US Has ‘Four or Five’ Syrians Left Fighting Against ISIS

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 16:  Gen. Lloyd Austin III (R), commander of U.S. Central Command, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the ongoing U.S. military operations to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 16, 2015 in Washington, DC. Austin said that slow progress was still being made against ISIL but there have been setbacks, including the ambush of U.S.-trained fighters in Syria and the buildup of Russian forces in the country.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Gen. Austin Admits Training ‘Behind Schedule’

Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee today, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of Centcom, admitted that the pro-US Syrian rebel faction, dubbed the New Syrian Force (NSF) in most official contexts, is virtually gone now, with virtually everybody either killed or having fled.

syriaWhat was initially envisioned as a force of tens of thousands of anti-ISIS fighters amounted to only 54 to start with, and Gen. Austin told Congress today that they are down to “four or five” fighters still active in the field. Needless to say, it’s not going well.

Austin went on to say that the next two classes of NSF fighters are still being trained, though that training too is falling behind schedule. The indications are that these classes aren’t much bigger, 100-120 fighters all told. The pared-back goal of 5,000 fighters is likely still years off.

The general went on to say that they are “reviewing” the program, though since the Pentagon has repeatedly talked up the NSF as the end-all, be-all plan for victory in Syria, and has harshly resisted efforts to change the process, which they’ve invested tens of millions of dollars into for tens of fighters.

by Jason Ditz

War Against Isis: US Strategy in Tatters as Militants March on

American-led air attacks are failing. Jihadis are close to taking Kobani, in Syria – and in Iraq western Baghdad is now under serious threat

In Raqqa, ISIL governs with fear and efficiency

BEIRUT // In the cities and towns across north-east Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has insinuated itself into nearly every aspect of daily life.

The group known for its beheadings, crucifixions and mass executionsprovides electricity and water, pays salaries, controls traffic, and runs nearly everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques.

While its merciless battlefield tactics and its imposition of its austere vision of Islamic law have won the group headlines, residents say much of its power lies in its efficient and often deeply pragmatic ability to govern.

Syria’s eastern province of Raqqa provides the best illustration of their methods. Members hold up the province as an example of life under the Islamic “caliphate” they hope will one day stretch from China to Europe.

syriaIn the provincial capital, a dust-blown city that was home to about a quarter of a million people before Syria’s three-year-old war began, the group leaves almost no institution or public service outside of its control.

“Let us be honest, they are doing massive institutional work. It is impressive,” one activist from Raqqa who now lives in a border town in Turkey said.

In interviews conducted remotely, residents, ISIL fighters and even activists opposed to the group described how it had built up a structure similar to a modern government in less than a year under its chief, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

The group’s progress has alarmed regional and Western powers – the UAE on Wednesday called on a clear strategy from the international coumminty to fight ISIL, saying the group “aims to kill, terrorise and displace civilians, ransack property, and demolish historic and religious sites”.

The fight against ISIL will take a group effort as it has embedded itself so thoroughly into the fabric of life in places like Raqqa that it will be all but impossible for US aircraft – let alone Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish troops – to uproot them through force alone.

Last year, Raqqa became the first city to fall to the rebels fighting to overthrow Bashar Al Assad. They called it the “Bride of the Revolution”.

A variety of rebel groups ranging from hardline Islamists to religious moderates held sway in the city, although Islamists clearly dominated. Within a year, ISIL had clawed its way into control, mercilessly eliminating rival insurgents.

Activists critical of the group were killed, disappeared, or escaped to Turkey. Alcohol was banned. Shops closed by afternoon and streets were empty by nightfall. Communication with the outside world, including nearby cities and towns, was allowed only through the ISIL media centre.

Those rebels and activists who stayed largely “repented”, a process through which they pledge loyalty to Al Baghdadi and are forgiven for their “sins” against the ISIL, and either kept to their homes or joined the group’s ranks.

But after the initial crackdown, the group began setting up services and institutions – stating clearly that it intended to stay and use the area as a base.

“We are a state,” one commander in the province said. “Things are great here because we are ruling based on God’s law.”

Some Sunnis who worked for Mr Al Assad’s government stayed on after they pledged allegiance to the group.

“The civilians who do not have any political affiliations have adjusted to the presence of ISIL, because people got tired and exhausted, and also, to be honest, because they are doing institutional work in Raqqa,” a Raqqa resident opposed to ISIL said.

Since then, the group “has restored and restructured all the institutions that are related to services,” including a consumer protection office and the civil judiciary, the resident said.

In the past month alone, ISIL fighters have broadcast images of themselvesbeheading US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff as well as captive Kurdish and Lebanese soldiers, and machine-gunning scores of Syrian prisoners wearing nothing but their underwear.

