Archive for February 17, 2016


December 19, 2015

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AP) — Rahman Wali’s younger brother was one of 10 Afghan men forced by Islamic State militants to kneel over bombs buried in the soil in a lush green valley in eastern Nangarhar province. The extremists then detonated the bombs, turning the pastoral countryside into a scene of horror.

The August killings were recorded on camera and posted on social media like so many IS atrocities across the Mideast — reflecting how the Islamic State is exporting its particular brand of cruelty as the group seeks to enlarge its footprint in Afghanistan.

It was through the macabre video that 44-year-old Wali learned the fate of his brother, Rahman Gul, an imam in their remote Shinwar district bordering Pakistan. Gul had been kidnapped weeks earlier, together with his wife and six children who were quickly set free.

After his brother’s death, Wali and his family fled to the provincial capital of Jalalabad, seeking refuge in a makeshift camp with thousands of others who left their homes in the valleys hugging the border to escape what is turning out to be an increasingly vicious war for control of the region between the Taliban and fighters of Afghanistan’s IS affiliate.

Reports of an IS presence in Afghanistan first emerged early this year in southern Helmand province, where recruiters believed to have links to the IS leadership in Syria were killed by a U.S. drone strike in February.

In the summer, extremists pledging allegiance to IS also surfaced in Nangarhar, where they challenged the Taliban in border clashes. After see-sawing between the two groups, four districts — Achin, Nazyan, Bati Kot and Spin Gar — fell under IS control, according to Gen. John F. Campbell, the U.S. commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Campbell told The Associated Press in an interview this week that IS loyalists in Afghanistan are now trying to consolidate links to the mothership — the so-called “caliphate” proclaimed on territory IS seized in Syria and Iraq after its blitz there in the summer of 2014.

For the present, IS ambitions for Afghanistan seem focused on setting up what it calls “Khorasan Province,” taking the name of an ancient province of the Persian Empire that included territories in today’s Afghanistan, Iran and some Central Asian states. It parallels names for affiliates elsewhere, such as the IS branch in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which is known as “Sinai Province.”

“I think ISIL is really trying to establish a base in Nangarhar … and establish Jalalabad as the base of the Khorasan Province,” Campbell said, using an alternative acronym for IS. Several residents who fled the four Nangarhar districts say IS’s “reign of terror” there includes extortions, evictions, arbitrary imprisonment and forced marriage for young women. Beheadings and killings with “buried bombs” — such as the gruesome slaying of Wali’s brother — are filmed and posted on social media to instill fear, they said. Some spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals for relatives back in the districts.

Mimicking IS’s media outreach in Syria and Iraq, the Afghan branch also set up a radio station in Nangarhar, “Radio Caliphate,” broadcasting at least one hour a day to attract young Afghan men disenchanted by dim job prospects in a war-torn country with an overall 24 percent unemployment rate. The joblessness is even higher among youths targeted in the IS recruitment drive.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government forces, busy fighting the Taliban elsewhere, left the two militant groups to battle it out. And battle they did. Hundreds of Taliban fighters — disillusioned with the 14-year war to overthrow the Kabul government — switched allegiance to IS.

Though estimates say that IS fighters number a few thousand nationwide, they are still far outnumbered by the Taliban, who have anywhere between 20,000 to 30,000 in their ranks, according to Afghan political analyst Waheed Muzhdah, who worked in the Taliban foreign ministry during their 1996-2001 rule.

Still, many admit the IS Afghan branch could pose a serious threat to the unstable nation. In a report released this week, the Pentagon referred to the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province” as an “emergent competitor to other violent extremist groups that have traditionally operated in Afghanistan.”

“This may result in increased violence among the various extremist groups in 2016,” the Dec. 16 report said. Campbell said some foreign IS fighters have joined the Afghans from Iraq and Syria. Former residents said they spotted gunmen from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, as well as Arabic speakers flush with money and apparently better armed than the Taliban.

Nangarhar is attractive to IS for its mix of insurgent groups, some of which are based across the border in Pakistan, and criminal gangs involved in lucrative drugs and minerals smuggling. Alarm bells rang when students at the prestigious Nangarhar University staged a pro-IS demonstration on campus in August, sparking arrests by the Afghan intelligence agency and a crackdown on universities nationwide.

