CPJ: “In times of war, Pentagon reserves right to treat journalists like spies”

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

“In times of war, Pentagon reserves right to treat journalists like spies” – Committee to Protect Journalists:

The Pentagon has produced its first Department of Defense-wide Law of War Manual and the results are not encouraging for journalists who, the documents states, may be treated as “unprivileged belligerents.” But the manual’s justification for categorizing journalists this way is not based on any specific case, law or treaty. Instead, the relevant passages have footnotes referring to either other parts of the document or matters not germane to this legal assertion. And the language used to attempt to justify this categorization is weak at best.
[…]
At 1,180 pages long and with 6,196 footnotes, the manual includes vague and contradictory language about when and how the category of “unprivileged belligerents” might be applied to journalists. It ignores the most relevant cases where the U.S. military detained war correspondents and accused them of being — using the term coined by Pentagon officials in the 2000s — “unlawful combatants,” without producing evidence or bringing even one accused journalist to trial. The manual mentions international human rights treaties and declarations, but ignores the most important one, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which deals most clearly with the right to free expression and the press.
[…]
The manual devotes attention to “classes of persons” who “do not fit neatly within the dichotomy” between combatants and civilians, and replaces the term “unlawful combatants,” which U.S. officials used to refer to terrorist suspects held under extra-legal circumstances in the wake of September 11, 2001 attacks, with “unprivileged belligerent.”

“Unprivileged” means the suspect is not entitled to the rights afforded to prisoners of war under international law and can instead be held as a criminal suspect in a category that includes suspected spies, saboteurs, and guerrillas.

Read the full report from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

AP: US-backed Syrian rebels flee HQ after clash with Nusra Front

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

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AP / Lebanon Daily Star: US-backed rebel group flees north Syria HQ after clash with Nusra:

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said members of the Division 30 faction fled to a nearby area controlled by a Syrian Kurdish militia. Abu al-Hassan Marea, a Syrian activist who is currently in Turkey near the Syrian border, confirmed Saturday that Division 30 fighters have withdrawn from their headquarters.

Abdurrahman and Marea said Division 30 had less than 60 fighters and that on Friday alone the group lost five fighters and 18 others were wounded.
[…]
On Friday night the Nusra Front said it attacked Division 30 and abducted some of its members because they were trained by the CIA and vowed in a statement to cut off “the arms” of the American government in Syria.

A U.S. military official seemed to deny any American connection to Division 30, saying on Friday that no member of a U.S.-backed rebel faction had been abducted.

 
Despite the denial of connection, the U.S. military appeared to have responded directly to the situation as it unfolded, according to CNN, based on a policy implemented days earlier:

Syrian rebels backed by the United States will now have air cover if they come under attack after President Barack Obama signed off on the decision, a senior administration official confirms to CNN on Sunday.
[…]
This comes after the United States conducted airstrikes last week to protect two groups after they came under attack: U.S.-trained rebels and the U.S.-affiliated rebels of the 30th division.

U.S. aircraft came in after the attack on a compound where members of the New Syria Force, which is the U.S.-trained-and-equipped rebel group, were located as well members of the 30th division.

 


Previously from AFD on these topics:

Free Syrian Arms: The fall of the CIA’s Harakat Hazm force against Nusra Front
Will the U.S. become the Syrian rebels’ air force?
FT: “Syria rebels sceptical about Turkey’s plan to tackle IS”
U.S. agrees to clear a “safe zone” in northern Syria

Op-Ed | Selling Out the Kurds

The essay below was co-authored with Stephan Richter, Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist, where it originally appeared.

A U.S. Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from the Ohio Air National Guard at Incirlik, Turkey, August 2003. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Vince Parker.)

A U.S. Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from the Ohio Air National Guard at Incirlik, Turkey, August 2003. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Vince Parker.)

To recruit Turkey against ISIS, the United States lost sight of its true friends.

U.S. policy on Iraq, Syria and the surrounding countries seems to have been left solely in the hands of amateurs in the White House. That is not a partisan statement, for it applies to both the current and previous occupants. The next occupant, regardless of party, seems likely to muck it up as well.

The latest foolhardy decision seems to have been a deal long sought by the United States to move the “strategy” against ISIS forward. It is worth recalling that the terrorist organization is de facto an American creation resulting from the completely ill advised Iraq policy under George W. Bush.

In the blinding desire to destroy ISIS, Mr. Obama and his team were so keen on getting rights to use Turkish air bases that they completely forgot about the dark side of Mr. Erdogan.

Erdogan’s other agendas

No sooner had the agreement on bases been reached than Turkey’s own aircraft began pounding Kurdish militant targets in northern Syria and Iraq.