But the group’s use of violence has not been entirely indiscriminate. The group has often traded with businessmen loyal to Mr Al Assad when it has suited its interests, for instance.

According to one fighter, a former Assad employee is now in charge of mills and distributing flour to bakeries in Raqqa. Employees at the Raqqa dam, which provides the city with electricity and water, have remained in their posts.

The group’s willingness to use former Assad employees displays a pragmatism residents and activists say has been vital to its success holding onto territory it has captured.

They have been helped by experts who have come from countries including in North Africa and Europe. The man Al Baghdadi appointed to run and develop Raqqa’s telecoms, for instance, is a Tunisian with a doctorate in the subject who left Tunisia to join the group.

Reflecting ISIL’s assertion that it is a government – rather than simply a militant group that happens to govern – Al Baghdadi has also separated military operations from civilian administration, assigning fighters only as police and soldiers.

Instead, Al Baghdadi has appointed civilian deputies called walis, an Islamic term describing an official similar to a minister, to manage institutions and develop their sectors.

Administrative regions are divided into waliyehs, or provinces, which sometimes align with existing divisions but, as with the case of the recently established Al Furat province, can span national boundaries.

Fighters and employees receive a salary from a department called the Muslim Financial House, which is something like a finance ministry and a bank that aims to reduce poverty.

Fighters receive housing, including in homes confiscated from non-Sunnis or from government employees who fled the area, as well as about US$400 (Dh1,470) to $600 per month, enough to pay for a basic lifestyle.

One fighter said poor families were given money. A widow may receive $100 for herself and for each child she has.

Prices are also kept low. Traders who manipulate prices are punished, warned and shut down if they are caught again.

The group has also imposed Islamic taxes on wealthy traders and families.

“We are only implementing Islam, zakat is an Islamic tax imposed by God,” said a militant in Raqqa.

Analysts estimate that ISIL also raises tens of millions of dollars by selling oil from the fields it controls in Syria and Iraq to Turkish and Iraqi businessmen and by collecting ransoms for hostages it has taken.

By Mariam Karouny

Syrian Rebel Attack Backfires

Syrian rebels cut off water to Aleppo in botched attack on regime areas and manage to create shortage in their own strongholds

In a botched attempt to stop drinking water reaching government-held districts of Aleppo, rebels managed to cut off water supplies to large parts of the city in northern Syria including their own strongholds. Women and children are being forced to queue up with cooking pots, kettles and plastic bottles to get water from the fountains of mosques and wells that may be contaminated.

The water shortage started 10 days ago when the rebels, who control the two main pumping stations, tried to keep water flowing to their areas in east Aleppo, but stop it reaching the government-held west of the city. Describing the action as “a crime”, Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups were responsible for the water shortage.

syriaPeople in both halves of the divided city have been forced to rely on ancient wells and fountains. In west Aleppo the Red Crescent and government agencies have provided some water but say it is not safe to drink over an extended period. Some trucks used for taking away waste water from houses are now selling drinking water likely to be contaminated. Fights have broken out in queues when members of local defence committees and officials have demanded they be given priority. Aleppo used to have a population of 2.5 million though at least one million have fled fighting.

A member of the Aleppo Water Department told the Beirut paper al-Akhbar that the Sharia Authority, which unites the rebel movements, controls a crucial pumping station in the Suleiman al-Halabi region. He said that there is a “danger of insurgents pumping water only to the neighbourhoods that they control as it might lead to the collapse of the integrated water system”.

Even before the recent cut-off of supplies, the water system of Aleppo depended on a degree of grudging co-operation between government and opposition mediated by the Red Crescent. The pumping station depends on deliveries of diesel to fuel a generator.

Water has become very expensive in a city where it used to be free. It is the latest disaster to befall Aleppo which, since 2012, has been divided in two. The government has been dropping barrel bombs packed with explosives on rebel districts causing heavy casualties and a further exodus of the population. The rebels have been firing mortars randomly into government areas.

Unlike in central and southern Syria, the rebels are holding their own in Aleppo where they recently launched an offensive which government forces had difficulty in repelling. Last week the Islamic Front detonated explosives at the end of a 400yd-long tunnel under the Carlton Citadel Hotel killing many government soldiers.

The forces of the opposition are dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qa’ida type groups. Their civil war with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) is mostly being fought further east along the Euphrates Valley with 100,00o people being forced to flee their homes in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in recent days. The Syrian Observatory says that battles between Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis killed 230 fighters in the last 10 days.

The rebels are concentrating their efforts on Aleppo after the final loss of Homs Old City last week when 1,200 rebel fighters were evacuated on buses. Though the government has long been in control of most of Homs, the evacuation marks a serious symbolic defeat for the opposition since the city has been at the centre of media attention. Only the Waer district in the north-west of Homs now remains under partial rebel control, but is sealed off by government checkpoints.

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