Will Israel be dragged into the Syrian conflict?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit this week to an IDF field hospital where wounded Syrians are receiving treatment served to showcase the Israeli humanitarian effort to respond to the crisis facing Syrian civilians caught up in the ongoing conflict. Recent reports suggest that the Israeli focus on events in southern Syria goes beyond purely humanitarian concerns.
Increasing attention is being paid by Israeli planners to the buildup of extreme Sunni Islamist forces close to the border with the Golan Heights. There are indications that Israel has already begun to implement a strategy intended to keep the jihadis from the border.
According to a report by prominent Israeli Middle East analyst Ehud Ya’ari published recently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israel is currently moving toward ‘assuming a modest role in the Syrian civil war.’
Ya’ari notes that the extent of Israel’s humanitarian operation inside Syria suggests that ‘a system of communications and frequent contacts have been established with the local rebel militias.’
The Israeli analyst reports that the background to such increased engagement is the loss by the Assad regime of control of most of the border area between southern Syria and the Golan Heights. Israeli contacts with the rebel militias in this area would serve to facilitate the latter acting as a de facto buffer against the jihadis.
This largely off-the-radar activity in the south forms part of a broader Israeli concern at the increasingly prominent role played by jihadi and Sunni Islamist elements in the Syrian rebellion.
An un-named senior IDF officer quoted in a recent article in Defense News noted that ‘Today, rebels control most of the area of the south Golan Heights…Among rebel forces, the moderates are increasingly exhausted while the radicals have become strengthened.’
He added that ‘For the moment, they are not fighting us, but we know their ideology. … It could be that, in the coming months, we could find ourselves dragged into confrontation with them.”
IDF Military Intelligence head Aviv Kochavi, meanwhile, in an address at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on January 29 estimated that around 30,000 jihadi fighters were active in Syria. Ya’ari, meanwhile, estimated the strength of Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) as around 40,000 fighters.
These numbers are of particular interest in that they are considerably in excess of the estimates made by most analysts of Syria concerning the numbers of extreme jihadis present on the Syrian battlefield. While accurate estimates of combatant forces on the Syrian rebel side are notoriously hard to come by, the more usual estimate of the combined strength of al-Qaeda linked forces in Syria would be between 15-20,000.
This suggests that Israeli estimates may take a somewhat broader definition of what constitutes extreme salafi and al-Qaeda linked groups than those made by western analysts.
A third openly salafi force plays a prominent role mainly in northern Syria. This is the Ahrar al-Sham group, thought to number around 20,000 fighters. This group has no known links with the central leadership of al-Qaeda. Yet it adheres to an extreme salafi ideology. One of its leading members, Abu Khaled al-Suri, recently described himself as a member of al-Qaeda.
If it is indeed the case that Israeli analysts would include Ahrar al Sham and groups of this type under the rubric of potentially dangerous Sunni jihadi forces (and there are good reasons to do so), then this has interesting implications.
Ahrar al-Sham is a component part of the Islamic Front, which is the largest single rebel formation, numbering over 60,000 fighters, and which is the beneficiary of extensive aid from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So if Jerusalem regards this force as on a par with more obviously al-Qaeda aligned groups, this is a significant point of contention between the two main anti-Iran countries in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Israel’s concerns regarding the Sunni jihadis are certainly not limited to the border area. The al-Qaeda linked cell whose capture was announced on January 22nd was apprehended while preparing to enter northern Syria via Turkey for training purposes.
It has also not escaped Israel’s attention that a de facto sovereign jihadi -controlled zone now exists in eastern Syria’s Raqqa province, stretching into western Anbar province in Iraq.
Such an enclave has never existed in the Levant before. The jihadis are busy fighting Assad and his Iranian backers now. But they are open in their desire to engage also against Israel.
While close attention should be paid to Israel’s concerns re the Sunni jihadis and the consequent relationship with the rebels in the south, there are also factors likely to militate against any broader Israeli intervention into the Syrian war.
Firstly, the Iran-led regional bloc remains by far the most potent and dangerous alliance challenging Israel at the present time. As Kohavi said in his address: ‘The new phenomenon of Global Jihad at our borders is disturbing, but we shouldn’t be confused. Our mortal enemy remains the ever-strengthening axis of evil formed by Hezbollah, Syria and the Iranian regime.’
This point, and the Iranian responsibility for events in Syria was underlined by Netanyahu in his remarks made at the field hospital. The Iran-led bloc includes paramilitary clients but is led by a powerful state with nuclear ambitions. There is no parallel structure to this on the Sunni jihadi side.
