TIME Syria

Kurds Welcome Backup to End ISIS Siege of Syrian Border Town

Mideast Iraq
A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier reaches out his hand to supporters, at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing, in the Northern Kurdish Region of Iraq, Oct. 29, 2014. Bram Janssen—AP

Turkey allows Kurdish troops to cross into Kobani

Kurdish fighters in the besieged Syrian town of Kobani welcomed the arrival of a vanguard of fighters from Syria and Iraq on Wednesday, despite fears that the reinforcements are too small to end the siege.

Around 50 troops from the Syrian Free Army crossed into Kobani from Turkey on Wednesday, to stiffen the town’s resistance to fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Also on Wednesday, a convoy dispatched by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq carrying supplies, weapons, and 70 peshmerga, or Kurdish fighters, crossed into Turkey and began making its way to Kobani by road. A separate group of 80 peshmerga arrived by plane in the Turkish town Sanliurfa, an hour’s drive from the Syrian border, before dawn.

The peshmerga will have their own command structure, according to KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee, but they will coordinate with U.S. Syrian Kurdish forces. They will not be involved in direct combat, he added, but will instead provide “artillery backup” for the city’s defenders. “Targeting will be provided by forces operating on the ground.”

Anwar Muslim, the head of the local government of Kobani, said he was confident that the arrival of the troops from Iraq and Syria would help end the almost month-long siege. U.S. airstrikes in Kobani and ground attacks by the Kurdish militia defending the city had destroyed “about 70% of Daesh’s heavy artillery weapons,” he told TIME, referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym. “The peshmerga will give us huge support and perhaps now we’ll finish the job in a very short time.”

But the arrival of a small contingent of soldiers is not guaranteed to stop ISIS from taking over the town. Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cautioned against premature optimism. “As long as there’s no additional pressure on ISIS elsewhere, they will continue to reinforce their forces near Kobani,” he said. “Without a more comprehensive strategy to combat ISIS, this is not a permanent solution. Kobani may still fall.”

The U.S. said it carried out eight airstrikes near Kobani on Tuesday and Wednesday but it is limited by Turkey’s refusal to allow the U.S to carry out combat missions from NATO bases in Turkey.

Ulgen said that Turkey would not do more to fight ISIS unless the U.S. commits to eliminating the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. “A real game changer,” he said, “would be for the U.S. and Turkey to come to terms about the main elements of campaign against ISIS.”

For over a month, Ankara refused calls to relieve the outgunned Kurdish forces in Kobani, insisting that the militia was little more than the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U. list as a terror group. “For Turkey, the PKK and ISIS are the same,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month.

On Oct. 20, after the U.S. parachuted weapons to the Kurds in Kobani, the Ankara government announced that it would finally allow Kurdish troops from Iraq to cross Turkey to aid fighters in Kobani.

“For Turkey, regardless of whether its hand was forced by the U.S., this was a smart move,” says Mr. Ulgen. The deployment will help Turkey deflect claims that it has been appeasing ISIS, he says, and change the balance of forces on the ground to its advantage.

“Erdogan and the government didn’t want to be seen as directly helping a PKK linked group,” he says. “With the peshmerga now on the ground, it will be easier to give a green light to further logistical aid to Kobani.”

TIME Syria

Foreign Fighters Pouring into Syria Faster Than Ever, Officials Say

"It’s very, very difficult to try and identify a particular age group that this particular foreign fighter message resonates with"

Top U.S. and British counterterrorism officials said Tuesday that the growing number and variety of foreign fighters streaming into Syria is unprecedented in recent history.

“The rate of travel into Syria [by foreign fighters] is greater than we saw into Afghanistan prior to 9/11,” Randy Blake, a senior strategic advisor in the U.S. Office of Director of National Intelligence, said Tuesday during a panel at the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in Orlando, Florida. “It’s greater than anything we’ve seen into Afghanistan, into Yemen, into Somalia, into Iraq, or anything that we’ve seen in the last…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Australia

Australia’s Top ISIS Militant Killed: Sources

Mohammad Ali Baryalei actively recruited for ISIS and was allegedly behind a failed terrorist plot in Sydney earlier this year

Multiple Australian media outlets reported Wednesday that Mohammad Ali Baryalei, one of the country’s most senior figures in the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), is believed to have died fighting for the Sunni extremist group in the Middle East.