Governor Salim Kunduzi put IS’s battleground strength in Nangarhar at around 400 fighters. The province’s mountainous terrain provides perfect ground for an insurgency, and militants can easily resupply from Pakistan, he said. The province can also serve as a staging ground for a push north, along the eastern border and eventually on to Kabul, just 125 kilometers (77.5 miles) to the west, he added.

Both Campbell and Kunduzi agree IS may see Jalalabad as its base for expansion in Afghanistan. “I do not think Daesh will focus only on the east,” Kunduzi said, using the Arabic language acronym for the Islamic State group.

Nangarhar’s chief refugee official, Ghulam Haidar Faqirzai, said that at least 25,200 families — or more than 170,000 people — have been displaced across the province, either directly by IS or by perceived threats from the group. As the winter sets in, needs of the displaced are intensifying, he warned.

In a camp on Jalalabad’s eastern outskirts, 70-year-old Yaqub, who like many Afghan men uses only one name, said he left his village in Maamand Valley in Achin district six months ago, after “fighters of the black flag” — the Islamic State’s banner — dragged him and his son into prison where they were beaten and tortured. He said he still does not know why.

“They covered my head with a black bag so I couldn’t breathe while they beat me for a whole day, and every day they said they were going to kill me,” he said. Yaqub and his son were released after the family paid their captors 200,000 Pakistani rupees, or almost $2,000 — a fortune in Afghanistan, where the average annual income is around $700.

“Anything is better than going back there,” said Yaqub.

O’Donnell reported from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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February 15, 2016

MAKHACHKALA, Russia (AP) — A powerful car bomb exploded Monday at a police checkpoint in Russia’s Dagestan republic, killing two officers and the car’s driver and wounding 19 others, in what appears to have been a suicide attack, investigators said.

The attack was believed to have been organized by Islamic militants who have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group and carried out by a man who spent time in Syria, said Rasul Temirbekov, spokesman for the Dagestani branch of the federal Investigative Committee.

The explosion, set off by two 122 mm shells, destroyed the Russian-made Lada Priori and four other vehicles parked at the police post near Derbent, he said. All that remained of the Lada’s driver were fragments of his head, hands and feet, the spokesman said.

The suspected attacker was tentatively identified as a 23-year-old man who had studied in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan and spent time in Syria and Turkey, Temirbekov said. A search of his father’s home in Derbent turned up materials confirming the suspect’s allegiance to the Islamic State and past travels, he said.

Dagestan has become the center of an Islamic insurgency that spread across the Caucasus region after two separatist wars in neighboring Chechnya. For more than a decade, Dagestan has seen bombings, attacks on police and kidnappings blamed on the Islamic militants.

In recent years, many of the militants have proclaimed allegiance to IS, while at the same time the republic has grown markedly less violent as hundreds of them have left to join the IS in Syria. Some are now coming home with battlefield experience. While the returning fighters usually land in jail or are kept under close police surveillance, there have been concerns that the presence of radical Muslims trained in IS warfare could lead to greater instability and violence.

“Those who went to fight in Syria are now returning to the republic and continuing to do the same things — to bomb and kill,” Dagestan’s regional leader, Abdusamad Gamidov, told members of his administration on Monday. “We need to unite to fight terrorism and do everything to defend our residents.”

His spokeswoman, Tamara Chinennaya, said 16 of the wounded remained hospitalized, three of them in critical condition. Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the IS threat to Russia as a key factor behind his decision to launch air strikes on militants in Syria. He said that between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet countries are now fighting alongside Islamic State militants.

Meanwhile, Russia’s air campaign in Syria has drawn threats of retaliation from militants there.

February 15, 2016

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey shelled positions held by a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in northern Syria for a second day on Sunday, drawing condemnation from the Syrian government, whose forces are advancing against insurgents in the same area under the cover of Russian airstrikes.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said Turkish artillery units fired at Kurdish fighters in the Syrian town of Azaz in Aleppo province, saying it was in response to incoming Kurdish fire. Turkish troops have shelled areas under the control of Syria’s main Kurdish faction, the People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, in the past. The group has been most effective in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria, but Ankara appears increasingly uneasy over the group’s recent gains in the country’s north.

