War

Iran general: Trump quiet on military ​threat because he ‘realizes our power’

https://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-general-trump-quiet-on-military-%E2%80%8Bthreat-because-he-realizes-our-power/

 

The deputy head of Iran’s hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) mocked US President Donald Trump Tuesday, saying that his omission of military options in his recent rhetoric threatening to cancel the Iran nuclear deal proves he is scared of engaging the Islamic Republic.

“Unlike the past, the new US president didn’t speak of the military option against Iran because Iran’s power is credible and the enemy has realized and accepted Iran’s power,” said General Hossein Salami, in remarks quoted by Iran’s Fars news agency.

In a much-anticipated White House speech on Friday, Trump stopped short of withdrawing from the accord, but “decertified” his support for the agreement and left its fate in the hands of Congress.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear control accord reached between Iran and the so-called P5+1 — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — was signed in 2015 and saw economic sanctions on Iran lifted in return for limitations place on it nuclear program to prevent it from producing nuclear weapons. Israeli officials, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposed the deal, saying it did not go far enough to prevent Iran from going nuclear in the future.

Outlining the results of a review of efforts to counter Tehran’s “aggression” in a series of Middle East conflicts, Trump ordered tougher sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and on its ballistic missile program.

But unlike his predecessor Barack Obama who said during the negotiations for the 2015 agreement that “all options are on the table,” Trump made no threat of using military force against Iran if they fail to comply.

“Trump’s remarks, which seemed threatening on the surface, admitted emergence of an uncontrollable power,” Salami said, addressing a ceremony in Tehran. “It’s clear that he realizes our power.”

Salami said that Trump’s speech was “US defeats, failure and inability,” according to Fars.

Trump, however did announce targeted sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards, a key instrument of Tehran’s military and foreign policy that the president described as “the Iranian Supreme Leader’s corrupt personal terror force and militia.”

He said he is authorizing the US Treasury Department to “further sanction the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its support for terrorism and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents, and affiliates.”

But the US leader backed away from designating the Guards Corps as a terror group, a move that would have triggered a slew of sanctions and almost certain Iranian retribution.

Irani Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Sunday that Trump’s speech outlining an aggressive new strategy against Iran violated Tehran’s nuclear agreement with world powers.

The virulent speech contravened three articles of the 2015 deal, Zarif said in televised remarks broadcast late on Saturday.

They include the requirement to implement the accord “in good faith” and for the US to “refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing” sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program.

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Raqqa, ISIS ‘Capital,’ Is Captured, U.S.-Backed Forces Say

BEIRUT, Lebanon — American-backed forces said on Tuesday that they had seized the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State, a major blow to the militant group, which had long used the city as the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate.

Celebrations erupted in Raqqa, where residents had lived under the repressive rule of militants who beheaded people for offenses as minor as smoking. Fighters could be seen cheering and firing celebratory gunfire in the streets, according to residents reached by phone and text message.

The United States Central Command stopped short of declaring victory, saying that “more than 90 percent of Raqqa is in S.D.F. control,” a reference to the Syrian Democratic Forces, an American-backed militia group made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs.

Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a spokesman for the United States military in Baghdad, said Tuesday that Raqqa was on the verge of being liberated, but that there were still pockets of the city controlled by the Islamic State. Syrian Democratic Forces officers, however, were emphatic in phone interviews and public statements that they had finally wrested control of the city from the militants after a monthslong campaign.

“The military operation is over,” said Talal Salo, a commander reached by phone at the group’s headquarters in Hasaka.

Still, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, Moustapha Bali, said suicide bombers might still be hiding in the city. In a video teleconference with Pentagon reporters, Colonel Dillon also said that Islamic State fighters had booby-trapped the city with improvised explosive devices and unexploded ordnance that officials say could take years to remove.

Whether final or not, the seemingly inevitable defeat in Raqqa of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, carries heavy symbolic weight. At its height in 2014, the group controlled Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, as well as Raqqa and large stretches of land on both sides of the border. And it had grand aspirations to increase its territory and cement its rule.

The Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who once spent time in a prison run by occupying American troops in Iraq, claimed to be the successor to the caliphs, the Islamic emperors who shaped the region in past centuries. He persuaded tens of thousands of Muslims from around the world, some new to the faith or poorly versed in it, to travel to the region to fight. The group seized the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria and those of Hatra in Iraq, destroying important historical monuments in the name of its interpretation of Islam.