Reports of the militant’s death stemmed from a Facebook post on Tuesday by one of Baryalei’s friends living in Syria that claimed the 33-year-old had been “martyred,” according to the Australian.

However, reliable details regarding the circumstances of his apparent death remain scant.

Authorities in Canberra were unable to verify the claim as of Wednesday morning. “I can’t confirm it at this stage,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters at a press conference in the Australian capital, Canberra.

Baryalei, a former Sydney street preacher, was likely the most senior Australian operative fighting in ISIS ranks and is believed to have worked as a top recruiter for the militant organization. He reportedly enlisted as many as half of the 60 Australians estimated to be currently fighting for ISIS, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Authorities also named Baryalei as one of the key masterminds behind a plot to slay non-Muslims at random across Sydney earlier this year, which spurred a massive crackdown by Australian officials in September.

TIME Military

What the Failure of ISIS to Take Kobani Means

US-led coalition forces hit ISIL targets in Kobani
Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani following a U.S.-led air strike on Sunday. Sercan Kucuksahin / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

The Kurdish struggle to hold on to Syrian border town isn't all good news

Coming back after two weeks away, it’s surprising that the Syrian town of Kobani hasn’t fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Pentagon officials were predicting earlier this month that ISIS fighters would overrun the town, near the Turkish border, by mid-October, followed by widespread slaughters among the conquered population.

That hasn’t happened. And while that’s obviously good news in the short term for the city’s 200,000 largely-Kurdish residents, it’s tougher to handicap what it means for the long-term U.S.-led effort to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

Earlier this month, U.S. military officers were speaking of ISIS’s “momentum,” and how its string of military successes over the past year meant that quickly halting its advance would likely prove difficult if not impossible. Yet, as far as Kobani is concerned, that seems to be what is taking place.

But that raises the stakes for the U.S. and its allies. Having smothered ISIS’s momentum, an eventual ISIS victory in the battle for Kobani would be a more devastating defeat for the U.S. military than an earlier collapse of the town.

There are concerns that the focus on saving Kobani is giving ISIS free reign elsewhere in its self-declared caliphate—that the U.S., in essence, could end up winning the battle while losing the war.

“The U.S. air campaign has turned into an unfocused mess,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote Friday. “The U.S. has shifted limited air strike resources to focus on Syria and a militarily meaningless and isolated small Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani at the expense of supporting Iraqi forces in Anbar and intensifying the air campaign against other Islamic State targets in Syria.”

Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., expressed frustration that the Obama Administration believes its latest fight against ISIS will yield success when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t. “We understand the definition of insanity: continue to do the same thing and expect something different to happen,” he said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation. “If we can contain them there, leave them there, I don’t know what else to do. They’re intent on destroying each other, and they’ve been doing it for 1,400 years.”

The chattering classes are likewise not impressed by the fight for Kobani and the overall U.S. strategy against ISIS.

“The town, once dismissed as inconsequential by American commanders, has become not only a focus of the American operation against the Islamic State, known as ISIS, but also a test of the administration’s strategy, which is based on airstrikes on ISIS-controlled areas in Syria and reliance on local ground forces to defeat the militants,” the New York Times said in a Friday editorial. “A setback in Kobani would show the fragility of the American plan and hand the Islamic State an important victory.”

On Sunday, the Washington Post declared Obama’s strategy “unworkable,” and said “the United States will have to broaden its aims and increase its military commitment if the terrorists are to be defeated” (the Post‘s advocacy for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq should be kept in mind while listening to such drumbeats).

For its part, the Pentagon is willing to trade 2003’s “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad for a long-term campaign of modest and persistent air strikes that can stall ISIS until better-trained Iraqi forces and yet-to-be-tapped-for-training Syrian rebels can begin reclaiming territory.