“Turkey has responded in this manner in the past,” said Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan. “What is different is not that Turkey has responded in such a way but the fact that there are different movements in the region. The YPG crossing west of the Euphrates is Turkey’s red line.”

The YPG is the main fighting force of Syrian Kurds and a key ally of the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group. Turkey, which is also in the alliance, considers it an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara.

A coalition of Kurdish-led Syrian fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces recently seized a number of villages near Turkey’s border. Ankara appears concerned they could reach the opposition stronghold of Azaz, which is home to a major border crossing that has been controlled by militants since 2012.

Diplomats from a group of countries that have interests in Syria’s five-year civil war, including the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, agreed on Friday to seek a temporary “cessation of hostilities” within a week. But the fighting on the ground, which has sent tens of thousands of people fleeing toward the Turkish border where they continue to sleep in the open air, has accelerated.

A top Syrian opposition figure, former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, criticized Russia on Sunday for continuing with its bombing in Syria, and also stopped short of declaring a clear commitment to implement a planned temporary truce.

“You ask me if I accept a cease-fire or a cessation of hostilities. I ask you: Why is the onus on the opposition and whether it has preconditions for negotiations?” Hijab said. “I would like to see a single day of a cessation of hostilities in order to give a chance for real political movement.” He was addressing the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of foreign and security policy leaders.

Akdogan says Kurdish gains in northern Syria — facilitated by a Russian-backed government offensive in the same area — are also putting “unacceptable” pressure on opposition-held areas in Aleppo and the nearby town of Tel Rifaat.

The private Dogan news agency broadcast footage of Turkish howitzers opening fire and shells raising plumes of smoke in Syria. It said the army hit targets in the Mannagh air base and two villages, all controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that monitors the conflict, said two fighters from the SDF — a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters — have been killed and seven others wounded in the shelling. A Turkmen rebel commander, Zakariyya Karsli, told Anadolu Agency Turkish shelling killed at least 29 Kurdish fighters.

Opposition groups said Saturday that Turkish troops fired artillery shells that targeted the Mannagh air base in Aleppo province, which was captured by Kurdish fighters and their allies earlier this week.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said late Saturday that his country’s military fired at Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in response to a provocation along the border. The Syrian government condemned Turkey’s shelling of Syrian territory, describing it as an attempt to raise the morale of “terrorist” groups it supports.

France meanwhile called on Syria and Russia to halt their airstrikes and for Turkey to stop shelling Kurdish areas. In a statement, it expressed concern about the “deteriorating situation in Aleppo and northern Syria.”

Both the Kurds and Syrian troops have advanced toward Azaz in separate offensives in the area. In addition to sealing the Turkish border, Syrian troops are trying to encircle rebel-held parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. If they are able to do so, it will be the biggest defeat for insurgents since the conflict began in March 2011.

The Observatory and the Lebanon-based A-Mayadeen TV said at least 350 Turkey-backed armed rebels crossed into Syria from Turkey Sunday to shore up rebels fighting Kurds near Tel Rifaat. Also on Sunday, Iran’s air defense chief said his country is ready to help defend Syria’s airspace, marking the first time Iran has offered to assist with Syrian air defenses.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Gen. Farzad Esmaili as saying “we will help Syria in a full-fledged manner if the Syrian government requests help.” He said any such aid would be provided in an “advisory” capacity.

Iran is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has sent weapons, money and military advisers to Syria to help bolster his forces. Esmaili’s remarks came after Turkey and Saudi Arabia — leading supporters of the rebels battling to topple Assad — said they were open to sending ground troops into Syria to battle the Islamic State group. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, also said Saturday that Saudi Arabia is “ready to send both jets and troops” to Turkey’s Incirlik air base.

Fighting and airstrikes continued elsewhere in the country Sunday, including in rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus. Opposition activists reported Syrian army helicopters dropped around 10 barrel bombs on the town of Daraya. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Soguel reported from Istanbul, Turkey. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said that Russia will withdraw in defeat from Syria similar to the country’s previous defeat in Afghanistan.

He added: “It is time to stand together for Aleppo and tell them do not be afraid and that we are with you,” stating that 90% of Russian bombs fall on civilians.

Davutoglu said: “The international community lacks conscience and will be held accountable someday for its silence towards what is happening in Syria.”