With the fall of Raqqa, the Islamic State has lost the two most important cities of its self-declared caliphate in three months. It was pushed out of Mosul in July, and now holds only a fraction of the territory it once controlled.

Analysts say the group is already preparing for a new phase, morphing back into the kind of underground insurgency it started as, when it took root among disaffected Sunni populations that were willing to tolerate, if not wholeheartedly embrace, its ultraconservative brand of Islam. And while many Arabs quickly soured on the group because of its brutal crackdowns and unfulfilled promises, their underlying political disaffection has not been addressed.

Another major concern, now that Islamic State-held territory is reduced, is how countries in Europe, in the Middle East and around the world will handle the foreigners who joined the group in places like Syria and might return home and plan attacks there.

A victory in Raqqa has come at a heavy cost. Much of the city has been devastated by American-led airstrikes that killed more than 1,000 civilians, according to tallies by local activists and international monitors. In earlier years, many were killed by Russian and Syrian government strikes. About 270,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting, and thousands of homes have been destroyed.

Hassan Mohammad Ali, a member of a civilian council backed by the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces that is supposed to be responsible for rebuilding the city, said last week that reconstruction would be a challenge.

“The city is in ruins; it needs time,” he said. “And it needs prospects that are beyond ours, our energy.” Just providing bread to areas retaken from the Islamic State was stretching the council’s capacity, he said.

Dr. Mohammad Ahmed Saleh, a resident of the city who now works in a hospital in Tal al-Abyad, said he was eager to return home but was bracing for the worst.

“I’m expecting to see a new Hiroshima,” he said by telephone, taking a break from treating a newly arrived contingent of 19 wounded people from Raqqa, a mix of civilians and fighters for the Islamic State. “I’m trying to be mentally prepared when I go. I’ll be lucky if I see one of my house’s walls still standing.”

Many former residents said they had no plans to go back.

“Today, I decided to start a new life,” said Wadha Huwaidi, who fled Raqqa a few months ago. “I’m sad, of course, but I had nothing left there. My house was destroyed, my children, my husband all collapsed. There’s nothing left that makes me feel I want to go back.”

For months, Islamic State commanders and fighters have been withdrawing from Raqqa and moving southeast into the neighboring province of Deir al-Zour. They have clustered in neighborhoods in the provincial capital, which is also called Deir al-Zour, as well as in the town of Mayadeen and in a town on the border with Iraq called al-Bukamal. Hundreds of Islamic State fighters had decamped from Raqqa to Mayadeen in recent months, taking heavy equipment with them.

But over the weekend, Syrian government forces, backed by their Russian and Iranian allies, took Mayadeen and continued their advance into the provincial capital, leaving the Islamic State with the border town as the only urban area entirely under its control in Syria. Beyond that, Islamic State fighters are scattered in a large area of the Syrian desert, outside population centers.

It is unclear what happened to the last several hundred Islamic State fighters holed up in Raqqa. There were conflicting reports about whether foreign fighters among them would be allowed to evacuate on buses in a surrender deal.

Last week, the United States-led coalition said there would be no negotiated withdrawal of Islamic State fighters, just the evacuation of civilians, if necessary, to keep them out of the crossfire. But in previous battles, in Hawija and Tal Afar, surrendering fighters were allowed to board buses to Islamic State-held territory. Witnesses in Raqqa said that several busloads of Islamic State fighters, both Syrians and foreigners, had been allowed to board buses to Deir al-Zour.

The fall of Raqqa threatens to inflame relations between Kurds and Arabs, who have been fighting the Islamic State in an uneasy alliance with the United States-led coalition — but against an enemy that is rapidly melting away. Most immediately, they may be at odds over the future governing of Raqqa.

Similar tensions were on display in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Monday after Iraqi government forces drove out Kurdish forces to the cheers of Turkmens and Arabs in the ethnically mixed city.

The battle against the Islamic State has also led to touchy de facto partnerships internationally, with the United States, Russia and Iran all fighting the group in sometimes competing efforts, vying for influence.

Deir al-Zour, home to most of Syria’s modest oil reserves, continues to be a flash point for possible tensions between the two rival coalitions fighting the Islamic State: Russia, Iran and the Syrian government on one side, and the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces on the other.

Both sides want to increase their influence over the region as their proxies race one another to take Islamic State areas straddling Syria and Iraq. The Syrian government and its allies, Iran and Russia, are steadily driving the Islamic State from Deir al-Zour, and a crucial question is whether the government will ultimately seek to retake full control of Raqqa as well.

