13 March 2015

Modi's Trip and China’s Islands: The Battle for the Indian Ocean

By Darshana M. Baruah
March 11, 2015

With his Indian Ocean tour, the PM aims to counter Chinese influence among small island nations. 

As China continues to draw attention to the South China Sea with its land reclamation and creation of artificial islands, it is also important to look at Chinese activities in the not-so-contentious but strategically important Indian Ocean Region. Beijing, with the help of economic and commercial initiatives, is mapping out a web of influence by increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean. As I argued in a previous article published by The Diplomat, access to and control of the islands in the Indian Ocean is crucial for Beijing to secure its strategic interests in the region.

There are two reasons for China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean. First, some of these islands — such as Kyaukpyu — can prove to be China’s answer to its Malacca Dilemma, strengthening its energy security by reducing its dependence on the Strait of Malacca. Second, an increasing presence in the Indian Ocean is crucial in strengthening Beijing’s role as a key actor in the emerging security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. There is no doubt that China aspires to be a maritime power. Beijing realizes that to be considered as a great power, it must have a role and stake beyond its region — beyond the Western Pacific and throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Having attained a favorable status quo in the Western Pacific, China is now engaging with the island nations of the Indian Ocean through its investments and commercial initiatives. It is through its relationship and investments with these nations that Beijing aims to project itself as a resident power of the Indian Ocean, leading to a greater security role throughout the Indo-Pacific. However, unlike in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean is already home to many resident middle powers, wary of China’s unilateral and hostile maritime policies. As a result, the possibility of increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is leading to competition for geostrategic space, especially between India and China. This article looks at the island nations of Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles, against the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian Ocean tour.


How Much Does India ReallyNeed Iran?

By Jack Detsch
March 11, 2015

India has ceded to U.S. demands to reduce oil ties with Iran until an agreement is reached. Can they afford to do it? 

When Barack Obama traveled to India in January, his hosts put on a show. Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave Obama a ceremonial welcome at the Rashtrapathi Bhawan, the presidential palace, rolling out a red carpet flanked on both sides by well-disciplined soldiers, before treating him to a state dinner of mustard fish curry, gushtaba, and achari paneer. Performers dressed in traditional garb regaled the president and First Lady Michelle Obama with classic Indian dance and a musical number called “Yes We Can,” a homage to Obama’s campaign trail refrain.

While Obama and Modi discussed and publicized their views on several global issues during that visit, they remained relatively muted on one particular country: Iran, which provided 6 percent of India’s oil in 2013. That figure jumped by 40 percent last year, owing to reduced pressure from sanctions under an interim nuclear agreement reached in November 2013. Delhi has asked domestic refiners to make cutbacks to oil imports until negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (which includes the U.S., U.K., Russia, China, France, and Germany), can hash out a deal in Geneva. They’ve set a new deadline of June 30, 2015. The interim deal warns Iran’s oil customers to hold imports at 2013 levels – or face sanctions. The U.S.-India joint statement issued after Obama’s New Delhi visit included a perfunctory call for Iran to “assure the international community of the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme.”

New Delhi has made considerable headway in that effort. In February, India slashed oil imports from Iran to the lowest levels since July 2013, receiving just a tick over 100,000 barrels for the month. That was aided by thedecision of one leading petroleum company, Essar Oil, to reduce imports by nearly 40 percent in January.

Main CIA-Backed Syrian Rebel Group Has Collapsed And Given Its Weapons to Al Qaeda Affiliate in Syria

Patrick J. McDonnell, Nabih Bulos and W.J. Hennigan 
March 11, 2015 

Fall of U.S.-backed Syrian group casts doubt on plan to arm moderates 

The social media post features an odd incarnation of war booty: plundered sacks of dried lentils, humanitarian aid turned spoils of a punishing conflict. 

"For the Syrian people from the United States of America," reads a label superimposed on a stylized Stars and Stripes. 

The lentils — along with piles of weapons also shipped to Syria, including U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles — are apparently in the hands of an implacable foe: Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria. 

In recent days, Al Nusra and its adherents have gleefully uploaded images of foodstuffs and weapons purportedly captured after the group’s forces commandeered the former bastion of a U.S.-backed rebel faction known as Harakat Hazm, or Resolve Movement. 

"The lions of the Nusra [Front] found American lentils in the Hazm Movement’s headquarters," Mohammad Amin, an Al Nusra supporter, declared triumphantly in a Twitter message. "Is there any doubt left of [Harakat Hazm’s] apostasy?" 

It wasn’t the first time that weapons and other goods meant for a U.S. proxy force in Syria ended up in the hands of Al Nusra militants, but that has not stopped the Obama administration from doubling down on its strategy: The Pentagon has unveiled a new plan to vet and train about 15,000 Syrians rebels — dubbed moderates by U.S. officials — in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 


by RC Porter 
March 11, 2015

[1]Since 9/11, Washington has considered al Qaeda the greatest threat to the United States, one that must be eliminated regardless of cost or time. After Washington killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, it made Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s new leader, its next number one target. But the instability in the Middle East following the Arab revolutions and the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) require that Washington rethink its policy toward al Qaeda, particularly its targeting of Zawahiri. Destabilizing al Qaeda at this time may in fact work against U.S. efforts to defeat ISIS.

