.”

ISIS forces still control roughly a third of Iraq and Syria. Regaining major territory in both nations won’t be possible until local ground forces can be assembled and trained to take the fight to the Islamic militants in the major cities they now hold. The launch of any such single counter-offensive is months away, and will take years to drive ISIS from all the cities, Pentagon officials believe.

Later Thursday, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said air strikes over the last month have killed senior ISIS officials. “Since mid-November, targeted coalition airstrikes successfully killed multiple [ISIS] senior and mid-level leaders,” Rear Admiral John Kirby said. The Wall Street Journal reported that three senior leaders had been killed.

“We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades [ISIS’s] ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq,” Kirby added in a statement. The U.S. and its allies have conducted 1,361 air strikes since August, with 86% of those carried out by U.S. warplanes (the U.S. has carried out 97% of the strikes in Syria this month, Reuters reports).

The Pentagon statements didn’t occur in a vacuum. Last week, lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed ire at the slow pace of the war against ISIS. “Does the United States have some other strategic plan other than arming these [Syrian] folks that aren’t going to show up till 2016, dropping bombs, that are marginal whether they’ve been successful, and helping with military aid to some of these coalition countries?” Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, asked Brett McGurk, the Obama Administration’s anti-ISIS envoy.

“It was designed,” McGurk said, “to be a long-term program.”

Read next: U.S. Kills 3 ISIS Leaders in Iraq Strikes, Officials Say

TIME Iraq

Kurdish Fighters Regain Territory from ISIS in Most Successful Offensive Yet

The two-day offensive was the largest to date in the war against ISIS in Iraq

Backed by a recent urge in U.S. airstrikes, Kurdish forces recaptured a large area of territory from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militants on Thursday, the New York Times reports.

It was described as “the single biggest military offensive against ISIS, and the most successful” in a statement on Thursday night from the office of Masrour Barzani, Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council. The offensive involved 8,000 local troops and was backed by 53 airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition.

The offensive has allowed for the opening of a path from the autonomous Kurdish region to Mount Sinjar in the west, near the Syrian border. Mount Sinjar came under siege in August, when thousands of Yazidis were persecuted by ISIS, prompting the start of U.S. airstrikes.

Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, overall commander of the campaign against ISIS, told Pentagon reporters: “We will relentless pursue Daesh in order to degrade and destroy its capabilities and defeat their efforts,” using an Arabic word for ISIS.

[NYT]

Read more: The fight against ISIS on the border between Turkey and Syria

TIME Syria

U.N.: $8.4 Billion Needed for Syria and Neighbors Hosting Refugees

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres gestures during a news conference for the Global Humanitarian appeal for 2015 in Geneva
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres gestures during a news conference to launch of the Global Humanitarian appeal for 2015 at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva Dec. 8, 2014 Pierre Albouy—Reuters

Nations hosting refugees to also benefit from improvements to infrastructure and services

The U.N. is seeking $8.4 billion to help the nearly 18 million victims of the Syrian conflict.

The money will go toward jobs, education, public health and public works, reports the New York Times. The request for development aid is an acknowledgement that the conflict may last for many years and that it has seriously disrupted the lives of the Syrian people.

Syria’s war is still escalating,” said António Guterres, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, in a statement Thursday. “And the humanitarian situation is becoming protracted.”

For the first time, this war chest includes aid for neighboring countries, which are feeling the strain of the flood of Syrian refugees.

More than 12 million Syrians are displaced inside the country while 3.2 million have fled to neighbors such as Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. The U.N. estimates that the number of Syrian refugees will rise to 4.3 million in 2015.

In addition to helping Syrian refugees, the U.N.’s financing plan includes estimates that 20.6 million people in host countries will benefit indirectly from improvements to infrastructure and services.

TIME conflict

U.S. Kills 3 ISIS Leaders in Iraq Strikes, Officials Say

ISIS Jihadi
A member loyal to ISIS waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. Reuters

The three killed were mid- to high-level leaders of ISIS

Three leaders of ISIS have been killed by American air strikes in Iraq in the past month and a half, U.S. defense officials said Thursday.

They were identified as Haji Mutazz, a deputy to the ISIS leader; Abd al-Basit, the top military commander; and Radwin Talib, who is in control of ISIS in Iraq. They were described as mid- to high-level leaders.

One official called the deaths of Mutazz and al-Basit in particular a “serious blow to ISIS command and control.” The official said that the setback may be temporary because ISIS has plenty of willing replacements…

Read the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME National Security

A Contrivance of an Alliance

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.
U.S. Navy warplanes prepare to attack ISIS targets. Navy photo / Robert Burck

The U.S. is largely flying solo when it comes to attacking ISIS

The U.S.-led bombing campaign against Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is complex. A coalition made up of the U.S. and seven allies began bombing ISIS targets in Iraq in August. A month later, the U.S. began bombing targets belonging to the militant group in Syria, along with four allies.

