Wednesday, September 30, 2015

US could keep up to 10,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2016

Although the Afghan war was supposedly "ended" as far as foreign combat troops were concerned a couple of years ago, almost 10,000 US troops still remain.
After recent deliberations among officials, the present plans include options that would leave thousands of troops in Afghanistan through 2016. Plans for successive withdrawals may be scrapped in the face of a continuing Taliban threat and with the Islamic State also trying to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. The Taliban claims there will be no peace agreement as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan.
Proponents of keeping more U.S. troops in place argue that the Afghan forces are simply not capable of beating back the Taliban on their own. The Taliban have gained ground over this year in several areas. The U.S. has already been in Afghanistan for 14 years.
The top international commander in Afghanistan, US General John Campbell, has sent five separate recommendations to both the Pentagon and NATO each with its own risk assessment. Among the options is one that would keep the U.S. presence at near 10,000 troops. At the other end of the scale would be a minimal force of just several hundred troops.
As the officials consider the alternatives, many point to what happened in Iraq after the U.S. left. Opposition to the government grew and the Islamic State was able to take advantage of a weak military. While the emphasis will no doubt remain on training and advising, with counter-terrorism missions as well, many in the military worry that any force reduction could result in a failed mission. The Afghan government itself wants foreign troops to remain.
Current plans call for all US remaining bases to be handed over to Afghan control by the end of 2016 and just a few hundred troops to remain in Kabul by the end of his term of office. Obama already agreed to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan to the end of this year at the request of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, even though Obama had planned to reduce the level to 5,500.
Other NATO members also may keep more troops in Afghanistan than planned. Some officials insist that continued financial support is also crucial in keeping the Taliban and Islamic State at bay. The total NATO and US forces in Afghanistan at present are about 13,000. NATO will be closely monitoring any US decision on troop levels. One NATO official said: "There are 30-plus countries ready to contribute; the question is how big the U.S. will be...Enablers give others confidence that if they get in a real pinch, the U.S. will be able to help them out. Will the U.S. provide the backbone around which NATO brings 30 more countries?"

Rival Libyan governments in no hurry to sign on to Libyan Political Agreement

UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon, after completing dialogue negotiations, prepared a final text of the Libyan Political Agreement(LPA) which was to be considered by the two rival governments this last week.
However, the Eid holiday was on Thursday the 24th. The House of Representatives(HoR) internationally-recognized government in Tobruk apparently has not even met to consider the amended draft. Earlier they had rejected amendments Leon had made to satisfy concerns of the Tripoli-based rival General National Congress(GNC) government. Leon wanted the negotiators to meet shortly after the end of Eid to choose members for the new Government of National Accord. He hoped to start talks Monday but that appears unlikely in that the HoR will send representatives only on Tuesday at the earliest.
The Libya Herald says the HoR will not debate the new LPA draft until Monday or Tuesday next week at the earliest according to HoR member Saad Al-Hashmi. Al-Hashmi said the discussion could even be the following week. He said it all depended upon when members of the HoR returned from the Eid break. Some were out of the country at the Hajj pilgrimage. He claimed that House would wait until all members returned before discussing the draft and whether the HoR would even continue in the dialogue process. If this position represents the actual plans of the HoR, it is a clear rejection of the sense of urgency the UN envoy has been constantly trying to impress upon the dialogue participants, a theme he repeats in his latest press release on the Eid holiday. He does not mention what if any progress there has been in the two legislatures as far as considering the draft is concerned. He does not mention either when the negotiators are to reconvene to choose names for the new government.
Earlier in the week, the president of the HoR, Ageela Gwaider, claimed the HoR had no representatives at the meetings in Skhirat even though there are two members of the HoR team there. The HoR apparently considers that the two who remain are there in a personal capacity but not as representatives of the HoR. The HoR had already rejected an agreement the two had reached with many members who had boycotted the HoR up to now. Leon had praised the agreement as a great breakthrough. After rejecting the amended agreement the HoR had called its representatives back from Skhirat where the talks are being held. However only two of the four negotiators actually returned. One of the two who stayed, Emhemed Shouaib, is actually the head of the team. The team was recalled after the HoR rejected any changes to the earlier draft of the LPA.
On the GNC side, the messages are mixed. GNC dialogue team member, Mohammed Amari, claimed there had been considerable progress in the dialogue and hailed the new draft of the LPA. He said most of the concerns of the GNC government had been met. Amari said:"We will go back to Skhirat after Eid to continue the talks." Press TV claims that Tripoli officials have urged a freeze in the dialogue talks until General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the HoR armed forces, ceases his offensive in Benghazi. A former political adviser to the GNC delegation who recently quit claimed that the majority of the 80 GNC members still opposed the amended draft even though their negotiators accepted it, according to the pro-HoR Libya Herald. Meanwhile, Leon is saying nothing about what will happen this next week. He has said nothing about any parallel military dialogue between Haftar of the HoR and the militia forces associated with the Tripoli government. Without any agreement between the competing militaries a political agreement will be unenforceable. The GNC government may very well return to Skhirat as a tactical move to put pressure on the HoR to return to the dialogue even though they reject the present LPA draft. The chances for a successful political agreement still seem slim at this point.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