There is no doubt that relentless U.S. strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan weakened al Qaeda by taking out the group’s central command and making it extremely difficult for it to plot attacks in the West. Pulverizing al Qaeda central also exacerbated difficulties it was already having in communicating with and supervising its various outposts. As a result, these branches either diverged from the parent organization’s strategy by fighting local regimes or overreached by targeting Muslim civilians, particularly Shiites. For example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, formerly the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, carried out an unapproved attack in November 2005 that killed numerous civilians in Amman, which was also outside his area of responsibility. These distractions prevented the various branches from contributing much to al Qaeda’s overarching goal of fighting the West, or the “far enemy.” With the exception of its Yemeni subsidiary, al Qaeda’s franchises were largely limited to targeting the “near enemy” in their designated zones. And so, notwithstanding their contribution to the spread of al-Qaeda, its franchises were more of a liability than an asset to the brand name.

Suicide Bomber Kills 7 in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

March 10, 2015

Suicide car bomber kills seven, wounds 28 in southern Afghanistan 

LASKHAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Seven people were killed and 28 others including five police were wounded on Tuesday when a suicide bomber blew himself up in his car outside the capital of Helmand in southern Afghanistan, a provincial official said.

Deputy governor Mohammad Jan Rasoulyar told Reuters the attack happened at a checkpoint set up by police on the outskirts of the capital city Lashkar Gah after they received intelligence of an impending attack.

"The suicide bomber blew himself up in his car among other civilians waiting to get searched," Rasoulyar said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Afghan security forces have been struggling to defeat the insurgency as most U.S. and foreign troops withdrew at the end of last year.

Helmand saw some of the heaviest fighting between security forces and Taliban insurgents in 2014, with Afghan army and police suffering the country’s highest number of casualties in their bid to prevent the militants from taking over key districts.

Opening up, Myanmar finds itself in a tough balancing act

Dan Steinbock
11 March, 2015

Dan Steinbock says local needs must be met amid web of foreign interests

Myanmese students protesting against a controversial education bill clashed with police this week, resulting in injuries and arrests. Photo: Reuters

Six months before critical elections, tensions are mounting in Myanmar, at its borders and affecting great power relations. Recently, hundreds of Myanmese students protesting against a controversial education bill have been locked in a stand-off with security forces. Washington has expressed concern about the violence used against protesters.

Meanwhile, thousands of refugees have entered Yunnan following clashes between Myanmar's army and local communists. As a result, China has asked Myanmar to "lower the temperature" on the border.

The friction comes ahead of the general election, scheduled for late October or early November. Economically, Myanmar is experiencing rapid growth even though in the fiscal year 2014-15, growth in gross domestic product is expected to decelerate slightly, to 7.8 per cent, due to slower growth in the agricultural sector.

Meanwhile, foreign direct investment is expected to rise substantially above the US$4.11 billion figure for the previous year. The largest investors are businesses from Singapore, Hong Kong, Britain and China.

Over the medium term, the outlook for Southeast Asia's last tiger economy remains favourable, with long-term growth potential estimated at 7 per cent. Still, with increasing spending and attendant inflation pressures, near-term downside risks have increased.

From the US to the European Union, Myanmar is seen as a fascinating story of economic growth and human rights. After years of diplomatic isolation, economic and military sanctions, Washington relaxed curbs on foreign aid and relations were normalised in 2011. As the EU followed, Japan agreed to cancel US$2.7 billion in debt and pledged millions more in aid. Tokyo has also won the contract to modernise Yangon's crumbling urban transit system.

Of late, Washington has also expressed concern about human rights, intimidation of journalists and violence against the Rohingya Muslims.

China's Plan for Winning the Currency Wars

The currency wars are still rumbling on. Today, Thailand became at least the 21st country to cut interest rates so far this year, as everyone tries to make their currency cheaper than everyone else's. The Federal Reserve still seems on track to raise rates in June, turbocharging the dollar. But there's more than one way to win a battle. You can inflict increasing damage on your opponent, which is what most of the world is doing to the U.S. Or you can gain territory -- which is what China is doing as its currency steals more and more of the global market.

The U.S. dollar's continuing ascent against almost every other currency in the world is capturing all of the attention in the foreign exchange markets. It's on such a tear that even the stock market finally started paying attention yesterday, with the S&P 500 index having its worst day in two months. For U.S. companies, the greenback's 12-year high against the euro and 20 percent gain against the currencies of its biggest trading partners in the past year threatens to trash exports and crimp overseas earnings. "A stronger dollar is undoubtedly a headwind for U.S. exports right now, and it’s a headwind for overall GDP growth," Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said yesterday.

