TIME Foreign Policy

U.S. Weighs Military Action Against ISIS in Syria

"If you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are"

The United States is open to the possibility of military action against Islamist militants in Syria, a top Obama Administration official said Friday, warning that the U.S. will “do what is necessary to protect Americans.”

“We’ve made very clear time and again that if you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you wherever you are,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters. “And that’s what’s going to guide our planning in the days to come.”

President Barack Obama has resisted pressure from both outside and inside his administration to take a more muscular approach in Syria, where a bloody civil war has claimed 191,000 lives in recent years, according to a new United Nations estimate Friday. But the emergence of the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which released a graphic video last week depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley, has raised the stakes—and has seemingly made American officials, already engaged in targeted military action in Iraq, more willing to consider doing so on the other side of the border.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that any strategy against ISIS would have to include action against militants in Syria, and Rhodes didn’t disagree with that assertion Friday.

“Well, we certainly agree that any strategy to deal with the [ISIS] organization has to deal with both sides of the border, Iraq and Syria,” Rhodes said. “The strategy that we are already undertaking does address that in the sense that we are providing training and equipping and assistance to the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces who are fighting them on the ground in Iraq.

“We are also providing support and military assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition,” he added. “What we would like to see is those efforts squeeze the space where [ISIS] operates.”

Rhodes cautioned that no decisions have been made.

“I don’t want to get ahead of decisions the President hasn’t been presented with, specific military options outside of those carrying out the current missions in Iraq,” he said. “But we would certainly look at what is necessary in the long term to make sure we’re protecting Americans.”

TIME Syria

U.N. Slams World Leaders Over Inaction in Syria as Death Toll Surpasses 191,000

"It is scandalous that the predicament of the injured, displaced, the detained... is no longer attracting much attention"

The United Nations said Friday that more than 191,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s civil war began in March 2011, as a top U.N. official lambasted the international community for its “paralysis.”

The U.N. reported that 191,369 people were killed between March 2011 and April 2014, more than double the figure the U.N. reported a year ago, when it said 92,901 people had died. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the true death toll is likely even higher because it reported only deaths that it was able to confirm.

“I deeply regret that, given the onset of so many other armed conflicts in this period of global destabilization, the fighting in Syria and its dreadful impact on millions of civilians has dropped off the international radar,” Pillay said in a statement. “The killers, destroyers and torturers in Syria have been empowered and emboldened by the international paralysis.”

More than 17,000 women and 2,000 children have been killed in the conflict, which has forced more than 2.9 million people to flee the country.

“It is scandalous that the predicament of the injured, displaced, the detained, and the relatives of all those who have been killed or are missing is no longer attracting much attention, despite the enormity of their suffering,” Pillay said.

TIME Military

U.S. Launched Operation to Rescue ISIS Hostages, Pentagon Says

Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012.
Journalist James Foley covers the civil war in Aleppo, Syria, in November 2012. Nicole Tung—AP

No hostages were found at the target location

Updated Aug. 20, 9 p.m. ET

The United States launched a rescue operation this summer to free American hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Department of Defense said Wednesday, but no hostages were found at the target location.

In a statement released a day after the Sunni extremist group released a graphic video showing the execution of American journalist James Foley, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. Kirby confirmed that American air and ground forces attempted a rescue to free a number of American hostages held by militants in Syria.

A U.S. government official confirmed Wednesday night that Foley was among the Americans the military attempted to rescue.

“This operation involved air and ground components and was focused on a particular captor network within [ISIS]. Unfortunately, the mission was not successful because the hostages were not present at the targeted location,” Kirby said. “As we have said repeatedly, the United States government is committed to the safety and well-being of its citizens, particularly those suffering in captivity. In this case, we put the best of the United States military in harms’ way to try and bring our citizens home.”

Lisa Monaco, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said Obama authorized the operation “because it was the national security team’s assessment that these hostages were in danger with each passing day in [ISIS] custody.”

The ground portion of the operation was carried out by U.S. special forces operators. Monaco said the government wouldn’t go into detail on the operation to protect “operational capabilities.”