The government, which still lacks a governing mandate after no party won a majority in the recent elections, has officially put the anti-ISIS PKK fighters on the same threat level as ISIS. In reality, Kurdish fighters appear to be a much bigger target of the Turkish Air Force than the ISIS fighters.

The point of all this maneuvering is that Erdogan hopes to leverage wartime fervor into a favorable nationalist coalition or a new election with a better outcome for himself.

As if the U.S. collusion in that domestic, entirely partisan strategy would not be shameful enough, the United States is also pledging to help Erdogan on another matter. He has long sought to clear an ISIS-held area of Syria that is coveted by both Kurdish nationalists and (pro-Erdogan) Ottoman irredentists in Turkey. The latter, it seems, still have yet to accept the country’s 1920s borders.

Hard though it may be to believe, the facts on the ground are as follows: The U.S. military is now helping Turkey’s hardliners achieve their goals against the very Kurdish fighters whose close coordination with U.S. bombers have pushed ISIS back from Kobani and disrupted its supply lines. All the while, Turkey sat on its hands and refused to halt lucrative ISIS smuggling.

Marginalizing the Kurds

In effect, the Americans managed to sell out the Kurds, perhaps Syria’s only remaining true “freedom fighters,” as they proved to be in the defense of Kobani. Read more

U.S. agrees to clear a “safe zone” in northern Syria

The deal being reported so far does not involve a no-fly zone against Assad, just more targeted U.S. bombing against ISIS from the air, as well as Turkish shelling (and maybe bombing) from across the border — but no ground occupation. Instead, the U.S. will provide airstrikes on behalf of Arab rebel fighters who aren’t affiliated with ISIS. That revives an old plan I’ve criticized previously, except now those fighters we would be helping are even more likely to be aligned with al Qaeda. Kurdish fighters would also be definitively excluded from assistance west of the Euphrates, it seems, to assuage Turkish antipathies.

“Turkey and U.S. Plan to Create Syria ‘Safe Zone’ Free of ISIS” – New York Times:

“Details remain to be worked out, but what we are talking about with Turkey is cooperating to support partners on the ground in northern Syria who are countering ISIL,” a senior Obama administration official said, using another term for the Islamic State. “The goal is to establish an ISIL-free zone and ensure greater security and stability along Turkey’s border with Syria.”
[…]
American officials say […] that while a de facto safe zone could indeed be a byproduct of the plan, a formal no-fly zone is not part of the deal.
[…]
Instead, United States officials said Turks and Americans were working toward an agreement on the details of an operation to clear Islamic State militants from a heavily contested area roughly between the eastern outskirts of the city of Aleppo and the Euphrates River.

That is an ambitious military goal, because it appears to include areas of great strategic and symbolic importance to the Islamic State, and it could encompass areas that Syrian helicopters regularly bomb. If the zone goes 25 miles deep into Syria, as Turkish news outlets have reported, it could encompass the town of Dabiq, a significant place in the group’s apocalyptic theology, and Manbij, another stronghold. It could also include the Islamic State-held town of Al Bab, where barrel bombs dropped by Syrian aircraft have killed scores, including civilians, in recent weeks.

American officials emphasized that the depth of the buffer zone to be established was one of the important operational details that had yet to be decided. But one senior official said, “You can be assured many of the principal population centers will be covered.”

The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.

 
While it is unclear yet exactly how big the area will be, and supposedly there won’t be Turkish ground presence, I previously made a projected estimate in the following two maps (see details and analysis at “Mapping the projected Turkish occupation zone in Syria”):

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

I seem to have guessed the zone’s width correctly (outskirts of Aleppo to the Euphrates) and the depth may supposedly still be under discussion, but if it includes Manbij and Al-Bab, then I also pretty much will have nailed the depth estimate, because it is likely the whole M4 highway from corner to corner would be the southern perimeter of the zone. However, the Times is merely quoting the same Turkish media reports I was working off of, so we don’t actually know yet. A much narrower “strip” encompassing many fewer “principal population centers” (and outlying villages) could terminate at the highway shown above in the middle of the zone, nearer Marea than Aleppo.

Mapping the projected Turkish occupation zone in Syria

Arsenal For Democracy estimates and maps the perimeter dimensions of Turkey’s potential occupation zone / U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. (The detail map is near the middle, after the evidence used to prepare it. A regional map showing the area in context is attached at the end.)

As I’ve explored previously, for the past month, the Turkish military and the Turkish government have been disagreeing quasi-publicly as to whether to invade and occupy northern Syria to establish a “humanitarian zone” (supposedly for refugees).

The military brass is trying to delay at least until a new government is formed and the newly-elected parliament can take a vote on it, while the ruling AK Party is pushing for an intervention sooner. It seems to have been an AK Party aspiration, off and on, since at least September 2014, whereas the military isn’t entirely sure it’s a good idea in a general.

