Category Archives: Syria

ISIS destroys ancient Catholic monastery in Syria

ISIS militant standing at the bulldozed site of Mar Elian monastery in Al-Qaryatain in central Syria.

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants have destroyed an ancient monastery in the central Syrian province of Homs, according to a monitor and pictures published by the jihadist group.

“ISIS group yesterday used bulldozers to destroy the Mar Elian monastery in Al-Qaryatain, in Homs province,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

He said the militants demolished the Syriac Catholic monastery “on the pretext that it was used for worshipping others than God.”

Photographs posted online by ISIS showed militants bulldozing parts of the monastery, although they did not appear to have completely destroyed the building with explosives as they have done with shrines and other religious buildings elsewhere.

ISIS seized Al-Qaryatain on August 5, kidnapping at least 230 people, including dozens of Christians.

The town lies at the crossroads between ISIS territory in the eastern countryside of Homs and points further west in the Qalamun area bordering Lebanon.

The Observatory said that ISIS had released 48 of those it took captive when it overran the town, and had transferred another 110 to its stronghold of Raqa province.

The fate of the other 70 hostages was unclear.

The Mar Elian monastery dates back to the fifth century and is named for a Christian from Homs province who was martyred for refusing to renounce his faith.

It is attached to a famous church of the same name, but it was unclear if that too had been damaged by ISIS.

In May, Syrian priest Jacques Mourad was abducted from the monastery by masked men as he prepared to receive residents of nearby Palmyra fleeing an ISIS advance.

Intolerant of any religious practice other than its own interpretation of Islam, ISIS has regularly destroyed religious buildings and icons in territory under their control.

They have also targeted statues, which they consider idolatrous, and grave markers, including those of Muslims.

Islamic State beheads archaeologist, hangs up body in Palmyra, Syria

ReutersDAMASCUS- Islamic State (IS) militants beheaded an antiquities scholar in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and hung his body on a column in a main square of the historic site, Syria’s antiquities chief said on Tuesday.

Syrian state antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said the family of Khaled Asaad had informed him that the 82-year-old scholar who worked for over 50 years as head of antiquities in Palmyra was executed by Islamic State on Tuesday.

Asaad had been detained and interrogated for over a month by the ultra-radical Sunni Muslim militants, he told Reuters.

“Just imagine that such a scholar who gave such memorable services to the place and to history would be beheaded … and his corpse still hanging from one of the ancient columns in the centre of a square in Palmyra,” Abdulkarim said. “The continued presence of these criminals in this city is a curse and bad omen on (Palmyra) and every column and every archaeological piece in it.”

Testing Confirms ISIS Used Mustard Gas in Syria

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By Elad Benari

The United States government has test results from an Islamic State (ISIS) attack in Hasakah, Syria, from two weeks ago that confirm the terror group used a mustard agent as a weapon, intelligence and military officials told CNN over the weekend.

The U.S. is continuing to investigate an attack this week in northern Iraq that also has indications of a similar chemical agent being used, the network reported.

Officials stress the amount of chemical agent is thought to be small and the concentration low. But it is yet another sign that ISIS is in possession of mustard agent and is using it in battle.

The U.S. is still investigating the amount and sophistication of how the agent was delivered.

One official told CNN the mustard agent used in Syria is more likely precursor chemicals, rather than a complex munition, a sign this did not come from a cache of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad but was probably mixed by ISIS on its own, using agents or precursor chemicals it obtained.

Precursors are chemicals involved in production stages for toxic chemicals, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The officials would not disclose what type of sample was collected.

Samples are also coming in from an attack earlier this week near the town of Makhmour in northern Iraq, a U.S. official said.

ISIS jihadists carried out that attack using mortar shells carrying a chemical agent Kurdish fighters had not encountered before, the Peshmerga field commander for Makhmour, Brig. Gen. Sirwan Barzani, told CNN.

Barzani said the coalition official who originally took samples from his men of the chemical substance they were exposed to has called him back to say the samples have been tested and show mustard, but U.S. officials said the samples from Makhmour are still on the way and nothing has been concluded.

So far, only the incident in Hasakah is confirmed to be mustard agent, according to CNN.

U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Pat Ryder said “we don’t know what, if anything, may have been used” in northern Iraq.

Information regarding the use of mustard gas by ISIS is relatively new. U.S. intelligence agencies have said in the past they believed the group has used chlorine gas in attacks in Iraq, though chlorine is not a banned chemical agent.

