TIME Syria

Capture of U.S.-Trained Fighters in Syria Sets Back Fight Against ISIS

Al-Nusra Front
Fadi Al-Halabi—AFP/Getty Images Fighters from Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front drive in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo flying Islamist flags as they head to a frontline, on May 26, 2015.

Lieutenant Farhan al-Jassem spoke to the Center for Public Integrity before he was taken

Lieutenant Farhan al-Jassem is not a reluctant soldier, but sadness lurked behind his smile and deep brown eyes when he talked about the last two and half years he spent trying to fight what he considers the good fight in Syria.

On a sultry July night in a tea garden in southeastern Turkey, Jassem, 29, leaned back in his plastic chair and gulped down several bottles of water as he told the story of how he came to lead a key Syrian brigade receiving training and equipment from a U.S.-organized military coalition to take on the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). As he spoke, 54 members of the larger division his brigade belonged to were finishing up their training with U.S. Special Operations soldiers at a base located roughly 200 miles to the northwest.

Jassem got his first taste of the country’s roiling civil war in early 2012, when he was conscripted into Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s army, but he hated it and bought his way out, paying $400 for permission to visit his home town of Manbij, 40 miles northeast of Aleppo. There, he quickly joined the anti-regime Free Syrian Army, before moving to a smaller Turkmen brigade and then to the so-called 30th Division, created by the United States and its allies as the vanguard of Washington’s effort to roll back the Islamic State’s territorial gains.

When he spoke to the Center for Public Integrity in July, Jassem had passed an initial round of vetting to join the training and said he expected to participate in the next class—so long as the U.S. coalition kept its promises to the first set of graduates, especially a promise that the coalition would “protect us against our enemies after the program ends,” he said.

But Jassem’s fate suddenly took an uncertain turn on July 28, when he was captured by a rival anti-ISIS militia, known as the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda and therefore an enemy of any Syrian close to Americans. Captured alongside Jassem near the northern Syrian town of Azaz were his division’s commander, 16 graduates of the allied train-and-equip program, and two other division soldiers, according to Aziz Abu Mohammad, a 30th Division commander based in Turkey, who was interviewed by telephone.

This capture was a cataclysmic event for the division, by all accounts, and a grave setback for the U.S. train and equip program, which will now certainly face steeper challenges in recruiting new fighters and maintaining their morale.

But Jassem’s story — the arc of his military service and its apparently grim end — is also a lesson that a deepening U.S. involvement in this complex territorial conflict comes with many risks, both political ones and for the fighters, personal ones, since any association with Americans or the West can carry a problematic stigma on the other side of Turkey’s border with Syria.

Fighting for his country was not always part of Jassem’s plan. He briefly studied Arabic literature in university before dropping out to move to Greece and work there for several years. When protests against Syrian President Bashar Assad began back home in Syria, he joined similar demonstrations in front of the Syrian embassy in Athens, where he began to make contacts within the nascent armed Syrian opposition.

Jassem, who has a medium build, playful grin, close-cropped black hair, and bushy black eyebrows, said he was aware of the risks of joining the U.S.-led coalition effort. Graduates of the train and equip program would be returning to Syria “with targets on their backs,” he said. Nusra and other rebel groups, they knew, targeted recipients of foreign aid not just because of their anti-Western ideology, but also because they coveted the M16s and anti-tank guided missiles that coalition forces provided to other fighters. Even though their handlers from the Pentagon had promised to protect the trainees, Jassem said, it was a purely verbal agreement.

But Jassem said he signed up when one of his superiors from the Turkmen brigade, Col. Nedim al-Hasan, told him last March that the coalition wanted to create a new rebel group that would unite several of the anti-Islamic State brigades that had splintered off of the Free Syrian Army and scattered around eastern Syria after being forced out of their homes by ISIS. The colonel, a man he’d fought with for three years, would lead the entire division, which would eventually number more than 1000 fighters.

The division would be composed of brigades from parts of Syria east of Aleppo, where ISIS had become a greater scourge than the Syrian regime, such as Jassem’s hometown. Most were ethnic Turkmens, but some, like Jassem, were Arab. The aim, he said, was to create a force that could funnel recruits into the train and equip program.

The vetting process was intensive, he said, and discomfiting for many. The reason, he was told by fellow recruits, is that candidates for training were interviewed in the second stage while attached to polygraph machines by wires wrapped around their fingers. The questions were simple — had they ever fought for Nusra, for example? But the candidates had heard that similar-looking machines were used to administer shocks to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and so the experience was scary. Being subjected to eye and fingerprint scans contributed to their fears. “They felt like laboratory rats,” said Jassem.

Most enticing to the recruits of the program, Jassem said, was the prospect of getting satellite phones connected to vehicles, with which they could call in airstrikes from coalition warplanes when needed. They were also promised M16 rifles, and Jassem said there “had also been talk” of anti-tank weapons and ammunition.

“The coming days will prove whether the coalition is really going to help us” defeat ISIS, Jassem said. If the coalition forces keep their promises to protect the first set of trainees, “we expect the number of people in the second training group to increase,” he added.

Jassem emphasized that the coalition’s promises only covered the 54 graduates of the train and equip program. But when those trainees re-entered the battlefield, he said, they would rejoin their fellow fighters from the division already fighting ISIS, including around 200 men who had applied for the train and equip program but been rejected.