Should the civilized world care that none of the seven U.S. allies bombing ISIS targets in Iraq (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Netherlands and the United Kingdom) are bombing ISIS in Syria? And that, ipso facto, none of the four U.S. allies bombing targets in Syria (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) are bombing ISIS targets in Iraq?

Does it matter that the U.S. stands alone when it comes to bombing both?

Perhaps more important is the lopsided nature of the air strikes: since Sept. 23, the allies have accounted for nearly 40% of close air support, interdiction and escort sorties, and 25% of total missions flown. “Many of those sorties that conduct dynamic targeting in support of ground forces require specialized capability, and frequently they do not result in a necessary strike on [ISIS] forces, equipment or facilities,” Gary Boucher, spokesman for the campaign, dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve, said Tuesday.

But the allies have accounted for only 14% of the air strikes. That’s less than one out of every seven. Think of it like a workweek: the U.S. military is working Monday through Saturday; and the allies work Sunday. It works out to an average of two non-U.S. daily air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq, shared among seven nations, and less than one non-U.S. air strike per day among the four countries attacking ISIS targets in Syria.

“The real problem is how few sorties most other countries are flying,” says Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “A 62-country token alliance is only marginally better than the U.S. alone.”

As small as the allies’ contributions may be, there are back-home considerations driving which side of the porous Iraq-Syria border they’re bombing. Many of the nations bombing ISIS in Iraq fought alongside the U.S. there following the 2003 invasion, and don’t want their earlier sacrifices to be in vain. The states bombing inside Syria want to see Syrian President Bashar Assad gone.

The anemic response from the world community suggests the war against various forms of Islamic zealotry is going to get worse before it gets better. Following Monday’s jihadist-inspired bloodshed at an Australian chocolate shop, and Tuesday’s massacre of at least 141 people, nearly all of them schoolchildren, by Islamic militants at a military-run school in Pakistan, it’s past time to ask when the international community is going to come up with a plan to deal with this metastasizing horror.

The right response isn’t necessarily more bombing by more countries. The targets are often elusive and defy military action. But until there’s more buy-in from the rest of the world, Washington’s efforts, military and otherwise, are doomed.

TIME isis

ISIS Twitter Fan Boy Revealed to be Indian Food Exec

He says he "doesn't know what to do" now that Indian police are searching for him

He is one of the most active supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the Internet but on Thursday @ShamiWitness was revealed to be an Indian food company executive called Mehdi.

With a Twitter following of roughly 18,000, @ShamiWitness has been one of the most influential voices on Twitter propagandizing on behalf of ISIS. Mehdi works for an Indian food conglomerate in Bangalore.

Channel 4 News says the agency is not revealing his full name “as he says his life would be in danger if his true identity was made public.”

Nonetheless, in the wake of his semi-unmasking, Mehdi deactivated the @ShamiWitness Twitter account and has said that Indian police are now searching for him and he “doesn’t know what to do.”

Mehdi said if given the opportunity he would join forces himself with the Islamic State but that he cannot because his family depends on him financially. “If I had a chance to leave everything and join them I might have,” he said. “My family needs me here.”

[Channel 4 News]

TIME Military

The Warplane That Will Not Die

Aircraft Carrier
A U.S. Navy pilot readies his F-4 aboard the carrier USS Constellation in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam war Vietnam. Terry Fincher / Getty Images

The Iranians reportedly attack ISIS targets in Iraq with U.S.-built 'Mad Men'-era F-4s

Think of it as the return of the Phantom.

Fly boys of a certain age perked up with reports Thursday that F-4 Phantom II’s belonging to the Iranian air force — or what’s left of it — have attacked targets belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in recent days.

The strikes, confirmed by U.S. officials (but denied by Tehran), took place northeast of Baghdad in eastern Iraq. Conveniently, the U.S. military, which is also conducting air strikes against ISIS targets, has been confining its bombing runs to the western part of the country.

If true, the Iranian attacks represent a return to the spotlight for the McDonnell Douglas F-4. The plane was originally designed for the Navy, which flew it first in 1960. It last flew for the U.S. military, specifically for the Air Force, in 1996 (it also was the only aircraft flown by both services’ airshow outfits, the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds).

The two-seat fighter-bomber was the backbone of U.S. air power in the 1970s and ’80s before being replaced by Air Force F-15s and F-16s, and Navy F-14s and F-18s. Capable of flying more than twice the speed of sound, the F-4 could carry nine tons of bombs and missiles. It is the last plane to carry pilots who became “aces” by shooting down five enemy aircraft each over Vietnam.