US-trained Syrian rebels hand over weapons to Al Qaeda group

Around 70 new graduates of the U.S. training program that produces trained rebels to fight the Islamic State in Syria handed over their weapons and equipment to the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in exchange for safe passage.
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The report comes from the Telegraph. The paper claims a number of sources reported that the fighters associated with Divison 30, the division of "moderate rebels," had surrendered and handed over weapons and equipment to Al-Nusra Front. A Twitter boast of the surrender came from Abu Fahd al-Tunisi, who claimed to be from the Nusra Front:"A strong slap for America... the new group from Division 30 that entered yesterday hands over all of its weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra after being granted safe passage. They handed over a very large amount of ammunition and medium weaponry and a number of pick-ups."
Another purported Al-Nusra member, Abu al-Maqdisi, claimed the Division 30 commander, Anas Ibrahim Obaid, said he had tricked the coalition because he needed weapons. Al-Maqdisi tweeted: "He promised to issue a statement... repudiating Division 30, the coalition, and those who trained him. And he also gave a large amount of weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra."
Several sources put the number of U.S.-trained fighters entering Syria as 75, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Middle East Eye also reported on the incident. CENTCOM issued a statement saying that about 70 graduates of the Syria Train and Equip program had re-entered Syria with their weapons and equipment and were operating as New Syrian Forces(NSF) alongside other rebels fighting the Islamic State.
An earlier group of U.S.-trained fighters had been attacked by Al-Nusra and their base over-run. Their commander was kidnapped. Recently the head of CENTCOM, General Lloyd Austin III, claimed that there were only four or five U.S.-trained fighters left in Syria.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Haftar prevents HoR prime minister from leaving Libya once again

For the second time within a week, the Prime Minister of the internationally-recognized House of Representatives(HoR) Libyan government, Abdullah al-Thinni, has been forcibly prevented from flying out of the country.
Last Tuesday, militia loyal to Khalifa Haftar, stopped Al-Thinni from boarding a plane that was to take him to an oil conference in Malta. The militia actually attempted to arrrest Al-Thinni but the airport guards were able to whisk him away to safety. While the reasons for the move are not certain, reports indicate Haftar was angered by Al-Thinni's dismissal of the deputy of security affairs, Al-Mihdi Allabad. Allabad had excellent relations with Haftar's militias.
According to the Libya Observer, a source favourable to the General National Congress(GNC) Tripoli-based government, Al-Thinni was boarding a plane at Labrag Airport in eastern Libya today when Haftar militia, who control the airport, stopped the plane and dragged al-Thinni out. Al-Thinni was planning to spend an Eid vaction in Egypt. Eid ends on September 24. No reason was given for his arrest. Perhaps Haftar wants Al-Thinni available to denounce the final Libya Political Agreement, which will be released at any time since the present dialogue session is apparently finished for now. Others in the Al-Thinni government are now at odds with Haftar, including the commander of the militia forces who guard the oil ports in eastern Libya Jodran Ibrahim.He accuses Haftar of trying to assassinate him.
There might be some doubt about the incident except that it is also reported by the Libya Herald that is usually pro-HoR. The Herald is less specific about who was responsible:Libya’s prime minister Abdullah Al-Thinni was today stopped from boarding his official plane at Labraq airport for the second time in a week.No details were given about who ordered the move nor where Thinni was heading, but it comes only five days after soldiers acting on orders from a top commander stopped him boarding a flight to Malta to address a conference organised by the National Oil Corporation.
The Herald apparently does not feel able to name the top commander, Khalifa Haftar, who gave the orders in the first incident.
It appears Haftar will not allow Al-Thinni to leave the country. The HoR has already issued a statement condemning the UN Support Mission in Libya for its news release, in which the UN claimed Haftar's new military mission in Benghazi was designed to derail the dialogue process. Haftar may want Al-Thinni to stay around so he can orchestrate further denunciations of the UN. He and the HoR will complain that the UN is supporting terrorism and frustrating Haftar's attempts to destroy Islamic terrorism. Some of his opponents in Benghazi are said to belong to the Islamic State but others are part of an umbrella group the Shura Council of Benghazi revolutionaries that are supported by the GNC government.
Leon has just announced on Twitter that the dialogue participants have completed the Libyan Political Agreement and Leon claims this is a final document that will have to be accepted or rejected by the parties. He also said that the dialogue would commence immediately after Eid (September 24) and would name the members of the Government of National Accord within two or three days. He said he would give a more detailed report later

Tobruk government rejects UN criticism of Haftar's "Operation Doom"