He warned that the continuation of Syrian airstrikes with the same density in Aleppo would lead to 70,000 Syrian refugees arriving at the Turkish border, pledging that his country will not close its borders to refugees.

He added that Turkey and Germany are the only states that have been receiving refugees with open arms, while the rest of Europe has been afraid of the asylum issue.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/europe/23851-davutoglu-russia-will-be-defeated-in-syria-as-it-was-in-afghanistan.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Alex MacDonald

Nine leading rebel groups in Aleppo are to be unified under the leadership of a former Ahrar al-Sham commander, as the Syrian army and allied militias continue their assault on the former rebel stronghold.

The announcement on Monday that Hashem al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber, is the new commander of the rebel groups, comes after demonstrations last week in which locals in Aleppo protested against the lack of unity among rebels in the beleaguered city.

Hashem al-Sheikh was leader of Ahrar al-Sham until September 2015 when he was replaced by Abu Yahia al-Hamawi.

Among the groups under the new command will be Ahrar al-Sham itself, Liwa Suqor al-Jebel and the 16th Division of the Free Syrian Army. A number of the groups have been vetted by US security agencies and have in the past received international support, including US-manufactured TOW missiles.

Sam Heller, a Washington-based writer and analyst, told Middle East Eye that rebel unity had been lacking in Aleppo.

“Coordination between rebel brigades has been a persistent problem, although it seems to have affected the fight against IS most directly,” he said.

However, he added that the “most proximate cause for the regime’s recent gains, on the other hand, seems to be Russian aerial bombing that has overwhelmed rebels”.

Ahrar al-Sham has proved itself to be among the most powerful armed groups in Syria, but its hardline Salafist views – calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and condemning democracy as “idolatry” – has made some foreign supporters uncomfortable.

It has also been willing to work with Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda AFFILIATE in Syria, although Ahrar al-Sham has repeatedly distanced itself from the group’s ideology.

The announcement comes as the UN’s peace envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is set to hold talks in Damascus on Tuesday with the country’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem in an apparent effort to secure Syrian government commitment for a tentative internationally agreed plan for a cessation of hostilities within days.

De Mistura, who has called for peace talks to resume in Geneva on 25 February, arrived in the Syrian capital on Monday night, Syrian and UN officials said.

A UN official said that de Mistura was there to “follow up on commitments made in Munich”, referring to the international security conference where the agreement to halt fighting within a week was announced last Friday.

Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, including Iran-backed Shia militias and the Lebanese Hezbollah group, have won numerous gains in the countryside surrounding Aleppo in recent weeks and are now threatening to surround and besiege Aleppo.

The threat of Islamic State to the east of Aleppo has also prompted a number of countries to moot the possibility of a ground intervention.

A general from Saudi Arabia said in early February that the kingdom was ready to join any ground operation launched in future by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group.

“If there is any willingness in the coalition to go in the ground operation, we will contribute positively to that,” said Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri.

However, Heller dismissed as unrealistic the rumours of a ground intervention.

“I don’t think these are realistic, at least not in Aleppo,” he said. “I can’t imagine them entering this area under the threat of Russian air strikes.”

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/aleppo-rebels-united-under-former-ahrar-al-sham-commander-1930344528.

February 15, 2016

MUNICH (AP) — A top Syrian opposition figure criticized Russia on Sunday for continuing with its bombing in Syria, insisting that people in the country need to see action rather than words.

The head of the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, also stopped short of declaring a clear commitment to implement a planned temporary truce.

“You ask me if I accept a cease-fire or a cessation of hostilities. I ask you: why is the onus on the opposition and whether it has preconditions for negotiations?” Hijab said. “I would like to see a single day of a cessation of hostilities in order to give a chance for real political movement.”

Diplomats from a group of countries that have interests in Syria’s five-year civil war, including the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, agreed on Friday to seek a temporary “cessation of hostilities” within a week. They also agreed to “accelerate and expand” deliveries of humanitarian aid to besieged Syrian communities beginning this week.

It remains unclear whether those commitments can be made to stick on the ground and whether deep differences regarding the truce and which groups would be eligible for it — between the U.S. and Russia among others — can be overcome.

The truce deal in Munich comes as Syrian government forces, aided by a Russian bombing campaign, are trying to encircle rebels in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, and cut off their supply route to Turkey.

