TIME Military

U.S. Says Turkey OKs Use of Bases Against Militants

Turkey Syria
Thick smoke, debris and fire rise following an airstrike by the US-led coalition in Kobani, Syria as fighting intensified between Syrian Kurds and the militants of Islamic State group, as seen from Mursitpinar on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. Lefteris Pitarakis—AP

(AREQUIPA, Peru) — Turkey will let U.S. and coalition forces use its bases, including a key installation within 100 miles of the Syrian border, for operations against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, American defense officials said Sunday.

But progress in negotiations with Turkey — including Ankara’s agreement to train several thousand Syrian moderate rebels — may not be enough to stop the massacre of civilians in Syria’s border town of Kobani, where intense fighting continues.

The Obama administration had been pressing Ankara to play a larger role against the extremists, who have taken control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq, including territory on Turkey’s border, and sent refugees fleeing into Turkey.

U.S. officials confirmed Saturday that Ankara had agreed to train Syrian moderate forces on Turkish soil. A Turkish government official said Sunday that Turkey put the number at 4,000 opposition fighters and said they would be screened by Turkish intelligence.

Also Sunday, officials confirmed that Turkey agreed to let U.S. and coalition fighter aircraft launch operations against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria from Turkish bases, including Incirlik Air Base in the south. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has been traveling in South America, has said the U.S. wanted access to the Turkish bases.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private talks between the Americans and Turks.

As fighting continued in the Kurdish town of Kobani, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the tenuous situation. Speaking in Cairo, Kerry said the defense of Kobani does not define the international counterterrorism strategy.

Islamic State militants have taken parts of Kobani, Kerry indicated, but not all of it. The United Nations has warned of mass casualties if the border town falls.

“There will be ups and there will be downs over the next days as there are in any kind of conflict,” Kerry said at the conclusion of an international aid conference for the Gaza Strip.

Elaborating on a theme the Obama administration has zeroed in on in recent days, Kerry said the U.S. has been realistic about how quickly it will prevail against the Islamic State militants. Officials have spoken of years of counterterrorism efforts ahead.

U.S. and coalition aircraft have been bombarding the territory in and around Kobani for days, launching airstrikes on dozens of locations and taking out militants, weapons and other targets.

The enclave has been the scene of heavy fighting since late last month, with heavily armed Islamic State fighters determined to deal a symbolic blow to the coalition air campaign.

U.S. Central Command said warplanes from the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes on four locations in Syria on Saturday and Sunday, including three in Kobani that destroyed an Islamic State fighting position and staging area.

Beyond the training and bases, there are other issues the U.S. hopes Turkey will agree to. U.S. officials have not said what all of those would be because discussions are continuing.

Earlier Sunday, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, made clear the U.S. has not asked “the Turks to send ground forces of their own into Syria.”

American officials are “continuing to talk to the Turks about other ways that they can play an important role. They are already essential to trying to prevent the flow of foreign fighters” and prevent extremists from exporting oil through Turkey. “So Turkey has many ways it can contribute,” Rice told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Hagel spoke by telephone Sunday with Turkey’s defense minister, Ismet Yilmaz, and thanked him for his country’s willingness to assist in the fight.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Hagel “noted Turkey’s expertise in this area and the responsible manner in which Turkey is handling the other challenges this struggle has placed upon the country, in terms of refugees and border security.”

Turkey and other American allies are pressing the U.S. to create a no-fly zone inside Syrian territory, and seeking creation of a secure buffer on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. A “safe zone” would require Americans and their partners to protect ground territory and patrol the sky.

Hagel has said American leaders are open to discussing a safe zone, but creating one isn’t “actively being considered.”

Alongside Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Kerry said at a news conference in Cairo that Kobani is “one community and it is a tragedy what is happening there.”

The primary focus of the fight against the Islamic State group has been in Iraq, where the U.S. is working to help shore up Iraqi Security Forces, who were overrun in many places by the militants. In Syria, the U.S. is starting by going after the extremists’ infrastructure and sources of revenue.