The U.S. built 5,200 F-4s and sold many of them to 11 nations. Iran bought 225 in the ’60s and ’70s under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979’s Islamic revolution. But the mullahs kept his jets (along with the 79 F-14 Tomcats the shah had also purchased).

Nearly all the surviving F-4s have been retired for decades at the Pentagon’s boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. But some have gotten a second lease on life as targets for more modern warplanes. Over the past 16 years, more than 300 have been converted into QF-4 aerial targets. They can be flown both with and without pilots, and are used to train air crews to detect aircraft with radar and other technologies.

These repurposed QF-4s have flown more than 16,000 manned and 600 unmanned training missions. About 250 of the unmanned missions have ended with Air Force pilots actually shooting the QF-4s out of the sky.

There are only 39 QF-4s still flying. But not to worry: they’re being replaced with QF-16s.

TIME Congress

Congress Likely to Give Obama New Authority to Fight ISIS

Obama Addresses Business Roundtable
President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the quarterly meeting of the Business Roundtable (BRT) at the Business Roundtable Headquarters on Dec. 3, 2014. in Washington D.C. Getty Images

The bill would grant the Administration to train and equip the Syrian opposition through the end of 2016

Congress appears ready to give the President authorization to train and equip the Syrian opposition for two years as part of major annual defense legislation expected to pass the House Thursday, despite concerns that the weapons will turn up in the wrong hands.

The likely passage of the $557 billion defense bill underscores that talk of the president’s recent immigration action “poisoning the well” doesn’t apply to matters with broad bipartisan support. And Congress’ begrudging acceptance of the extended train-and-equip authority—many hawks don’t believe it will be enough to accomplish the American goals in Syria and Iraq—also emphasizes the lack of other politically viable options.

“This effort on the part of the President will ultimately fall short,” says Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, who supports American boots on the ground to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria [ISIS]. “I think unfortunately it will be too little too late.”

Still Franks says he will likely vote for the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the provision.

“I’m Mr. National Security—I’m not going to vote against the NDAA unless they absolutely force me to do so,” he added.

Other Republicans said they would likely vote for the bill even if they don’t yet trust the Administration’s vetting process. The bill requires the Administration to inform Congress at least 15 days before the first transfer of the goals of the assistance, what is provided and the number of U.S. armed forces personnel involved, in addition to periodic updates.

“The big concern has always been how do you keep these guys on our side and what do they do with the weapons a year or two after the conflict,” said Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who is leaning to support the bill. “I don’t know that the Administration has adequately answered that question, however, having said that, we’re in a damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don’t [situation] because American people don’t want boots on the ground.”

House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that he wanted President Obama next year to submit a new authorization for the use of military force to defeat ISIS, which some outside legal experts say is necessary since Obama is relying on congressional authority provided more than a decade ago in the aftermath of 9/11.

“The White House needs to show some urgency because the strategy isn’t reversing the terrorist momentum on the ground,” said Boehner. “I’ve got grave concerns that the plan he’s put in place is not going to accomplish the goal of defeating and destroying [ISIS]. We need a more robust, comprehensive strategy and that should start with a new authorization of the use of military force.”

Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, made sure on the House floor Thursday that his colleagues knew there was no such authorization in the NDAA, knowing that it could imperil support for the bill, which has passed every year for the past 53 years.

“I really wish to emphasize for this body that this train and equip authority is just that,” said Smith. “It in no way, shape, manner or form authorizes the use of military force. And I think it’s the best approach. I don’t want U.S. troops fighting this war. We have learned that U.S. troops cannot win the battle against the evil ideology that Al Qaeda and ISIS have promoted. We need local partners and that’s what this bill helps us do.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin led the NDAA effort, and both will retire after this year after decades in Congress. On the floor Thursday, McKeon concretely summarized how difficult it would be for a Congressman to explain why he would vote against the NDAA.

“What makes this bill such an important piece of legislation are the vital authorities contained within,” said McKeon. “It provides resources for the mission in Afghanistan. It funds our military operations against [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria. It pays our troops and their families. It keeps our Navy fleet sailing and military aircraft flying. It maintains a strong nuclear deterrent.”