“The United States government uses the full breadth of our military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to bring people home whenever we can,” Kirby said. “The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people, and will work tirelessly to secure the safety of our citizens and to hold their captors accountable.”

In a statement to reporters Wednesday, Obama referenced the Americans still being held by ISIS. “We keep in our prayers those other Americans who are separated from their families. We will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. “

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Says ‘Entire World Is Appalled’ By ISIS Beheading of Journalist

"No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day"

+ READ ARTICLE

President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the “entire world is appalled” by the death of American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria more than 18 months ago and whose death was depicted in a video Tuesday.

The militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posted the graphic video of the execution on Tuesday, calling it retribution for American airstrikes against Sunni extremist forces in Iraq. The U.S. intelligence community has authenticated the video, National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said.

“Today the entire world is appalled by the murder of journalist Jim Foley,” Obama said Wednesday in an emotional statement from Martha’s Vineyard.

Obama said the Middle East must work to “extract this cancer” that threatens the stability of Iraq and the region. “[ISIS] speaks for no religion,” Obama said. “Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim.”

“No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day,” he added.

Obama called Foley’s family on Wednesday morning to express his condolences on the loss of their son.

“Jim was taken from us in an act of violence that shocked the conscience of the entire world,” Obama said.

The video also includes a threat to kill Steven Sotloff, a freelance journalist who has written for TIME and other outlets, and has been missing since August 2013. “We keep in our prayers those other Americans who are separated from their families,” Obama said. “We will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for.”

Obama said the United States would continue its efforts to confront ISIS. “The United States of America will do what we must to protect our people,” he said. “We will be vigilant, and we will be relentless.”

A Facebook page affiliated with the Foley family’s campaign for his release posted a message Tuesday evening from his mother, Diane Foley.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” she wrote. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people. …We thank Jim for all the joy he gave us. He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person. Please respect our privacy in the days ahead as we mourn and cherish Jim.”

Foley “was taken by an organized gang after departing from an internet café in Binesh, Syria,” near the Turkish border, the FBI said in an alert following the Nov. 22, 2012, kidnapping. He was in Binesh covering the Syrian civil war for the GlobalPost website and AFP.

Foley, 40, grew up in New Hampshire, where his parents live.

-Additional reporting by Mark Thompson.

TIME Syria

Syria Strikes Militants as U.S. Targets Them in Iraq

On a media tour, A Syrian soldier gives others instructions on a map during the media tour in Mleiha, some 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of downtown Damascus, Syria on Aug. 15, 2014.
On a media tour, A Syrian soldier gives others instructions on a map during the media tour in Mleiha, some 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of downtown Damascus, Syria on Aug. 15, 2014. AP

Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces strike at Islamic militant strongholds in Syria

(BEIRUT) — As the U.S. military strikes the Islamic State group in Iraq, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have significantly stepped up their own campaign against militant strongholds in Syria, carrying out dozens of airstrikes against the group’s headquarters in the past two days.

While the government in Damascus has long turned a blind eye to the Islamic State’s expansion in Syria — in some cases even facilitating its offensive against mainstream rebels — the group’s rapid march on towns and villages in northern and eastern Syria is now threatening to overturn recent gains by government forces.

While Islamic State militants have so far concentrated their attacks against the Western-backed fighters seeking to topple Assad, they have in the past month carried out a major onslaught against Syrian army facilities in northeastern Syria, capturing and slaughtering hundreds of Syrian soldiers and pro-government militiamen in the process.

On Monday, Islamic State fighters were closing in on the last government-held army base in the northeastern Raqqa province, the Tabqa air base, prompting at least 16 Syrian government airstrikes in the area in an attempt to halt their advance.

In the northern city of Aleppo, there is a sense of impending defeat among mainstream rebels as Islamic militants systematically routed them last week in towns and villages only a few kilometers (miles) north of the city. An Islamic State takeover of rebel-held parts of Aleppo also would be disastrous for Syrian government troops who have been gaining ground in the city in past months.

“I think they (Syrian government) are finally realizing that their Machiavellian strategy of working with the Islamic State group against the moderates did not work so well, and so they have started to fight it,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But in hitting hard against the Islamic State group, Assad has another motive. His aerial bombardment of militant strongholds in Syria in a way mirrors that of the U.S. military’s airstrikes against extremists across the border in Iraq.