The internationally-recognized House of Representatives(HoR) government based in Tobruk has reacted angrily to a recent press release of the UN Support Mission in Libya's(UNSMIL) condemning the recently announced military operation in Benghazi.
The HoR completely rejected the accusation by the UNSMIL and special envoy, Bernardino Leon, that the military action launched by commander of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar named Operation Doom, was a deliberate attempt to derail the dialogue process taking place in Skhirat Morocco. The UN has repeatedly asked that both sides refrain from any military action against each other during the talks. The UN press release claimed that the operation was a deliberate attempt to undermine the peace process.
Khalifa Haftar, has been carrying out Operation Dignity since May 2014 designed to rid Libya of Islamists. However, Haftar considers all Islamists terrorists and this includes supporters of the General National Congress(GNC) based in Tripoli. An HoR spokesperson said:“We are very surprised by the UNSMIL statement from Bernadino Leon and do not accept it. The army is fighting IS terrorists in Benghazi, who do not believe in civil government. And the people are supporting the army”.
The HoR is correct that some of those they are fighting are terrorists. The Islamic State fighters are terrorists opposed not only by the GNC government but even by the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries the umbrella group of Islamists whom Haftar is also fighting. This group is supported by the GNC government. The attack on them may already have resulted in the GNC withdrawing its negotiators from the talks. The head of the HoR air force Al Jaroushi also said when Operation Doom was announced that the operation would move on to take Tripoli and Misrata and other cities in the area controlled by the GNC when Benghazi was regained. The HoR should be surprised that the HoR is not also being roundly condemned for supporting Operation Dignity and Haftar.
The year-long conflict in Benghazi has resulted in a humanitarian disaster with hundreds of thousands fleeing the conflict and parts of the city reduced to rubble by constant bombardment and artillery fire with neither side showing concern for civilian casualties. Haftar's forces have suffered significant casualties whenever they have attempted to retake more of the city. At one time the Shura Council group had control of almost all the city whereas now most of it is controlled by Haftar and the HoR government.
Haftar has always supported a military solution to the two-government problem vowing to defeat the Libya Dawn forces associated with the GNC government. He has never accepted any agreement negotiated by Leon and has often tried to disrupt the peace talks. He would like to see Libya run by a military council after the mandate of the HoR runs out near the end of October. A recent demonstration in the city of Ajdabiya opposed Haftar's plans to set up such a council. The commander of the militia that guard the oil ports has also come out in opposition to Haftar even accusing Haftar of attempting to assassinate him. There seems little hope of peace in Libya any time soon. Haftar was previously a CIA asset and worked for them in Chad. He is a US citizen now:The C.I.A. had to airlift Haftar and three hundred and fifty of his men to Zaire and, eventually, to the United States. Haftar was given citizenship, and remained in the U.S. for the next twenty years.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

United Nations condemns Haftar's "Operation Doom" in Benghazi

Yesterday the commander of the Libyan National Army of the internationally-recognized House of Representatives(HoR) government in Tobruk launched new attacks he calls "Operation Doom" against areas of Benghazi still held by Islamists.
As described in the pro-HoR Libya Herald the operation was announced early on Saturday by General Haftar in the presence of all the top military brass in the Benghazi area. Haftar has been attempting to retake all of Benghazi for almost a year. Much of the city is in ruins from bombing and shelling. Some parts of the city are still controlled by the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries but some of that group have joined the Islamic State that also now is in parts of the city according to some reports.
The Libya Observer which supports the Tripoli-based General National Congress(GNC) government also reported on the new operation, noting it is happening more than a year after he launched Operation Dignity in May of 2014 to control Benghazi and had promised to move on to free Libya of all Islamists. He attacked two Islamist bases and then his allies attacked and burned the parliament setting in motion the present conflict. His present operations in Benghazi and elsewhere are still described as part of his Operation Dignity. Haftar rejects the both the new Libyan Political Agreement as amended to meet concerns of the GNC government with the previous draft, but also the previous draft that the HoR supported. He rejects any negotiations with the GNC militia, Libya Dawn, whom he calls terrorists and refuses to even consider a ceasefire. Haftar and his Air Force Chief Saqir Al-Jaroushi have both been named as being subject to sanctions by the EU. It is not clear if there was any follow through by the EU authorities. Haftar has consistently snubbed his nose at the UN and laughed at the idea of his being sanctioned claiming the threat was meaningless. He has since been offered aid by the Arab League and signed a military agreement with Jordan. In the past he has bombed Mitiga airport in Tripoli just before Tripoli delegates were to go to peace talks. He announced an offensive to take Tripoli just before peace talks first began about a year ago now.
According to the Observer, Al-Jaorushi said the Doom Operation would be moved on to the cities of Misrata, Tripoli and others in areas controlled by the GNC government after Benghazi was completely retaken. It is not surprising that the UN should consider the new airstrikes in Benghazi "a clear attempt to undermine and derail the on-going efforts to end the conflict at a time when the negotiations have entered a final and most critical stage." I have no idea what Leon thinks he is going to accomplish by this strong rhetorical condemnation of Haftar. In ordinary circumstances the HoR government would have long ago fired their commander in chief for acts counter to government policy such as rejecting a draft agreement that the HoR accepted. However, Haftar recently prevented prime minister Al Thinni from flying to a conference in Malta and had his security forces try to arrest him. Not a peep out of the HoR government about this so far. Clearly if the HoR tries to fire Haftar they would be facing a military coup and a government by military council. Haftar wants such a council to take over once the HoR mandate runs out near the end of October.
Leon will no doubt report about the dialogue process tomorrow. According to the Observer the speaker of the GNC Nuri Sahmain has called the GNC dialogue team home immediately, claiming that the dialogue could not succeed while Haftar's violent military operation in Benghazi continued. The GNC supports the Shura Council but of course not the Islamic State. It remains to be seen if this recall will actually be fully carried out. When the HoR recalled their negotiators to Tobruk, two came back to Tobruk and the other two stayed and not only participated in the dialogue but made an agreement with 25 members of the HoR who had boycotted the parliament to return. This was an agreement that Leon hailed as a great breakthrough.
The Observer reports:Tobruk Parliament said on Friday that the agreement reached in Skhirat, between its delegation to the dialogue and parliament boycotters on a new transitional phase, is not binding.
The statement reiterated the call for the dialogue team to withdraw and return to the HoR headquarters in Tobruk. It also insisted on obtaining a written answer from the Head of the UNSMIL, Bernardino Leon, to the letter addressed to him by the Speaker of Tobruk parliament on September 06.
Among the demands by the speaker, Aqalih Saleh was that the Government of National Accord(GNA) or unity government be given a vote of confidence by the HoR only not the GNC as well. Another demand is that all laws and appointments previously made by the HoR be recognized as valid. This would ensure that Khalifa Haftar and all his cronies who served under Gadaffi would remain in their positions. If these reports are correct there will be no one from either the HoR or the GNC left at Skhirat to engage in the dialogue. We will soon see if the dialogue is finished for now or still continuing.