In the meantime, Kerry said, the Islamic State group “has the opportunity to take advantage of that particular buildup, as they are doing. But I’d rather have our hand than theirs.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has estimated it would require hundreds of U.S. aircraft and cost as much as $1 billion a month to maintain an area in Syria safe from attacks by the Islamic State group and Syria’s air force, with no assurance of a change in battlefield momentum toward ending the Syrian civil war.

“Do I anticipate that there could be circumstances in the future where that would be part of the campaign? Yeah,” Dempsey told ABC’s “This Week.”

TIME Syria

Battle Rages for Syria Town Under ISIS Assault

SURUC, Turkey — The shells were already roaring down on the Kurdish fighters from the hill above Kobani when more than 30 Islamic State militants backed by snipers and pickups mounted with heavy machine guns began their assault across the dusty fields.

Holed up in an industrial area of squat, concrete buildings on Kobani’s eastern edges, the outgunned Kurds could do little to repel the attack, recalled Dalil Boras, one of the defenders during the Oct. 6 assault. The Islamic State group’s firepower proved too much, so the Kurds withdrew through the gray streets to a tree-lined park, ceding a foothold in the town to the extremist fighters, who promptly raised two black flags over their newly conquered territory.

A week later, the Kurdish men and women of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, are still holding out, if barely, with a helping hand from more than 20 airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State positions.

They have been battered by tanks shells and mortars, and picked off by snipers using American-made rifles. They have no answer for the heavy weapons that Islamic State fighters have looted from Iraqi and Syrian army bases. And while they are slowly yielding ground, they so far have prevented the town from being overrun, defending it zealously with little more than light weapons, booby-traps and a fervent belief in their cause.

Along the way, the predominantly Kurdish town along Syria’s border with Turkey has been transformed from a dusty backwater into a symbol of resistance for Kurds around the world. It also has grabbed the international media spotlight, which has helped turn the defense of Kobani into a very public test for the American-led international effort to roll back and ultimately destroy the Islamic State group.

The battle itself is now playing out in Kobani’s streets and alleyways — a fight being watched by scores of Syrian and Turkish Kurds, as well as dozens of journalists, through binoculars from hilltops and farms just across the border in Turkey.

From that vantage point, the town spreads out among the rocky hills and brown fields just beyond the frontier. Plumes of black smoke billow over the low-slung skyline. The occasional thud of mortar shells mixes with the clatter of heavy machine guns and assault rifles.

Kurdish fighters and civilians who have recently fled describe a much grittier scene inside the town. Both of the warring sides have knocked holes in walls to move between buildings — a tactic employed in urban fighting for decades. On cross streets, blankets have been hung to limit exposure to snipers. Rubble litters the streets. Smoke hangs in the air. The few remaining civilians have sought shelter in basements.

Boras, a short and stocky 19-year-old dressed in dusty black jeans and a black T-shirt, explained how Kurdish fighters are organized into small groups of sometimes as few as five or six people, who stake out positions on the front lines. Teams with rocket-propelled grenades and Russian-designed machine guns known here as “Doshkas” have taken up positions in the upper stories of some buildings to maximize the Kurds’ limited firepower.

“We are communicating with walkie-talkies,” Boras said recently during a three-day break from the fight. “We tell them on our walkie-talkie that they’re attacking and we throw a red smoke bomb to show the position of the attack, and then the machine guns and RPGs provide support.”

Kurdish men and women fighters spread out on the various fronts are mainly armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenades. They carry backpacks with ammunition, biscuits and canned beans and hummus, and when they run low they call into headquarters.

“We have special words for martyrs, wounded, ammunition and food on the walkie-talkie,” Boras said. They frequently switch frequencies to avoid being spied on over the airwaves.

Since the Islamic State group first moved into Kobani’s eastern districts on Oct. 6, the fighting has developed a familiar rhythm, the Kurds say: The extremists own the day, while the Kurdish forces rule after sundown when the Islamic State’s heavy weapons can’t effectively target Kurdish positions.

