Texas to Syria: The Jihadist Journey of a Used Pickup Truck


Texas plumber says he has no idea how his old company truck ended up in a jihadi photo from the front lines of the war in Syria produced by the militant group ISIS.

The New York Daily News reported that Mark Oberholtzer of Texas City traded the company car in at a dealership in 2013 and hadn’t thought of it since.

On Monday, however, the Ansar al-Deen Front, a Syrian militant group, posted a photo featuring the black Ford F-250 pickup with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the truck bed and the logo of Oberholtzer’s Mark-1 Plumbing Company and contact information emblazoned on the doors.

Ansar al-Deen Front (aka “Supporters of the Religion” Front) is one of the newer Syrian militant coalitions, operating as an alliance of three “neutral” rebel fighters (mostly foreigners) only since July 2014. They are based in western Syria and claim not to be aligned with either ISIS or the various FSA and Nusra Front groups opposing ISIS. This isn’t terribly surprising since they are apparently mostly not Syrians — hailing from farther flung places such as Morocco and Chechnya — which probably reduces their stake in the internal divisions of the anti-Assad groups.

But back to the poor plumber in Texas. Apart from the death threats from stupid people who can’t figure out this was obviously unintended, I love this story for its globalized absurdity. It is the perfect distillation of all the dedicated but under-appreciated reporting for about 10 years by all the Iraq correspondents noticing pre-owned/stolen North American vehicles repeatedly showing up in bombing attacks and trying to figure out how they got there but not being able to trace them very far. Even FBI investigations didn’t make definitive progress. See this 2005 account:

The inquiry began after coalition troops raided a bomb-making factory in Fallujah last November and found a sport utility vehicle registered in Texas that was being prepared for a bombing mission.

Investigators said they are comparing several other cases where vehicles evidently stolen in the United States wound up in Syria or other Middle East countries and ultimately into the hands of Iraqi insurgent groups — including Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.

Of course, Al Qaeda in Iraq was subsequently renamed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), bringing the whole thing full circle to today’s conflict.

And this new story also involves another of my favorite topics (dating to the Libyan Revolution in 2011): Militants Driving Fast With Stolen Anti-Aircraft Guns on Pickup Truck Beds That Should Not Be Used That Way.


Free Syrian Arms

A gem from a Washington Post report on CIA plans to scale up their existing “secret” project to vet, train, and arm a faction of vaguely pro-American Syrian rebels in the so-called (and largely ambivalent on America) “Free Syrian Army”:

The latest setbacks came this month, when CIA-backed factions were routed by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s primary affiliate in Syria. Fighters with militias including Harakat Hazm — one of the biggest recipients of U.S. arms — fled positions in towns across northern Syria, with many leaving their weapons to be scooped up by al-Nusra. […] The weapons distributed have been mostly light arms, although Harakat Hazm was among a select group of units to be given U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles.

Cool, cool, cool. Such amazing results for Harakat Hazm (Hazzm Movement) bodes well for the even slower, still-under-development Pentagon program to train rebel fighters.

They sound about as effective and reliable as the Iraqi Army and almost as much of an accidental U.S. arms conduit to Nusra Front as the Iraqi Army was to ISIS in Mosul. Hazzm must be the inept military counterpart to the spectacular incompetence and ridiculousness of the supposed “civilian leadership” of “the Syrian opposition.”

Another funny story: Nusra Front — which the Free Syrian Army, the purported parent organization to Hazzm, has repeatedly hailed as a valued ally in the fight against Bashar al-Assad — reportedly just signed a military cooperation pact with ISIS after a year of animosity and infighting. Battlefield cooperation has already begun. (Edit on November 19, 2014: Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi argues that there is very little credible evidence of a serious agreement between Nusra Front and ISIS.)

You may also remember Nusra Front for their greatest hits including the kidnap and ransom of dozens of United Nations peacekeepers captured from Golan Heights. I’m super glad we probably just accidentally gave them anti-tank weapons. I’m sure they’ll find some nice tanks to use them on, and, to be fair, we probably wouldn’t have gotten much use out of them ourselves.

Flag of the CIA-backed Hazzm Movement in Syria. (Credit: MrPenguin20 - Wikimedia)

Flag of the CIA-backed Hazzm Movement in Syria. (Credit: MrPenguin20 – Wikimedia)

CIA’s own studies: arming rebels almost categorically fails

Props to the CIA for honestly checking itself:

The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

Almost the only “success” in arming rebels (as opposed to governments) was Afghanistan in the 1980s, according to their own internal review, and we all know what happened as a direct result of that.