Analysts say Assad’s strikes aim at sending a message that he is on the same side as the Americans, reinforcing the Syrian government’s longstanding claim that it is a partner in the fight against terrorism and a counterbalance to extremists. That comes after the U.S. itself nearly bombed Syria after it blamed Assad’s forces for a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus last August.

“Assad would surely love to regain international acceptance via a ‘war on terror’ and maybe that is his long-term plan, in so far as he has one,” Syria analyst Aron Lund said.

Even while going against the Islamic State in Iraq, U.S. officials have shown little appetite for striking at the same militants in Syria. Assad knows that the U.S. administration doesn’t have much of a plan for Syria, except to muddle through the mess created by more than three years of civil war.

Most of all, however, Assad can simply no longer afford to ignore the growing threat of the Islamic State now that it has started attacking his own forces.

Since July, following their blitz in Iraq and after they declared a self-styled caliphate straddling the Iraq-Syria border, Islamic State fighters have methodically gone after isolated government bases in northern and eastern Syria, killing and decapitating army commanders and pro-government militiamen.

The attacks started with a devastating onslaught on the al-Shaer gas field in Homs province in which more than 270 Syrian soldiers, security guards and workers were killed. Last month, the jihadis overran the sprawling Division 17 military base in Raqqa province, killing at least 85 soldiers. Two weeks later, Islamic State fighters seized the nearby Brigade 93 base after days of heavy fighting.

They now are closing in on Tabqa air base. Activists on Monday reported intense clashes between government troops and Islamic State fighters on the edge of the villages of Ajil and Khazna near Tabqa. The Raqqa Media Center, an activist collective, said the Islamic State captured four villages near the air base, including Ajil.

“They will stop at nothing. If things continue the same way it’s only a matter of time before the Islamic State seizes Aleppo,” said Abu Thabet, an Aleppo rebel commander. He said the jihadis were now looking to take the rebel stronghold of Marea, to be followed by the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey, which would be a major prize and source of money.

Oubai Shahbandar, a Washington-based senior strategist for the Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition group, called Assad’s airstrikes against the Islamic States superficial, saying the Western-backed rebels were the only force truly confronting the jihadis.

He shrugged off any suggestion that Assad and the West share a common enemy in the Islamic State group.

“The choice for the West is clear,” he said. “Assad turned Syria into a springboard for terror, while the opposition leads the anti-Islamic State resistance.”

___

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama Hails Elimination of Syria Chemical Weapons

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama says the elimination of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile marks an important achievement in the effort to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

But while hailing that achievement, Obama says Syria now must follow through on its commitment to destroy its remaining declared chemical weapons production facilities.

In a written statement, Obama also says concerns about omissions and discrepancies in Syria’s declaration to the organization that oversaw the destruction must be addressed.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical arsenal last fall when Obama threatened missile strikes in retaliation for a chemical attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. The attack is believed to have killed more than 1,000 people.

The weapons were destroyed aboard the U.S. cargo vessel MV Cape Ray in international waters.

TIME Iraq

Kurdish Fighters Partially Retake Vital Iraqi Dam

Mideast Iraq
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter patrols near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq on Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. Khalid Mohammed—AP

Peshmerga forces appear to have partially captured the Mosul Dam from Sunni extremists, with support from U.S. air strikes and Iraqi commandos

Kurdish forces pushed deeper into territory held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) throughout Sunday and regained partial control over the strategically vital Mosul Dam as U.S. warplanes launched fresh sorties against the Sunni insurgents from the skies.

The U.S. Central Command confirmed that American aircraft launched at least 14 strikes against ISIS-manned armor, checkpoints and heavy weaponry positioned near the dam on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.

“These strikes were conducted under authority to support Iraqi security forces and Kurdish defense forces as they work together to combat [ISIS],” read a statement released by U.S. military officials. The aerial onslaught follows at least nine separate air strikes launched against ISIS positions earlier on Saturday.