“At night, we go out on missions to hunt them down. During the day they put pressure on us,” said Boras. “We watch during the day to see where they are. And then if there’s a street that needs it, we plant roadside bombs to hit them with during the day.”

With limited resources, the Kurds have had to improvise. Boras recalled on one occasion packing a truck tire with explosives and then rolling it down the hill toward Islamic State fighters, destroying a machine gun post.

As the fighting has ground down in the thick of the town, the front lines in some places have narrowed to just a few meters (yards), said Aladeen Ali Kor, a Kobani policeman now volunteering in a refugee camp in the Turkish town of Suruc while he recovers from a shrapnel wound to the back of his neck.

“There are some places where you’re basically across the street from them. Like from here to the back of the gas station there,” he said, pointing across the busy main road in Suruc. “Fighters on both sides yell and taunt each other. We say we’ll never let you in. They yell at us that they’ll never let us out alive.”

Kor, a stout 36-year-old with a tightly-cropped brown beard flecked with gray, said most of the Islamic State fighters captured by the YPG are Syrian, although there are also many Turks, Chechens and Yemenis mixed in among them.

At one point, he pulled back the white hand towel rolled up on his neck to show the three stitches and swollen wound. He was out on a patrol, he said, when a mortar round slammed into a building nearby, followed by a second that hit the street.

“Another guy was wounded in the leg and belly, and two guys were killed,” he said. “I didn’t pass out, but I was dazed. Friends took me to an ambulance. There was blood everywhere.”

Most of Kobani’s wounded are brought to the hospital in Suruc. Two emergency room nurses taking a short break recounted the chaos of the past few weeks.

“We usually see 25-30 wounded a day. They are serious injuries. Mostly from gunshots and shrapnel,” said one of the nurses who only identified himself as Mehmet. The nurses estimated that 70 percent of the wounded are fighters, while the rest are civilians.

For now at least, the heart of Kobani remains in Kurdish hands, although their grip appears tenuous at best. With so much attention on the town, neither side can relent. Activists say the Islamic State group has rushed in reinforcements, while small numbers of Kurds continue to sneak across the border to join the fight.

One of them is Boras. Reached by telephone late Saturday night, he said he had slipped back into Kobani and returned to the front. Having already lost his father and a brother fighting the Islamic State, he said he sees no alternative but to make his stand there.

“Either Kobani will fall and I will die, or we will win,” he said.

TIME North Korea

U.S. Thinks North Korea Leader Still in Power

KCNA picture shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a visit to the construction site of a terminal at Pyongyang International Airport
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pays a visit to the construction site of a terminal at Pyongyang International Airport in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on July 11, 2014. KCNA—Reuters

“We have not seen any indications of a transfer of power at this point in North Korea"

National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Sunday that the U.S. was closely monitoring the situation in North Korea, following a week of rumors regarding the status of Kim Jong Un as the country’s leader.

In an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Rice was asked by Chuck Todd if she was convinced that Kim Jong Un was still the leader of his country.

“Obviously, we are watching very carefully what’s happening in North Korea,” said Rice. “It’s a country that we monitor with great attention.”

Rice did not rule out the possibility of Kim Jong Un being deposed, but said there was no concrete evidence regarding the North Korean leader…

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

TIME Iraq

60 Dead in Iraqi Suicide Bombings

Men wounded by a car bomb in Qara Qubah are transported to a hospital in Kifri, Iraq on Oct. 12, 2014.
Men wounded by a car bomb in Qara Qubah are transported to a hospital in Kifri, Iraq on Oct. 12, 2014. Reuters

The police chief of another province was also killed in a roadside bombing

Updated at 4:31 p.m. ET

More than 120 people were wounded and 60 people were killed after three suicide bombers targeted a group of government offices in the Iraqi province of Diyala on Sunday, authorities said.

Many of the people injured and killed were there in the district of Qara Taba in order to collect government subsidies for people who had been displaced or forced to leave their homes in other parts of the country, the New York Times reports.

The police chief of the province of Anbar was also killed Sunday after roadside bombs detonated as his vehicle passed. Authorities say Maj. Gen. Ahmed Saddag’s death sets back efforts to keep control of the province out of the hands of the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has expanded its control throughout the country over the past few months.