ISRAELI AIR FORCE DESTROYS SYRIAN ANTI-AIRCRAFT BATTERY IN RETALIATORY STRIKE

 

The Israeli Air Force attacked and destroyed a Syrian SA-5 anti-aircraft battery east of Damascus Monday morning after it fired a surface-to-air missile at Israeli jets.

The SA-5 missile battery, which was stationed some 50 kilometers east of the Syrian capital, fired at Israeli jets that were on a routine aerial reconnaissance flight in Lebanese airspace, IDF Spokesman Brig.Gen. Ronen Manelis stated.

“We see the Syrian regime as responsible and see these missiles as a clear Syrian provocation, and it will not be accepted,” Manelis stated, adding that while Israel has no intention to enter into the civil war in Syria, Israel will react to all provocations.

Manelis told journalists that Russia was updated about the incident, in which no Israeli jets were harmed, in real time, and that it will be brought up during the visit of the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu who is set to land in Israel in the coming hours.

Moscow intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015, and officials from Israel and Russia meet regularly to discuss the de-confliction mechanism system implemented over Syria to prevent accidental clashes between the two militaries.

Shoigu will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and other senior officials to discuss the Jewish State’s ongoing concerns regarding Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah by Tehran through Damascus.

Syria’s general command warned Israel of “harsh consequences to Israel’s repeated aggressive attempts.”

Israel rarely comments on foreign reports of military activity in Syria but has publicly admitted to having struck over 100 Hezbollah targets in Syria, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that strikes will continue when “we have information and operational feasibility.”

During an IAF operation in March to strike a Hezbollah arms convoy in Syria, regime air defense fired three surface-to-air missiles towards IAF jets. It was the most serious incident between the two countries since the war in Syria began six years ago.

Following that incident, Liberman warned against any further launching of missiles by the Syrian regime, threatening to destroy all Syrian air defenses.

Kurdish fighters said withdrawing from Kirkuk as Iraqi forces advance

Iraqi forces made rapid progress on Monday in their operation against Kurdish fighters in the disputed Kirkuk province, seizing a key military base, an airport and an oil field, commanders said.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC), which groups all pro-government forces, did not specify whether there had been significant clashes in the operation, but the speed of the advance suggested Kurdish fighters were so far withdrawing without resistance.

Iraqi troops and allied forces launched the operation overnight after tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds spiraled into an armed standoff following last month’s referendum on Kurdish independence.

The JOC said its forces had retaken the K1 military base northwest of Kirkuk, the military airport east of the city and the North Oil Company and Baba Gargar oil fields, two of six in the disputed region.

Iraq’s central government had earlier demanded the Kurds withdraw from military facilities and oil fields they had seized in recent years, mainly during the fightback against the Islamic State group.

Inside  tonight: Thousands of people volunteer to defend  city from Iraqi army and Hashd al-Shaabi. 

The oil fields are particularly contested.

Kurdish forces have been in control of six fields in the Kirkuk region providing some 340,000 of the 550,000 barrels per day exported by the regional administration.

Three of the fields — Khormala, Bay Hassan and Havana — produce some 250,000 barrels per day for export and are directly controlled by the Kurds.

The other three — Baba Gargar, Jambur and Khabbaz — are managed by the publicly owned North Oil Company (NOC) and produce some 90,000 barrels per day for export, with revenues going to the Kurds.

The JOC said that along with Baba Gargar, Iraqi forces had regained control of the local NOC headquarters.

Peshmerga forces loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a political party linked to Iraqi President Fuad Masum, who is himself a Kurd, were reported to be withdrawing from areas under their control after the operation was launched.

Pro-PUK forces were deployed south of the city, including at oil fields, while fighters loyal to the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), linked to Iraqi Kurd leader Massoud Barzani who initiated the referendum, were deployed to the north.

EIGHTY-FIVE PERCENT OF RAQQA LIBERATED FROM ISIS

 

Islamic State’s Syrian capital of Raqqa has been largely conquered by the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the US-led coalition. Around 100 ISIS fighters surrendered on Saturday, and 1,500 civilians have fled unharmed in the last week, coalition spokesman US Army Col. Ryan Dillon said.

The battle for Raqqa began in early June and has dragged on for more than four months.