At the time of his abduction, Jassem was awaiting a second round of vetting to join the program, having already passed the first. He was escorting colleagues heading back to Syria after visiting relatives in Turkey, and so they all had to pass a Nusra checkpoint several miles south of the Turkish border. They thought they had gotten permission to do so from an Egyptian Nusra leader ten days earlier, Abu Mohammad said.

That promise proved false. Mohammad said he heard from a friend in the town of Azaz, where the group was taken after being stopped, that they were paraded through the town with the backs of their shirts pulled over their heads as Nusra fighters shouted that they had “collaborated with the crusader coalition.”

Two days after the group’s capture, a militia group affiliated with Nusra directly attacked the 30th division’s headquarters, killing five other graduates of the program, Abu Mohammed said. Coalition warplanes reacted to both incidents by bombing the headquarters of Nusra in Azaz, he added, a claim that the Pentagon declined to confirm. Hours after the raids, he told the Center through an interpreter that Nusra’s reaction will likely be to execute the detainees it already has in hand and “finish” the 30th Division. “Especially now… their fate is sealed.”

Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith contested Abu Mohammad’s claim that any graduates of the train and equip program were detained in Tuesday’s kidnapping, but said she had no further information to provide about it. She acknowledged that the 30th Division and its trainees were also attacked on July 31, and said that the coalition had supported them with defensive airstrikes, but would not confirm that it occurred in Azaz and said the attacking force was “unknown.”

U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea, chief of staff of the U.S. combined joint task force carrying out anti-Islamic State operations, told Pentagon media on July 31 that he had no knowledge of any abducted or injured trainees. All anti-ISIS forces in Syria “that are credible, reliable partners,” said Killea, “will receive coalition support as is required.”

This story is from The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. To read more of their reporters’ work, go here or follow them on Twitter.

TIME migrants

Inside Calais’s Deadly Migrant Crisis

Calais Migrants
Rob Stothard—Getty Images Gendarmerie attempt to prevent people from entering the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles in Calais, France, on July 30, 2015.

The desperate conditions that are driving migrants to risk their lives to make it to the U.K.

It was late on Thursday night in the French port city of Calais when the mood shifted. In a field awash with silvery moonlight, some 50 illegal migrants—mainly Syrians—sat down and turned their backs on the 20 French policemen who had formed a barricade across the field to prevent them from returning towards the entrance of the railway terminal linking England and France. There had been scuffles earlier that night when groups of migrants had faced off against the local gendarmerie as they tried to get near to the fencing surrounding the tunnel. But this was something different: a peaceful demonstration against the riot police that had been dispatched to this city to bolster security.

“Let us cross,” a voice in the crowd cried. “We are Syrians. We have a war in our country. Why all of this police just for us? We are just trying to cross for a safe place.”

The voice belonged to a 27-year old man who gave his name only as Adam. He had arrived in Calais four months ago, fleeing the sectarian conflict raging in his hometown of Idlib in northern Syria, part of a civil war that has caused some 4 million Syrians to escape their country. His pleas went unheard – the police continued to usher the migrants away from the railway complex – but Adam gave voice to the anguish felt by the growing number of migrants attempting to cross into the U.K. every night from France, men and women who have traveled thousands of miles in search of safety and prosperity.

2015 has been the year of the migrant in Europe, which has struggled to absorb the 137,000 asylum-seekers who have arrived on its shores in the first half of 2015 alone—an 83% increase from the same period last year. So far that impact has largely been borne by the countries of southern Europe, whose proximity to the Middle East and Africa has made them de facto destinations for migrants attempting to cross into the Mediterranean.

But though Calais’s 3,000 migrants may represent only a fraction of those seeking asylum in Europe, the city – already struggling with an unemployment rate of 13%, well above the national average – says it can no longer cope with the additional economic and security challenges of hosting so many migrants. A sharp surge in violence in the French port has now brought the crisis into the very heart of the continent.

In Calais, the dream of a better future literally shimmers on the horizon. The strait between England and the European continent is at its narrowest here, and on a clear day the white cliffs of Dover can be seen just 21 miles away. For those like Adam, who have left behind everything and traveled thousands of miles to flee conflict and persecution back home, that last distance seems like nothing. Indeed, migrants have been trying to cross into the U.K. from Calais ever since the Kosovo War in the late 1990s. Many speak English or have relatives in the U.K., where they believe jobs are more plentiful than in continental Europe. In the past, migrants often tried to leave by stowing away in lorries that crossed the sea by ferry. With increased security around the port, the focus has shifted recently to the undersea Channel Tunnel, where migrants try to hide on international freight trains and Eurotunnel Shuttles carrying vehicles.

These days, those living in ‘The Jungle’, as the squalid encampments on the edge of Calais are known, come from conflicts that rage beyond Europe’s borders. With the world witnessing the worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War, these makeshift camps are a snapshot of a global phenomenon, housing large numbers of Syrians, Sudanese, Eritreans and Afghans who have been forcibly displaced by violence back home.

Calais Migrants
Rob Stothard—Getty ImagesA man sits outside tents in at a make shift camp near the port of Calais in Calais, France, on July 31, 2015.