The offices targeted in the suicide bombing included the mayor’s office, a building used by the local Kurdistan government’s security unit and a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan office.

[NYT]

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Pledges $212M in U.S. Aid to Gaza

A Palestinian man stands atop the rubble of his house as he looks at the ruins of his neighborhood that was badly damaged during the 50-day war between the Hamas militant movement and Israel, in the east of Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2014.
A Palestinian man stands atop the rubble of his house as he looks at the ruins of his neighborhood that was badly damaged during the 50-day war between the Hamas militant movement and Israel, in the east of Gaza City on Oct. 12, 2014. Mohammed Salem—Reuters

The funds will help the region rebuild following a destructive 50-day war this summer

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged $212 million in new aid to help rebuild Gaza after the region accumulated heavy damage during this summer’s 50-day war between Israel and Hamas.

Kerry made the announcement on Sunday as diplomats from more than 40 countries gathered in Cairo to pledge humanitarian aid, the New York Times reports. The U.S. previously provided $118 million in aid to Gaza earlier in 2014.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that approximately one-third of Gaza’s population was displaced by the violence and that the parts of the region are still plagued by blackouts and lack of access to water.

Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas has said that Gaza will need $4 billion to rebuild, and Qatar has already promised $1 billion toward that goal. U.S. officials suggest concerns for the region’s stability may hinder aid commitments among donors.

“There is the third time in less than six years that we have seen war break out and Gaza left in rubble,” Kerry said. “As long as there is a possibility that Hamas can fire rockets on Israeli civilians at any time, the people of Gaza will remain at risk of future conflict.”

[NYT]

TIME Syria

Kurds Struggle to Defend Besieged Syrian Town

SURUC, Turkey (AP) — Kurdish militiamen are putting up a fierce fight to defend a Syrian town near the border with Turkey but are struggling to repel the Islamic State group, which is advancing and pushing in from two sides, Syrian activists and Kurdish officials said Saturday.

The battle for Kobani is still raging despite more than two weeks of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeting the militants in and around the town. The strikes, which are aimed at rolling back the militants’ gains, appear to have done little to blunt their onslaught on Kobani, which began in mid-September.

Just outside the Turkish town of Suruc, across the border from Kobani, some 200 people gathered at a cemetery Saturday to bury two Kurdish fighters, a woman and a man, who died in the fighting.

The two fighters— 22-year-old Mujaid Ahmed and 20-year-old Fatma Sheikh Hassan — were laid to rest in two simple wooden coffins. Men took turns heaving shovels of dirt to cover the coffins as women wept. One woman kneeled over a freshly dug grave, tears streaming down her nose as others tried to console her.

Then, the crowd — which included Kurds from Suruc and others from Kobani — broke into song, ending the burial ceremony with chants of “Long live Kobani!”

The Syrian Kurdish border town is the latest focus of the Islamic State group, which has rampaged across northern Syria and western and northern Iraq since the summer, swallowing up large chunks of territory and imposing its reign of terror.

Capturing Kobani, also known by its Arabic name of Ayn Arab, would give the group a direct link between its positions in the Syrian province of Aleppo and its stronghold of Raqqa, to the east. It would also crush a lingering pocket of Kurdish resistance and give the group full control of a large stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Kurds are determined not to allow Kobani to fall and are fighting zealously, but they have not been able to curb advances by the more heavily armed extremists.

On Friday, the militants seized the so-called Kurdish security quarter — an area in the town’s east where Kurdish militiamen maintain security buildings and where the police station, municipality and other local government offices are located.

A senior Kurdish official, Ismet Sheikh Hasan, said clashes were focused in the southern and eastern parts of the town. He said the situation was dire and appealed for international help.

“We are defending (the town) but … we have only simple weapons and they (militants) have heavy weapons,” he said in a call Friday night with The Associated Press. “They are not besieged and can move easily.”