US trained Syria rebels refuse to fight al-Qaeda

Rebel fighter jumps through a fire loop as he demonstrates his skill during a military display as part of a graduation ceremony at a camp in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria. (Reuters)

Al Arabiya News //A group of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels have declared their refusal to fight al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country, the Nusra Front, following a series of kidnappings by the militant group, The Guardian reported on Thursday.

Citing a source in Division 30, a group believed to have been trained by U.S.-backed forces, the British newspaper said the rebels also oppose U.S. airstrikes against al-Nusra Front.

In late July, al-Nusra Front vowed to cut off “the arms” of the American government in Syria when they attacked headquarters of Division 30, killing at least five fighters.

Al-Nusra Front detained the rebel group’s commander Col. Nadim al-Hassan along with six others last week.

Meanwhile, al-Nusra Front continued its campaign against the U.S.-backed rebel unit this week, with the UK-based monitoring network, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, saying al-Qaeda’s affiliate kidnapped five more members of Division 30.

A source in the U.S.-backed group said those captured were families of the fighters.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon also said members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who went through the new U.S. training program to fight Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants have been captured by al-Nusra Front.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the military is monitoring the situation but details are sketchy.

Obama BFF Turkey caught playing with ISIS

Turkish air strikes in Syria last week signalled a new phase in a conflict that has left its bloody mark on every country in the region. But will the Turks now agree to US demands to cease all clandestine dealings with Islamic State?
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Demonstrators march with a poster showing the faces of victims of the July 22 suicide bomb attack Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

When US special forces raided the compound of an Islamic State leader in eastern Syria in May, they made sure not to tell the neighbours.

The target of that raid, the first of its kind since US jets returned to the skies over Iraq last August, was an Isis official responsible for oil smuggling, named Abu Sayyaf. He was almost unheard of outside the upper echelons of the terror group, but he was well known to Turkey. From mid-2013, the Tunisian fighter had been responsible for smuggling oil from Syria’s eastern fields, which the group had by then commandeered. Black market oil quickly became the main driver of Isis revenues – and Turkish buyers were its main clients.

As a result, the oil trade between the jihadis and the Turks was held up as evidence of an alliance between the two. It led to protests from Washington and Europe – both already wary of Turkey’s 900-mile border with Syria being used as a gateway by would-be jihadis from around the world.

The estimated $1m-$4m per day in oil revenues that was thought to have flowed into Isis coffers over at least six months from late 2013 helped to transform an ambitious force with limited means into a juggernaut that has been steadily drawing western forces back to the region and increasingly testing state borders.

Across the region, violence has been spreading across borders, scattering huge numbers of refugees and contributing to the turmoil in neighbouring regimes. Few countries – from Turkey to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel – remain unscathed by the tide of chaos spreading out from Syria.

Despite one year of air strikes aimed at crippling the group’s spread, Isis remains entrenched in northern and eastern Syria, in control of much of western Iraq and camped on Lebanon’s eastern border. Its offshoots are gathering steam in north Africa and now, more than at any time since the latest incarnation of Isis emerged, its leaders claim to be positioning the group for strikes well outside the territory that it now controls.

In the wake of the raid that killed Abu Sayyaf, suspicions of an undeclared alliance have hardened. One senior western official familiar with the intelligence gathered at the slain leader’s compound said that direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking Isis members was now “undeniable”.

“There are hundreds of flash drives and documents that were seized there,” the official told the Observer. “They are being analysed at the moment, but the links are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.”

On Thursday, nearly one year into the US-led air campaign against Isis, Turkey dropped its opposition to entering the fray, dispatching fighter jets to its border from where they fired rockets at Isis targets just inside Syria. The attacks were a response to a suicide bombing in the southern province of Suruc, which killed 32 people, and an earlier cross-border attack that killed a Turkish soldier.

The attacks were the first to be blamed on Isis and led to a strong backlash among some sections of Turkish society, where unease at Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s stance towards the insurgency was already running high. Turkey also said it would allow its Incirlik air base to be used as a staging point for attacks against Isis – backing down from its earlier insistence that some form of safe haven first be established inside Syria, in which refugees and mainstream opposition fighters could safely move.

Throughout much of the chaos that has enveloped Syria, which started as an insurrection against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and has been partly subsumed by the Isis brand of global jihad, Erdogan has insisted that the Syrian leader’s crackdown has been a rallying call for the jihadis and must be dealt with before Isis can be countered.

However, Turkey has openly supported other jihadi groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, which espouses much of al-Qaida’s ideology, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is proscribed as a terror organisation by much of the US and Europe. “The distinctions they draw [with other opposition groups] are thin indeed,” said the western official. “There is no doubt at all that they militarily cooperate with both.”

