Iraq Theater

ISIS named in new Syria chemical attack

Independent aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported Aug. 25 that it had treated four members of a Syrian family who suffered from breathing difficulties and developed blisters after a mortar hit their home in Marea, Aleppo governorate. The Syrian American Medical Society also reported receiving 50 patients showing symptoms of chemical exposure in the same area. Local rebels said the shells were fired from an ISIS-held village to the east. A spokesman for one rebel group, the Shami Front, told the New York Times that half of the 50 mortars and artillery rounds that hit Marea contained sulphur mustard. The powerful irritant and blistering agent —commonly known as "mustard gas" but actually liquid at ambient temperature—causes severe damage to the skin, eyes and respiratory system.

Kurdish diva wages culture war on ISIS

Kurdish-American pop singer Helly Luv travelled to northern Iraq where she donned a Peshmerga uniform and visited the frontline against ISIS to gyrate before the cameras in a video for a song dubbed "Revolution," offering encouragement to the Kurdish fighters: "Stand up, we are united; together we can survive it... Brothers and sisters we all come from one; Different religions we share the same blood." This has of course won her death threats from ISIS—we can imagine how upset the jihadists must be by a video combining Luv's unabashed sexuality with glorification of the anti-ISIS fighters. She also issued an appeal to President Obama to directly arm the Peshmerga—something he still hasn't done, although various European leaders have. "If we can give the Peshmerga the weapons, they can destroy the enemy. Even right now, they don't have strong weapons, but they're still winning," Helly said.

Syria war toll passes quarter million

Nearly a quarter of a million people have died in Syria's war since March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The organiztion said Aug. 7 that the number of documented deaths had risen to 240,381 from 230,618 in June. Of these, 71,781 have been civilians and 11,964 children, the group found. 50,570 were soldiers or fighters allied with the regime. The toll for rebel fighters was put at 43,384 and foreign fighters (apparently counted separately) at 34,375. The 30,000 who have gone missing in Syria, including the 20,000 said to be held in regime prisons, were not counted in the toll. (The Telegraph, Aug. 8; Al Jazeera, Aug. 7)

Mass protests shake Baghdad regime

Following weeks of mounting protests over economic conditions and corruption, tens of thousands took to the streets of Baghdad Aug. 7, filling Tahrir Square to demand basic services including electricity in the midst of a crushing heat-wave. The protest had the support of all Iraq's Shi'ite factions—in a challenge to Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi from his own constituency. Even parliament speaker Saleem al-Jubouri called on Abadi to dismiss of a number of ministers accused of corruption related to a budget-cutting package that just passed, under pressure from fallling oil prices. Large protests were also reported from across Iraq's Shi'ite south, including in the cities of Basra, Najaf, Karbala and Nasiriyah. A week earlier, secular and left-wing groups held a smaller protest in Tahrir Square. But the leftists also had a contingent at the Aug. 7 march, chanting "Secularism, secularism, no to Sunni, no to Shia." (In Defense of Marxism, Aug. 10; AP, Aug. 7)

PKK-aligned Yazidi militia battles ISIS

An Aug. 7 account on Daily Beast reports that young Yazidis—including women—are returning to the Mount Sinjar area of Iraq from which they were "cleansed" by ISIS last year, and fighting to reclaim their homeland from the jihadists. They also hope to rescue hundreds of Yazidi women and youth who remain in ISIS captivity. They are organized in a militia called the Sinjar Protection Units (YBS), which the article portrays as trained by and in the political orbit of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Young Yazidi fighters are quoted saying they feel betrayed by the Peshmerga of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, which they say abandoned them to ISIS. But we've noted before the problemetic nature of Daily Beast's reportage on Syria and Iraq, and this is no exception. The PKK is called a "Marxist and allegedly terrorist organization" (the word "allegedly" apparently having been added after publication, to go by the cache as it appears on Facebook). It states that the PKK was "[b]uilt on Marxist-Leninist ideals and Kurdish nationalism," without stating that it has in recent years moved away from both towards an anarchist-influenced politics.

Turkey continues to bomb anti-ISIS forces

The ongoing betrayal of the Syrian Kurds is no less maddening for being utterly predictable. The Wall Street Journal reports Aug. 3 that the US and Turkey have reached an agreement to keep Kurdish forces out of the "buffer zone" Ankara hopes to establish in Rojava, or northern Syria. In other words, the very forces that have been most effective in fighting ISIS are to be purged from the territory they have defended and liberated. The Kurds, who have been cynically accused of "ethnic cleansing" by Ankara's propagandists, are about to be ethnically cleansed. And, of course, this operation, ostensibly aimed at beating back ISIS, is actually aimed at crushing the revolutionary Kurds whose ground offensive has been driving ISIS back towards Raqqa, the "Islamic State" capital. Turkey's air campaign began last week with a few strikes on ISIS targets—which ISIS boasted hadn't hit anything. Since then, the overwhelming majority of the strikes (185 sorties against 400 targets, according to Al Monitor), have been hitting Kurdish positions across Kurdistan—within Turkey and Iraq as well as Syria. Even Reuters states: "Turkey's assaults on the PKK have so far been far heavier than its strikes against Islamic State, fuelling suspicions that its real agenda is keeping Kurdish political and territorial ambitions in check, something the government denies." Of the over 1,000 arrested in sweeps within Turkey since the campaign began, only 140 are ISIS followers—compared to more than 870 followers of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the formation in the ideological leadership of the Kurdish revolution. (Workers Solidarity Movement)

US betrays Rojava Kurds (inevitably)

Well, the long-awaited "other shoe" is finally dropping. It is clear that Washington has given Turkey a green light to crush the revolutionary Kurds—in Turkey, Syria and Iraq alike—as the price of Ankara's cooperation against ISIS. And it's also pretty clear that crushing the Kurds is far more of a priority for Ankara than fighting ISIS. The New York Times writes: "Turkey's new airstrikes...against the Islamic State...came alongside an equally intense barrage on Kurdish militants in Iraq, whose Syrian affiliates are also fighting the Islamic State." Equally intense or far more intense? Media accounts have few specifics of ISIS targets hit by the Turkish strikes. But Haaretz reports: "Turkish fighter jets launched their heaviest assault on Kurdish militants in northern Iraq overnight since airstrikes began last week... The F-16 jets hit six targets in Iraq and were scrambled from an air base in Turkey's southeastern province of Diyarbakir... Turkey began bombing PKK camps in northern Iraq last Friday in what government officials have said was a response to a series of killings of police officers and soldiers blamed on the Kurdish militant group."

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.

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