US and Russian Defence ministers in talks on Syria

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu held talks on Syria. The Pentagon said the two discussed areas where U.S. and Russian "perspective overlap and areas of divergence."
Russia together with Iran have long been allies of the Assad government in Syria and have provided considerable material help. The Lebanese group Hezbollah has also aided the regime by supplying many fighters. The extent of Russian forces on the ground is not clear, although they no doubt have special forces and trainers to teach the Syrians how to use equipment. The Russians have long had a naval base in the port of Tartarus in Syria.
Both the U.S. and Russians are anxious to prevent any possible conflict between U.S. and Russian forces. The U.S. and its allies have carried out an extensive bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria without ever seeking permission from the Syrian government to do so. Assad has tolerated these incursions. No doubt he could do little to prevent them and they help to defeat the Islamic State one of his many rebel enemies. At the same time, support for the Kurds by the U.S. helps a group which for tactical reasons has remained more or less neutral in attitude to the Assad government.
The Kurds appear more concerned with solidifying their hold on territory they occupy rather than fighting Assad. Very early on in the civil war the Assad regime decided to leave the Kurds alone, providing they did not seize territory from Assad or attack regime forces. This Kurd policy is just one more conflict the Turks have with the Kurds and the U.S., who supports them. The Kurds are gaining territory as the IS loses ground, creating a larger Kurdish area that will demand more autonomy or even independence in any political settlement. The Turks have agreed to join the fight against the IS and allowed the U.S. to use an airbase in Turkey but most of Turkish bombing missions are against Kurdish PKK positions in Iraq.
While the U.S. supports the Kurds against the IS in spite of their toleration of Assad, it draws the line at any coordination of its actions with Assad or to have the Russians also help out in the campaign. State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said that in the talks, the U.S. was trying to find out the intentions of Russia in Syria as there are reports of a military build-up including the arrival of tactical fighter planes. Toner said:“We’ve been very clear we don’t accept Russia’s premise that somehow Assad can be a credible partner in fighting ISIL. We reject that.” No doubt the U.S. worries about alienating Syrian rebels, even more by not only helping Assad but clearly cooperating with him. As far as the fight against the Islamic State is concerned, the help of the Assad regime and Russia would no doubt aid in defeating the group. In spite of differences the U.S., Syria and Russia have cooperated in the past. The disposal of Assad's chemical weapons was a successful operation by all three.
Carter emphasized that the military talks should go on with parallel diplomatic talks. The tasks of defeating the Islamic State and reaching a political solution should happen at the same time. One huge problem is that there is a disconnect with the transitional political groups set up by the west, many secular, and the mainly jihadist groups on the ground. The latter are not likely to pursue any political solution before the defeat of Assad, and any political solution reached without their agreement will be unenforceable.
Russia appears to be reinforcing its support for the Assad regime as it seemingly loses some ground against the rebels. The refugee crisis appears to be putting pressure on the west to stop the war and find a political solution if possible. Russia wants its ally to be in a relatively strong position when negotiations take place. This would explain the buildup described in the Wall Street Journal:Defense officials said over the past two weeks Russia has stepped up development of an airfield near the port city of Latakia by sending in housing for up to 2,000 people, attack and transport helicopters, artillery, tanks and armored personnel carriers. The jets, believed to be Sukhoi Su-27s, which are designed for air-to-air combat, could be used to challenge U.S. planes flying over Syria or to help Syrian forces defending the Assad regime.The buildup could also be used as a means of deterring the U.S. from any move to attack the Assad regime directl,y as rebels have long been urging. Given the Russian experience in Afghanistan and US experience in Iraq, the Russians may not want "boots on the ground" in Syria but will follow US policy of having special forces, trainers, and advisers. However, the Russians did say if Syria requested troops it would consider sending them. The Russians claim their military build-up is purely defensive.