It is seen as vital that the dam not be in ISIS hands, because the Sunni insurgents could either use it to choke off water supplies to the capital, Baghdad, and areas south of it, or they could destroy it and unleash catastrophic floods.

President Barack Obama authorized the use of American airpower against ISIS fighters on Aug. 8 following the group’s offensive blitz into Kurdish territory earlier this month. The strikes are the first such military incursion into Iraq since U.S. forces withdrew from the country in 2011 and were successful in alleviating the siege of Mount Sinjar.

However, analysts argue that U.S. involvement in Iraq may not be as limited as the Obama Administration hopes.

“For a President who wanted to leave [Iraq] and had the strong backing of his people, [Obama]’s now very much in Iraq, and I think the U.S. commitment and direct engagement in Iraq is going to be long term,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, tells TIME. “It’s not going to be easy to dislodge [ISIS], both militarily or even in the hearts and minds of Sunni Iraqis.”

Meanwhile, across the border in Syria, forces loyal to embattled President Bashar Assad launched their own strikes against ISIS’s stronghold in Raqqa.

The onslaught by the Syrian air force reportedly killed 31 militants along with eight civilians, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The regime wants to show the Americans that it is also capable of striking [ISIS],” Rami Abdel Rahman, the group’s director, told AFP.

ISIS forces currently control vast swaths of territory along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers spanning northeastern Syria across the border into western and northern Iraq. The group is currently fighting on multiple fronts against Kurdish militias, the Iraqi army, forces loyal to the Assad regime and opposition rebels in Syria in a bid to consolidate its self-declared Islamic caliphate.

TIME

The Yezidis—and the Kurds—Hope for U.S. Salvation in Iraq

Yazidi families from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014.
Yazidi families from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014. Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME

With ISIS threatening Iraq's north, both the Kurds and the Yezidis are desperate for help—and it's not coming from Baghdad

In a small shop, four Yezidi men watch Kurdish peshmerga fighters perform drills on a local television station. Kurdish forces that have led the efforts to rescue over 50,000 ethnic Yezidis from Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq, where they have been stranded for the last ten days.

“The peshmerga are stronger than the Iraqi army,” says Tassin Qasim Assi, watching the Kurdish fighters. “The Iraqi soldiers are just there for the money.” Assi fled Sinjar, the Yezidi heartland, more than a week ago and is now taking refuge in Erbil with his family. He says he has faith in the Kurdish fighters, but that they need more support to fight the militant army of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

In recent days the world has been captivated by the plight of thousands of members of the unique Yazidi sect, which mixes elements of Shiite and Sufi Islam and Christianity, among others relgions. Yazidis have lived as a minority around the mountains of northern Iraq for centuries. They were little known to the wider world until recent images of Yezidi refugees, dehydrated and terrified, were shown around the world, which in part helped prompt recent U.S. airstrikes on ISIS to prevent what President Obama called “genocide.”

While many Yezidis don’t consider themselves Kurds at all, they are Kurdish speaking and have lived in areas held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). That gives the Kurds some responsibility for their fate. “We are not going to dictate who is a Kurd and who is not,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations. “The important thing is we are a tolerant society and protect all ethnic and religious minorities.”

Bakir says the Kurdish forces now battling the ISIS militants include his Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Kurdish fighters from Syria, as well as some Iraqi national forces. But for the Iraqi national army the defense of the north and minority groups like the Yazidis is unlikely to be a major priority—especially with political parties grappling for power in Baghdad.

“The [Iraqi] army aren’t interested at the moment,” says Shatha Besarani who works for the Iraqi Women’s League. “The Shiites in the south are trying to have it all to themselves. They don’t care what happens in the middle and the north.” Her comments reflect what many in Iraq feel is Baghdad’s Shiite-first agenda. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been clinging to power despite calls from Sunni, Kurdish and even Shiite Iraqis for him to step down and make way for a more inclusive government. Moderate Shiite Haider al-Abadi seems set to take the spot, with endorsements from Iran and others, but al-Maliki has yet to fully give up power.