As the number of migrants has grown, the final leg of the journey to the U.K. has become increasingly perilous. British border controls were effectively moved to Calais as part of deals in 1994 and 2003 with France that meant immigration checkpoints take place before departure (by train or ferry) rather than upon disembarkation. As British Prime Minister David Cameron noted Thursday, the agreement means Britain’s natural sea border is strengthened by having border controls on the French side – though now senior French politicians are questioning the effectiveness of such a system, which they say places too much of a burden on France.

Years after those deals were made, Calais has come to resemble a fortress, with towering chain-link fences and coils of barbed wire running for miles around the port and Eurotunnel complex.

Ruben Andersson, a migration expert at the London School of Economics, says the increased fortification of land borders in Calais is a “disproportionate” response that fails to acknowledge the negative effects of similar policies at borders in other parts of the world—and which has failed to stop the migrants. “What we’ve seen in Calais over many years is that the more you fortify a border, all you do is displace routes across relatively safe borders to much riskier crossings,” he says.

Calais Migrants
Rob Stothard—Getty ImagesPeople help a young man squeeze through a gap in a fence near the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles in Calais, France, on July 30, 2015.

As the British and French authorities crack down on the more direct routes to reach England, migrants in Calais are trying more dangerous methods. Over the past six weeks, at least nine people have died in attempts to reach England, falling from trains as they tried to hang on, killed by lorries on the motorway, and even drowning in a canal at the tunnel entrance. That compares to a total of 15 migrant deaths for all of 2014.

More than 39,000 attempts to cross the Channel illegally were prevented in 2014 to 2015 – more than double the previous year. British Home Secretary Theresa May said that between June 21 and July 11, the French and British authorities successfully blocked over 8,000 attempts by illegal migrants to enter ports in France. Eurotunnel, the company that runs the shuttles through the Channel Tunnel, said that since January it had prevented 37,000 attempts, describing “nightly incursions” of hundreds of migrants trying to storm security forces at once, in the hope that a lucky few will make it to the other side.

On the night of July 28 alone, a few hundred migrants made over 2,000 attempts to breach the entrance of the Channel Tunnel, the railway line that links France and England. One young Sudanese man died, most likely crushed by a truck exiting one of the shuttles.

Later that week, Cameron promised that Britain would not become a “safe haven” for illegal immigrants, pledging more fencing and sniffer dogs to crack down on illegal border crossings. Accused of being lax by British politicians, France quickly dispatched 150 extra riot police to Calais. As dusk fell on July 30, the police began patrolling the 14-mile perimeter of the Eurotunnel complex, blocking roads previously open to the public.

Calais Migrants
Rob Stothard—Getty ImagesMen walk through a field near the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles in Calais, France, on July 30, 2015.

But the residents of ‘The Jungle’ were unfazed. That evening a steady parade of more than a hundred people could be seen walking across the city’s bridges and fields, silhouetted against the sunset as they headed towards the railway terminal. They told hopeful stories of friends and family who had reached England. Rumors floated in the crowd that in one night recently, as many as 60 migrants had made it to Dover in the U.K. (The British government has acknowledged that some successfully make it across to the U.K., but has declined to confirm exact numbers.) The real possibility of death did little to discourage migrants who had already faced worse.

“Back home, you could wake up in the morning and go to work and die. You could die every day, any day,” says Tahir Dlil, a 26-year-old radiology graduate who fled the turmoil in Sudan a year ago and has been in Calais for more than four months. “Would we have come if there was peace? Why would we want to live like animals in the jungle? No. We just want to live, to work, that’s all.”

While some of his friends have sought asylum in France, Dlil is confident his year-long quest will eventually end in England. He spends his nights making the nine-mile walk from the camp to the railway terminal, displaying cuts from barbed wire and bruises from clashes with the police. When asked how he usually spends his days in Calais, he breaks into a wide smile.

“England,” he grins. “I dream about England all day.”

TIME Military

U.S. Intelligence: ISIS is No Weaker Than a Year Ago

ISIS Airstrike Kobani
Halil Fidan—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Smoke rises from the Syrian border town of Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) following the US-led coalition airstrikes against ISIS targets on Jan. 16, 2015.

Despite the bombings, the group has expanded to other countries

WASHINGTON — After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded.

The military campaign has prevented Iraq’s collapse and put the Islamic State under increasing pressure in northern Syria, particularly squeezing its self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa. But intelligence analysts see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.

The assessments by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others appear to contradict the optimistic line taken by the Obama administration’s special envoy, retired Gen. John Allen, who told a forum in Aspen, Colorado, last week that “ISIS is losing” in Iraq and Syria. The intelligence was described by officials who would not be named because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

“We’ve seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers,” a defense official said, citing intelligence estimates that put the group’s total strength at between 20,000 and 30,000, the same estimate as last August when the airstrikes began.

The Islamic State’s staying power also raises questions about the administration’s approach to the threat that the group poses to the U.S. and its allies. Although officials do not believe it is planning complex attacks on the West from its territory, the group’s call to Western Muslims to kill at home has become a serious problem, FBI Director James Comey and other officials say.

Yet under the Obama administration’s campaign of bombing and training, which prohibits American troops from accompanying fighters into combat or directing air strikes from the ground, it could take a decade to drive the Islamic State from its safe havens, analysts say. The administration is adamant that it will commit no U.S. ground troops to the fight despite calls from some in Congress to do so.

