Archive for July 30, 2014


AFP

Sunday, 6 July 2014

The jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group has expelled more than 30,000 people from their homes in the eastern Syrian town of Shuheil, a monitoring group said on Sunday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIS had “forced out” some 30,000 residents after seizing Shuheil on Thursday from Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

Another 30,000 residents have been forced from their homes in the towns of Khosham and Tabia Jazeera, also in eastern Deir Ezzor province, the Britain-based NGO said.

“Some 30,000 residents of the town of Shuheil, the former stronghold of Al-Nusra Front, have been forced out by the Islamic State,” the group said.

Though both ISIS and Al-Nusra share a jihadist ideology, the two groups have regularly clashed, with Al-Nusra joining a coalition of armed opposition groups fighting ISIS.

ISIS has seized large swathes of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq, declaring the land it holds to be an Islamic “caliphate,” and its leader the ruler of all Muslims.

The Observatory said ISIS had prevented some 30,000 people from returning to their homes in two other towns in Deir Ezzor, Khosham and Tabia Jazeera, which it captured in late June.

On a Facebook page, activists from Shuheil said ISIS had ordered all residents to leave, and entered in armored cars and tanks “because of their fear and cowardice.”

A video distributed by activists on YouTube purportedly shows mediators announcing the terms of the expulsion, saying residents are required to hand over weapons and remain out of Shuhail “until (ISIS) feels it is safe.”

Activists said residents feared ISIS fighters planned to loot their homes, and the Observatory said the large displacement had left thousands sleeping in the open, with food and water shortages.

Source: al-Arabiya.

Link: http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/07/06/NGO-ISIS-expels-thousands-in-east-Syria.html.

Jul 05, 2014

AFP

BEIRUT — The jihadist Islamic State (IS) now fully controls all of Syria’s main oil and gas fields in Deir Ezzor province bordering Iraq, a monitoring group said on Friday.

IS has declared an “Islamic caliphate” in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq, where it is spearheading an offensive against government forces.

“IS took control of the Tanak oil field, located in the Sheiytat desert area in the east of Deir Ezzor province,” late on Thursday after rival rebels withdrew, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Earlier the same day, the jihadists seized the major Al Omar oil field.

They have still not captured the tiny Al Ward field, which produces barely 200 barrels of oil per day and is in the hands of a local tribe, the observatory director, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.

IS seized Tanak and Al Omar after rival fighters from Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front and other Syrian rebel groups withdrew, said the observatory.

In Deir Ezzor, which holds the bulk of Syria’s oil resources, IS has taken over nearly all the countryside, its forces bolstered by heavy weapons captured from Iraqi troops fleeing the offensive that it headed.

In January, Al Nusra and other Islamist militants turned their guns on the jihadists, then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as they swept across Syria imposing their hegemony and brutal abuse.

The rebels expelled IS from the northeastern Idlib province and much of Aleppo, though the jihadist group has gone on the counter-offensive in the northern city.

On Friday, it seized the Kurdish villages of Zur Maghar and Bayada near the border with Turkey, the observatory said.

Intense air raids

Abdel Rahman told AFP that Aleppo city’s rebel-held areas “are now surrounded from all sides, by the regime and by the jihadists they are fighting”.

Aleppo’s rebel areas, mainly in the east of the city, have come under intense, daily air raids since December, leading tens of thousands of residents to flee for the countryside and to Turkey.

The observatory said Friday that regime forces have made advances this week on the outskirts of eastern Aleppo, threatening rebel supply routes.

State television, meanwhile, said that government forces were now in full control of the Sheikh Najjar industrial sector of northeast Aleppo.

Last Sunday, IS declared a “caliphate”, referring to an Islamic system of rule that was abolished nearly 100 years ago, in a move that rebels, including Islamists in Syria, branded a “heresy”.

Elsewhere in Syria, the regime air force kept up its air raids Friday against rebel areas, mainly in the southern province of Daraa, Aleppo, Damascus province and Idlib.

Warplanes also hit the Arsal area just across the border in neighboring Lebanon, that country’s National News Agency reported, killing one Syrian youth and wounding several more.

The area houses more than 60,000 Syrians who have fled the conflict in their homeland.

The UN children’s fund, UNICEF, said Friday more than six million Syrian children affected by the conflict desperately need humanitarian aid, with the number in need rising by a third in a year.