The political struggle in Baghdad has hampered the already-weak Iraqi army’s ability to fight the radical Sunni militants who now control swathes of the country. The national forces have already failed against ISIS in the field. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled their posts in June as the militants approached, shedding their uniforms and dropping their weapons—weapons that ISIS is now turning against them and the peshmerga. “We know about of the capability of the Iraqi army and air force,” says Bakir, suggesting that its limited ability isn’t adequate for the job. “And this is a huge operation.”

Bakir says the Kurds need military assistance to fight ISIS as well as humanitarian aid to help the Kurds deal with the more than one million Iraqis displaced by the fighting who are taking shelter in their territory. For its part the U.S. is sending in 130 new military advisors to help bolster Kurdish efforts to save the Yezidis and push back the militants. The UK has been providing humanitarian support in the form of airdrops and along with France promising arms support. “The air strikes boosted the morale of the peshmerga,” says Bakir. “But we need to properly arm and equip them to fight these terrorists.”

To the Yezidis, the world’s sudden focus on their plight hasn’t translated into enough international support to save them. Back in the shop the Yazidi men look at pictures they say are of their dead brethren, bodies lying in the desert near Sinjar. Adanan Khalaf, a 25-year-old Yezidi from Sinjar, thrusts forward his phone.

“Where was America?” asks Khalaf. “They are telling us to become Muslims or die.”

And while the calls for better arms for the peshmerga and military assistance are strong here, for many Yazidis, Iraq is no longer a place they can feel safe as one of the region’s smallest minorities.

“We want to go out,” says Assi. “Tell them we want to go America. Or we want to go to Europe. We can’t stay here.” —With reporting by Mirren Gidda/London

TIME Iraq

Leadership Crisis Hits Iraq as Aid Agencies Scramble to Help Refugees

Mideast Iraq
Iraqis chant pro-government slogans and wave national flags to show support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq on August 9, 2014. Karim Kadim — AP

Political discord, a humanitarian crisis in the north, and the ongoing war against Sunni extremists have rendered the situation in Iraq extremely unstable

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is resisting mounting pressure for his resignation, and has threatened to take legal action against the country’s President Fouad Massoum for failing to back his bid for a third term in office. The political discord comes as a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in the country’s north, where tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing attacks being carried out by Sunni extremists.

Late on Sunday, Maliki accused Massoum of mounting “a coup on the constitution and the political process in a country that is governed by a democratic and federal system.”

Maliki says he is entitled to a third term because his coalition won in polls held in April. However, he has not earned support from the legislature.

“Getting the confidence of Parliament is key,” Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, tells TIME. “Maliki did not get that as a result of his mishandling of the current crisis in Iraq as well as his divisive policies over the two terms he has served as Prime Minister.”

The U.S., which has begun targeting militants in northern Iraq in limited airstrikes, urged caution. “The government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters,” Kerry told reporters in Sydney on Monday.

The embattled Shi’ite premier has been accused of stoking sectarian fighting by marginalizing Sunni rivals in the government and military in order to consolidate his grip on power since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.

“It seems that Maliki’s priorities have been centered on trying to secure a third term for himself as Prime Minister rather than security of Iraq,” says Khatib. “His leadership performance has been abysmal.”

The New York Times reported early on Monday that the Prime Minister ordered tanks and an unspecified number of additional commandos to take up key positions within the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Sunday, spurring fears of confrontation with his political opponents.

Meanwhile, further north in Iraq’s Kurdish region, aid agencies continued to scramble to help the wave of refugees that was unleashed nine days ago, when forces loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) launched a savage military offensive in the region, aimed at removing religious minorities from the large swath of territory between Mosul and the Tigris River to the west.

“Their target towns have been towns, villages, areas where there are substantial non-Sunni, religious minorities,” says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ISIS’s goal, he said, “seems rather clear.”

The U.N. Refugee Agency reports at least 30,000 people have managed to escape from the mountains near Sinjar after being trapped there without water or supplies by ISIS forces. However, humanitarian groups on the ground said the situation in the region is still critical.

“Its imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure these people receive the life-saving assistance they need,” said David Swanson, an official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Late last weekend, U.S. forces began dropping relief supplies, and targeting ISIS positions in Sinjar in an effort to break the group’s siege of the conflict zone.

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