The U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian and Kurdish allies on the ground have made some inroads. The Islamic State has lost 9.4 percent of its territory in the first six months of 2015, according to an analysis by the conflict monitoring group IHS. And the military campaign has arrested the sense of momentum and inevitability created by the group’s stunning advances last year, leaving the combination of Sunni religious extremists and former Saddam Hussein loyalists unable to grow its forces or continue its surge.

“In Raqqa, they are being slowly strangled,” said an activist who fled Raqqa earlier this year and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect relatives and friends who remain there. “There is no longer a feeling that Raqqa is a safe haven for the group.”

A Delta Force raid in Syria that killed Islamic State financier Abu Sayyaf in May also has resulted in a well of intelligence about the group’s structure and finances, U.S. officials say. His wife, held in Iraq, has been cooperating with interrogators.

Syrian Kurdish fighters and their allies have wrested most of the northern Syria border from the Islamic State group. In June, the U.S.-backed alliance captured the border town of Tal Abyad, which for more than a year had been the militants’ most vital direct supply route from Turkey. The Kurds also took the town of Ein Issa, a hub for IS movements and supply lines only 35 miles north of Raqqa.

As a result, the militants have had to take a more circuitous smuggling path through a stretch of about 60 miles they still control along the Turkish border. A plan announced this week for a U.S.-Turkish “safe zone” envisages driving the Islamic State group out of those areas as well, using Syrian rebels backed by airstrikes.

In Raqqa, U.S. coalition bombs pound the group’s positions and target its leaders with increasing regularity. The militants’ movements have been hampered by strikes against bridges, and some fighters are sending their families away to safer ground.

In early July, a wave of strikes in 24 hours destroyed 18 overpasses and a number of roads used by the group in and around Raqqa.

Reflecting IS unease, the group has taken exceptional measures against residents of Raqqa the past two weeks, activists say. It has moved to shut down private Internet access for residents, arrested suspected spies and set up security cameras in the streets. Patrols by its “morals police” have decreased because fighters are needed on the front lines, the activists say.

But American intelligence officials and other experts say that in the big picture, the Islamic State is hanging tough.

“The pressure on Raqqa is significant, and it’s an important thing to watch, but looking at the overall picture, ISIS is mostly in the same place,” said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. “Overall ISIS still retains the ability to plan and execute phased conventional military campaigns and terrorist attacks.”

In Iraq, the Islamic State’s seizure of the strategically important provincial capital of Ramadi has so far stood. Although U.S. officials have said it is crucial that the government in Baghdad win back disaffected Sunnis, there is little sign of that happening. American-led efforts to train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State have produced a grand total of 60 vetted fighters.

The group has adjusted its tactics to thwart a U.S. bombing campaign that tries to avoid civilian casualties, officials say. Fighters no longer move around in easily targeted armored columns; they embed themselves among women and children, and they communicate through couriers to thwart eavesdropping and geolocation, the defense official said.

Oil continues to be a major revenue source. By one estimate, the Islamic State is clearing $500 million per year from oil sales, said Daniel Glaser, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. That’s on top of as much as $1 billion in cash the group seized from banks in its territory.

Although the U.S. has been bombing oil infrastructure, the militants have been adept at rebuilding oil refining, drilling and trading capacity, the defense official said.

“ISIL has plenty of money,” Glaser said last week, more than enough to meet a payroll he estimated at a high of $360 million a year.

Glaser said the U.S. was gradually squeezing the group’s finances through sanctions, military strikes and other means, but he acknowledged it would take time.

Ahmad al-Ahmad, a Syrian journalist in Hama province who heads an opposition media outfit called Syrian Press Center, said he did not expect recent setbacks to seriously alter the group’s fortunes.

“IS moves with a very intelligent strategy which its fighters call the lizard strategy,” he said. “They emerge in one place, then they disappear and pop up in another place.”

TIME Military

U.S. Prepares to Fly Deeper into Syrian Civil War

Operation Northern Watch Enforces No-Fly Zone
Air Force / Getty Images A U.S. Air Force F-16 leaves a Turkish base in 2002 for a mission over Iraq. Soon they are likely to be flying similar assignments over Syria.

ISIS is the target, but U.S. pilots could also be at risk

The U.S. flew “no-fly zones” over northern and southern Iraq for more than a decade before the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. U.S. warplanes kept Iraqi aircraft out of the sky, and targeted Iraqi air-defense systems that threatened to shoot. Now, along with neighboring Turkey, the U.S. is planning to launch something similar over a stretch of northern Syria.

Eliminating Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria along a strip of the Syrian-Turkish border is the key goal, opening up a safe haven for tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by the country’s four-year-old civil war that has killed more than 200,000. Whether the move hastens the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad—or leads to the shootdown and possible capture or death of an American pilot—remains unknowable.

Institute for the Study of WarThe striped section of the map is the proposed “no-ISIS zone.”

U.S. officials stressed Monday that Washington and Ankara are planning to step up bombing of ISIS targets on the ground, and not create a formal no-fly zone, which would bar Syrian warplanes from bombing runs. “It’s not a no-fly zone—it’s a bombing campaign,” says retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, who oversaw the Iraqi no-fly zones as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000. He doesn’t think such a bombing campaign will have much effect. “We see how well a year of bombing has worked in Iraq,” where ISIS remains in control of much of the western part of the nation.

