Iraq Theater

Turkey launches Syria intervention

News reports today have Turkey finally intervening in Syria and Iraq against ISIS. The USA Today headline is typical: "Turkey expands anti-Islamic State campaign." However, the specifics about the targeting indicate that anti-ISIS Kurdish forces are actually being hit. BBC News reports that the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) say Turkish tanks shelled their fighters at the border villages of Zormikhar and Til Findire, near Kobani in northern Syria. Daily Sabah quotes an anonymous Turkish official denying the claims: "The ongoing military operation seeks to neutralize imminent threats to Turkey's national security and continues to target the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Syria and the PKK in Iraq... PYD, along with others, remains outside the scope of the current military effort." This strikes us as a disingenuous statement, as the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the civil and political entity that runs the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria (in alliance with other formations), while the YPG is its military arm. So the Kurdish self-defense forces could be coming under attack, and this statement would still be (very narrowly) correct. A BBC News account also notes that the intervention comes as the US and Turkey have announced that they are working together on military plans to create an "Islamic State-free zone" in Syria's north—in other words, the long-anticipated buffer zone that is really aimed at destroying the Kurdish autonomous zone and amounts to a de facto Turkish annexation of Syrian territory. The "IS-free zome" (perhaps better dubbed a "PYD-free zone") is reportedly to extend 68 miles (109 kilometers) west of the Euphrates River.

Spanish anti-ISIS volunteers face 'terror' charges

OK, this one is sending the irony meter into full tilt. Two Spanish volunteers who went to Iraq to fight ISIS at Sinjar (presumably alongside PKK forces) in an "International Brigade" were arrested upon their return to Madrid and face charges of... (wait for it)... membership in a "terrorist organization"! One defendant is named as Paco Arcadio; the other only by his nom de guerre "Marto." El Mundo reports they were released on bail July 6. Anarchist website Insurrection News informs us that they are followers of Reconstrucción Comunista, one of the more militant tendencies to emerge from Spain's fragmented Communist Party. Upon his release from jail, Arcadio made a statement about why they went to fight ISIS: "In this region, the proletarian struggle is advancing. It is the struggle against fascism as represented by the Islamic State. We went to help, as the international brigades came to help us in '36."

Obama disses Kurdish 'partners' against ISIS

In a press conference at the Pentagon today, President Obama said the struggle against ISIS will be a "long-term campaign," but that the US is "intensifying" efforts. He boasted: "In the past year we've seen when we have effective partners on the ground." He also stated: "Altogether, ISIL has lost over a quarter of the populated areas it had seized in Iraq." In naming those forces on the ground, he mentioned first and foremost "our Arab partners"—despite the fact that the most significant gains against ISIS have been not at the hands of Arabs but Kurds. Of the specific victories he invoked, only one—Tikrit—was by Arab forces. All the rest—Kirkuk, Sinjar, Mosul Dam, Kobani, Tal Abyad—were by Kurdish forces. Nowhere in his 20-minute comments did Obama so much as utter the word "Kurds," although he did refer to the "Peshmerga," "tribal fighters" and the "moderate opposition" in Syria.

UNESCO sees ISIS war crimes at heritage sites

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee said June 29 that extremist groups' destruction of antiquities and heritage sites in conflict zones could amount to war crimes. The committee noted particularly the Islamic State's destruction of the ancient city of Hatra in Iraq, and was deeply concerned about the group's capture of Palmyra in May. Both cities are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and carry much archaeological significance. The committee adopted a resolution which states in part that "[i]ntentional attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes and historic monuments may amount to war crimes." The resolution also expressed UNESCO's deep shock and alarm at the repeated attacks by ISIS "aimed at destroying cultural diversity through deliberate targeting of individuals and communities on the basis of cultural, ethnic or religious background, as well as places of worship, memory and learning," as well as looting and excavations that "seriously undermine irreplaceable cultural treasures."

Benghazi suspect killed in Iraq: Pentagon

The Pentagon announced June 23 that Ali Awni al-Harzi, a suspect in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, was killed eight days earlier by a US air-strike in Mosul, Iraq. The Defense Department describes al-Harzi as a "person of interest" in the Benghazi attack, adding that he "operated closely with multiple ISIL-associated extremists throughout North Africa and the Middle East." In April, both the US State Department and the United Nations designated al-Harzi as a terrorist. The State Department found that Harzi "joined Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AAS-T) in 2011 and was a high-profile member known for recruiting volunteers, facilitating the travel of AAS-T fighters to Syria, and for smuggling weapons and explosives into Tunisia." Ansar al-Sharia works closely with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The State Department's designation did not mention Harzi's role in the Benghazi attack, but the UN's designation for Harzi reads: "Planned and perpetrated the attack against the Consulate of the United States in Benghazi, Libya on 11 Sep. 2012."

Iraq: US sends more troops —amid reprisals

A new group of 450 military advisors is being dispatched to Iraq, the White House announced June 10, bringing the total of US troops in the country to 3,500. The immediate goal is retaking Ramadi from ISIS. The new advisors are assigned to Taqaddum military base, between Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar governorate, bringing to five the number of bases housing US troops in Iraq. US advisors are currently training some 3,000 Iraqi troops, but news accounts said that the forces to be trained at Taqaddum are to include "local Sunni fighters." (Reuters, Bloomberg, June 10) This is presumably meant to counter-balance the Shi'ite militias that have been leading the fight against ISIS in central Iraq (and are accused of reprisals and war crimes against Sunni non-combatants), but it still represents an official US embrace of sectarian militias rather than the increasingly fictional "official" Iraqi army.

ISIS gains ground as diplomats dither

The New York Times offers this sobering lede on the anti-ISIS summit now underway: "With Islamist militant fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq moving faster than the international coalition arrayed against them, a meeting in Paris by coalition members on Tuesday seemed unlikely to reverse the momentum anytime soon. With the French and American governments playing host, 24 foreign ministers or their representatives have been meeting here in the aftermath of serious losses to the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria last month and the possibility that more territory will be lost in the coming days." Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose forces are virtually collapsing, was of course on hand to appeal for more aid. (Reuters) Disgracefully, no Kurdish leaders were invited to the summit—despite the fact that Kurdish forces have been by far most effective on the ground against ISIS. "The [Iraqi] federal government didn't invite any representative from Kurdistan to the Paris meeting and have participated in this gathering alone," reads a statement from the Kurdish Regional Government. "The Peshmerga are the only forces that have so far bravely battled the terrorists and driven them out of our territories." (IBT) Needless to say, no representatives of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria were invited either.

Iraq: Yazidis demand autonomous zone

Haider Shasho, commander of the Yezidi Shingal Protection Forces in northern Iraq, met with the Yazidi community in the German city of Cologne last week to discuss the circumstances of his arrest by Kurdish authorities. Shasho said he was arrested April 5 for attempting to form a separate Yazidi militia to fight ISIS outside the command of the Peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). He added that the incident shows that Yazidis must establish their own autonomous zone within the KRG. "We intend to form an independent Yezidi entity in northern Iraq, to guarantee equal rights to the members of our community there," he said. "We as Yezidis will not detach ourselves from the Kurdistan Region, we are also Kurds, it's our right as part of the Kurdish people to have an independent political and administrative entity, so we can serve our people and protect their rights."

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