US, UK and many other EU countries voice support for Libyan dialogue

France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the U.K., and the United States all welcomed the ongoing UN-sponsored dialogue in Skhirat, Morocco and voiced their support for the process and UN Special Representative for Libya Bernardino Leon.
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The group also urged all the parties to participate constructively in the talks to reach a comprehensive agreement. This would include a conclusive decision on candidates for the Government of National Accord(GNA) by Sunday September 20. This would allow the agreement to be endorsed by all the parties by the end of September and the GNA to take over by the 21st of October, when the mandate of the internationally-recognized House of Representatives Government (HoR) runs out.
The group also condemned any kind of violence or intimidation against any party involved in the dialogue process. Those aiming to derail the process they claimed will be held accountable. There is no mention of specific names of those that were supposed to be subject to EU sanctions. These included former CIA asset Khalifa Haftar now commander of the Libyan National Army, the armed forces of the internationally-recognized HoR government. It is not clear that he was ever actually sanctioned and the press does not seem interested enough to report on the issue. He has recently been promised support by the Arab League and is already supported by Egypt. He also signed a military agreement with Jordan. He rejects the UN-brokered agreement and did so even before it was amended. The HoR accepted the earlier draft but rejected the amended draft that addressed concerns of the rival GNC government.
The international community itself applied a great deal of pressure and used intimidation tactics against the GNC delegation when they refused to initial an early draft that had been amended by Leon, without consultation with or approval of their negotiators. The international community wants a new government in place that they hope will sanction a planned foreign intervention in Libya again. The refugee crisis and the Islamic State threat will be used as justifications this time around. The group said: Time is running out for Libya to address its critical humanitarian, economic, and security challenges, including the spread of Da’esh/ISIL-aligned groups and of criminal organizations engaged in smuggling and trafficking in persons. ..The international community stands ready to provide significant economic and security assistance to a united Libya as soon as the new government is agreed. It is clear that we are going towards a process of reconciliation in Libya, and no party should fear it.
It remains to be seen how much reconciliation there is. At the military level of Haftar and the Tripoli militia forces, there is no reconciliation at all. Haftar has just announced a new campaign against Islamist groups in Benghazi. This is where the conflict began with Haftar attacking Islamist bases in Benghazi beginning his Operation Dignity in May of 2014. He intends to defeat Tripoli militarily.
The GNC representatives to the talks just arrived this morning at the talks. Apparently they did not present names for one of the prime minister's deputies as the UN had asked. Leon announced that there was a deal between the HoR delegation to the dialogue and 25 members of the HoR who had been boycotting the parliament, many of them with links to the Tripoli government or areas controlled by them. The agreement would see the group rejoin the HoR. Details as to the deal or as to when they would rejoin the HoR were not given. I thought incorrectly that the deal was between the two negotiators of the HoR who remained at Skhirat when they were called back to Tobruk and the two who went back as demanded by the HoR stayed in Tobruk and "boycotted" the dialogue. The two who went to Tobruk are not reported as having gone back.
The agreement that Leon finds so positive is apparently only between the two HoR negotiators, who remained at Skhirat and the boycotters. One of the two negotiators has apparently returned to Tobruk to try to convince the HoR to accept this sub-agreement. The HoR is to have a meeting tomorrow September 20 to debate the deal approved to have the boycotters return to the HoR. The draft Libyan Political Agreement(LPA) must be approved by the HoR as well. Perhaps they will discuss this too at their meeting. The present HoR members may be reluctant to allow the boycotters to return until after the vote on the LPA since many of them are probably favourable to the amended draft. Most are associated with areas controlled by the GNC government. If the HoR present members reject the LPA, Leon may insist that the boycotters also should vote on the issue. This would create more conflict. We should know by late Sunday or early on Monday how the process is developing.