Hijab questioned whether the continued fighting by Russia was “a seriously acceptable position to the international community.” “We have gotten used to conferences and words put into hope, but what we need is action — and the action that I see is that Russia is killing Syrian civilians,” Hijab told the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of foreign and security policy leaders.

Speaking before Hijab, senior Republican Sen. John McCain sharply criticized the temporary truce deal, arguing that Russia is engaging in “diplomacy in the service of military aggression.” “Let’s be clear about what this agreement does: it permits the assault on Aleppo to continue for another week. It requires opposition groups to stop fighting, but it allows Russia to continue bombing terrorists — which it insists is everyone, even civilians,” said McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCain said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is not interested in being our partner. He wants to shore up the Assad regime. He wants to re-establish Russia as a major power in the Middle East.” On Saturday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told the Munich conference there was no evidence that Russia was bombing Syrian civilians.

Hijab complained that the Syrian people have “been shredded and abandoned by the international community” over the past five years and have not seen any “leadership, specifically by the United States of America.”

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon underlined Hijab’s complaint, saying the whole region was “frustrated and furious at the lack of Western support.” “For war you need two parties, there is one very active… in the region today — Russia — and on the other side it is missing, whether it is the United States, or Europe,” he said.

The head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes key rebel backers Saudi Arabia and Qatar, offered a more upbeat assessment of the situation. He said the agreement to cease hostilities is a “signal of hope” and was optimistic that it could be achieved.

“It is an opportunity for us to turn our undivided attention on Daesh, which is probably the single most challenging global threat,” said GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “This is a chance to work together on an issue that unites and doesn’t divide.”

He added that it was also an opportunity to deliver humanitarian aid desperately needed by Syrian civilians.

David Rising contributed to this story.

Damascus, Syria (AFP)

Feb 12, 2016

President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture the whole of Syria and keep “fighting terrorism” while also negotiating an end to the war, as international pressure mounts for a ceasefire.

His defiant stance, in an exclusive interview with AFP released Friday, doused hopes of an imminent halt to hostilities that world powers are pushing to take effect within a week.

Assad said the main aim of a Russian-backed regime offensive in Aleppo province that has prompted tens of thousands of people to flee was to cut the rebels’ supply route from Turkey.

He said his government’s eventual goal was to retake all of the country, large swathes of which are controlled by rebel forces or the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group.

“It makes no sense for us to say that we will give up any part,” he said in the interview conducted on Thursday in Damascus.

Assad said it would be possible to “put an end to this problem in less than a year” if opposition supply routes from Turkey, Jordan and Iraq were severed.

But if not, he said, “the solution will take a long time and will incur a heavy price”.

Assad said he saw a risk that Turkey and Saudi Arabia, key backers of the opposition, would intervene militarily in Syria.

World powers agreed Friday on an ambitious plan to cease hostilities in Syria within a week, but doubts soon emerged over its viability, especially because it did not include IS or Al-Qaeda’s local branch.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said there were “no illusions” about the difficulty of implementing a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” as he announced the deal in Munich alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Lavrov underlined that “terrorist organisations” such as IS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front “do not fall under the truce, and we and the US-led coalition will keep fighting these structures”.

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed the plan will not affect operations of the US-led international coalition against IS.

– Humanitarian aid –

Moscow says its more than four-month-old bombing campaign in Syria targets IS and other “terrorists”, but critics accuse Russia of focusing on mainstream rebels.

The Munich deal went further than expected, with Lavrov talking about “direct contacts between the Russian and US military” on the ground, where the powers back opposing sides in the five-year-old conflict.

However, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said at a press conference there would be no increased military cooperation in Syria between the US and Russia.

The 17-nation International Syria Support Group also agreed that “sustained delivery” of humanitarian aid will begin “immediately”.

But after Assad’s forces this month nearly encircled Aleppo, Syria’s second city, several nations put the onus on Moscow to implement the deal.

“Through its military action on the side of Assad’s regime, Russia had recently seriously compromised the political process. Now there is a chance to save this process,” German foreign ministry spokeswoman Christiane Wirzt said.

“What is important now is embracing this opportunity, stopping the airstrikes, ceasing targeting civilians and providing humanitarian access,” added Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Twitter.