TIME Iran

Iran Launches Air Strikes in Iraq Against Islamic State

An Iraqi Shi'ite fighter walks past walls painted with the Islamist State flag in Saadiya
An Iraqi fighter walks past walls painted with the Islamist State flag, after Shi'ite fighters and Iraqi security forces took control of Saadiya in Diyala province from Islamist State militants on Nov. 24, 2014 Stringer Iraq—Reuters

It has long been known that Iranian troops and advisers have been fighting alongside Iraqi forces

WASHINGTON (AP) — Iranian jets have carried out airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq in recent days, Pentagon officials and independent analysts say, underscoring the strange alliances generated by the war against the extremist group that has beheaded Americans and killed and terrorized Iraqi civilians.

Washington and Tehran are locked in tough negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. But the two adversaries have been fighting parallel campaigns on the same side in Iraq to defend the Shiite-dominated government — and the region’s Kurds — from IS militants who seized a large section of the country.

It has long been known that Iranian troops and advisers have been fighting alongside Iraqi forces, but until this week there had been no confirmation of Iranian air activity. The timing and nature of the strikes are not clear, but a senior U.S. official said they occurred in Diyala province, which extends from northeast Baghdad to the Iranian border. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose that information.

The Qatari-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera filmed a jet flying over Iraq on Nov. 30 that was identified by Jane’s Defence Weekly as an American-made F-4 Phantom. The Phantom, a twin-engine fighter bomber that was sold to Iran’s U.S.-backed shah in the 1970s, was last produced by McDonnell Aircraft Corp. in 1981.

Iran in the 1980s fought a brutal, ultimately stalemated war with Iraq when that country was led by Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-controlled Baath Party. But the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam left an Iraqi government closely aligned with Iran. A majority of Iraqis are Shiite, as are most Iranians. The Islamic State group, which also controls parts of Syria, is led by Sunni extremists and has attracted many Sunnis who felt disenfranchised by Baghdad.

In public, U.S. officials have walked a careful line over the strikes, while Iranian officials have flatly denied them. Neither side has an interest in appearing to cooperate with the other. America’s Arab allies in the fight against the Islamic State, including Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would not want to be seen as fighting alongside Shiite Iran against a group of Sunni militants.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said Tuesday he had seen “nothing that would dispute” that Iran has carried out airstrikes in eastern Iraq. The U.S. was “not taking a position” on the strikes, he said.

Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Iranian attacks on IS militants would represent a positive development.

“I think it’s self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place, and it’s confined to taking on ISIL, and it has an impact, its net effect is positive,” Kerry told reporters. “But that’s not something we’re coordinating.”

In Iran, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, Marzieh Afkham, denied that Iran has cooperated with the U.S.-led coalition, but she neither confirmed nor denied Iranian airstrikes against IS in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, also sensitive to the US-Arab coalition that has been carrying out airstrikes against IS and training the Iraqi military to take IS on itself, told reporters Wednesday, “I’m not aware there were Iranian airstrikes.”

Hakim al-Zamili, a Shiite Iraqi lawmaker who heads the Security and Defense Committee in Parliament, said Iran “is serious in fighting Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “It has advisers in country. It provides Iraq with weapons and ammunition,” al-Zamili said, adding that he had no knowledge of whether Iranian airstrikes had been carried out.

“If Iran has carried out airstrikes against Daesh, in coordination with the Iraqi government, it is a welcomed step,” he said.

It is unlikely to be welcomed, however, by Republicans in Congress who accuse the Obama administration of not being tough enough on Iran, which the U.S. calls a state sponsor of terrorism.

Iran supports the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, which the U.S. wants to remove. American officials have expressed hope that Iran could play a role in negotiating an exit for Assad and help bring an end to a Syrian civil war that fueled the growth of the Islamic State group.

While most of the territory controlled by the group in Iraq lies along the western border with Syria, Diyala province along the Iraq-Iran border has been the scene of fierce fighting between security forces and the militants.

Last month, Iraqi troops backed by Shiite militiamen and Kurdish security forces recaptured Jalula and Saadiya, seized by the militants in August. Heavy clashes continue in Diyala, with some pockets of resistance outside the two towns.

___

Salama reported from Baghdad. John Thor-Dahlburg, Lori Hinnant and Lara Jakes in Brussels, Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this story.

TIME migration

Nearly 5,000 Refugees Were Killed in 2014, Data Shows

Syrian Refugees' Hunger Strike Outside Greek Parliament
Syrian refugees wait in tents during a hunger strike outside the parliamentary building in Athens on Nov. 30, 2014 Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

The majority died attempting to cross the Mediterranean

The number of refugees killed while fleeing their home countries more than doubled in the past year, according to data released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which said the toll for 2014 was nearly 5,000

According to the New York Times, citing IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle, about 3,000 of those people drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea, up from 707 out of 2,376 last year.

Doyle added that a majority of the refugees were from Iraq, Syria and Palestine, killed in the process of escaping escalating conflicts.

[NYT]

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