Commander of IS forces in Syria once worked under US-backed Free Syrian Army

While the U.S. emphasizes that it does not support radical jihadists in Syria, it actually supported a group of Chechen jihadists led by Omar al-Shishani or Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, who now commands the Islamic State forces in Syria.
Abu Omar al-Shishani was first trained by the U.S. as part of an elite Georgian army unit and served until 2006. He was involved in the Georgian conflict with Russia.
Al-Shishani later moved from Georgia and ended up in Syria with a group of Chechen jihadists fighting against the Assad regime. In August 2013 Al Shishani and his jihadist group were instrumental in capturing the Menagh air base that had resisted rebel attacks for 10 months previously:This week, the jihadist group Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, or the Army of Emigrants and Supporters, led by a fighter from the Caucasus known as Abu Omar al-Shesheni — the Chechen — worked with Free Syrian Army battalions to take the Menagh air base in Aleppo Province after 10 months of trying.Two of his jihadist members drove a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device on a suicide mission into the base killing many of the remaining defenders.
At the time of this attack, the Revolutionary Council of Aleppo was the command structure officially sanctioned and supported by the US and UK. The Council was headed by Free Syrian Army Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okadi described by the press as the main recipient of western aid. After the Menagh Base was taken, Colonel al-Okadi appeared in a video alongside Abu Jandal a leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria(ISIS):The group singled out for praise in the video, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, was precisely Omar Shishani’s own brutal Chechen group (“Army of Emigrants and Helpers”) which turned the tide of the battle. Most significant about FSA Col. Okaidi himself, clearly the operational head of this jihadi “basketball team,” was that he had been paid a personal visit by his State Department patron, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, just months prior to the final victory at Menagh.
This shows at one time that the FSA and the Islamic State fought alongside each other under command of the US-supported FSA.
Ford admitted that rebels funded by the U.S. State Department included ISIS. He told a McClatchy reporter he had called Oakaidi to tell him cooperation with Shishani and his jihadists was "extremely unhelpful, extra unhelpful." What it shows is that even rebels supported by the U.S. have a quite different agenda than the U.S. They care less about how radical the groups are they ally with as long as they are helpful in fighting Assad. Rebels of every stripe were horrified and angered when the U.S. bombed the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. The only reason rebels fight the Islamic State is that IS has attacked them.
You would think that Okaidi's relationship with the U.S. would end with the IS episode but in July 2015 Okaidi was interviewed on CNN by Christiane Amanpour appealing for a US no-fly zone in Syria to support moderate rebels. In a recent poll by ORB international 82 percent of Syrians blamed the U.S. for the growth of ISIS. This would not be the first time the U.S. had encouraged jihadists only to suffer blowback. The CIA funded jihadists in their successful campaign against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan including one well-known jihadist by the name of Osama Bin Laden. As with Bin Laden, Shishani became a wanted terrorist.
Shishani was added to the US Treasury Department's list of Specially Designated Global terrorists on September 24th 2014. On May 5 2015 the U.S. State Department Rewards for Justice Program announced that a reward of up to US $5 million is offered for information that could lead to his capture. The appended video purports to show an attack by the FSA on the Islamic State led by an Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front commander just in August.

Monday, September 21, 2015

US general claims less than half dozen US-trained rebels remain in Syria

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of CENTCOM and the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, said there were only four or five Syrian rebels trained by the U.S. military still in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
General Austin also said the U.S. would not reach its goal of training 5,000 Syrian fighters in the near future. In effect, Austin's testimony before the U.S. Armed Services Committee showed that the Defense Department $500 million program was going nowhere.
Republican Senator John McCain, chair of the committee, wanted to know why the U.S. had not set up a no-fly zone over Syria to help protect civilians from being bombed by the Assad government. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill said that despite all the talk from US military officials about how well the war was progressing there seemed no recognition of the "practical realities". Intelligence agents have complained that their negative reports on the war against the Islamic State are being altered by superiors.
The Defense Department had announced last May that they intended to train up to 5,400 fighters each year in a strategy designed to combine US bombing with proxy local troops on the ground against the Islamic State. The U.S. has been reluctant to send American troops against the Islamic State, although there are no doubt some special forces operating in secret in Syria. The problem for the U.S. is that the rebels are interested primarily in fighting against Assad and not the Islamic State. Many are particularly incensed at the U.S. bombing of the Al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front. In some areas the Front is a key player in attacking Assad. The Front has retaliated by successfully attacking U.S.-trained rebels and seizing their weapons.
The U.S.-trained rebels called the New Syrian Force(NSF) began with only 54 with all but four or five either having been killed or fleeing, according to General Austin. Present classes in training are about 100 to 120 fighters, nowhere near the over-5,000 target. In spite of the fact that the Pentagon repeatedly praises and promotes the program, General Austin said it was reviewing it.
Recent reports indicate the Obama administration is finally planning a major overhaul of its strategy. The new plan will see the U.S.-trained rebels embedded with Kurdish and Arab forces in northeastern Syria. The rebels would be trained to use U.S. communications equipment, enabling them to provide intelligence and designate targets for U.S. bombing. The numbers to be trained are being scaled back to around 500 per year, just one tenth of the original plans.