The chance of clashes between Syria and U.S. and Turkish aircraft will be more likely once details of the new zone are hammered out and stepped-up U.S.-Turkish attacks on ISIS targets begin. “I think they’ll tell the Syrians to just stay out of the air space,” Zinni says of U.S. and Turkish commanders. “They’ll issue a demarche: ‘If you shoot any air defense weapons at us, we’ll nail you.’ That’s what we did to the Iraqis.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the Syrians aren’t challenging U.S. warplanes. “There is no opposition in the air when coalition aircraft are flying in that part of Syria,” he said. “The Assad regime is not challenging us; [ISIS] doesn’t have airplanes … they’re not being shot at.”

But that’s hardly a guarantee. U.S. commanders will ensure their flight crew fly high and well clear of any known Syrian air-defense threats to minimize the chance of a U.S. pilot being shot down and—in the worst case—falling into ISIS’s hands and murdered. But accidents and snafus can occasionally happen. “We never even had a plane scratched,” Zinni says of the more than 200,000 U.S. flights in the Iraqi no-fly zones from 1992 to 2003. “It was absolutely remarkable.” (Unfortunately, this record was marred by the 1994 shootdown of two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters, killing all 26 aboard, by a pair of U.S. Air Force F-15s.)

Conflicting loyalties and priorities complicate the more aggressive campaign. Last week, after a suicide bombing blamed on ISIS killed 30 in a Turkish border town, Turkey began flying air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, and gave the U.S. long-sought permission to launch air strikes from Turkish bases. Turkey, a NATO ally, is growing increasingly concerned with ISIS on its doorstep, the growing refugee problem, and military successes by its Kurdish minority, some elements of which are seeking their own state.

Kurdish forces control most of the Syrian-Turkish frontier, and the Turkish government views them as a threat much like ISIS. Ankara is also more interested in toppling Assad than battling ISIS. “If there is one person who is responsible for all these terrorist crimes and humanitarian tragedies in Syria, it is Assad’s approach, using chemical weapons, barrel bombs against civilians,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told CNN. His government has called for a NATO meeting Tuesday to discuss the ISIS fight.

U.S. and Turkish air power are expected to be used to reinforce Syrian rebels on the ground who are battling ISIS, creating a 68-mile “no-ISIS zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border. “Moderate forces like the Free Syrian Army will be strengthened…so they can take control of areas freed from [ISIS], air cover will be provided,” Davutoglu told Turkey’s A Haber television news channel.. “It would be impossible for them to take control of the area without it.”

U.S. officials have been complaining since the Pentagon began bombing ISIS targets a year ago of a dearth of reliable partners on the ground, in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS drove the U.S.-trained Iraqi army out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, a year ago, and the U.S. has trained only about 60 Syrian rebels to fight ISIS’s 30,000-strong force.

TIME Turkey

Turkey Carries Out Strikes Against ISIS and Kurdish Targets

Kurds Turkey ISIS Airstrikes
Wael Hamzeh—EPA Supporters of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) living in Lebanon flash the V-sign during a protest against the Turkish air force attacks on the PKK military campaigns in Syria and northern Iraq, in front of the United Nation (ESCWA) in Beirut on July 26, 2015.

Four Kurdish fighters were allegedly wounded

(BEIRUT) —Turkish troops have shelled a Syrian village near the border, targeting Kurdish fighters who have been battling the Islamic State group with the aid of U.S.-led airstrikes, Syria’s main Kurdish militia and an activist group said Monday.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, said the Sunday night shelling on the border village of Til Findire targeted one of their vehicles. It said Til Findire is east of the border town of Kobani, where the Kurds handed a major defeat to the Islamic State group earlier this year.

In cross-border strikes since Friday, Turkey has targeted both Kurdish fighters as well as the IS group, stepping up its involvement in Syria’s increasingly complex civil war. The Syrian Kurds are among the most effective ground forces battling the IS group, but Turkey fears they could revive an insurgency against Ankara in pursuit of an independent state.

On Monday the YPG and Syrian rebels captured the town of Sareen in northern Syria, which had been held by the Islamic State group, according to The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center in Syria, two activist groups that track the civil war.

A Turkish official said Turkish forces are only targeting the IS group in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in neighboring Iraq.

The official said the “ongoing military operation seeks to neutralize imminent threats to Turkey’s national security and continues to target ISIS in Syria and the PKK in Iraq.”

“The PYD, along with others, remains outside the scope of the current military effort,” the official said, referring to the political arm of the YPG.

The official added that authorities were “investigating claims that the Turkish military engaged positions held by forces other than ISIS.”

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of rules that bar officials from speaking to journalists without authorization.

The YPG did not say in its Monday statement whether there were casualties in the shelling.

The YPG said Turkey first shelled Til Findire on Friday, wounding four fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army and several local villagers. It urged Turkey to “halt this aggression and to follow international guidelines.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four fighters were wounded in the village of Zor Maghar, which is also close to the Turkish border. Conflicting reports are common in the aftermath of violent incidents.

Earlier this month, Syria’s main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, warned Turkey that any military intervention would threaten international peace and said its armed wing, the YPG, would face any “aggression.”

Turkish police meanwhile raided homes in a neighborhood in the capital on Monday, detaining at least 15 people suspected of links to the Islamic State group, the state-run news agency said.

The Anadolu Agency said those detained in Ankara’s Haci Bayram neighborhood include a number of foreign nationals. It did not give details of the foreigners’ home countries.