By late June ISIS was surrounded in the city, its forces occupying about 3 square kilometers. By mid-September it had been pushed back to a small pocket in the center and north of the city.

Nevertheless the SDF, which is composed of forces including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), continued to face a difficult enemy.

Adnan Abu Amjad, a wellknown commander of the SDF’s Manbij Military Council, was killed fighting in the city on August 29. ISIS counterattacks also inflicted casualties. On October 4, Jac Holmes, a British volunteer serving with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), estimated it could still take up to two months to take the city, when he held a live Facebook session to answer questions about the battle.

Dillon told Reuters on Saturday that “we still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead.”

Since October 5, the coalition has carried out almost 150 air strikes in and around Raqqa, according to its daily press releases. Most strikes in recent days targeted ISIS “fighting positions,” but the coalition does not specify precisely where. The congested space in the jihadist-held part of the city, about a kilometer square, make air strikes difficult.

What gives hope to the coalition and SDF is the surrender of 100 ISIS fighters in the last days.

There is no agreement for the exit of ISIS from the city, Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish affairs analyst in Syria, wrote on Twitter that SDF commander Rojda Felat told him on Thursday.

However, the SDF and coalition have been attempting to let civilians flee. “Daesh [ISIS] is on the verge of being finished.

Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” Nouri Mahmoud, a spokesman for the YPG, told Reuters on Saturday.

When Raqqa falls it will be largely symbolic, because there are not thought to be major ISIS leaders in the city which once served as the capital of the black flag-waving extremists. However, the long battle has been a major but costly victory for the SDF and is part of the successful policy the US has hit upon of leveraging local forces to defeat ISIS.

The battle for Raqqa has been eclipsed now by the race for the Iraqi border taking place 160 km. down the Euphrates River, as the SDF and the Assad regime seek to fill the space left by ISIS retreating. In the long run the issue of who gets to the Iraqi border and whether the US chooses to challenge Iranian influence and stick with its local allies, will be more important than the fall of Raqqa.

US allows local IS fighters to leave Raqqa as battle nears end

https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-allows-local-is-fighters-to-leave-raqqa-as-battle-nears-end/

 

BEIRUT (AP) — The US-led coalition and local officials said Saturday that Syrian Islamic State fighters and civilians will be allowed to evacuate Raqqa, a deal that signals the imminent capture of the city but flouts earlier US protests of negotiating safe exits for the extremist group.

Foreign fighters will be excluded from the evacuation deal, the coalition said.

The US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the final battle for Raqqa was underway, apparently propelled by negotiation efforts that secured the surrender and evacuation of dozens of Syrian militants still holed up in the city.

In a statement, the US-led coalition said a convoy of vehicles was set to leave Raqqa following the deal brokered by a local council formed by their Kurdish allies and Arab tribal leaders.

The tribal leaders said they appealed to the coalition and the SDF to allow the evacuation of local Islamic State fighters to stem further violence.

“Because our aim is liberation not killing, we appealed to the SDF to arrange for the local fighters and secure their exit to outside of the city, with our guarantees,” the tribal leaders said in a statement.

It was not clear how many evacuees there were or where they would go, but the tribesmen said their evacuation would save the lives of civilians who the extremist fighters have used as human shields. Last week, there was an estimated 4,000 civilians still in the city.

With the push to liberate the Arab-majority Raqqa led by Kurdish-dominated forces, local officials fear a backlash once the city falls. The initiative appeared to be an attempt by local leaders to stem such tension.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the talks were bogged down over the fate of the foreign fighters there, which according to a local Kurdish commander include French, Russian, Azeri, Indonesian and Turkish combatants.

The US-led coalition said it “was not involved in the discussions that led to the arrangement, but believes it will save innocent lives and allow Syrian Democratic Forces and the Coalition to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqah with less risk of civilian casualties.” Daesh is an Arabic acronym for IS.

The evacuation deal places the US in a bind as it had earlier said that only surrender, not a negotiated withdrawal for IS fighters in Raqqa, would be accepted.

The top US envoy for the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, had previously stated that foreign fighters in Raqqa would die in the city. Omar Alloush, a senior member of the Raqqa Civil Council, said Friday around 100 militants had surrendered.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters travelling with him Friday that the US would accept the surrender of IS militants who would be interrogated for intelligence purposes.

“Right now, as the bottom drops out from underneath (IS), more and more of them are either surrendering — some are trying to surrender, and some amongst them — more fanatical ones aren’t allowing them to,” he said, using a different acronym for the extremist group.