Al Qaeda in Yemen retain territory through local alliances and providing basic services

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula(AQAP) has been able to expand its area of control while joining the fight against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
AQAP is often able to ally itself with local Sunni tribes who appreciate the groups' help in their battle against the Houthi rebels. Rather than ruling just on its own, the group often serves as a power broker, establishing local ruling bodies composed of those willing to cooperate with the group. AQAP has become a major power broker through methods described in a recent Al Jazeera article.
AQAP and local allies control virtually the whole of the huge desert province of Hadramawt, including the port capital of Mukalla. The port was seized back in Mid-April as described in a VICE news article:On the 2nd of April 2015, AQAP fighters stormed the coastal city of Al Mukalla and captured it on the 16th of April after the two week Battle of Al Mukalla. They seized government buildings and reportedly used trucks to cart off more than $120 million from the central bank, according to the bank’s director. AQAP forces soon passed control to a civilian council, giving it a budget of more than $4 million to provide services to residents of the city.The civilian council is called the Hadramawt National Council(HNC). The council has ensured that Mukalla residents have basic services, including drinking water, electricity and fuel. The council also has its own militia which protects schools, government buildings, and banks. Provision of basic services and security is rare in much of Yemen. Although critics claim that the HNC is nothing but a front for AQAP, locals probably do not care as long as the group provide security and services that otherwise would be lacking, and often were when the Hadi government was in power.
HNC Secretary-General Abdul-Hakeem bin Mahfood told Al Jazeera that AQAP, whom he called "Sons of Hadramawt," were crucial in maintaining peace in Mukalla. When AQAP members entered the city they claimed that they were not there as AQAP but as "Sons of Hadramawt," as many were from famous families in the province. They did not raise their flag or announce they had taken the city. The HNC was then formed. Mahfood insisted that the council had sent representatives to Ryadh Saudi Arabia where they met with exiled president Mansour Hadi, who praised the HNC for restoring peace and security in the city. The Hadi governor stayed in Mukalla for days after AQAP took control and when he left for Ryadh, encouraged the HNC to continue with its work. Mahfood said that Al Qaeda agreed to keep a low profile to avoid bombardment such as happened under a previous Hadi government offensive that led to terrible destruction in AQAP occupied cities such as Sinjar. The local military representative of the Hadi government Major General Abdul-Raheem Atteq has so far agreed not to attack Mukalla.
So far in the conflict, the Saudi-led coalition has not bombed AQAP-controlled areas nor attempted to occupy them with ground forces. To do so would invite a great deal of local opposition given the degree of cooperation between AQAP and local officials. AQAP is also a key player in the ongoing battle against the Houthis as well. The U.S. in contrast has continued drone attacks in AQAP-controlled areas including Mukalla. The UN calculates that over the past year as many as 40 Yemeni civilians may have been killed by U.S. drone attacks. Asked his opinion of the U.S. drone attacks, Bin Mahfood replied:It is known that drone strikes are provocative actions, extrajudicial killing, and a violation of sovereignty, as they [al-Qaeda] are not subject to prosecution.
Al Jazeera: Who will prosecute them if they are in control of the city?
Bin Mahfood: Even if they control the city, this should not justify killing them because they are affiliated with al-Qaeda. They should be faced with proven allegations and then put on trial. And we should see if [they] deserve capital punishment for that crime.
Mahfood noted that due to the stability in the city, it had received 150,000 displaced people from the port city of Aden and other areas. The Hadi government may find itself in a delicate situation if it decides it should do as before and drive AQAP out of areas that it controls.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Top ranked 200 world universities