On February 22, 2015, Turkey’s military staged a lightning incursion in and out Syria, moving more than 600 troops and 100 tanks along the Euphrates River for some 22 miles (35 km) and then returning to the Turkish border a few hours later. The objective then was ostensibly to secure and re-locate a historic tomb of national significance (which was being guarded by Turkish Special Forces in a vulnerable position). But it may have also served to test Turkey’s ability to invade that far into Syria’s warzones without major resistance, although it was on the other side of the river, south of Kobani.

Of course, a speedy raid and departure would be quite different from a full-scale intervention to hold territory indefinitely. So how big of an area are we actually talking about for this possible massive military operation?

Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, indicated in The Globalist in early July (based on “media reports”) that the zone would be as follows:

Specifically, Turkish forces may be aiming to seize a [88-km] 55-mile-long stretch of territory from Azaz in the west to Jarabulus in the east, thus establishing a [32-km] 20-mile-deep cordon sanitaire against the violence next door and creating a staging ground for pro-Turkey Syrian rebels.

 
Following meetings between U.S. and Turkish government officials this week, Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported the latest rumors, which were far more expansive:

A recent joint action consensus between Turkey and the United States, which includes the use of the İncirlik Airbase in southern Turkey in fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadists, also covers a partial no-fly zone over the Turkey-Syria border, according to sources.

The 90-kilometer line between Syria’s Mare [Marea] and Cerablus [Jarabulus] will be 40 to 50 kilometers deep, sources told daily Hürriyet, while elaborating on the consensus outlined by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, following a cabinet meeting on July 22.

However, sources avoided saying whether such a zone would be broadened in the future.

 
In addition to that representing a larger area, this news also suggests Turkey’s longstanding demand of getting U.S. air support and a no-fly zone for such an operation may have been met.

If it comes to pass with those enlarged specifications, as depicted in the map below, the U.S.-patrolled no-fly zone and Turkish-occupied “humanitarian zone” on the ground in Syria is going to run to the edge of the city of Aleppo at minimum — and could theoretically even include the entire city (not depicted). That variance represents the aforementioned range of a 40-50 km depth from the border, which falls either on the north side of the city (leaving it out) or the south side (including it).

However, it seems unlikely to me that an initial zone would include Aleppo itself, simply because it has been the site of a protracted siege for several years and Turkey would have to break into it to take it over, while the U.S. would have to fight for air supremacy over the city. Of course, some hardline nationalists in Turkey have never gotten over the loss of Aleppo to the French and Syrians in the border-setting wars that followed the Ottoman Empire’s destruction in World War I.

Regardless of motivations, even stopping just short of Aleppo would put the Turkish military into position to provide direct military support to its allied opposition forces trapped in Aleppo. The Syrian Army would likely have to withdraw, and the Syrian Air Force might not be able to continue aerial attacks.

Below is my approximated projection of the minimum Turkish Occupation Zone based on various recent Turkish media descriptions, as well as (loosely upon) local highways and land features. In terms of west-east width, this is using the wider “Azaz in the west to Jarabulus in the east” parameter than the one reported in Hurriyet (Marea to Jarabulus). In terms of depth, it is using the much larger 40-50 km measurement from Hurriyet, at least on the southwest corner, where it seems most applicable.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

First, a key observation: Manbij is located on the M4 highway. If Manbij is indeed the big southeast anchor point of the occupation zone, as even the conservative estimate would suggest, that highway not only forms a convenient southern perimeter line but also restricts ISIS movements westward from Raqqa. Moreover, it is the same road that extends to the Euphrates, to the precise spot where the Tomb of Suleyman Shah was located until it was moved in the February operation. So that might be another sign that the incursion was a test.

Second: That’s a pretty huge area, currently controlled (to my knowledge) almost entirely by ISIS and the Syrian Army, except for some of the western locations, which are held by Saudi-backed rebel groups that are theoretically also aligned with Turkey. They might, however, not be overly receptive to a Turkish military occupation in a predominantly Arab territory (though ethnic facts on the ground didn’t deter Turkey’s “peacekeeping” occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974, which hasn’t ended 41 years later). On either side of the Syrian zone are Syrian Kurdish forces and communities (including Kobani, across the Euphrates on the eastern side).

Third: The U.S. no-fly zone would reportedly be based out of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey (see our map) if that deal doesn’t fall apart again.

Fourth, a qualification, as I was taught to make at the University of Delaware Geography Department: keep in mind that I am looking at satellite and road maps with a somewhat limited familiarity with the area in question. Military conditions and physical features on the ground that I can’t see might make some of the lines way off.

[Added at 4:45 AM EDT: While I was writing this report, the wires broke the news that Turkish fighter jets began airstrikes across the border from the Turkish town of Kilis on ISIS targets inside Syria. You can see Kilis is directly north of the northwest corner of the zone mapped above, which means the targets are probably inside the zone. Turkey says the jets fired from within Turkish airspace.]