Only weeks ago, the US coalition obstructed a Hezbollah-negotiated deal to evacuate IS fighters from its borders with Syria toward the border with Iraq. The coalition bombed the road used by the convoy evacuating the militants, only to finally capitulate following Russian calls asking it to allow Syrian troops in the area to advance.

It is also not clear what kind of justice would be meted out to those surrendering militants in the absence of established courts in Kurdish-dominated northern Syria.

A senior local Kurdish commander said foreign fighters were unlikely to surrender so his forces are expecting to “comb them out” of at least two neighborhoods. He said it could be a matter of a day or two.

Scores of civilians were seen in a video Friday leaving Raqqa in desperate and terrified conditions. They emerged from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrived at a Kurdish-held area of the city, in haunting scenes reflecting their years-long ordeals.

The US-led coalition said it expects “difficult fighting” in the days ahead to completely oust IS from the city and secure it. SDF and U.S. officials said the remaining militants are mostly suicide bombers who only have small arms and rifles. Backed into a small area, they have no access to their weapon of choice, car bombs, said Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman.

IS refuge captured

Also Saturday, the Syrian and Russian militaries announced that Syrian troops and allied fighters had seized the town of Mayadeen, an Islamic State stronghold in the country’s east. The Russian Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said Syrian soldiers had driven IS fighters from the town, which he said was the extremist group’s last major stronghold in eastern Syria.

Over the past months, Mayadeen had become a refuge for IS’s leaders as they faced an intense crackdown in Syria and Iraq.

On the western bank of the Euphrates River, Mayadeen was also a major node in the race for control of the oil-rich eastern Deir el-Zour province that straddles the border with Iraq. Washington has feared advances by Syrian troops and allied fighters could help Iran expand its influence across the region and establish a “Shiite corridor” of land links from Iraq to Lebanon, and all the way to Israel. Iran backs militias fighting alongside the Syrian military.

Diverting fighters from the battle for Raqqa, the US-backed SDF made a bid for the province to secure territories there, focusing on securing the Iraq border, still mostly controlled by IS.

The Syrian government eyed Mayadeen earlier this month, fearing the SDF would get there first. The race accelerated amid fear of potential confrontations as Syrian troops crossed the Euphrates river to reach the oil-rich eastern banks.

Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Observatory, confirmed that government troops, backed by Shiite militias, had taken control of Mayadeen but said they were still combing it for militants.

With the fall of Mayadeen and retaking of Raqqa, Islamic State fighters are losing two of their last strongholds in Syria as their self-declared caliphate crumbles. The militants are currently besieged in the city of Deir el-Zour, leaving them with one last major urban bastion, the strategic town of Boukamal, on the border with Syria and Iraq.

Militants seized Raqqa in 2014, the first city to fall under the full control of the extremist group, and declared it the caliphate of their self-styled caliphate. It became synonymous with IS’s reign of terror, with public killings and beheadings — videotaped slayings that have shocked the world. It was also from Raqqa, which became a destination for foreign fighters from around the world, that many of IS’s attacks in the West were plotted.

The latest battle for Raqqa began in June, with heavy street-by-street fighting amid intense US-led coalition airstrikes and shelling. The battle has dragged on in the face of stiff resistance from the militants.

Iraqi troops in armed standoff with Kurdish forces in Kirkuk

MARYAM BEIK, Iraq (AFP) — Thousands of Iraqi troops were locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish forces in the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk as Washington scrambled to avert fighting between its allies in the war against the Islamic State group.

The Kurds said Saturday that Baghdad had set a deadline for their forces to surrender positions they took during the fightback against the jihadists over the past three years.

The deadline, originally set for 2 a.m. Sunday local time (1 a.m. Sunday, Israel time), was extended by 24 hours during a meeting overnight, a Kurdish official said early Sunday, asking not to be named.

On Saturday, armored vehicles bearing the Iraqi national flag were posted on the bank of a river on the southern outskirts of the city of Kirkuk, an AFP photographer reported.

On the opposite bank, Kurdish peshmerga fighters were visible behind an earthen embankment topped with concrete blocks and the red, white, green and yellow colors of the Kurdish flag.

“Our forces are not moving and are now waiting for orders from the general staff,” an Iraqi army officer told AFP, asking not to be identified.

Just before midnight (11 p.m. Israel time), Iraqi forces used loudhailers to call on the peshmerga fighters to withdraw.