Secondly, unseen but unmistakable, the trauma of Israel’s long involvement in Lebanon remains written into the DNA of Israeli commanders and planners and of the Israeli system as a whole. There is a very deep aversion to anything that might look like interference in the internal processes of neighboring states – particularly where this could involve Israeli boots on the ground and hence loss of Israeli life.
This salient institutional memory will probably ensure that despite its very real concerns, Israel’s engagement against the Sunni jihadi threat in southern Syria will remain as far as possible invisible, and on a limited, deniable scale.
Yet this engagement is taking place. On a daily basis, a few kilometers north-east of Tiberias, Israeli forces are involved in the complex task of keeping al Qaeda at a safe distance from the Golan Heights and the northern Galilee.
Turkey begins the return of ISIS fighters to Europe
Today, Turkey started sending ISIS fighters back to Europe, as it promised last week.
Europe needs to take responsibility for its ISIS fighters. US President Trump is right on that.
As Turkey’s minister of internal affairs said last week, Turkey is not a hotel for foreign terrorists. Europe’s jihadists are its own problem to deal with.
What is interesting however is that Turkey has been releasing ISIS fighters from the region that it held in custody. But not when it comes to European jihadists.
With this move, Turkey’s aim is to actually punish Europe. Erdogan is doing this out of spite because he knows that this is what Europeans fear the most. It is not Erdogan’s priority to try ISIS, as he has shown previously. To piss off the Europeans, yes, that’s a different story.
This recent development comes to remind us that Western Europe has a big problem to deal with. The evidence from conflict zones will not hold in European courts which means that authorities might have to let ISIS fighters that still have their citizenship walk free. That is a European nightmare.
This serves to remind French President Macron that France not Bosnia is the biggest jihadist force in Europe. Macron called Bosnia a jihadist ticking bomb in that unfortunate Economist interview but France is the real problem. No other European country has such a high number of jihadist fighters in the Middle East.
Today a Greek ISIS fighter whose citizenship had been stripped was not allowed in Greece upon return from Turkey. We will see that a lot in the coming weeks. The situation of no citizenship will create a legal question of statelessness which will make the return of ISIS fighters also a human rights question.
The Rise OF ISIS and its Aftermath in Afghanistan
“I will see you guys in Newyork”.Abu Du’a, the leader of ISIS, whose nom de guerre (war name) was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, told his American captors as he was released from a brief detention during Iraq war. After American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al Baghdadi joined the Arms Resistance against the U.S led coalition troops in Iraq but he was captured and detained in a US. – run Iraqi prison in 2006. Following al Baghdadi’s release in the late 2000s, he joined the predecessor to ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq(ISI). This group initially affiliated themselves with AL- Qaeda, but was later rejected by AL Qaeda due to their brutal acts and it became Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). IN 2010, al Baghdadi became the leader of ISI and changed the name of the organization to Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013.
On 29 June 2014, ISIS declared the worldwide caliphate under the leadership of “caliph Ibrahim” with publishing a statement of supporting al Baghdadi’s designation as caliph. This concept of caliphate is mainly based on the universal religion and its ultimate goal is the establishment of Islamic state. This political idea of Islamic state is embodied in the concept of the ummah (community) which says that all the Muslims wherever they reside are bounded by a common faith which transcends all geographical, political or national boundaries.
Many other groups had pledged allegiance to ISIS like the Boko haram in Nigeria, the bait al Maqdis in Egypt, the Islamic movement in Uzbekistan, andthe previous leader of TTP Hafiz Saeed, also pledged allegiance to al Baghdadi in Oct, 2014 renaming themselves as the Islamic state of Khorasan (ISK) in Afghanistan. IS-K’s early membership included a contingent of Pakistani militants who emerged in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province around 2010, just across the border from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Many of these militants were estranged members of TTP and Lashkar-e Islam, who had fled from Pakistan to escape pressure from security forces.
ISK emerged in different provinces of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan but outnumbered in the eastern province of Ningarhar, Achin district, due to some specific reasons. Achin district is one of the backward, underdeveloped and illiterate regions of Afghanistan which makes its population vulnerable to recruitment as new militants. Moreover, peopled welling in this district joined and supported this new group not only for their Islamic ideology but also for the high salaries of $500 paid by this organization.In the beginning of their journey in the region, ISK dealt people in a soft manner and always refrained from offensive language to encourage and inspire the people to join this militant group.