China Sentences 2 Men to Lengthy Prison Terms for Selling Hundreds of Photos of China’s New Aircraft Carrier to Spies

March 10, 2015

China jails two for selling military secrets, including details of aircraft carrier

(Reuters) - China has jailed two men for selling military secrets, including hundreds of photos of the country’s lone aircraft carrier, to foreign spies, state media reported on Friday, without saying which countries were buying them.

The state-controlled Dalian Daily said foreign intelligence services paid the men to send thousands of photos of military targets and projects, as well as recordings and other information.

Both were young, “ordinary workers” who used their access to military bases in Dalian, in the northeast, the paper said. One of the men, surnamed Han, was lured by a person posing as a journalist on a popular mobile chat application.

"The enemy hidden on the front lines has shown itself. In recent years foreign spies have used the internet as a battlefield for inciting rebellion within the enemy camp, and some young internet users have become the targets," the paper said. "The methods of the enemy may be cunning, but actually it is completely possible to guard against them."

The other, a 23-year-old surnamed Zhang, traveled to an air show in Beijing last summer and took hundreds of photographs of the Liaoning aircraft carrier. He also collected materials there at the behest of a foreign intelligence operative, the paper said.

They were eventually caught by public security authorities. Han was sentenced to 8 years in prison on January 29 and Zhang was sentenced to six years on February 12, the paper said.

China’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to a request for comment.

In a similar case in November, a man was arrested for taking photos of an aircraft carrier base in the coastal city of Qingdao and selling them to a foreigner.

Chinese Official: Uyghurs Joining Islamic State

March 12, 2015

Xinjiang’s party secretary tells reporters some Uyghurs have joined Islamic State, raising security concerns. 

Xinjiang’s Party secretary told journalists on Tuesday that the Islamic State (IS) is successfully recruiting Uyghurs to join its ranks. Secretary Zhang Chunxian made the remarks in a press conference held on the sidelines of China’s National People’s Congress.

China’s Global Times had previously reported that around 300 Chinese nationals were fighting alongside IS. Last September, the Iraqi Defense Ministry claimed to have captured a Chinese national involved in the fighting. However, this was the first time a Chinese official publicly drew a link between Xinjiang extremists and IS.

Zhang said that Islamic State “has a huge international influence and Xinjiang can’t keep aloof from it and we have already been affected,” according to the BBC. Zhang called IS a global threat and said international efforts would be required to face the problem. So far, however, the U.S. has had little luck convincing China to support its military operations against IS.

Zhang also told reporters that Xinjiang officials “recently broke up a terrorist cell run by those who returned from fighting with the group,” according to China Daily. He declined to give any specific details, saying that secrecy was essential for ensuring security and preventing future attacks. In the past, human rights groups have criticized China for not revealing specific information regarding alleged terrorist activity in Xinjiang.

Beijing, like government around the world, is concerned about its citizens joining up with IS and other extremist groups and then returning home to carry out attacks after receiving training and fighting experiences. Zhang’s remarks are the first public indication that this fear is becoming reality; extremists from Xinjiang are traveling to Iraq and Syria to join IS, and at least some have made it back home to China.

China Blasts ASEAN Head for South China Sea Remarks

March 12, 2015

Beijing scolds ASEAN’s Vietnamese chief for allegedly biased and false comments. 

China slammed the Vietnamese head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Wednesday for a series of allegedly biased and false remarks on South China Sea disputes.

“Mr. Le Luong Minh has repeatedly made biased comments on the issue of the South China Sea, which were untrue and incompatible with his capacity as ASEAN secretary-general,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said at a press briefing, according to Xinhua.

“We advise Mr. Le Luong Minh do his part as ASEAN secretary-general, stick to ASEAN’s neutrality on the South China Sea issue, and do more to promote the healthy development of China-ASEAN relations,” Hong added.

Hong also suggested that Le’s comments had damaged ASEAN’s image as a regional organization because he was making comments on behalf of one country rather than reflecting the consensus of the grouping more broadly.

A Reuters report, carried by several other international media outlets, noted that China may be reacting to Le’s comments on the South China Sea to The Manila Times last week.

In that interview, published March 4, the secretary general, who is also a veteran Vietnamese diplomat, said that the four ASEAN claimants – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – could not possibly accept China’s nine-dotted line because it was not in accordance with international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“All ASEAN claimants protest [against] the dotted line [concept] because it’s not [in accordance with the] commitment [to] UNCLOS and the dotted line covers 90 percent of the South China Sea. There is no way it can be accepted by any party to the UNCLOS,” Le had said.

He also noted that what has been happening in the South China Sea is “impacting” ASEAN’s efforts to forge a more cohesive community, which is why the grouping considers efforts to reach a solution – including through a binding code of conduct – “conducive to maintaining peace and stability.”

Chinese Admirals Spill the Beans on New Aircraft Carrier

March 12, 2015

The Liaoning during during refurbishment in Dalian Shipyard in 2012.