[Added at 6:25 PM EDT: The Turkish Foreign Ministry has confirmed that U.S. Air Force planes and other coalition partners will be permitted to fly armed and manned missions from Incirlik Air Base and bases at Diyarbakir and elsewhere. The Ministry did not confirm whether a no-fly zone was part of the deal.]

[Added at 3:30 AM EDT on July 25, 2015: And below is a zoomed-out map showing the same area drawn above, this time in red, but within the regional context.]

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

Regional View: July 24, 2015 projection of the perimeter of a potential Turkish occupation zone and U.S. no-fly zone in northern Syria. Click to enlarge.

 

US successfully kills fictional terror group’s leader a 3rd time

U.S_State_Department_photo_of_Muhsin_al-FadhliThis week the Pentagon says that earlier this month it killed Muhsin Al-Fadhli, the leader of the (purportedly real) “Khorasan Group” — alleged to be a Syrian-based outpost of al-Qaeda’s central command — in an airstrike in Syria.

There’s a big problem, though. This is at least the THIRD time, the United States has supposedly killed Muhsin Al-Fadhli in an airstrike in Syria. An International Business Times article from September 28, 2014 reported that he had just been killed by a U.S. airstrike in Syria, but also that he had been previously reported to have been killed by a U.S. airstrike in Syria.

Possibly the bigger problem, though, is that it’s still unclear the group he supposedly leads actually … exists.

Let’s look back at the puzzling framing of other articles from September 2014 about U.S. airstrikes in Syria targeting the group.

New York Times – September 20, 2014:

American officials said that the group called Khorasan had emerged in the past year […]

There is almost no public information about the Khorasan group, which was described by several intelligence, law enforcement and military officials as being made up of Qaeda operatives from across the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. Members of the cell are said to be particularly interested in devising terror plots using concealed explosives. It is unclear who, besides Mr. Fadhli, is part of the Khorasan group.
[…]
Ayman al-Zawahri, the head of Al Qaeda, anointed the Nusra Front as its official branch in Syria and cut ties with the Islamic State early this year after it refused to follow his orders to fight only in Iraq. Officials said that Khorasan was an offshoot of the Nusra Front.

 
The Washington Post – September 22, 2014:

In addition to a broader campaign of airstrikes against Islamic State targets across Syria on Monday night, the United States also pounded a little-known, but well-resourced al-Qaeda cell that some American officials fear could pose a direct threat to the United States.

The Pentagon said in a statement early Tuesday morning that U.S. warplanes conducted eight strikes west of Aleppo against the cell, called the Khorasan Group, targeting its “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.”

 
And then there was Buzzfeed’s excellent report (9/23/14) by Rosie Gray, headlined “How ‘Khorasan’ Went From Nowhere To The Biggest Threat To The U.S.” I think this one line about sums up how absurd this sudden appearance of another supposedly existential, imminent threat is:

“I knew about the group a year ago from the media but didn’t know the name or personalities until the past few days — again from the media,” said Will McCants, a terrorism analyst and fellow at the Brookings Institution.

 
Most of the other experts quoted either instinctively suggested this group is a huge threat (because of course they do) or said it’s borderline made-up.

Then, on November 14, 2014, the LA Times reported more airstrikes — officially undertaken against “Khorasan,” but which seemed to hit an awful lot of major Nusra Front facilities. And one big issue leapt out:

Many opposition activists in Syria and elsewhere doubt the existence of Khorasan, contending that the targets being attacked are actually Al Nusra Front strongholds. Last week, as Centcom announced the second round of strikes on Khorasan positions, opposition activists said warplanes had hit the headquarters of Al Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham, another hard-line rebel group with Al Qaeda links.

 
To recap all of this: The purported organization only came into public knowledge hours before it was first attacked by the U.S. military in September, and locals say it does not exist and is solely a made-up front for unofficially targeting the popular and very real and very large Nusra Front of al-Qaeda in Syria, while suggesting some sort of distinction between the internationalist and Syria-facing segments of Qaeda’s presence in the country that isn’t really there.

(Nusra Front, incidentally, is now openly coordinating closely with and even commanding the U.S.-backed and outmatched “Free Syrian Army.”)

And our leaders, public officials, and media outlets are — by and large — just rolling along with this fairly transparent and repeatedly invalidated fiction.

Back to this week’s news. Here’s a “interesting” assessment of the supposed assassination of the supposed group’s supposed leader:

“A seasoned, knowledgeable and dangerous terrorist who actively sought to harm the United States and its allies has been taken off the battlefield for good,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, noting that al-Fadhli will not be easily replaced.

 
Except, I suppose, if he replaces himself with himself if he’s still not dead.