A video posted online Saturday by a group affiliated with the militants showed what it said were Islamic State group militants fanning out in some streets of Kobani amid heavy gunfire. Militants are shown firing rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. The video appeared to be consistent with AP reporting on the battles.

U.S. Central Command said it conducted airstrikes north and south of Kobani over Friday and Saturday using fighter jets and bombers.

Hasan said U.S.-led airstrikes were not effective, and urged the international community and the United Nations to intervene, predicting a massacre if the militants seize control of Kobani. He also appealed to Turkey to open a corridor that would allow remaining civilians to leave Kobani and arms to enter the town.

Since the Islamic State group’s offensive on Kobani started Sept. 16, more than 500 people have been killed, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday. The group, which collects its information from an elaborate network of activists on the ground, said it has documented 20 Kurdish civilians among them, as well as nearly 300 Islamic State militants and 225 Kurdish fighters.

The fighting also has forced more than 200,000 people to flee across the border into Turkey.

Hasan said the Turks were now allowing only wounded civilians to cross the border.

Rami Abdurrahman, the Observatory’s chief, said the town’s Kurdish fighters “are putting up a fierce fight” but are simply outgunned by the militants.

TIME India

Nobel Co-Winner Kailash Satyarthi: The Whole World Should Protect Children’s Rights

INDIA-SATYARTHI-NOBEL-PEACE-PRIZE
Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi gestures to journalists at this home office after the announcement of him receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, in New Delhi on October 10, 2014. Chandan Khanna—AFP/Getty Images

Nobel Laureate and child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi says he wants to work with co-recipient Malala Yousafzai to ensure child rights in India and Pakistan.

Kailash Satyarthi, a relatively unknown child rights activist from India, is sharing this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousafzai, a teen campaigner from Pakistan who was shot in the head by the Taliban while going to school in 2012. The reclusive Satyarthi, admittedly nowhere near as famous as his co-recipient, is, however, a messiah for India’s close to 50 million child workers. Satyarthi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan (loosely translated as Movement to Save Childhood) has to date rescued and rehabilitated more than 80,000 child laborers. Just last month, it rescued 24 child workers between the ages of eight and 15 from a bag and shoe making plant in New Delhi.

Apart from freeing children from forced labor, Satyarthi has also successfully created international awareness about child workers issue by organizing global marches. The international social tag “Rugmark,” created by Satyarthi, is a widely recognized guarantee that a rug or carpet was made in a child labor-free factory. India is the world’s largest exporter of handmade carpets, and a recent report by Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human rights estimates that out of around two million carpet workers in India, approximately 400,000 are underage laborers. The attention his prize has created around the issue of child labor just in the last few hours, Satyarthi says, is overwhelming.

TIME spoke to Satyarthi Saturday about winning the Nobel Peace Prize. This interview has been edited and condensed for space.

TIME: For probably the first time, the entire world and India especially is talking about child rights and child labor, which was a fringe issue. How does that make you feel?

Satyarthi: It’s the biggest-ever recognition for the plight, struggle and issue of child labor worldwide. It will give tremendous impetus to our fight and will undoubtedly inspire hundreds and thousands of social activists and non-profits on the ground, all over the world. The amount of conversations it has created around child labor in the last 6 to 7 hours has not been seen in the last 600 years.

You received the award jointly with Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan are struggling to ensure child rights. Can they work together towards solutions?

I spoke to Malala yesterday after the prize was announced, and invited her to join an additional dimension in the fight for child rights, and that is the right to be free. No child should be born or grow [up] into violence and conflict in any part of the world. Saying that, why just India and Pakistan? The whole world should work together to protect child rights. This is the 25th year of U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and to celebrate this, there is a need on the part of all stakeholders — the civil society, the masses, governments, corporates and even religious institutions — to accept collective responsibility [and stand up to this social evil].

Not many in India knew Kailash Satyarthi before Friday – did you deliberately keep yourself away from the public eye?

I don’t believe in personality cults; I don’t believe in personal image building exercises. Bachpan Bachao Andolan is not merely a non-profit or social or political movement for me – it is my life’s mission. We work in thousands of villages in India and over 140 countries, with limited reach, manpower and resources. The choice was either to invest in image building or in building the movement.