For the first time, PLAN officers provide details on China’s second aircraft carrier. 

Chinese media are abuzz with a report (originally published by Hong Kong Commercial Daily) confirming construction on China’s second aircraft carrier – the first entirely indigenously produced carrier in China’s fleet. While there have been numerous rumors that construction is underway on a companion to the Liaoning (the first aircraft carrier commissioned into the Chinese Navy), the new report is different in a few respects: one, it directly cites named PLA officials as sources (all of whom confirm the construction) and two, it mentions specific ways the new carrier will improve on the capabilities of the Liaoning.

First, the sources: Admiral Liu Xiaojiang, formerly a political commissar of the PLAN; Vice Admiral Ding Haichun, a deputy political commissar of the PLA Navy; and Rear Admiral Ma Weiming, a PLAN expert in “naval propulsion and electrical engineering” (often-honored for his contributions to Chinese military technology). As Chinese media reports noted, this marked the first time PLAN officers publicly acknowledged the construction of a second aircraft carrier (although there have been rumors about the project for years). Previous reports seeming to confirm the construction were quickly scrubbed from the Chinese internet.

As for new technology, Rear Admiral Ma said China has tested a new launch system “many times” and that all tests so far have gone quite smoothly. Ma spoke of “breakthroughs” in an electromagnetic catapult launch system for the new carrier. The new technology will set it apart from the Liaoning, which uses a more-outdated “ski jump” launch system. Breakthroughs in developing a catapult system would result in an “enormous increase” in the flight radius and payload of carrier-based aircraft, Ma said. With this technology, Ma claimed, China will be on par with or even more advanced than the United States.

Ma would not confirm, however, that the new technology was being used on the carrier currently under construction. Admiral Liu said the new carrier would “definitely” have areas of improvement over the Liaoningbut declined to provide any specifics, saying the construction process is “extremely complicated.”

India's Got a Plan For South China Sea Disputes (And China Won't Like It)

March 11, 2015

India’s got a preferred solution for South China Sea disputes — and it’s not a surprise. 

In recent years, India has started to become increasingly more vocal about what it feels is the correct way for the five main territorial disputants in the South China Sea to resolve their differences. What’s particularly interesting is that the rhetoric coming out of New Delhi seems to be growing more specific and pointed as time goes on. Early on Wednesday, the Manila Times reported that that Indian ambassador to the Philippines, Shri Lalduhthlana Ralte, said that India explicitly supported international law and arbitration in resolving these disputes. “Our view with that such kind of disputes [is that], the claimant countries should observe international law and norms that disputes are to be settled peacefully. We should allow ourselves to be subjected to international law,” Ralte said, according to the report.

The ambassador’s comments bookend a string of policy statements by New Delhi that mostly began in 2013. Back then, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking at the East Asia Summit, noted that “A stable maritime environment is essential to realize our collective regional aspirations.” Keen to make his approval known for multilateral processes in Southeast Asia (which I recently expressed some skepticism about), Singh added: “We welcome the collective commitment by the concerned countries to abide by and implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and to work towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus. We also welcome the establishment of the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum for developing maritime norms that would reinforce existing international law relating to maritime security.”

Those statements failed to draw much attention. Beijing probably raised its eyebrows at New Delhi’s interest in the South China Sea, but there was little in the prime minister’s statements that suggested a firm backing for a specific resolution mechanism. In early 2014, Shri Anil Wadhwa, Secretary (East) of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, pushed the Indian position a bit further into the realm of clarity. “We advocate that the lines, the channels of trade and communication should be kept open and of course the sea, which, according to UN (United Nations) international law of the sea, is common to all the countries that use it. Definitely we are concerned,” he told journalists at the annual ASEAN-India dialogue in New Delhi. “Our position has always been India stands for freedom of navigation on high seas. We would like to ensure that all countries in the region adhere to the international conventions on the law of the sea in this issue,” he clarified.

Myanmar May Have Just Bombed Chinese Territory -- Now What?

March 11, 2015

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed that Myanmar accidentally bombed Chinese soil. What are the consequences? 

Chinese soil was bombed by Myanmar’s air force over the weekend in an accidental strike. The strike resulted in no deaths or injuries, but damaged a Chinese civilian building. During a press conference on Tuesday, March 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei confirmed that the brewing conflict between ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels and Myanmar’s armed forces in the country’s northeast had spilled into China’s Yunnan province.

In answering a reporter’s question about the alleged bombing, Hong explained the situation and the Chinese response:

It is to our knowledge that amid conflicts between Myanmar’s government forces and local ethnic militias on March 8, stray bombs hit the Chinese side and damaged a civilian residence. Luckily, no one was injured or killed. The Chinese side has expressed grave concerns to the Myanmar side, asking them to get to the bottom of this incident as soon as possible and take effective measures to ensure that such incident will never happen again.