Too bad President Obama, who seemed swayed by the study for some time, reversed course in September of this year and ordered an incomprehensible and ineffective program to arm and train Syrian rebels extremely slowly, narrowly, and pointlessly.

As I asked then:

Why do we have to provide military training and weapons to uncontrollable non-state actors in an already brutal civil war? Is it worth going through this effort and incurring this risk to help a declining rebellion that might even be over by the time these fighters arrive? Are we potentially making the situation for civilians in Syria worse by introducing a new source of destruction and death, rather than letting this war come to a finite end?


"First Sting" by Stuart Brown, CIA Museum, an artist's depiction of Afghan mujahideen rebels shooting down a Soviet aircraft with CIA-supplied Stinger missiles.

“First Sting” by Stuart Brown, CIA Museum, an artist’s depiction of Afghan mujahideen rebels shooting down a Soviet aircraft with CIA-supplied Stinger missiles.

Assad’s air power returns to west Syria, as US handles east

This seems kind of predictable by now: Assad has, quite logically, decided to ignore the coalition air incursions in eastern Syria — not taking the bait to try to stop them — and concentrate on daily air raids on western Syrian cities and towns. In the weeks preceding the start of US-led airstrikes in eastern Syria, the Syrian government forces had finally been forced to start splitting their energies between western rebels and ISIS control in the east. The new situation means the regime can refocus on one side of the three-way civil war: the Free Syrian Army / Nusra Front fighters that form the western opposition.

The result? Loyalist planes and helicopters are pounding away at them again, now unencumbered by either ISIS attacks on eastern Syrian bases or any kind of coalition no-fly zone anywhere in the country. A U.S. official observed to the New York Times, “Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force” — although this is unintentional and not in any way coordinated, as far as we have been told publicly.

Worse, some of the air raids are hard to source, especially because first-day US airstrikes on so-called “Khorassan Group” targets in western Syria (specifically the rebel-dominated Aleppo area) made it seem like the US was planning to strike targets all over the country instead of focusing on strategic eastern ISIS targets. This confusion has led to the US being incorrectly blamed for some of the high civilian casualty bombings the regime has ordered since then.

If nothing else, we are learning that the accidental president, Bashar al-Assad, and his top strategists know how to play a full-scale civil war like a delicate instrument. They don’t bite off more than they can chew, they work with anyone who will help, they avoid or delay taking on stronger enemies (whether ISIS or the United States) directly whenever possible, and they play everyone off everyone else. This is some of the most pragmatic, high-level Machiavellianism — devoid of nostalgia or ideological considerations — that we’ve seen lately in the world and the region.

A map of government territory in northwestern Syria as of October 7, 2014. (Red = government, gray = ISIS, yellow = Syrian Kurds, green = other rebels.) Map via Wikimedia

A map of government territory in northwestern Syria as of October 7, 2014. (Red = government, gray = ISIS, yellow = Syrian Kurds, green = other rebels.) Map via Wikimedia. Click to enlarge.

Gen. Dempsey outlines proposed “Syrian rebels” plan

Even as we learn more about the planned arming and training of the mythical moderate rebels in Syria, there is little reason to think the proposal is realistic or executable. Here are the details we know so far, from The Los Angeles Times’ account of the public statements to Congress on the U.S. plan for countering ISIS in Syria:

In a further sign of a measured approach, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, outlined a narrow mission for the prospective Syrian force, saying the lightly armed fighters might be assigned to recapture and police Syria’s now-open eastern border to prevent militants from crossing into Iraq. “If we can restore the border, it goes a long way to putting pressure on [Islamic State] that will lead to its ultimate defeat,” Dempsey told reporters traveling with him in Paris. He called the border a “sieve.”

On the one hand, this is actually the first mildly encouraging thing I’ve heard about this vague and probably impossible “arm the rebels” plan. Why? In terms of feasibility, reliability, and geography, the only available rebel fighters to patrol the eastern border are probably going to have to be Syrian Kurds. Among all possible groups to arm and train for guerrilla rebellion, this is still not ideal but is way better than most of the competing options, given our close relationship to the Kurdish forces and leaders in Iraq. (Meanwhile, though, our NATO ally Turkey is going to be sitting there hand-wringing internally about whether the United States should be arming and training a Kurdish insurgency.) But it’s unclear to me why Arab states would suddenly help with training, as discussed below, if they are in fact Kurdish rebels not Sunni Arab rebels, so that probably means I’m even giving this plan too much credit…

On the other hand, all the actual details of this plan we’ve heard still make close to no sense and aren’t likely to make any impact on the situation any time soon.