Syria’s war began in March 2011 as a peaceful movement demanding President Bashar Assad’s ouster, but it has morphed into a conflict after a brutal crackdown by the regime.

Many months into the fighting, jihadists started to pour into Syria, drawing warnings from analysts of an eventual regional conflagration.

Source: The Jordan Times.

Link: http://jordantimes.com/jihadists-control-all-main-syria-oil-fields—-ngo.

July 04, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic militants seized an eastern Syrian oil field near Iraq and inched closer to the Turkish border on Friday as they try to consolidate their control of an area along the length of the Euphrates river stretching through Syria and Iraq.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that fighters from the Islamic State group seized the al-Tanak oil field early Friday. Another group, the activist collective of Deir el-Zour, also reported the seizure.

The field is in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour, near Iraq, and it followed the Islamic State group’s seizure of Syria’s largest oil field on Thursday. Both oil fields were taken from other rebel groups.

The extremist Sunni Muslim group now has nearly full control over a corridor from the Syrian provincial capital of Deir el-Zour to the border town of Boukamal. The area neighbors parts of northern and western Iraq that it seized last month, allowing the group to flow freely between the two countries.

Over the past three days, the Islamic State fighters have been pushing strongly northwards up the Euphrates river toward Turkey, shelling a town just 11 miles (18 kilometers) from the border, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory. A local activist, who uses the name Ahmed al-Ahmed, also confirmed the information.

Their shelling of the rebel-held town of Akhtarin came after they seized another two communities around their nearby stronghold of al-Bab, called Zour Maghar and Badaydiyeh, the Observatory and al-Ahmed said.

The group is led by an ambitious Iraqi militant known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who this week declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the lands it has seized in Syria and Iraq.

It proclaimed al-Baghdadi the head of its new self-styled state and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him. Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 as largely peaceful demonstrations against President Bashar Assad’s rule. It escalated into an armed revolt after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.

As Islamic militants advanced, Syrian government troops seized control of an industrial area near the northern city of Aleppo, said state-run television. Control of the area allows Syrian troops to more easily blockade eastern parts of Syria’s largest city, held by rebel groups.

That then turned into a civil war that has claimed more than 160,000 lives, about a third of them civilians, according to opposition activists. Al-Qaida inspired militants also entered Syria during the upheaval of conflict, seizing territory claimed by armed rebels, and ultimately becoming the Islamic State group.

The conflict has spilled over into Lebanon and Syria, generating a huge wave of refugees. On Friday, a Syrian warplane carried out three airstrikes in an area about four miles (seven kilometers) within Lebanese territory, killing a 12-year-old boy, a police official said.

The airstrikes occurred near the northeastern town of Arsal. One impacted near a jeep, killing a boy and wounding the rest of his family while on their way to pick cherries. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t allowed to speak to the media.

Al-Manar, a television station affiliated with the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, said the strikes targeted gunmen. Syrian warplanes occasionally strike inside Lebanon, with supporters claiming they target gunmen. Syria’s conflict, now in its fourth year, has seeped into Lebanon with Islamic militants carrying out bomb attacks against Shiite and Hezbollah areas.

With additional reporting by Albert Aji in Damascus.

July 02, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — A young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders in the breakaway al-Qaida group that has overrun swaths of Iraq and Syria, illustrating the international nature of the movement.

Omar al-Shishani, one of hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, has emerged as the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appearing frequently in its online videos — in contrast to the group’s Iraqi leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, who remains deep in hiding and has hardly ever been photographed.

In a video released by the group over the weekend, al-Shishani is shown standing next to the group’s spokesman among a group of fighters as they declare the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria. The video was released just hours before the extremist group announced the creation of a caliphate — or Islamic state — in the areas it controls.

“Our aim is clear and everyone knows why we are fighting. Our path is toward the caliphate,” the 28-year-old al-Shishani declares. “We will bring back the caliphate, and if God does not make it our fate to restore the caliphate, then we ask him to grant us martyrdom.” The video is consistent with other Associated Press reporting on al-Shishani.

Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. But he may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it — known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari — was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. The video identified al-Shishani as “the military commander” without specifying its Syria branch, suggesting he had been elevated to overall commander, though the group has not formally announced such a promotion.