The incident will test China’s resolve on its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states as per its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the decades old guidelines configured by the PRC’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, to guide the country’s foreign policy. Additionally, confirmation of the bombing comes less than a week after it was revealed that a senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general had leaked state secrets to the Kokang rebels, fueling conspiracy theories in Myanmar that Chinese military know-how was assisting the Kokang rebels in their insurgency.

China’s reaction to the incidents unfurling in northeastern Myanmar will be an interesting case study in how Beijing handles foreign crises unfurling on its borders. Of course, the China-Myanmar case may not apply to, say, China’s relations with Central or South Asian states, including Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. China and Myanmar have, in recent history, enjoyed close diplomatic relations though Myanmar’s ongoing political reform and border instability have strained things quite a bit.

China’s Fiscal Deficit Makes Sense

March 12, 2015

As the country rebalances, increased fiscal spending is inevitable. 

China’s central government deficit is projected to be the largest in six years. The official government deficit was originally forecast to be around 2.3 percent of GDP, but the actual deficit will likely come close to 2.7 percent, according to Finance Minister Lou Jiwei. This is because China is committed to expanding its fiscal policy in the face of a domestic and global economic slowdown, as well it should be. Moreover, the additional funds come from unspent money allotted in the previous year’s budget.

China’s position in favor of fiscal spending is in line with Keynesian wisdom that government spending can alleviate the worst effects of slowing demand. This wisdom, while rejected in the eighties and nineties, was restored in the wake of the 2008 global crisis: countries all over the world launched fiscal stimulus packages that worked against recessionary tendencies and helped bolster employment. Fiscal stimulus in times of recession has been shown to have a greater impact on the economy than in times of expansion. In fact, researchers at theInter-American Development Bank found that stimulus carried out in 2009 and 2010 raised China’s GDP by 2.6 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively. Greece, which was forced to cut government spending, by contrast, appears to be trapped in a downward spiral of slow growth. Therefore, while some analysts fear fiscal deficits during periods of financial stress, the proof of the spending “pudding” is in the recovery.

China has been engaging in expansionary fiscal policy on and off since even before the global crisis hit in 2008. Last year, China increased spending in education and public housing, and continued to spend on infrastructure. While China’s spending on infrastructure has to some extent been decried as inefficient, certainly spending on pro-poor sectors such as education, public housing, and social services not only has a positive impact on China’s GDP, but also on inequality. In fact, although the spending efficiency of local governments has declined, studiesof China’s fiscal spending in the earlier 2000s have shown the nation to be one of the most efficient in government spending in Asia.


March 12, 2015

ITurkey continues to be a frustrating ally for the United States, with Ankara’s reluctance to allow for, or engage in kinetic strikes against the Islamic State emerging as the key source of divergence between the two old allies. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is ultimately governed by its regional interests. These interests, however, are often times at odds with other members of the anti-Islamic State coalition.

We must analyze Turkey’s actions in Iraq and Syria within the broader context of Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East. Ankara’s actions are driven by its failures in Syria and its political difficulties in Iraq; its concerns about Iranian empowerment; and concerns about Kurdish nationalism. These interests often conflict with one another; resulting in a torturous decision-making process that results in policies that are at odds with their own long-term strategic interests.

Ankara’s efforts to address these challenges have fallen short, owing to its conflicting interests and difficulty in forming a coherent strategy to address the numerous challenges in Syria and Iraq; resulting in a reactionary policy-making process and declining Turkish options for the region as a whole.

Syria: A Failed Strategy

For much of 2011 and 2012, the Turkish government focused on developing the Syrian opposition and backing individual rebel groups to help topple the Syrian regime. In doing so, Ankara worked closely with Qatar. Beginning in September 2011, the two countries worked to empower the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Simultaneously, Ankara made a controversial decision: the Turkish border would be left open, thus allowing the then nascent Syrian opposition to take refuge and resupply from Turkish territory.

Pentagon Says Pro-Western Syrian Rebels Have Gained Ground Against ISIS in Northeastern Syria

March 11, 2015

From a Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve News Release

SOUTHWEST ASIA, March 10, 2015 – Forces opposing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, supported by coalition airstrikes, seized key terrain late last week in northeastern Syria near Tal Hamis, Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve officials reported today.

These forces overcame ISIL resistance in that section of Syria and denied the terrorist group its freedom of maneuver in the area, officials said. The two-week operation, which ended March 7, also denied ISIL access to primary travel routes historically used to move its personnel and materials into Iraq — namely Tal Afar and Mosul.

During the operation, anti-ISIL forces seized critical portions of Route 47 in Syria, a key ISIL communications and supply line leading into Iraq, officials said. In addition, they seized key terrain in the Jazera region and liberated 94 nearby villages. Coalition forces conducted supporting airstrikes, destroying multiple ISIL weapons systems, vehicles and fighting positions.

“This operation demonstrated the ability of anti-ISIL forces to further degrade Daesh influence in this region,” said Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve commander, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “The determination of these anti-ISIL forces and our precision airstrikes enabled us to deny Daesh this key terrain in Syria.”