He later said that Russian bombing killed 16 civilians in Syria early Friday.

“Despite the agreement we made last night, Russia continued bombing the civilians — they killed 16 civilians this morning,” he said in Munich.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the plan to cease hostilities in Syria.

“Tens of thousands of people there are in desperate need of life saving aid and the entire country urgently needs peace,” he told a press conference in Montreal.

– Question marks –

However, analysts remained skeptical about the chances of ending a war that has killed over 260,000 people and displaced more than half the population.

“There are huge question marks,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The failure to include Al-Nusra was particularly important, he said, since the group is active in Aleppo and surrounding regions, and many of the more “moderate” rebels have links with it.

“This effectively gives the green light for the Syrian government and its allies to carry on military action while paying lip service to the agreement,” said Barnes-Dacey.

Other analysts said it was significant that the US and Russia had been able to strike a deal at all.

The US and Russia have “taken ownership of this now. This is important,” said Michael Williams, a former UN diplomat in Lebanon and now at London’s Chatham House think-tank.

“The parties, the opponents will notice this. It will put quite a bit of pressure on Assad and his regime. It’s very hard for them now to walk away.”

Peace talks collapsed earlier this month over the offensive on Aleppo, which has forced at least 50,000 people to flee and killed an estimated 500 people since it began on February 1.

A key Syrian opposition body, the High Negotiations Committee, said Friday it was up to rebels on the ground whether to implement the deal.

Kerry said talks between the opposition and the regime would resume as soon as possible, but warned that “what we have here are words on paper — what we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground”.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Assad_vows_to_retake_all_of_Syria_keep_fighting_terrorism_999.html.

February 16, 2016

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Bahrain has arrested four American journalists covering the anniversary of its 2011 uprising amid a long crackdown on dissent in the tiny Gulf nation, witnesses said Monday.

Police said they detained four Americans for providing “false information that they were tourists,” while also alleging one took part in an attack on its officers. The U.S. Embassy in Manama said it was “aware of the arrest of four U.S. citizens in Bahrain” on Sunday but could not discuss the case due to privacy concerns.

Police said one of the journalists was a woman and three were men. Witnesses identified the woman as Anna Therese Day, an American freelance journalist from Boise, Idaho, who previously had contributed to The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast.

In a statement, The Post told The Associated Press that Day, who had blogged on the website and appeared on its HuffPost Live program, was not on assignment for the outlet at the time of her arrest. “The safety of journalists is of utmost importance to The Huffington Post and we have security measures in place for our reporters around the world,” the statement read. “Anna Day is not employed or contracted by The Huffington Post.”

Jesse Ayala, a friend in New York, said Day and her crew “were not on an exclusive assignment” when they were arrested. “The allegation that they were in any way involved in illegal behavior or anything other than journalistic activities is impossible,” Ayala said in a statement.

Photographs of the reporters working in Sitra, a largely Shiite community south of the capital that has seen repeated protests, circulated on social media, including one image of Day being filmed while speaking to a masked protester.

On Sunday, police arrested a photographer working with the group, the two witnesses said. Later that night, police surrounded the area with checkpoints and arrested the other three, they said. The witnesses spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested.

An Interior Ministry statement alleged one of the four journalists “was wearing a mask and participating in attacks on police alongside other rioters in Sitra.” The statement also said the journalists entered the country between Thursday and Friday on tourist visas.

“At least some of the arrestees were in the country as members of the international media but had not registered with the concerned authority and were involved in illegal activities,” the statement said, without elaborating on what those activities were.

Bahrain requires international journalists to obtain special media visas before entering to work. The island kingdom allows citizens of many countries, including the U.S., to get a tourist visa on arrival. Obtaining a media visa takes several days, and activists say Bahrain has denied media visas for some journalists since the 2011 protests.

A statement on the state-run Bahrain News Agency said the journalists had “been afforded full legal rights in line with the kingdom’s procedures and constitution while investigations continue.” Bahraini officials did not respond to questions from the AP about the arrests.

U.S. Ambassador William V. Roebuck also met with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa on Monday, according to a late statement on the Bahrain News Agency. The 2011 protests in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, were the largest of the Arab Spring wave of demonstrations to rock the Gulf Arab states. They were driven by the country’s Shiite majority, who demanded greater political rights from the Sunni-led monarchy.