As the militant group’s operations in Iraq and Syria grow “more and more inter-dependent by the day, it is more than possible that someone like (al-Shishani) could assume overall military leadership,” said Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow with the Brookings Doha Center.

The extremist group began as al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate — aspiring to be a state for all Muslims — could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks.

Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office, said ethnicity is not a major factor in jihadi movements, only dedication to jihad. Al-Shishani “is a fanatic of Islam with war experience, and he obviously has had a strong track record (among fellow fighters),” he said.

Syria’s civil war, in its fourth year, has attracted militants from around the world. Some estimates run as high as 10,000 foreign fighters in the country. But the Chechens — hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region — are considered some of the best fighters.

Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency known under its Russian acronym FSB, said last October that about 500 militants from Russia and hundreds more from other ex-Soviet nations are fighting in Syria.

Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia’s Chechen community and once a stronghold for militants.

He did military service in the Georgian army but was discharged after an unspecified illness, said one of his former neighbors, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. At one point, Georgian police arrested him for illegal possession of arms, the neighbor said. As soon as he was released in 2010, Batirashvili left for Turkey. Georgian police refused to comment.

He later surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an al-Qaida-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans,” which included a large number of fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organized with al-Baghdadi in which al-Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups.

He first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant entered the Syria conflict in 2013, and initially it was welcomed by other rebels. But rebel groups — including other Islamic militant factions — turned against it, alienated by its brutal methods and kidnappings and killings of rivals, and accusing it of trying to take over the opposition movement for its own ambitions of creating a transnational Islamic enclave. Rebel factions have been fighting against the group since last year in battles that have left thousands dead. Al-Qaida’s central command ejected the extremist group from the network.

For the past two months, al-Shishani has led an offensive in Syria’s eastern Deir el-Zour province against rival rebels, seeking to solidify his hold on a stretch of territory connected to neighboring Iraq.

In May, some Arab media organizations reported that al-Shishani was killed in the fighting. An activist in Iraq in contact with members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant said al-Shishani suffered wounds in his right arm and was taken into Iraq where he underwent treatment before returning to Syria. He spoke on condition of anonymity for security concerns.

Since then, al-Shishani has appeared multiple times in photos and videos put out by the group. The photos and videos are consistent with the AP’s reporting from activists on the ground. In a recent photograph, the young, round-faced al-Shishani, wearing a black cap and beige gown, is seen with a big smile as he examines a Humvee said to have been captured in Iraq and brought into Syria.

Hussein Nasser, spokesman for the Islamic Front coalition group of rebels, said Chechens are among the most feared fighters in Syria. “A Chechen comes and has no idea about anything (in the country) and does whatever his leader tells him,” Nasser said. “Even if his emir tells him to kill a child, he would do it.”

Associated Press writers Bilal Hussein in Beirut, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia contributed to this report.

July 01, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — The al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant captured a key Syrian town near the Iraq border from other rebels on Tuesday and advanced toward a stronghold of its main jihadi rivals, an activist group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Boukamal fell to the militants early Tuesday following days of battles between the group and other factions led by the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.

Activists in the area could not immediately be reached and calls to Boukamal and nearby areas were not going through. The Observatory, which has a network of activists around Syria, said the Islamic State brought in reinforcements from Iraq during the fighting.

The latest victory by the jihadi group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, came two days after it declared the establishment of a transnational Islamic caliphate. The group says its Islamic state stretches from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala northeast of Baghdad, and has called on all Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to it.

The Observatory said the Islamic State released more than 100 detainees it was holding in the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab after the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issued an amnesty on the occasion of establishing the self-styled caliphate.

Last week, beleaguered Nusra Front fighters defected and joined the Islamic State in Boukamal —effectively handing over the town to the powerful group, which controls the Iraqi side of the crossing. The Observatory said the Islamic State is advancing toward the town of Shuheil, northwest of Boukamal, a Nusra Front stronghold believed to be the hometown of its leader, a Syrian known as Abu Muhammed al-Golani.

Up to 7,000 people, the majority of them fighters, have been killed in the rebel-on-rebel violence across the opposition-held territory in northern and eastern Syria since January, according to the Observatory’s tally, which is compiled by its activists on the ground.