But with the passage of time, ISK changed its behavior and started the forceful imposition of sharia law. People were prevented from the cultivation of opium which was the main source of revenue for the locals of that region, seized drugs and sentenced drug addicted people, however, majority of their own militants were drug addicts and sold drugs seized from the locals to meet their own financial needs. They introduced numerous fabricated laws that were neither in conformity to national, Islamic nor in conformity with the locals laws. The militants of the group were indoctrinated to such an extent that they were willing to sacrifice everything for the interest of the group. One of their militants, involved in a robbery case, accepted his crime in front of the group’s judicial committee. As per the Islamic rules, anyone involved in the robbery would have their hands cut off. Therefore, When the militants were cutting hands, he was chanting ‘’Allah ho Akbar’’-Allah is the greatest.
Taliban and Afghan forces have attacked the Achin district many times but no one of them succeeded in retaking the district from ISK. This region was completely monopolized by this group and they ruled the people according to their own so called sharia law. People started displacement from the region towards Jalalabad, the provincial capital because they were unable to abide by these brutal laws and tolerate the atrocities. Following is a short story which a person told in anonymity about the excessive brutalities perpetrated by ISK in Achin.
“We all flocked outside after Friday prayer, according to announcement in sermon. They brought seven detainees belong to Emirates a Taliban group, Afghan national Army member and spies. All were covered with black ski masks. Meanwhile, an ISIS militant rode on a trained horse, having sharp sword in hands and reached to the spot. He decapitated all of them and shouted “Allah ho Akbar”. With the sound of Allah ho Akbar, we all scattered like flies in the air and no one knows what happened. But later on it was realized by people who delivered us to hospital that the place was targeted by a US drone. Many people were injured, and the ISIS militant who was beheading the prisoners was burned by drone attack. I still have the scene in my mind which has really affected me mentally and can’t take out those thuds of the sword from my mind when he was beheading those innocent people”.
Furthermore, they knelt innocent elders of the Shenwari nation belong to the same district on the bombs accused of in affiliation to the Taliban. A gruesome video also uploaded by them to the YouTube. These kind of brutal acts were the routine of everyday in Daesh or ISK controlled areas.
Afghan Commando assisted by US special forces have been fighting with the ISK in Achin for the last few years and have made significant progress contributing to the liberation of some villages but there are speculations that united states itself is assisting this militant group and supplying food and weapons to them through helicopters which has put the Afghans in doubt. US dropped the ” mother of all bombs” – the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal formally known as GBU-43/B massive ordnance air blast on 13 April 2017 on ISIS Khorasan cave complex in Achin district, Ningarhar. According to a statement from the United States military in Afghanistan, the bomb hit a tunnel complex but they didn’t say how many militants were killed or whether the bombing caused any civilian casualties. The fact is that it was only an experience of their conventional bomb which is clear from the following statement of the Ex-president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai:
“This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons”. This claim of Ex-president was further forged by the locals of Achin who stated that there was neither weapons depot nor any single ISIS fighter in the targeted region.
Currently Achin district has been cleared by Afghan Forces from this group but there are opportunities of their return to the region. Afghan Forces should show their strong presence, build the region and rehabilitate former militants. We are the veterans of many regions where US and Afghan forces have operated and lost hundreds of their soldiers for clearing the region but have left the region vulnerable to the insurgents return. Moreover, America should equip Afghan forces with sophisticated weapons to counter these threats. Afghan National Directorate can play a vital role in the dissolution of this group by infiltration of their own spies in disguise.
Moreover, in comparison to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which have oil resources of about $2 billion and financed by different Arab states, this group is very much dependent on local revenues and neighboring state Pakistan. Pakistan may not be able to support two insurgent groups-Taliban and ISK-simultaneously for a single goal. And the so called jihad vacuum is also filled by Taliban which never want any rival jihadi group in Afghanistan.
Imprisoned ISIS Wives and Children Have Nowhere to Run To, Nowhere to Hide
The guards have said if the war comes close, then they will leave here,” a Western ISIS wife texted me today from Camp Roj in far northeastern Syria, a detention center that houses 500 ISIS wives and 1,200 of their children. “What to do if we are left alone?” she asks. “There’s nowhere to go and too risky to get caught by Bashar [al-Assad].”
As she writes, I’m in Belgium sitting next to an FBI agent. I ask him what she should do, but amid all of this chaos, he doesn’t have an immediate answer.
The ISIS wife continues: “I like how America thinks it’s too dangerous for them [the U.S. military] to be here but safe for us to remain with Assad.”
Over the past two years I’ve been in and out of the northeastern territory of Syria held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) six times with staff from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). We have conducted in-depth interviews with 217 ISIS men and women, 100 of them in SDF held territory, for our project countering the ISIS brand, which the SDF has supported fully.
The woman texting me today gave us an interview last year and has managed to stay in touch via illicit phones other detainees allow her to use.