What has been your biggest challenge in the last three decades?

My biggest challenge was, and still is, changing social mindsets and working around political priorities. Child labor is a non-issue in India. It is a social evil and a development disaster. Indians treat poor children either as beggars, giving them food and clothes in charity or employ them as child laborers. There is nothing in between. And when it comes to the notion of child rights, there is zero awareness. I have been fighting to establish that notion, concept and eventually culture that teaches one to respect childhood and treat children with the dignity and respect they deserve.

How is your work different from that of other child rights organizations?

We believe in direct action. We want to free children from modern day slavery and ensure they receive proper rehabilitation. We avoid taking the overall responsibilities of the overall rehabilitation of hundreds and thousands of children as we have limited resources and manpower. What we have instead tried doing is to build a social movement around the issue rather than being a conventional non-profit.

Despite your limited resources, you did not keep your movement confined to India. Instead, you took it to the world stage through your global marches against child labor.

Child labor is not an isolated problem. There are geopolitical issues. There are transnational corporations and industries; there are globalized markets and economies and all these cumulatively create and perpetuate child labor globally. The issues are globally interlinked and that is why it is critical that we build a worldwide movement.

 

TIME russia

Snowden’s Girlfriend Is Living With Him in Russia

Snowden's longtime girlfriend has been living in Russia, contrary to the belief that the NSA leaker abandoned her

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is living with his girlfriend in Russia, it’s revealed in a documentary by filmmaker Laura Poitras that premiered Friday at the New York Film Festival.

Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s girlfriend of 10 years, has been living with Snowden for some time, according to the film. Poitras filmed Mills and Snowden cooking dinner together in July for the documentary, titled Citizenfour, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The revelation of Mills’ life in Russia counters the widely-held belief that Snowden abandoned her as he leaked troves of classified intelligence documents revealing the existence of massive secret surveillance programs on American citizens.

“The fact that he is now living in domestic bliss as well, with his long-term girlfriend whom he loves, should forever put to rest the absurd campaign to depict his life as grim and dank,” wrote Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who along with Poitras helped publish the Snowden revelations.

Mills is a ballerina and dancer who lived with Snowden in Hawaii when he was an NSA contractor there. Snowden has largely eschewed speaking about his personal life, and Mills has never given any interviews.

Snowden has been living in exile in Russia since June 2013 and has been granted asylum for a second year. You can watch the trailer for Citizenfour above.

[THR]

TIME North Korea

North Korea Leader Misses Public Appearance as Questions Loom About His Health

TO GO WITH Oly-2012-PRK,FEATURE(FILES)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un salutes during a military parade in Pyongyang, April 15, 2012. Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images

Kim Jong Un hasn't been seen in public since Sept. 3

Kim Jong Un missed an appearance at a key annual event on Friday, furthering speculation about the North Korean Leader’s health and control of his country.

Kim, who has ruled North Korea since his father’s death in 2011, was a no-show at a celebration for the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of North Korea in the country’s capital, according to The New York Times. The leader has led trips to the mausoleum that houses his father and grandfather in honor of the holiday every year since assuming power, but this year, state media did not list him as one of the officials in attendance.

The North Korean leader has not been seen publicly since Sept. 3, his longest absence from the public eye since 2010, according to NK News. Footage taken over the summer shows Kim limping and has led some to speculate that he is ill.

[NYT]

TIME Foreign Policy

Crisis in Syrian City Exposes Fissure in Obama’s Anti-ISIS Coalition

Some key allies want to fight Assad, not ISIS

A United Nations official warned Friday of a coming massacre in a Syrian town along the Turkish border as the slowly unfolding tragedy there exposed a crucial fissure within President Barack Obama’s international coalition to fight the militant group ISIS.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva on Friday, the U.N.’s special representative for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters that, despite days of U.S.-led air strikes in the area, fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have virtually surrounded the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Mistura estimated that some 700 residents remain in the town—most of them elderly and unable to flee like tens of thousands of other local residents already have.