The standoff came as Iraqi President Fuad Masum, who is himself a Kurd, held crisis talks in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah.

Kirkuk’s governor, a Kurd sacked by Baghdad but who refuses to quit his post, visited the peshmerga near the Bay Hassan and Havana oilfields with an uncomprising message for the Iraqi forces.

“The demands of the Hashed al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces) to evacuate Kirkuk and hand over control of the territory, its inhabitants and natural resources are totally unacceptable,” Najm Eddine Karim told journalists at the scene.

He said the Kurds were in contact with the US-led international coalition against IS, which could observe the situation on the ground with its military overflights.

The two sides have been at loggerheads since the Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence in a September 25 referendum that Baghdad rejected as illegal.

Polling was held not only in the three provinces of the autonomous Kurdish region but also in adjacent Kurdish-held areas, including Kirkuk, that are claimed by both Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said there can be no further discussion of the Kurds’ long-standing demands to incorporate Kirkuk and other historically Kurdish-majority areas in their autonomous region until the independence vote is annulled.

He insisted on Thursday that he was “not going… to make war on our Kurdish citizens.”

But thousands of heavily armed troops and members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization forces, which are dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias — have massed around Kirkuk.

They have already retaken a string of positions to the south of the city after Kurdish forces withdrew.

The Kurds have deployed thousands of peshmerga fighters to the area around Kirkuk itself and have vowed to defend the city “at any cost.”

A peshmerga commander on the western front said Kurdish fighters had “taken all the necessary measures” and were “ready for a confrontation” if necessary.

If “the other side makes the mistake of advancing, we’ll give them a lesson they won’t forget in a hurry”, Kamal Kirkuki said.

The June 2014 lines are those that the Kurds held before IS jihadists swept through vast areas north and west of Baghdad, prompting Iraqi federal units to disintegrate and Kurdish forces to step in.

The Kurds control the city of Kirkuk and three major oil fields in the province that account for a significant share of the regional government’s oil revenues.

Washington has military advisers deployed with both sides in the standoff and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday the United States was working to reduce tensions.

“We are trying to tone everything down and to figure out how we go forward without losing sight of the enemy,” Mattis told reporters.

“Everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS. We can’t turn on each other right now,” he added, using an alternative acronym for IS.

ISLAMIC STATE ‘ON THE VERGE’ OF RAQQA DEFEAT

 

BEIRUT – Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Syria’s Raqqa and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists on Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said on Saturday.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters by telephone.

The YPG dominates the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Arab and Kurdish militias that has been battling since June to defeat Islamic State at Raqqa, which served as the jihadist group’s de facto capital in Syria.

An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page on Saturday that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight, having traveled from the northern Raqqa countryside.

The Britain-based Observatory said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had already left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families. It did not say where they would be taken to.

The Observatory said the evacuation was taking place according to a deal reached between the SDF and the US-led coalition on the one hand, and Islamic State on the other.

The US-led coalition and SDF officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the Observatory report.

During the more than six-year Syrian war, the arrival of buses in a conflict zone has often signaled an evacuation of combatants and civilians.

In August, Islamic State fighters agreed to be evacuated from a Lebanon-Syria border area, the first time the militants had publicly agreed to a forced evacuation from territory they held in Syria.

Civilians have been making perilous journeys to escape Islamic State-held areas as SDF forces advance. The SDF says it helps transport them away from the fighting after they flee.

The offensive to drive Islamic State out of Raqqa, its de facto Syrian capital which it seized in 2014, has long outlasted initial predictions by SDF officials who said ahead of a final assault in June that it could take just weeks.

The US-led coalition could not immediately be reached for comment.

ANALYSIS: TURKEY PLANS MOVE TO BOX IN KURDS IN NORTHERN SYRIA

 

The Turkish military this week scouted Syria’s Idlib province, in the northwest of the country, in preparation for a military operation in the province. The deployment of a reconnaissance team into Idlib came days after Turkish troops and armor massed on the Turkish-Syrian border, and a section of the border wall was dismantled to allow the passage of military vehicles.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a rally of supporters of his Justice and Development Party in the town of Afyonkarahisar on Saturday that a “serious operation” was under way in Idlib. The operation, he added, would be carried out by fighters of the Free Syrian Army. Rebels from a variety of Turkish-backed factions, in turn, are assembling at the border in the Reyhanli area.