The protests were quashed after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent in reinforcements. Bahrain blamed regional Shiite power Iran for stirring up the demonstrations, though a government-sponsored investigation into the unrest said there wasn’t a “discernable link” between the protests and the Islamic Republic based on the information the government gave them.

Bahrain’s government committed to a number of reforms in the wake of the 2011 demonstrations, but low-level unrest continues, particularly in Shiite communities. Small groups of activists frequently clash with riot police and bombs occasionally target security forces. Hundreds of Bahraini youths protested Sunday on the fifth anniversary of the uprising.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called for the immediate release of the American journalists, saying at least six other reporters are being held by the kingdom over their work. “It is sad that the fifth anniversary of the protests is marked by the arrest of yet more journalists in Bahrain, which has since become one of the worst jailers of journalists in the Arab world,” said Sherif Mansour, the committee’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed to this report.

February 15, 2016

UROZHAYNE, Crimea (AP) — Elnara Asanova lives alone with her four small children because her husband, an ethnic Tatar, is in jail. Last April, when she was seven months pregnant, police grabbed him from the streets of their village because he had taken part in a Tatar protest against Russian annexation of Crimea.

She’s not allowed to visit him, so she travels to every court hearing. Once she took 7-month-old Mustafa, so her husband could glimpse the child as he was led from the police van to the courtroom. The court has refused to release him on bail, describing him as a flight risk.

“They say he will run away. But where to?” said Elnara, a meek young woman. She points to her children. “We live in the country. You can’t survive here without a husband.” Two years after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin touts the move as a historic achievement, looking on with a satisfied smile from countless billboards across the peninsula. However, overwhelming opposition from the Muslim Tatar ethnic minority puts a crack in this picture of unanimous support, as evidenced in interviews with more than two dozen Tatars across Crimea. And the resistance appears to be growing.

Many described the intimidation of community leaders, the closure of Tatar language classes and a general atmosphere of mistrust of Tatar residents. The Associated Press conducted some interviews at other people’s homes because of worries about police surveillance.

The majority of the people in Crimea are ethnic Russian and support Russia’s annexation. The nearly 300,000 Crimean Tatars, who make up less than 15 percent of the population, are Muslims, although largely secular.

Community leaders say repression has left young people fuming, risking their radicalization along the lines of the restive North Caucasus, a patchwork of predominantly Muslim republics in southern Russia.

Tatar activists are already fighting back. Before Russia annexed Crimea, Lenur Islyamov was a businessman with family and assets in Moscow. Last fall, he traded his business suits for military-style clothing to lead a resistance movement that imposed a blockade on the peninsula in retaliation for Russia’s persecution of the Tatars.

In September, the activists began stopping goods from crossing into Crimea. Three months later, the Ukrainian government stepped in and banned all trade. “Everyone, including Ukraine, left us with no other choice,” said Islyamov, whose assets in Moscow and Crimea have been seized. “Most of us don’t want to go to war — we want to make sandwiches, take our children to school, go shopping — but we’ve been forced to do this.”

Deliberate power outages have also become widespread. In November, unknown attackers blew up electricity pylons in Ukraine and tied Crimean Tatar flags to them, leaving 2 million people without heating. No one claimed responsibility for the explosions, but Tatar activists were suspected.

Tatars in Crimea cheered the power cuts, saying the blackout returned the world’s attention to the situation in Crimea. Muzafar Fukala, community leader of the village of Voinka, said losing light was “nothing” compared to the hardships Tatars had survived in the past.

“I’m prepared to live in a complete blackout until this scum leaves,” he said, referring to supporters of the annexation. To avoid police harassment, Fukala spoke to the AP in the home of friends in a neighboring village.

Both the border blockade and the power outages have put a big hole in the Kremlin budget at a time when plummeting oil prices have left Moscow with little to spare on shoring up its newest acquisition. Russia had to fly in supplies and thousands of generators, and speed up the construction of underwater power lines.

Islyamov is also working to set up a “battalion” of 500 Tatar activists to be stationed just a few miles from the border. Tatar activists in military fatigues, some of them carrying automatic weapons, now stand in the winter cold by the roadside of their tent camp. They used to search cars crossing into Crimea and back until blockade leaders announced that Ukrainian border guards and customs officials would now do so instead.