Turkey has been carrying out airstrikes against IS targets in Syria and Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq. It has also arrested hundreds of people with suspected links to violent extremists.

On Sunday, it called for a meeting of its NATO allies to discuss threats to its security, as well as its airstrikes.

In comments published Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey and the United States had no plans to send ground troops into Syria but said they had agreed to provide air cover to moderate Syrian fighters.

“If we are not going to send land units to the ground — and we will not — then those forces acting as ground forces cooperating with us should be protected,” Davutoglu told a group of senior journalists over the weekend. His comments were published in Hurriyet newspaper.

Davutoglu also said Turkey wanted to clear its border of IS extremists.

“We don’t want to see Daesh at our border,” Hurriyet quoted Davutoglu as saying, using the Arabic acronym of the group. “We want to see the moderate opposition take its place.”

The Turkish leader also said Turkey’s action against the IS has “changed the regional game.”

___

Frazer reported from Ankara, Turkey.

TIME Middle East

Turkey Strikes ISIS After Allowing U.S. to Use Its Bases

Ahmet Davutoglu
Hakan Goktepe—AP In this July 23, 2015 photo, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, center, his ministers, military commanders and intelligence officials gather during a security meeting in Ankara, Turkey, hours before warplanes struck ISIS targets across the border in Syria

Jets hit ISIS bases in Syria as police round up scores of suspects in raids

(ANKARA, Turkey) —Turkish warplanes struck Islamic State group targets across the border in Syria on Friday, government officials said, a day after IS militants fired at a Turkish military outpost, killing a soldier.

The bombing is a strong tactical shift for Turkey which had long been reluctant to join the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group.

A government official said three F-16 jets took off from Diyarbakir airbase in southeast Turkey early Friday and used smart bombs to hit three IS targets across the Turkish border province of Kilis. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of government rules requiring authorization for comment, said the targets were two command centers and a gathering point of IS supporters.

The private Dogan news agency said as many as 35 IS militants were killed in the airstrike that targeted the gathering point. The agency did not cite a source for the report and there was no official confirmation.

A government statement said the decision for the operation was taken at a security meeting on Thursday, held after five IS militants fired from Syrian territory at the outpost and prompting Turkish retaliation that killed at least one IS militant.

The official said the Turkish planes did not violate Syrian airspace.

The bombing followed a decision by Turkey this week to allow the U.S. military to use the key Incirlik air base near the border with Syria to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State, senior U.S. officials said.

Turkey has yet to publicly confirm the agreement, which U.S. officials discussed on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly. Citing operational security, the White House declined to confirm the agreement, but noted that Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had agreed to “deepen our cooperation” against IS in their phone call Wednesday.

The agreement follows months of U.S. appeals to Turkey and delicate negotiations over the use of Incirlik and other bases by the U.S.-led coalition — a sensitive topic in Turkey.

American officials said access to the base in southern Turkey would allow the U.S. to move more swiftly and nimbly to attack IS targets.

On Friday, Turkish police launched a major operation against terror groups including IS, carrying out simultaneous raids in Istanbul and 12 provinces and detaining more than 250 people, a government statement said. The state-run Anadolu Agency said as many as 5,000 police officers were involved in the operation which was also targeting the PKK Kurdish rebel group and the outlawed far-left group, DHKP-C.

One DHKP-C suspect, a woman, was killed in a gunfight with police in Istanbul, Anadolu reported.

Turkey’s moves came as the country finds itself drawn further into the conflict by a series of deadly attacks and signs of increased IS activity inside the country.

Earlier in the week, a suicide bombing blamed on IS militants killed 32 people in a town near the Syrian border.

Turkish officials have raised concerns that the bombing was part of a campaign of retaliation for Turkey’s recent crackdown on IS operations in the country. In the last six months, Turkish officials say, more than 500 people suspected of working with IS have been detained.

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Butler reported from Istanbul.

TIME Syria

Leader of al-Qaeda Offshoot Khorasan Killed in U.S. Air Strike in Syria

Muhsin al-Fadhli is seen in an undated photo provided by the U.S. State Department
Reuters Muhsin al-Fadhli is seen in an undated photo provided by the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.

Muhsin al-Fadhli was killed while traveling close to the Turkish border

A Pentagon spokesperson has confirmed that a U.S. air strike in Syria earlier this month killed a top leader of al-Qaeda splinter group Khorasan who had rare advanced knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

On July 8, Muhsin al-Fadhli was traveling near Sarmada, a town in northwestern Syria close to the Turkish border, when a U.S. drone targeted and struck his vehicle. The BBC reports that he had previously evaded a similar attempt on his life last September.

Though the bloody rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has prompted American counterterrorism efforts to pivot away from al-Qaeda, al-Fadhli, a former confidant of Osama bin Laden, had remained a major target. A 2012 U.S. State Department report recognized him as “al-Qaida’s senior facilitator and financier in Iran” and a ringleader in the 2002 terrorist attack on a French oil tanker off the Yemeni coast.

At the time of his death, security officials had identified him as the leader of Khorasan, a Syria-based cabal of senior al-Qaeda members believed to possibly “pose as much of a danger as the [ISIS],” as National Intelligence Director James Clapper said last September. As ISIS conducted its public campaign of gruesome theatrics, al-Qaeda kept something of a low profile, purposely disassociating itself from what President Barack Obama had dubbed “junior varsity” jihadism. Despite ISIS’s rising profile, it is the elusive al-Qaeda leadership that possesses the organization and experience to execute a terrorist attack on Western soil, the New York Times reports.