What is the background to this latest move? Why does Turkey appear to be preparing another major incursion into Syria? Idlib province is currently controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group. This is the latest iteration of the organization once called Jabhat al-Nusra. Nusra was the franchise of the al-Qaida network in Syria. HTS claims to have cut links to al-Qaida, though few analysts regard this move as more than tactical.

While there is strong evidence of cooperation between Turkey and HTS in the past, the issue of HTS dominance has now become a matter of concern for Ankara.

US official Brett McGurk described Idlib in July as “an al-Qaida safe haven right on the border of Turkey.” It is clear that there is pressure from both the US and Europe for the termination of the de facto al-Qaida safe zone that has emerged in Idlib province. From this point of view, the West may well welcome a Turkish move to reduce the power and autonomy of HTS in Idlib.

However, Turkey’s move toward intervention in the province relates most centrally to Ankara’s broader agenda and concerns in Syria – most specifically with regard to the Kurdish forces in the country, with which the West is currently aligned.

The impending Turkish move into Idlib takes place in the context of the Astana agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran, which envisaged the creation of four “de-escalation zones” in western Syria. These were to be in Idlib, in the Rastan-Talbiseh area, in Eastern Ghouta close to Damascus, and in Quneitra, Dera’a and Suwayda provinces in the south, adjoining the Golan Heights. Turkish media reports suggest that Turkey will take control of an area of northern Idlib province, close to the Turkish border, in a move analogous to the Euphrates Shield operation in August 2016. On that occasion, Turkish forces captured the area between Jarabulus and Azaz on the border.

In both cases, the central Turkish ambition related not to the general Syrian situation but, rather, to Ankara’s specific agenda of restricting the advance of the Syrian Kurdish forces of the YPG/Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Euphrates Shield inserted Turkish armed force between the Kurdish controlled cantons of Jazeera/Kobani and Afrin. In so doing, it effectively ended Kurdish hopes of uniting the cantons and attaining Kurdish control of the entire 900-km.

border between Syria and Turkey. The Kurdish authority in Syria is aligned with the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), which has been engaged in an insurgency for greater Kurdish rights in Turkey since 1984. From a Turkish point of view, therefore, preventing Kurdish control of the entire border was essential.

The expected move into Idlib looks set effectively to be the second phase in this effort, in which Turkey will seek to isolate the Kurdish Afrin enclave from its south by occupying northern Idlib. Afrin would then be entirely boxed in, with the Turks to its north, east and west, and the regime to its southeast.

This would prevent any possibility of the Kurds (SDF) themselves moving against al-Qaida-associated forces in Idlib, grabbing the territory held by them and expanding the Kurdish enclave. It might also presage a later Turkish move against the Afrin enclave, though at present this is unlikely because of the US alliance with the Kurds, and also because of the presence of a small Russian military presence inside Afrin.

The centrality of the anti-Kurdish agenda in Turkey’s planning illustrates the extent to which the Turks have now conclusively abandoned any notion of “regime change” in Syria.

Assad is clearly here to stay, in Ankara’s view. Any move into Idlib would be conducted in full cooperation with the regime’s Russian patrons, and probably with Russian air support.

For this reason, while a Turkish move into Idlib would be an ostensibly pro-rebel move, many exiled Syrian supporters of the rebellion in Turkey are unenthusiastic about it. They see the move, correctly, as solidifying Turkish cooperation with Russia, which the rebels regard as the main enemy of their cause. Russia, after all, is the factor that turned the tide of the Syrian war.

Its entry in September 2015 was in response to a period of rebel advances. The Russian intervention reversed the rebel advance and enabled the ascendance of the regime side.

Turkish cooperation with Russia in Idlib offers further grim confirmation for the rebels of the failure of their cause. For many rebel supporters, also, HTS fighters are considered comrades in arms, albeit extremist ones. The notion of Turkey acting against them, even partially and symbolically, with Russian cooperation, is a hard morsel to swallow. Nevertheless, the Turkish move indicates that Erdogan still sees himself as the patron and ally of the rebels, and that he evidently does not intend simply to abandon them to the mercies of the Assad regime.

The Turkish move could not, of course, take place without Russian permission, since Russia controls the skies of northern Syria. This indicates that, for now at least, Russia is content to see Syria continue to be divided into zones of influence, with the concerns of bodies other than the Assad regime being taken into account. From an Israeli point of view, given Israel’s concerns to prevent Iranian and Hezbollah encroachment in southwest Syria toward the Golan Heights, this may be an encouraging sign.