Dempsey told the committee it would take three to five months to recruit and screen Syrian fighters for extremist ties, and eight to 12 months to prepare them for battle. He said they would require independent Syrian commanders, not Americans, and that he hoped special operations troops from Jordan or another Arab state would assist them.

It’s now September 2014. Best case scenario these guys are in the field in eastern Syria by August 2015. Best case. In western Syria, the rebel base city of Aleppo will almost certainly have fallen to the government by then (barring a direct U.S. offensive against Assad), ending the western rebellion and collapsing the non-ISIS opposition to the regime. So these newly trained rebels certainly won’t be providing substantive help to the resistance in Syria in time to turn the tide.

The training will occur in Saudi Arabia and another Arab nation, reportedly Qatar.

They’re going to be trained in Qatar? Given Qatar’s recent record, with or without “screening,” we might as well send these rebels to The Islamist Terror Networks & Logistics Training Academy to get their associate’s degree in kidnap and ransom.

The final detail that struck me as deeply unrealistic was this: Read more

ISIS tanks move on Kurdish enclave in Syria

An armor-supported ISIS division in northern, central Syria has launched an offensive to seize territory from one of the three major Kurdish enclaves in Syria, which have been largely separate from the primary civil war for the past couple years. This area (see map below) is nominally part of the rebel-dominated Aleppo Governorate but lies across the Euphrates River in a kind of sub-district — far from the city of Aleppo itself — long populated with ethnic minorities including Syrian Kurds, Syrian Turks, and Syrian Armenians.

From the AP report today:

Islamic State fighters backed by tanks have captured 16 Kurdish villages over the past 24 hours in northern Syria near the Turkish border, prompting civilians to flee their homes amid fears of retribution by the extremists sweeping through the area, activists said.
Islamic State militants have taken over the 16 Kurdish villages in Syria’s northern Kurdish region of Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, since Wednesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said there were casualties on both sides, but that Kurdish civilians were fleeing their villages for fear that Islamic State group fighters “will commit massacres against civilians.”

Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party, the Kurdish fighters withdrew or lost up to 20 villages in the Kobani region and evacuated civilians with them.
Earlier this week, for example, Kurdish fighters captured 14 villages from the Islamic State in other parts of Syria. Now, the Kurds have been forced out of villages elsewhere.


Map of the Syrian Civil War as of September 13, 2014. Red = Regime, Gray = ISIS, Green = FSA, Yellow = Kurdish. (via Wikimedia)

Map of the Syrian Civil War as of September 13, 2014. Red = Regime, Gray = ISIS, Green = FSA, Yellow = Kurdish. Kobani region is the central yellow area of the map. (via Wikimedia)

Although the Syrian Kurdish fighters in the YPK have previously been very effective against all comers including ISIS, much of their successes — such as the liberation of the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar just across the border in Iraq — have occurred either in Iraq (not Syria) or in the northeastern enclave of Syria that is directly contiguous with Kurdish areas of Iraq. The porous border and (relatively) friendly presence on the other side allows them more room to maneuver around approaching enemies or simply melt away. Before the rise of ISIS, this presence allowed the creation of a relatively stable, self-governing Kurdish breakaway quasi-state in the northeast under the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

In contrast, the north-central Kurdish enclave where Kobani/Ayn Arab is located is surrounded by ISIS and “moderate rebel” positions on three sides and a largely unsympathetic Turkey with border controls on the fourth. They are mostly cut off from other Syrian Kurds, unless they can cross through Turkey or manage to get through areas now held by ISIS.

Depending perhaps on Turkey’s views on the potential future threat posed by the now-beleaguered YPK fighters and the Kurdish villagers they are trying to protect, as well as whether the influential Iraqi Kurdish leadership is concerned about the situation — both of which have a significant voice in setting American military priorities in the region and are much friendlier to Syrian Kurds after months of ISIS advances into Iraq — ISIS tank units attacking Kurdish areas in northern, central Syria seem like a pretty tempting target for American-led coalition airstrikes on ISIS forces in Syria, once those begin in the coming weeks.