With No Government or Military Opposition, ISIS Is Now Deeply Entrenched In Libya

David D. Kirkpatrick
March 11, 2015

ISIS Finds New Frontier in Chaotic Libya

SURT, Libya — The Islamic State has established more than a foothold in this Mediterranean port. Its fighters dominate the city center so thoroughly that a Libyan brigade sent to dislodge the group remains camped on the outskirts, visibly afraid to enter and allowing the extremists to come and go as they please.

“We are going to allow them to slip out, because the less people we have to fight, the better,” said Mohamed Omar el-Hassan, a 28-year-old former crane operator who leads the brigade from a prefabricated shed on a highway ringing the city.

“Why make the city suffer?” he said, trying to explain his delay more than 16 days after the brigade arrived in Surt.

Nearly four years after the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s warring cities and towns have become so entangled in internal conflicts over money and power that they have opened a door for the Islamic State to expand into the country’s oil-rich deserts and sprawling coastline. Libya has become a new frontier for the radical group as it comes under increasing pressure from American-led airstrikes on its original strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

While other extremists organizations may have sought only to capitalize on the Islamic State’s fearsome name, the contingent here in Surt has not only taken over a major Libyan city but also demonstrated clear coordination with the parent organization, also known as ISIS or ISIL and based in Syria.

A recent video depicting the beheadings of Egyptian Christians kidnapped from Surt appeared to have been taped on the Libyan shoreline, but it also featured the parent group’s signature audiovisual sophistication, orange jumpsuits and ceremonial knives. It was publicized in the main group’s online magazine, then released under its media logo.

ISIS Fighters Launch Offensive Against Kurdish Forces in Northeast Syria

March 11, 2015

Islamic State Battling Kurdish Forces in Northeast Syria

BEIRUT — Hundreds of Islamic State fighters have launched an attack on Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, triggering fierce fighting that has killed dozens on both sides, a group monitoring the war said on Wednesday.

The Kurdish YPG militia, backed by U.S.-led air strikes, had made significant gains in recent weeks against Islamic State in the region, cutting an important supply route from territory controlled by the militant group in Iraq.

Islamic State appeared to try to seize back the initiative on Tuesday, attacking Kurdish forces using tanks and heavy weapons around Ras al-Ayn town near the Turkish border, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

An official in a Kurdish-run defense council in the area also reported heavy clashes in the area of Ras al-Ayn and said the Kurdish forces had been forced to withdraw from a nearby village.

"There are martyrs and dead but the number of martyrs is unknown so far," said the official, speaking via Skype.

The fighting continued into Wednesday. It was not clear exactly how many fighters had been killed on both sides.

The Kurdish campaign in northeastern Syria has been closely coordinated with the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting to roll back Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Iraqi Forces Still Fighting to Recapture Tikrit, While ISIS Counterattacking Elsewhere

Anne Barnard
March 11, 2015

ISIS Attacks Ramadi as Iraqi Army Takes Ground in Tikrit

BAGHDAD — Militant fighters of the Islamic State mounted one of their fiercest assaults in months on Wednesday, setting off 21 car bombs in the city of Ramadi, even as the group lost ground in an Iraqi government offensive in Tikrit, security officials said.

Security forces fought Islamic State holdouts in two remaining neighborhoods on the west side of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, where militants massacred more than 1,000 Shiite Iraqi soldiers last year.

The city has been the focus of a weeklong assault by Iraqi forces, the largest operation against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, since it swept into control of much of the country last year. Iraqi government troops and their Shiite militia allies appeared to be close to recapturing the city on Wednesday and scoring a strategically and emotionally significant victory.

As the pro-government forces continued to consolidate their hold on the area, they also uncovered two mass graves that were believed to hold the remains of some of the soldiers from Camp Speicher that had been massacred by the Islamic State last summer. Security officials and militia leaders said that a total of 300 to 400 bodies were found in and near the village of Albu Ajeel, south of Tikrit. 

To the west, in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, the militants aimed to show that they could still inflict pain even as they lost ground in Tikrit.

Hikmat Suleiman, the political adviser to the governor of Anbar, said that because of fortified defenses, growing battle experience and improved intelligence, the Iraqi forces in Ramadi were able to keep casualties in the car bombings to a minimum by attacking and thwarting the vehicles as they approached, blowing up most of them before they reached their apparent targets.

A senior military official at the Anbar Province operations command said five people were killed in the bombings and scores were wounded.

With so much attention focused on Tikrit, the fighting in Anbar has raged largely out of the spotlight, but it has been fierce. Two top commanders on the government side were killed as the security forces came close to retaking the town of Garma from militant control.