Al-Fadhli was a seasoned jihadist. He was just 20 years old in 2001, but was already sufficiently elevated in al-Qaeda’s ranks to learn in advance of the planned assault on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Accordingly, his death comes as a symbolic if not insurmountable blow to the group’s leadership.

“[Al-Fadhli] is certainly one of the most capable of the al-Qaeda core members,” Congressman Adam Schiff, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, told the Times last year, following a botched attempt on the extremist’s life. “His loss would be significant, but as we’ve seen before, any decapitation is only a short-term gain. The hydra will grow another head.”

TIME Syria

3 Spanish Journalists Reported Missing in Syria

Aleppo
Khaled Khateb —AFP/Getty Images People walk past a damaged building in the al-Kalasa neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on July 19, 2015.

The three men disappeared while working in the northern city of Aleppo

(MADRID)—Three Spanish freelance journalists who traveled to Syria to report amid the country’s long-running civil war have gone missing around the embattled northern city of Aleppo, a Spanish journalism association said Tuesday, the latest ensnared in the world’s most dangerous assignment for reporters.

The disappearance of Antonio Pampliega, Jose Manuel Lopez and Angel Sastre, presumed to be working together, comes as most media organizations have pulled out of Syria, especially with the rise of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) group. At least 84 journalists have been killed since 2011 in Syria, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, while others remain missing or have been released for ransom.

Elsa Gonzalez, the president of the association, told Spanish National Television in a telephone interview that the three disappeared while working in the Aleppo area. She said they entered Syria from Turkey on July 10 and were last heard of two days later.

Sastre, a television journalist, last posted on Twitter July 10, when he wrote “courage” in Arabic, English and Spanish. Pampliega worked as a freelance reporter, whose most recent work featured a story about Spaniard fighting with Kurds in Kobani against the Islamic State group. Spanish media identified Lopez as a photojournalist.

It was not clear where exactly the men went missing. Once Syria’s commercial center, the city of Aleppo been carved up between government- and rebel-held neighborhoods since 2012, with government forces controlling much of western Aleppo and rebel groups in control of the east.

The Islamic State group, which has kidnapped Western journalists in Syria and later killed them, is outside the city and controls parts of the northern and eastern Aleppo countryside. The extremists are responsible for most kidnappings in Syria since the summer of 2013, but government-backed militias, criminal gangs and rebels affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army also have been involved with various motives.

An unprecedented spate of kidnappings by Islamic State militants starting in summer 2013 has kept most journalists away, particularly since the group began killing foreign journalists and aid workers it holds, starting with American journalist James Foley in August last year. Foley’s taped beheading was followed by the killing of American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, American aid worker Peter Kassig, as well as Japanese nationals Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto.

The group also has generated cash from ransoming European journalists.

Often media don’t report abduction cases at the request of the families or employers. It’s not clear how many foreign and local journalists remain held in Syria, though the number likely is in the dozens.

A Spanish Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with policy regulations said the ministry is aware of the situation and is working on it, declining to elaborate. Gonzalez did not say whether the journalists were on assignment for specific media organizations.

Aleppo is the scene of daily fighting. Government helicopters also regularly drop explosive barrels on rebel-held parts of the city.

A missile attack on a rebel-held neighborhood in Aleppo killed at least 10 people and wounded many others Tuesday, two activist groups said.

The Local Coordination Committees said the attack on the Maghayer neighborhood killed 10 people, including women and children.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack killed 18 people and wounded more than 50. It said the surface-to-surface missile destroyed several houses in the area.

It is not uncommon to have different death tolls in the aftermath of attacks in Syria, where the four-year conflict has killed more than 220,000 people.

Meanwhile near the border with Lebanon, Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah fighters captured several neighborhoods in the mountain resort of Zabadani that has been under attack for nearly three weeks.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station said troops and Lebanese militants have besieged rebels inside Zabadani from all sides, adding that they inflicted heavy casualties among them. It said dozens of fighters were wounded in the fighting.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists around Syria, said the Syrian government air force has dropped 36 barrel bombs on Zabadani since Tuesday morning. The Observatory reported that dozens of airstrikes have targeted Zabadani since the offensive began on July, 3.

The capture of Zabadani would tighten Hezbollah’s grip on Syrian territories bordering Lebanon and strengthen the Syrian government’s control over of the Beirut-Damascus highway.

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Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.

TIME Iraq

Children Told to Behead Dolls at ISIS Training Camps

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
Reuters A member loyal to ISIS waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, on June 29, 2014

"They told me it was the head of the infidels"

(SANLIURFA, Turkey) — The children had all been shown videos of beheadings and told by their trainers with the Islamic State group that they would perform one someday. First, they had to practice technique. The more than 120 boys were each given a doll and a sword and told, cut off its head.

A 14-year-old who was among the boys, all abducted from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, said he couldn’t cut it right. He chopped once, twice, three times.

“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” the boy, renamed Yahya by his ISIS captors, told The Associated Press last week in northern Iraq, where he fled after escaping the IS training camp.