Our September 20th, 2014 update on this story can be found here.

Is Obama’s anti-ISIS operation really just intended to overthrow Assad?

A New York Times report says President Obama will destroy Syrian air defenses if they respond to the U.S. attack on ISIS, and he believes this would end the regime.

As soon as President Obama said the operations against ISIS within Syria would consist of limited airstrikes, without Syrian coordination, I wondered what was going to happen if Syrian air defenses responded to the uninvited American incursions. Are we going to destroy them like NATO did with Libya’s air defense and detection systems in 2011? Because then that’s not a limited operation anymore, and it is a direct attack on the Syrian government and military.

Sure enough, that seems to be the working plan (edit: confirmed by U.S. officials today). A New York Times article over the weekend reported on a gathering of a “a group of visitors who met with [President Obama] in the White House before his televised speech to the nation,” based on accounts by “several people who were in the meeting.”

[…] he vowed to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad if Syrian forces shot at American planes […] He made clear the intricacy of the situation, though, as he contemplated the possibility that Mr. Assad might order his forces to fire at American planes entering Syrian airspace. If he dared to do that, Mr. Obama said he would order American forces to wipe out Syria’s air defense system, which he noted would be easier than striking ISIS because its locations are better known. He went on to say that such an action by Mr. Assad would lead to his overthrow, according to one account.

The first part of that is one of the big reasons I was and am strongly opposed to any U.S. military intervention against ISIS inside Syria. The United States’ refusal to coordinate with the Syrian regime — which makes sense diplomatically and strategically perhaps, but not tactically — is at worst goading them into hitting back at the United States and at best setting up a situation where anti-aircraft might be deployed accidentally in the heat of the moment and the confusing fog of war. Even if the regime has no plans to fire back, someone could panic upon seeing approaching bombers on a screen and start shooting anti-aircraft batteries at them. This seems like a possibility particularly at the somewhat isolated major government air base and regime-held zone near the heart of ISIS territory (see map below), where central command might be harder to contact in an emergency.

And that’s if it’s by accident. Al-Arabiya, in their coverage of the New York Times report, reiterated the Syrian government’s public determination to treat as hostile any uncoordinated efforts against ISIS within Syrian territory (longer transcript quotes are at the bottom of this page):

In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Assad adviser Bouthaina Shaaban warned against any “act of aggression” by the U.S. against Syria, while voicing readiness to work with Washington to combat ISIS.

“We are ready to be part of any coalition against terrorism, and any strike on Syria without coordination with the Syrian government is considered an aggression against Syria,” she said.

Moreover, the Times report indicates that the President noted that regime targets would be easier to hit than ISIS targets anyway — which is an awfully big detour to make from the stated goal of the upcoming operation — and claimed that the destruction of the regime’s air defense systems would cause the regime to fall. This suggests that this entire action may become, intentionally or under its own momentum and collateral consequences, the backdoor route to reboot the administration’s increasingly difficult goal of regime change in Syria.

I wouldn’t suggest that possible motive, were it not for the President’s own speech announcing the policy, in which he re-affirmed an intention to supply money, training, and weapons to the so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria. These rebels are badly, perhaps irreversibly, losing the Syrian civil war right now. Their only realistic hope of achieving victory at this point is if the Syrian regime and military suddenly collapses from some external and much larger force, such as a direct attack by the United States. So either this continued “aid to rebels” plan is a half-baked gesture or the impending operation — theoretically against ISIS, a third party — is supposed to end in a major military setback for the Syrian armed forces that is significant enough to reset the rebellion’s chances of success.

I still have no idea how the regime’s air defense systems being destroyed would, on its own, precipitate the fall of the regime to a light infantry rebellion that doesn’t seem to have had any aircraft in quite some time, if they ever did. But it would certainly make it a lot easier for an external military air power to make the decision to bomb the regime out of existence at a later date. And it might hamper the government’s ability to continue bombing rebel-held areas.

Whatever the plan here is supposed to be, it’s getting out of control before it’s even started.

Map of the Syrian Civil War as of September 13, 2014. Red = Regime, Gray = ISIS, Green = FSA, Yellow = Kurdish. (via Wikimedia)

Map of the Syrian Civil War as of September 13, 2014. Red = Regime, Gray = ISIS, Green = FSA, Yellow = Kurdish. (via Wikimedia)

Read more