The U.S. military is willing to take its time, not that it has much choice, given the situation on the ground and the curbs placed on it by the White House. “Here we are not three months into it and there are critics saying it’s falling apart; it’s failing; the strategy is not sound,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “The strategy is sound and it’s working and there’s no plans to deviate it from right now.”

The Pentagon has made clear from the start that the battle against ISIS “will be a years-long effort,” Kirby said. “So I think a little bit of patience is required here.” Patience, of course, has never been an American trait. Democracies in general are ill-suited to waging lengthy wars.

But one thing the Pentagon has on its side is the dearth of casualties so far in what some are calling the third Iraq war. A Marine was killed Oct. 1 when he jumped from a V-22 aircraft in the Persian Gulf because he feared the aircraft was going to crash (it didn’t). A second Marine died in Baghdad Oct. 23 in what the Pentagon called a “non-combat-related incident.”

If the U.S. can turn the campaign against ISIS into a sustained, low-casualty operation like the drone wars it has been secretly waging for years in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, the public may go along. Whether that will be sufficient to degrade ISIS is, of course, a separate issue.

Read next: 19-Year-Old Marine Is First Soldier to Die Fighting ISIS in Iraq

TIME Syria

Syria Activists Say Kobani Death Toll Passes 800

Kurdish refugees stand and walk on a hilltop as thick smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani during heavy fighting between Islamic State and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, seen from near the Mursitpinar border crossing
Kurdish refugees stand and walk on a hilltop as thick smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani during heavy fighting between Islamic State and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Sanliurfa province, Turkey on Oct. 26, 2014. Yannis Behrakis—Reuters

(MURSITPINAR, Turkey) — A Syrian activist group said Sunday that the death toll in 40 days of fighting in and around the northern Syrian border town of Kobani has reached 815, as Kurdish fighters battled Muslim militants for a hill west of the town.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll includes 21 Kurdish civilians and 302 fighters with the main Kurdish force known as the Peoples Protection Units, or YPG. It said 481 fighters with the Islamic State group have been killed since the battles began.

IS fighters launched a wide offensive on Kobani in mid-September capturing dozens of Kurdish villages and entering parts of the town. The attack has displaced more than 200,000 people who crossed for safety in Turkey.

On Saturday, IS launched an attack on a Kurdish-held neighborhood in Kobani without succeeding in advancing, the Observatory said. It added that seven IS fighters were killed as well as several YPG fighters.

An Associated Press reporter on the Turkish side of the border said occasional mortar fire could be heard in the center and west of the town as well as occasional gunfire. At least one airstrike was carried out by the U.S.-led coalition.

The U.S. Central Command said in a statement that five airstrikes near Kobani destroyed seven IS vehicles and an IS building. It said the five airstrikes were conducted on Saturday and Sunday.

Last week, the U.S. Central Command said that its forces conducted more than 135 airstrikes against the militants in and around Kobani, killing hundreds of IS fighters.

Idriss Nassan, a Kurdish official from Kobani, said the fighting concentrated Sunday on the Izaa hill west, of the town. That area is close to the strategic Tel Shair hill, which overlooks parts of the town. Kurdish fighters recently regained control of the Tel Shair hill.

“The units (YPG) are advancing slowly on the eastern and southern fronts,” Nassan said. “The situation is relatively calm compared with yesterday.”

The Observatory said YPG fighters attacked two IS vehicles west of Kobani Sunday inflicting casualties among jihadis.

Also Sunday, state news agency SANA reported that rebels in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo fired two mortar shells, killing an adult and a child and wounding several others when they hit a school.

The Observatory said one of the shells hit the Hoda Shaarawi school, while the second fell in front of it.

Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial capital, has seen heavy fighting since rebels seized part of the city in 2012.

In the central province of Homs, a government air raid on the town of Talbiseh late Saturday killed 18 people, including 10 children and three women, the Observatory said. It added that 16 of the dead were from the same family.