When Islamic State extremists overran Yazidi towns in northern Iraq last year, they butchered older men and enslaved many of the women and girls. Dozens of young Yazidi boys like Yahya had a different fate: ISIS sought to re-educate them. They forced them to convert to Islam from their ancient faith and tried to turn them into jihadi fighters.

It is part of a concerted effort by the extremists to build a new generation of militants, according to AP interviews with residents who fled or still live under ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The group is recruiting teens and children using gifts, threats and brainwashing. Boys have been turned into killers and suicide bombers. An ISIS video issued last week showed a boy beheading a Syrian soldier under an adult militant’s supervision. Last month, a video showed 25 children unflinchingly shooting 25 captured Syrian soldiers in the head.

In schools and mosques, militants infuse children with extremist doctrine, often turning them against their own parents. Fighters in the street befriend children with toys. ISIS training camps churn out the Ashbal, Arabic for “lion cubs,” child fighters for the “caliphate” that ISIS declared across its territory. The caliphate is a historic form of Islamic rule that the group claims to be reviving with its own radical interpretation, though the vast majority of Muslims reject its claims.

“I am terribly worried about future generations,” said Abu Hafs Naqshabandi, a Syrian sheikh who runs religion classes for refugees in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa to counter ISIS ideology.

The indoctrination mainly targets Sunni Muslim children. In ISIS-held towns, militants show young people videos at street booths. They hold outdoor events for children, distributing soft drinks and candy — and propaganda.

They tell adults, “We have given up on you, we care about the new generation,” said an anti-ISIS activist who fled the Syrian city of Raqqa, the extremists’ de facto capital. He spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve the safety of relatives under ISIS rule.

With the Yazidis, whom ISIS considers heretics ripe for slaughter, the group sought to take another community’s youth, erase their past and replace it with radicalism.

Yahya, his little brother, their mother and hundreds of Yazidis were captured when ISIS seized the Iraqi town of Sulagh in August. They were taken to Raqqa, where the brothers and other Yazidi boys aged 8 to 15 were put in the Farouq training camp. They were given Muslim Arabic names to replace their Kurdish names. Yahya asked that AP not use his real name for his and his family’s safety.

He spent nearly five months there, training eight to 10 hours a day, including exercises, weapons drills and Quranic studies. They told him Yazidis are “dirty” and should be killed, he said. They showed him how to shoot someone from close range. The boys hit each other in some exercises. Yahya punched his 10-year-old brother, knocking out a tooth.

The trainer “said if I didn’t do it, he’d shoot me,” Yahya said. “They … told us it would make us tougher. They beat us everywhere.”

In an ISIS video of Farouq camp, boys in camouflage do calisthenics and shout slogans. An ISIS fighter says the boys have studied jihad so “in the coming days God Almighty can put them in the front lines to battle the infidels.”

Videos from other camps show boys crawling under barbed wire and practicing shooting. One kid lies on the ground and fires a machine gun; he’s so small the recoil bounces his whole body back a few inches. Boys undergoing endurance training stand unmoving as a trainer hits their heads with a pole.

ISIS claims to have hundreds of such camps. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented at least 1,100 Syrian children under 16 who joined IS this year. At least 52 were killed in fighting, including eight suicide bombers, it said.

Yahya escaped in early March. Fighters left the camp to carry out an attack, and as remaining guards slept he and his brother slipped away, he said. He urged a friend to come too, but he refused, saying he was a Muslim now and liked Islam.

Yahya’s mother was in a house nearby with other abducted Yazidis — he had occasionally been allowed to visit her. So he and his brother went there. They travelled to the Syrian city of Minbaj and stayed with a Russian ISIS fighter, Yahya said. He contacted an uncle in Iraq, who negotiated to pay the Russian for the two boys and their mother. A deal struck, they met the uncle in Turkey then went to the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk.

Now in Dohuk, Yahya and his brother spend much of their time watching TV. They appear outgoing and social. But traces of their ordeal show. When his uncle handed Yahya a pistol, the boy deftly assembled and loaded it.

And he will never forget the videos of beheadings ISIS trainers showed the boys.

“I was scared when I saw that,” he said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to behead someone like that. Even as an adult.”

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Jannsen reported from Dohuk, Iraq. Associated Press writers Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, and Vivian Salama in Eski Mosul, Iraq, contributed to this report

TIME Iraq

A Series of Bombings Has Claimed 35 Lives in the Iraqi Capital

More than 100 people were also wounded

A string of car bombs and suicide attacks tore through the Iraqi capital on Sunday, killing 35 people and wounding more than 100.

The bombings occurred in Baghdad’s mainly Shi‘ite Muslim neighborhoods of Shaab, Bunouk and Kadhumuya, reports Reuters. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is believed responsible. The Sunni extremist group often sends militants into the capital.

The northern neighborhood of Shaab was hit worst when two bombs were set off near a market. A suicide attacker detonated explosives strapped to his body shortly after crowds gathered to see the aftermath of a car bomb. The combined blasts killed 19 people.

Nine other people died in a car bombing in Bunouk. Shortly afterward, security personnel with sniffer dogs swept the capital’s northeastern district when they received information about two more bomb threats.

As the daily Ramadan fast drew to a close, just before dusk, another suicide bomb killed five people in Kadhimiya. The district is home to one of Shi‘ism’s holiest shrines, the al-Kadhimiya Mosque. A separate bomb in the Iskan district to the city’s west killed another two people.

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