However, it should be borne in mind that, for the moment, the focus of Russia, Iran and the regime is in eastern Syria, where the fight against Islamic State is still under way.

Russia wants to grab as much of the oil and gas assets of Deir al-Zor province as it can, before the US-supported SDF does.

Iran, meanwhile, is engaged in seeking to secure its contiguous corridor between the Iraqi border and the Mediterranean.

Once the war against Islamic State is complete, the issue of arrangements further west will come back onto the agenda.

At that point, the current zones of influence may once again become a subject for discussion.

For now, Turkey is mainly concerned with the urgent matter of seeking to box in and strike at the Kurds. It is in this context that the apparently impending move on Idlib province needs to be understood. Final arrangements in northern Syria remain to be decided.

Iraq launches Kirkuk operation as Kurdish fighters mobilize

KIRKUK, Iraq (AFP) — The Iraqi army launched an operation to retake Kurdish-held positions around the disputed oil city of Kirkuk on Friday amid a bitter row with the Kurds over a vote for independence last month.

A senior Kurdish official said thousands of heavily armed fighters had been deployed to resist the offensive “at any cost” and called for international intervention with the federal government in Baghdad to prevent the confrontation worsening.

The Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga have been key allies of the US-led coalition in its fight against the Islamic State group and the threat of armed clashes between them poses a major challenge for Western governments.

Ethnically divided but historically Kurdish-majority Kirkuk is one of several regions that peshmerga fighters took over from the Iraqi army in 2014 when the jihadists swept through much of northern and western Iraq.

But Baghdad is bitterly opposed to Kurdish ambitions to incorporate the oil-rich province in its autonomous region in the north and has voiced a determination to take it back.

“Iraqi armed forces are advancing to retake the military positions that were taken over during the events of June 2014,” the general told AFP by telephone, asking not to be identified.

He said that federal troops had already taken one base west of Kirkuk on Friday morning after peshmerga fighters withdrew during the night without a fight.

‘Defend at any cost’

But a top aide to Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani vowed that peshmerga forces would defend their positions.

“Thousands of heavily armed peshmerga units are now completely in their positions around Kirkuk,” Hemin Hawrami said.

“Their order is to defend at any cost.”

The orders came after the Kurdish authorities accused the Iraqi government of massing forces in readiness for an offensive to seize Kurdish-held oil fields in the province.

They accused the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) — paramilitary units dominated by Iran-trained Shiite militia — of massing fighters in two mainly Shiite Turkmen areas south of Kirkuk.

Hawrami urged the international community to intervene and call on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “order PMF to pull back if he can or if they listen to him.”

“No escalation from our side. Just defend and roll them back if they attack,” the senior Barzani adviser said.

The surge in tensions comes two weeks after Kurdish voters overwhelmingly backed independence in a non-binding referendum that the federal government condemned as illegal.

Polling was held in the three provinces that have long formed an autonomous Kurdish region as well as several other Kurdish-held areas, including Kirkuk.

Baghdad continues to reject decades-old Kurdish ambitions to incorporate the city and other historically Kurdish-majority areas in their autonomous region.

The Kurdistan Regional Security Council (KRSC) said that the Iraqi army and the PMF had been deploying tanks and heavy artillery to Bashir and Taza Khurmatu.

“These forces are approximately three kilometers (two miles) from peshmerga frontline positions,” it said.

“Intelligence shows intention to take over nearby oil fields, airport and military base,” it added.

Kirkuk province is the location of northern Iraq’s main oil fields and, even though far more crude is now pumped from the south, it is bitterly disputed between Baghdad and the Kurds.

On Thursday, Kurdish peshmerga closed the two main roads from Iraq’s second city Mosul to the Kurdish cities of Arbil and Dohuk for several hours for fear of an attack in that area.

Abadi denied any attention of ordering an assault on his own people but the Kurds were unconvinced and accused the army’s militia allies of trying to provoke a confrontation.

“We call on the Iraqi government to stop the PMF aggression in Kirkuk and north Mosul,” the KRSC said. “Kurdistan continues calling for dialogue and peaceful means to settle differences.”

The federal government severed ties between the Kurdish autonomous region and the outside world after the independence referendum by cutting international air links.

Neighboring Turkey and Iran, which fear that Iraqi Kurdish moves towards independence could fuel demands from their own sizable Kurdish communities, have also threatened to close their borders to oil exports.