Iraqi soldiers, militiamen enter Islamic State-held Tikrit

By Sameer N. Yacoub
March 11, 2015

In this still image taken from video a soldier fires from behind a building in Tikrit, Iraq on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen entered the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit on Wednesday, authorities said, breaching one ... more >

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militiamen entered the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit on Wednesday, authorities said, breaching one of the biggest strongholds of the extremists in a key test for Iraqi forces.

Explosions and heavy gunfire could be heard as allied Iraqi forces entered the city through its northern Qadisiyya neighborhood, according to video obtained by The Associated Press. Overhead, an attack helicopter fired missiles as soldiers and militiamen laid down heavy machine gunfire in the neighborhood’s dusty streets as downtown Tikrit loomed in the distance, black smoke rising overhead.

Officials quickly established a supply line to reinforce troops, Salahuddin police Brig. Kheyon Rasheed told the state-run Iraqiyya television.

“The terrorists are seizing the cars of civilians trying to leave the city and they are trying to make a getaway,” Rasheed said. Authorities offered no immediate casualty figures, though Iran’s state-run, English-language Press TV satellite channel reported that a mortar attack wounded one of its cameramen there.

Spain: "The Mediterranean Corridor of Jihadism"

March 11, 2015

The arrests have, once again, cast a spotlight on the problem of radical Islam in Catalonia, which has the largest Muslim population in Spain. The region is home to an estimated 465,000 Muslims, who account for more than 6% of the total Catalan population of 7.5 million.

Catalonia is home to approximately 465,000 Muslims. At least 10% of them are estimated to be "radicals" who are hardcore believers in the "doctrine of jihadism." — Jofre Montoto, Catalan terrorism analyst.

In February, the lower house of the Spanish Congress approved far-reaching changes to the country's penal code, as a way to combat Islamic extremism and support for the Islamic State.

Under the new law, anyone convicted of carrying out a terrorist attack will be subject to a life sentence (35 years) without the possibility of parole. The law also calls for 20-year sentences for anyone convicted of supplying weapons to terrorists, or ten-year sentences for funding terror networks.

Spanish police have arrested a Moroccan woman on suspicion of running a jihadist recruiting network for the Islamic State.

Samira Yerou, 32, was arrested at Barcelona's El Prat airport on March 7 upon her arrival on a flight from Turkey, where authorities had detained her for trying illegally to enter Syria with her three-year-old son, a Spanish citizen.

Police say Yerou, who lives in Rubí, a Catalan town situated 15 kilometers north of Barcelona, disappeared in December 2014, while her son's father, a Moroccan-Spaniard, was away on a trip to Morocco. Spanish authorities issued an international warrant for Yerou's arrest.

In a statement, the Spanish Interior Ministry said Yerou had specialized in recruiting women from Europe and North Africa to join the Islamic State. She allegedly became interested in militant Islam after visiting Morocco during the summer of 2013, and later became radicalized through the Internet by "spending many hours consulting" jihadist websites. The boy, who was unharmed, has been returned to his father.

Iraqis Claim to Be Ready to Launch Offensive Against ISIS in Al-Anbar Province

March 10, 2015

Major Iraqi Military Operation Against IS In Anbar Expected

A large-scale military operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq’s beleaguered Anbar Province may begin soon, RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq has reported.

The deputy head of Anbar’s provincial council, Faleh al-Issawi, told Radio Free Iraq on March 9 that an extended military operation to liberate towns and areas in Anbar from the militants was expected to commence soon.

According to Issawi, the military operations against the IS group in neighboring Salah al-Din Province had affected the situation in Anbar.

Iraqi forces, backed by Iran, launched an operation last week to rout IS militants in the largely Sunni city of Tikrit in Salah al-Din Province. The Tikrit offensive, which involves large numbers of Shi’ite militiamen, is the first real test of the Iraqi government’s ability to retake a major city from the militants.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said on March 2 that the Iraqi Army waspreparing to liberate Anbar Province.

Issawi’s comments about an imminent military operation in Anbar followed reports on March 6 that Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led air strikes had pushed IS militants out of the western Anbar township of Baghdadi.

The militants had overran Baghdadi last month. The town is about 8 kilometers from the Al-Asad military base where U.S. troops are training Iraqi soldiers.

RFE/RL’s correspondent in Iraq reported on March 8 that Iraqi security forces now control almost all of Baghdadi’s districts. The security forces have cleared mines and explosive devices left by militants in districts of the town on the opposite bank of the Euphrates. Fighting continued on March 8 in the township’s Bu-Hayyat area, however.

Who Ends Up with Iraq?

March 10, 2015

If and when the Islamic State is defeated in Iraq, the long-postponed struggle between Iraq and the Kurds will recommence. Unless Iran, now fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, takes over first.

According to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) ministers, Baghdad does not want the Kurds to possess heavy weapons: it would make more difficult any attempt by the Iraqi central government to compel Iraqi Kurdistan to remain within Iraq.

It is also hard to discount the temptation for the central government of Iraq simply to hang on to valuable materiel. It may have been presented with no strings attached, or with no negative consequences should the strings somehow become "unattached."