Talbiseh was one of the first towns to rise up against President Bashar Assad’s government after the uprising that later turned into a civil war began in March 2011. The war has killed more than 190,000 people, according to the U.N.

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TIME Syria

Coalition Air Strikes Have Killed More Than 500 Militants Across Syria

Smoke and dust rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc
Smoke and dust rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike on October 22, 2014. Kai Pfaffenbach —Reuters

Monitors say that dozens of civilians have also been killed by the aerial onslaught

The U.S.-led air campaign to degrade and destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has killed more than 500 Islamic militants as well as dozens of civilians throughout Syria, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday.

The Observatory claims in a new report that the coalition’s air offensive had killed 464 ISIS troops, in addition to 57 fighters allied with the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front. At least, 32 civilians have also been killed since the offensive commenced in early September, the report said.

However, analysts say that the air strikes have only eliminated a fraction of ISIS’s troops on the ground. On Thursday, Charles Lister, a Syria expert and visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, remarked on Twitter that the coalition’s aerial offensive in Syria had killed just 1.47% of ISIS’s estimated manpower, based on data supplied by the Syrian Observatory and the CIA.

A majority of the coalition strikes have targeted ISIS forces massed in and around the embattled city of Kobani in northern Syria. Besieged Kurdish militia forces have battled the Sunni extremist group for more than a month near the Turkish border and are believed to have regained momentum on the contested battlefield thanks largely to the air strikes.

Earlier in the week, U.S. C-130 cargo planes dropped light weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to the Kurdish militia forces in Kobani. However, one of the 28 bundles reportedly fell into the hands of the enemy. The Pentagon was quick to dismiss the error as inconsequential.

“One bundle worth of equipment is not enough equipment to give the enemy any type of advantage at all,” Army Colonel Steve Warren told reporters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “It’s a relatively small amount of supplies. This is stuff [ISIS] already has.”

In northern Iraq on Wednesday, the semiautonomous Kurdish parliament passed a resolution to send peshmerga troops to fight alongside their fellow Kurdish fighters in Kobani, following Turkey’s decision earlier this week to allow reinforcements to cross the border into the besieged enclave.

TIME Syria

Report Details Possible U.S. Misfires in Syria

ISIS posts videos apparently showing U.S. air drops and airstrikes that failed

The United States military has made a series of failures in its airstrikes and airdrops in its campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), according to a report on a respected defence website.

According to Jane’s, a publisher of military-related information, arms destined for Kurdish fighters defending the Syrian town of Kobani, which abuts the Turkish border, fell into the hands of ISIS while a number of U.S. missiles aimed at ISIS targets reportedly failed to detonate.

The report features images and video taken from ISIS media channels. One video appears to show boxes of ammunition and grenades in nets attached to a parachute. According to Jane’s, the images show a U.S. Joint Precision Airdrop System, which uses GPS to reach its correct destination. The Pentagon has said it is examining the video, reports the BBC.

Other ISIS videos featured in the Jane’s report appear to show U.S. missiles that failed to explode on impact.

[Jane's]

[BBC]

TIME Syria

US Airdrop to Kurdish Fighters Seized by ISIS

Syrian Kurds Battle IS To Retain Control Of Kobani
Smoke rises through the air after an explosion rocks Syrian city of Kobane on October 20, 2014. Gokhan Sahin—Getty Images

ISIS-affiliated social media accounts posted sarcastic "thank you" notes to social media

A U.S. airdrop intended to arm Kurdish fighters in northern Syria ended up in the hands of Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) fighters, local activists said Tuesday, underscoring the challenge of arming Kurdish fighters along fluid and ill-defined battle lines.

ISIS-affiliated social media accounts filled with images of what appeared to be the intercepted weapons cache, which included ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades, along with sarcastic thank you notes to “Team USA.” Activists for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Associated Press that ISIS fighters had seized at least one package.

The U.S. deployed three C-130 cargo planes on Monday to airdrop supplies to the embattled bordertown of Kobani, as Kurdish forces struggled to repel an onslaught of IS fighters near the Turkish border.

[AP]

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