At the same time she is texting me, our Kurdish translator texts that they are living under the sound of bombs and troops advancing. Assad’s troops are marching eastward, while Turkey is barreling in from the north. Which soldiers will reach Camp Roj first and what the women should do if the Kurdish YPJ-Women’s Protection Units guarding them decide it’s too dangerous to remain in place, is something the guards have told the inmates to think about.
The female inmates of Camp Ain Issa, farther west, faced a similar dilemma earlier in the week when the Turks began shelling. Until Sunday, Ain Issa Camp housed a total of 12,000 women and children, but according to one Belgian woman, it descended into “complete chaos” as fires broke out, the guards left, and the women escaped in the hundreds.
Among the women housed there, 265 were wives of foreigner terrorist fighters, alongside 1,000 of their children. On the second day of the Turkish air assault, Belgian ISIS wives Bouchra Abouallal and Tatiana Wielandt decided it was better to go on the run with their small children than remain in place to learn what next disaster might befall them.
We interviewed Bouchra Abouallal in September 2019. Completely exhausted from her experience with ISIS, she said that life inside the Caliphate was “the best possible deradicalization program ever.” Already prosecuted in absentia and facing a five-year sentence in her home country of Belgium, she told ICSVE researchers she would prefer to return home even to serve a 20-year sentence rather than remain in the camp under the menace of the cruel ISIS-inmate enforcers who threatened all European women who no longer wanted anything to do with the ISIS Caliphate.
Now Bouchra Abouallal is on the run with her three small children. In audio messages punctuated in the background by shelling she told a Belgian journalist that she was headed toward the front lines in hopes she could make it to safety in Turkey, where she wishes to turn herself into the Belgian consulate and make her way home.
While European officials here in Brussels have stated that Turkey agrees to help any escaped ISIS cadres that end in their hands to be returned to their homelands, up until recently, Belgium was refusing to let her come back. Instead of seeing her as someone victimized by the Islamic State’s propaganda and lies, and fooled by the “Shariah for Belgium” group that had radicalized many in her native city of Antwerp, Belgian politicians see her as a threat.
But it is not difficult for Belgian authorities to turn past posts on her social media accounts against her.
“Your system has failed oh Belgian state,” Bouchra’s Facebook page read after she slipped out of Belgium to go live under the Islamic State. Referring to the way the Belgian police had hassled her upon her first return home from Syria, her posts taunted them, saying “You were watching us 24/7 and you still haven’t managed to stop us. Why? Because Allah is the best planner (…)” Her threats continued with, “We have left because we believe that it is a duty for every Muslim. To the policeman who threatened to take our children away, I can say that my children will turn yours into orphans, with the will of Allah.”
Bouchra claims that it wasn’t she, but one of her ISIS husbands, who authored these hate-filled posts. She says he used to lock her up at home and post on her Facebook page without her permission. Indeed, when we interviewed Bouchra in September she spoke gently as she denounced ISIS, giving us permission to use both her image and her name in a counter narrative video—this, while knowing the ISIS enforcers in the camp would likely punish her for it.
The woman texting me today from Camp Roj does so fearing that if it becomes known it was her texting she will be punished by her YPJ guards. Yet pure terror drives her to try to stay connected with the outside world as she makes wrenching decisions for herself and her young child.
Americans are also in this camp. We have interviewed two American passport holders—Canadian dual-citizen Kimberly Pullman and disputed American citizen Hoda Muthana.
When I ask today’s texter about Americans in the camps, she tells me there are five in all, two more in Camp Roj and another in Camp Hol. She states that there are also two American children in Camp Roj. We’ve met one of them, Adam, the two-year-old son of Hoda Muthana. Both times we interviewed his mother, Adam was struggling with chronic bronchitis. Today the woman texting me from Camp Roj tells me that the air is thick with fumes from the bombings, which is causing many of the children to have breathing difficulties.
“Going to jail right now won’t be great,” this woman writes as she imagines her future in the West—if she can ever manage to get home. Then she envisions another future: “I could get lost among all of this trouble.” Then again she realizes that fleeing the camp, if her guards do abandon their posts, might also prove disastrous.
“Please let the governments know that we are not happy with the escape of the women [who have left the camps]. We are actually scared and want to just be safe in our own embassies,” she texts. “We don’t want to keep running away. We want to be tried. I’ve already had the chance to run away before and I decided to be tried in my own country.”
Now the pressing question, amid all of this chaos unleashed by Trump greenlighting the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria: Is anyone going to do anything to get these former ISIS wives and their children back home where they can face justice and live in safety or do we just leave them to face whatever fate turns up as hostile armies converge?
Author’s note: first published in the Daily Beast
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