Those people will “most likely [be] massacred” if the town falls to ISIS, he said.

Turkish troops just across the Syrian border from Kobani could likely rescue the town. But Turkey has a fraught relationship with the region’s Kurds. More ominously for the Obama Administration, Turkey appears unwilling to join the direct fight against ISIS unless the coalition’s strategy dramatically expands to include taking on the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

In an Oct. 6 interview with CNN, for instance, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu argued that a campaign which solely targets ISIS is a futile pursuit. “We believe that if Assad stays in Damascus with this brutal policy, if [ISIS] goes, another radical organization may come in,” he said.

Though it may be the most vocal, Turkey is not the only major U.S. ally convinced that Assad is a more important target than the radical militants of ISIS.

“There are two competing objectives within the coalition. Some countries are more interested in removing Assad, while other countries are more interested in addressing the extremist threat,” an Arab government official said. “The challenge the US will face is how to keep the coalition together and functioning given these divergent goals.”

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have joined in some American air strikes against ISIS, those Gulf Arab countries have long urged Obama to take bolder action against Assad. Their Sunni monarchs detest the Syrian dictator, a key ally of Shi’ite Iran, and whose fight to retain power has transformed into a Shi’ite-Sunni religious war that has both spawned ISIS and given it safe haven.

“They’ve always been of the mind that their participation in this coalition is really a prelude to a broader campaign against Assad,” said Frederic Wehrey, senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Both countries have supplied Syrian rebel groups—including factions with extremist ties—and have pressed the U.S. to arm the rebels with advanced weapons such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The Saudis were particularly upset when Obama decided not to follow through with planned air strikes against Assad last September in response to his regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Obama never relished the prospect of a head-on fight with Assad. Military action aimed at toppling the Syrian ruler could spoil Obama’s intense efforts to win a nuclear deal with Tehran, which would be furious over such an intervention. Toppling Assad by force would also create an unpredictable political vacuum that could be filled by extremists—Obama need look no farther than anarchic Libya for an example.

But U.S. allies determined to see Assad go argue that getting rid of him is the highest priority, and that extremists can be dealt with later.

Obama disagrees. In his Sept. 10 address announcing military action against ISIS in Syria, Obama repeated his longstanding policy of seeking a “political settlement” for the Syria’s civil war, in which ISIS is just one actor. Obama plans to provide more training and aid to moderate Syrian rebels in the hope they’ll pressure Assad to negotiate a power transition that would require him to leave the country.

Assad has so far shown no interest in cutting a deal to surrender his power, and multiple rounds of peace talks in Geneva over the past year have produced no significant results.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Assad serves as a de facto ally in the fight against ISIS, although Obama officials insist they are not coordinating military action against the radical group with Damascus.

But Obama may find it increasingly difficult to battle ISIS without coming into conflict with Assad’s forces. “Sooner or later the linkage is going to be forced,” said Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute. Salem wonders how Obama would react if American-trained rebels come under aerial bombardment by Assad’s air force: Would U.S. forces pounding ISIS targets elsewhere in the country refuse to intervene? (That would hardly inspire goodwill among the rebels.)

How should the U.S. respond Assad’s forces move to claim territory cleared by ISIS after coalition attacks? And will Obama tolerate Assad’s infamously brutal attacks on civilian populations now that U.S. fighter-bombers are mere minutes away from the scene of such crimes?

“The U.S. will soon be in a very public situation where Syrian helicopters are throwing barrel bombs at civilian populations, like in Aleppo, and the U.S. is gallivanting around and leaving them be,” Salem predicted.

Under those scenarios, Obama would face extreme pressure from coalition members like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to take on Assad’s forces directly — perhaps enough to threaten the coalition he and Secretary of State John Kerry so proudly assembled this fall.

For now, Obama officials won’t entertain talk of shifting their sights to Assad. During a Friday briefing, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked whether “is it still the U.S. position that you are not going after [Assad].”

“Correct,” she replied.

President Obama clearly hopes to maintain that position while also holding together his anti-ISIS coalition. Whether that is possible remains to be seen.

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