Recent press reports have described, in a negative manner, Kurdish efforts to reclaim landslost to Saddam Hussein's policy of "Arabization", which included the ethnic cleansing of Kurds from various Iraqi governorates, districts, and sub-districts.

A recent Newsweek article focused on a January offensive by Kurdish peshmerga forces, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, which resulted in the capture of a 300 square mile area. This territory was formerly under the control of the so-called Islamic State, and included many areas from which Kurdish families had been dispossessed of their land, or forced to emigrate, by Saddam Hussein's regime. The article went on to describe a Kurdish "land-grab," Ninevah Governorate following their offensive.

Another recent article, published by al-Monitor, was even more critical of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The article denounced the KRG's alleged policies of territorial expansionism, disenfranchisement of Sunni Arabs, forced population displacements, and unilateral land-grabs. Al-Monitor's item displayed a decidedly pro-Sunni Iraqi orientation. It quoted a Sunni member of Baghdad's legislature, Ahmed al-Jabouri, who accused Kurdishpeshmerga troops of destroying 700 Arab homes in Jalawla, in the Diyala Governorate's Khanaqin district, along the Iran-Iraq Border.

The anti-Kurdish orientation of these articles portrays the KRG as exploiting Western assistance to augment its power base unilaterally, in opposition to the Baghdad central government. The Newsweek article quotes an unnamed senior Kurdish federal official as saying, about the Kurdish areas recaptured from the Islamic State, that "we will never ever let Arabs control them again."

Can the West Beat ISIS on the Web?


The U.S. and U.K. are putting together cyber-forces to take on the jihadists. But governments aren’t very good at this stuff. Just ask Christopher Cornell in Ohio.

ISTANBUL — It is the jailhouse interview his attorney wishes like hell he’d never made. For one long hour would-be jihadist Christopher Cornell outlined to an Ohio TV station in chilling detail what he would have done if the FBI had not arrested him in January. 

He had bought two semiautomatic rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from a Cincinnati-area gun store. Speaking from his jail cell in Kentucky, the all-American kid unrepentantly told WXIX-TV Fox 19: “I would have put it to Obama’s head, I would have pulled the trigger, then I would unleash more bullets on the Senate and House of Representative members, and I would have attacked the Israeli embassy and various other buildings. They might say I’m a terrorist, but you know we see American troops as terrorists as well, coming to our land, stealing our resources and killing our people, raping our women. We’re more organized than you think.” 

By “our lands,” this convert to what he thinks of as Islam means Muslim lands, or, more precisely, the lands conquered by the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. 

Some of Cornell’s frightening rant was broadcast late Friday as his lawyer appealed to a judge to stop the airing of the interview on the grounds it could prejudice his trial. In the end, the appeal failed on Sunday, and it is worth listening closely to what Cornell had to say. 

Deluded he may be but Cornell, described by his father shortly after his arrest as a good kid and lost, shares the characteristics of many of the Americans and Europeans radicalized online by jihadists—mental instability and a sense of being marginalized. But understanding that about them does not make them any less dangerous. 

As de-radicalization experts and psychologists grapple with the mindset of young Westerners lured into jihadist ranks, there is still no consensus among Western counter-terrorism experts on how to combat the jihadists’ sophisticated use of the Internet and their skill in radicalizing, grooming, and recruiting. 

“They are monitoring suspicious websites and social media, cyber-attacking others, and planting bogus information.” 

The Real Target of ISIS’s Child Soldier Execution Video


The latest ISIS shock tactic—using a young boy to shoot at point-blank range a ‘spy’ for Israel—is aimed at stifling internal dissent amid reported infighting and losses in Iraq.

In ISIS’s ongoing war in Iraq and Syria, the group regularly publicizes its killing of civilians. And as part of its messaging campaign, its highly produced videos have been timed for deliberate effect: to deliver threats, sway public opinion, or attract new recruits.

Past high profile ISIS videos have typically featured foreign hostages who are likely to attract more international attention for the group. In earlier media releases it beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and burned alive a captured Jordanian pilot, Muadh al Kasasbeh, while threatening both Jordan and the United States for participating in an anti-ISIS military coalition.
Ammar Awad/Reuters

The timing of ISIS’s latest video, which appears to show a child soldier executing an Arab Israeli man accused of being a spy, is “aimed at emphasizing the rigid security apparatus of the Islamic State against spying and potential dissent,” said ISIS analyst Aymenn al Tamimi.

If that is indeed the message ISIS is trying to deliver with the 13-minute clip released Tuesday, it is likely in response to signs of infighting that have reached the media. Last month, The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer reported on fracturing within the group. This week The Washington Post’s Liz Sly had her own account of internal dissension among ISIS members.

At the same time, ISIS is facing a serious challenge to its territorial control. In Iraq the government has launched its largest military operation to date to retake cities that ISIS has held for months. It’s too early to say what the final outcome of that campaign will be, but by most accounts ISIS has already suffered significant setbacks.