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 Military

Investigators: Bird Strikes Led to Fatal USAF Helicopter Crash

An impact with a flock of geese led to the deaths of four U.S. airmen in January, a board has found

A U.S. Air Force helicopter crash which killed four men was caused by “multiple bird strikes” to the aircraft, according to investigators.

Cpt. Christopher Stover, Cpt. Sean Ruane, Tech Sgt. Dale Mathews and Staff Sgt. Afton Ponce were killed in January when their helicopter crashed during a training mission in Norfolk, England. The U.S. Accident Investigation Board found the accident was caused by geese flying through the aircraft’s windshield, knocking the pilot and co-pilot unconscious. They were then unable to react when another bird hit the helicopter’s nose, disabling stabilization systems and eventually putting the aircraft in an uncontrolled and eventually fatal roll.

Only three seconds lapsed between the initial bird strike and the helicopter’s crash, investigators said.

The four men were in an HH-60G Pave Hawk assigned to the UK’s Royal Air Force. They were flying the helicopter as part of a nighttime training mission mimicking the rescue of a downed fighter pilot.

No civilians were injured during the crash, which saw the helicopter destroyed on impact. The estimated cost of the accident to the U.S. government was $40 million.

TIME Terrorism

Air Strikes Kill Dozens of al-Qaeda Members in Yemen

People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda on April 19, 2014. Reuters

A "massive and unprecedented" series of joint U.S.-Yemeni airstrikes was launched against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula over the weekend, reportedly killing some 55 militants but also at least three civilians in the country’s southern and central regions

Updated 1:12 p.m. ET

Air strikes killed about 55 suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen on Sunday, officials said, in what was called an “unprecedented” series of strikes.

According to the nation’s High Security Committee, the operation focused on “terrorist elements [who] were planning to target vital civilian and military installations.” An unnamed high-level Yemeni official told CNN that the “massive and unprecedented” strike involved commandos who are now “going after high-level AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] targets.” He said the operation was launched in collaboration with the U.S., though wouldn’t confirm the use of drones in the attack. The U.S. is known to have conducted drone strikes in Yemen.

Predawn strikes targeted a mountain ridge in the southern province of Abyan, according to the official, while Yemen’s state news agency SABA said three strikes hit an al-Qaeda training camp around 450 km south of the capital Sana‘a.

AQAP is one of the terrorist group’s most lethal wings.

TIME U.S. military

U.S. Special Ops Are Soldiers Committing Suicide in Record Numbers

American Flags Planted On National Mall To Honor Service Members Who Committed Suicide
U.S. military veterans set up 1,892 American flags on the National Mall March 27, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America installed the flags to represent the 1,892 veterans and service members who committed suicide this year. Win McNamee—Getty Images

The head of Special Operations Command says more than a decade of "hard combat" is taking a tough toll on the mental health of his elite troops

Updated: April 18, 6 a.m. ET

U.S. special operations forces personnel are committing suicide in record numbers, according to a top military official, due to the traumatic effects of years of war.

Admiral William McRaven, who leads the Special Operations Command, told a conference in Tampa, Fla. that members of elite units like the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers have proved prone to depression and self-harm over the past two years, reports Reuters. “And this year, I am afraid, we are on path to break that,” he said.

“My soldiers have been fighting now for 12, 13 years in hard combat—hard combat,” McRaven added. “And anybody that has spent any time in this war has been changed by it. It’s that simple.”

Although precise figures were not provided, it is well known that the U.S. military has been struggling with suicides for a long time. In 2012, the estimated 350 active duty servicemen and servicewomen across the American armed forces that committed suicide surpassed the number lost in combat.

[Reuters]

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