European officials have regularly said they have gained no traction trying to raise either organisation with Ankara and have long been warned off trying. Isis, though, has gradually been recognised as a force that can no longer be contained or managed. “We can talk about them now,” said a European official in Ankara. “As long as we describe them as ‘those who abuse religion’.

“This isn’t an overhaul of their thinking. It’s more a reaction to what they’ve been confronted with by the Americans and others. There is at least a recognition now that Isis isn’t leverage against Assad. They have to be dealt with.”

As Turkey wrestles with a new posture, Isis is entrenched along a swath of its southern border extending from its main border crossing with Syria at Killis to Hasakah in eastern Syria. Isis has reinforced its arc in the area in an attempt to safeguard the gateway to its self-declared caliphate, which remains its only viable supply line of people and merchandise.

The oil-smuggling operation run by Abu Sayyaf has been cut drastically, although tankers carrying crude drawn from makeshift refineries still make it to the border. One Isis member says the organisation remains a long way from establishing a self-sustaining economy across the area of Syria and Iraq it controls. “They need the Turks. I know of a lot of cooperation and it scares me,” he said. “I don’t see how Turkey can attack the organisation too hard. There are shared interests.”

The Isis member said the US-led air campaign had done almost nothing to change the extent of the group’s reach, which still includes most of eastern Syria and western Iraq, where Iraq’s security forces, led by Shia militia groups, have been unable to claw back losses since the fall of Ramadi in May.

On the Syrian-Lebanese border, however, the farthest west that Isis operates, a protracted battle with Hezbollah and Syrian troops is gradually tipping in favour of the Shia militant group. Hezbollah has led the push against Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, who have been entrenched in the town of Zabadani, west of Damascus – a fight well inside Syria, which it says is necessary to protect Lebanon’s porous border.

“We are at a phase in this war where things that have been in the shadows for a long time are now being exposed to daylight,” said the western official. “Hezbollah is dominant in the west of Syria, and the Turkish role, however you wish to define it, is also becoming clearer. This is an important time for them. Will they now see Isis as a threat to their own sovereignty? Assad played with Isis and lost. The Turks will, too. A lot of damage has been done from this.”

US and Turkey to create ISIS free buffer zone in Syria

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News Agencies//The United States and Turkey are finalizing plans for a military campaign to push the Islamic State out of a strip of land along the Turkey-Syria border, deepening efforts to halt the extremists’ advances.

A US official says the “Islamic State-free zone” aims to ensure greater security and stability along the border. However, the official says any joint military efforts with Turkey would not include the imposition of a no-fly zone.

Smoke rises from the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria near the Turkish border. (Photo: Reuters)
Smoke rises from the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria near the Turkish border. (Photo: Reuters)

Turkey has been pushing the US to set up a no-fly zone, though Washington has long denied those requests. Turkey did agree last week to let the US launch strikes against the Islamic State from one of its bases. The official insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the talks with Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish YPG militia on Monday captured a town from Islamic State fighters in northern Syria after a month-long offensive against the ultra hard-line militants in the area to cut their supply lines, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Observatory said the town near the Euphrates River was a launch pad for Islamic State to wage raids on the Kurdish-held town of Kobani further north at the border with Turkey. US-led air strikes assisted the Kurds in the assault, said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory.

Conflicting Strategy

Turkish troops however, shelled positions held by the Kurdish fighters who were battling the Islamic State group with the aid of the US, Syria’s main Kurdish militia and an activist group said Monday.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, said the Sunday night shelling on the border village of Til Findire targeted one of their vehicles. It said Til Findire is east of the border town of Kobani, where the Kurds handed a major defeat to the Islamic State group earlier this year.

A Turkish airstrike against ISIS positions.
A Turkish airstrike against ISIS positions.

In cross-border strikes since Friday, Turkey has targeted both Kurdish fighters as well as ISIS, stepping up its involvement in Syria’s increasingly complex civil war. The Syrian Kurds are among the most effective ground forces battling ISIS group, but Turkey fears they could revive an insurgency against Ankara in pursuit of an independent state.

A Turkish official said Turkish forces are only targeting Islamic State forces in Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in neighboring Iraq. The official said the “ongoing military operation seeks to neutralize imminent threats to Turkey’s national security and continues to target ISIS in Syria and the PKK in Iraq.”

“The PYD, along with others, remains outside the scope of the current military effort,” the official said, referring to the political arm of the YPG. The official added that authorities were “investigating claims that the Turkish military engaged positions held by forces other than ISIS.”

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of rules that bar officials from speaking to journalists without authorization. The YPG did not say in its Monday statement whether there were casualties in the shelling.