In November, Chechen intelligence officers called on Islyamov’s 17-year-old son in Moscow, where he studied, and threatened him unless he denounced his father publicly. Several hours later, Islyamov arranged for his son to leave Russia.

Officials in Crimea in charge of ethnic minorities didn’t respond to the AP’s requests seeking interviews and comment. Officials in the Crimean government have accused Tatar leaders who opposed the annexation of betraying the interests of the Tatars and being agents of Ukraine. Under Russian law, people can be punished for calling for the return of Crimea to Ukraine.

The Crimean Tatars have a long history of repression. In May 1944, all 200,000 Tatars, who then made up a third of Crimea’s population, were put on trains and shipped to Central Asia in the space of three days. Thousands died during the grueling journey or starved to death in the barren steppes upon arrival.

Unlike other peoples deported during World War II by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the Tatars were not allowed to return to their native land until the 1980s. A visit to a Tatar home today opens a window to a parallel world far from the throngs of flag-waving Russians who gave Putin a Hollywood star reception on the streets of the Black Sea port of Sevastopol on his visit last summer. Tatars here all watch ATR, a Crimean Tatar channel owned by Islyamov, which was banished from Crimea and now broadcasts from exile in mainland Ukraine. They talk of “better times” and a future “victory,” alluding to the eventual return of Crimea to Ukraine.

In almost equal measure, Crimean Tatars feel betrayed by Kiev, after Ukrainian troops stationed on the peninsula surrendered to Russian forces in February 2014 without putting up any resistance. Later on, most of these troops took Russian citizenship and joined the Russian armed forces.

Left on their own, the Tatars at first made a foray into the new Crimean government. Islyamov, who had Russian citizenship, was dispatched in April 2014 by the Mejlis, the Tatars’ self-governing body, to become a deputy prime minister. Less than two months later, he resigned. He said Russian leaders were not interested in Tatar problems and every conversation turned into a dispute about Russian supremacy.

“We saw that Ukraine had ditched us, that it was inevitable that Russia was going to swallow Crimea and the global community was doing nothing,” he said. When pro-Russian politicians tried to push through a motion in the local legislature for a vote about Crimea’s future, the only visible force opposing them was the Crimean Tatar minority. Six people, including Elnara Asanova’s husband, Ali Asanov, are now on trial in the capital, Simferopol, on charges of rioting dating back to fist fights between rival rallies of the pro-Russian party and Crimean Tatars on Feb. 26, 2014. Not a single pro-Russian protester has faced charges.

Tatar businesses with purported ties to the blockade leaders have faced closures or legal onslaught, according to local journalist Zair Akadyrov. “The blockade is drawing more attention from the law enforcement agencies to Crimean activists because everyone gets unwittingly associated with that movement” on the border,” he said.

Bekir Umerov, who owns a two-story home improvement store on the outskirts of Simferopol, is one of the few Tatar businessmen in Crimea willing to speak publicly. His troubles began after the authorities found out he was a brother of Ilmi Umerov, a prominent Tatar community leader from Bakhchisarai. For a year and a half, Bekir Umerov’s store has been saddled with audits and checks from fire inspectors, the consumer rights agency and the economic crimes department.

“They’ve told me several times they are not interested in my documents, but they have been tasked to run the store into the ground because of the political views of my brother and my own,” Umerov said. He feels his only option is to rent out the store before officials find cause to close it down.

The reaction of the Crimean authorities to any display of allegiance to Ukraine sometimes borders on farce. A shop assistant at Umerov’s store says inspectors once asked them about a mailbox that happened to be in the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag.

More and more Tatars in Crimea and outside now say they want more than a return to Ukraine’s fold, after its passive stance toward Russian annexation. What they want is Tatar autonomy within Crimea. However, unlike other nations of the former Russian Empire with a troubled past, Crimean Tatars do not have a history of armed resistance. Nariman Dzhelyal, who leads the Crimean Tatar self-governing body since its leader has been barred from entering Crimea, argues that any suggestion of a guerrilla resistance is “complete nonsense.”

“The landscape does not help,” he said, suggesting that Crimea’s windswept steppes offered no place for potential guerrillas to hide. “And there are no weapons.”