The QS World University Rankings are issued annually by the Quacquarelli Symonds(QS) company. From 2004 to 2009 QS collaborated with Times Higher Education in issuing rankings but since then have issued separate rankings.
QS chose to follow the methodology existing at the time of the split but THE adopted new methodology for its own versions. The QS rankings have been criticized for being commercialized and giving weight to some subjective indicators.
The rankings for 200 universities from 57 different countries can be found here. The top 10 universities are dominated by large US universities although the UK and Switzerland also are represented. From first to tenth the top 10 universities are: Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT) in the US; Harvard (US); Cambridge in the UK; Stanford (US); Caltech (US); Oxford (UK); UC London (UK); Imperial College (UK); Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Switzerland; University of Chicago (US). Singapore boasts the National University of Singapore at 12th and Nanyang Tech at 13th. Australia's highest ranking was their National University at 19th. The highest rated Canadian university was McGill in Montreal at 24thm just ahead of the highest-ranking Chinese school Tsinghua University.
Changes in measurement methodology has led to Canadian universities being lower in the ranks this year as compared to last. The University of Toronto placed 34th and the University of British Columbia in 50th. University of Montreal dropped from 83rd last year to 115th this year. The methodology is based on six indicators that include academic reputation, employer reputation, and faculty-to-student ratio. The survey considered 3,539 institutions of which the 200 best were ranked.
Several high-ranking UK universities saw their ratings drop with the new methodology but the UK still has four universities in the top 10 in the world. One of the biggest casualties was London’s Imperial College, which in 2014 was tied for second with Cambridge but this year dropped to eighth position because of a change in the methodology used to rate universities. Oxford and University College London also slipped from a tie for fifth to sixth for Oxford and seventh for UCL this year. However, some universities climbed in rankings because of the changes with the London School of Economics and Political Science(LSE) jumping from 71st all the way to 35th. Warwick university also gained advancing from 61st last year to enter the top 50 at 48th this year. The methodology changes are an attempt to provide a better balance between universities strong in research and those that are outstanding in the arts and humanities but provide many fewer citations. Critics have claimed that using citations as a key measure also discriminates against universities whose main language of instruction is not English since citations come from predominantly English language sources.
Ben Sowter, head of QS research said about the better rating of LSE under the new methodology:“That the LSE is a world-class institution is not news. Indeed, they have been a firm fixture in the QS top 100 for over a decade, but in any ranking system that places emphasis on medicine and sciences, their strength in their areas of specialty are never likely to shine as brightly as they ought to.The QS methodology now evens the playing field and LSE climbs 36 places to be counted, rightfully, amongst the world’s top 40.”
John O'Leary a board member of the QS advisory board noted that even under the new ratings the UK rated second only to the US as a desitnation for higher education and that UK universities still make up four of the ten top universities This is surely an impressive achievement. Of the top 200 institutions 49 were in the US, 30 in the UK, 12 in the Netherlands, and 11 in Germany. Canada, Australia and Japan all had 8 and China had 7. London has the most of the top universities of any city in the world.

Libyan army commander Haftar prevents prime minister from flying to Malta

The Prime Minister of the internationally-recognized House of Representatives(HoR) government, Abdullah al-Thinni, was prevented by security officials from departing on a flight to Malta for a meeting.
The pro-HoR Libya Herald caims sources at the Labraq international airport near Bayda told them that the security personnel were acting on orders from top military figures. The Herald sees this as a reference to General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army — the military forces of the HoR, al-Thinni's own government. An official in Malta confirmed al-Thinni was to fly there for a meeting. The Herald notes al-Thinni had previously been prevented from boarding a plane. In July last year he was prevented from flying out of Mitiga airport but this is in the area controlled by the rival Tripoli-based GNC government. The militia there are hostile to al-Thinni and his government. This is hardly comparable since in this case he is being prevented from flying by his own security forces.
The pro-GNC publication Libya Observer gives more details. The Observer refers to the security personnel as "gunmen" connected to Khalifa Haftar militias and claims there were reports of gunfire between Al-Thinni's guards and the militia members. After the clash, al-Thinni was said to have been transported to a safe place, presumably by his guards. Al-Thinni was scheduled to attend an oil conference in Malta. The HoR government has set up its own rival National Oil Company(NOC) in the east and is trying to lure foreign oil buyers to bypass the neutral NOC located in Tripoli. So far foreign buyers have been wary of bypassing the established NOC. The UN had warned the HoR not to further complicate the situation by setting up its own oil company but the HoR paid no attention.
While the reason why al-Thinni was prevented from making the trip is not clear, the Observer speculates that the militia intended to arrest al-Thinni for dismissing the deputy for security affairs Al-Mihdi Allabad, who had maintained good relations with Haftar militias. Theoretically Haftar's "militias" are now just part of the Libyan National Army but Haftar maintains control over them and the units appear loyal to him rather than the HoR government.
Maltese paper also reported on the incident and indicated that Al-Thinni would not be attending a scheduled meeting in Malta. As well as referencing some of the Libya Herald account and its mentioning of General Haftar, the paper also claims a source reported gunfire was heard during a standoff between an "armed group" and airport security officers. The conference was organized by the HoR-created National Oil Corporation.
The paper also says sources told it that the dispute between Al-Thinni and Haftar was over the HoR failure to appoint a defence minister. Perhaps Khalifa had someone in mind but al-Thinni did not want to appoint anyone when he is,or rather was, in the process of signing on to a new Government of National Accord(GNA) promoted by the UN. However, the HoR has just recently rejected the latest version of the Libyan Political Agreement(LPA) that incorporates some of the demands of the GNC, and called its negotiators back to Tobruk for consultations.
There appears to be a serious breach between the Al-Thinni government and Haftar. Haftar had rejected the earlier LPA that the HoR had accepted. He also refuses to engage in negotiations with the militia of the Tripoli government, Libya Dawn and calls them terrorists. So recalcitrant has he been that he is named by the EU as one of several people to be subject to sanctions for blocking the peace process. Even within the HoR establishment he has had several other disputes including recent conflict with Ibrahim Jathran or Jodran, the commander of the militias that guard the eastern oil ports. A Jathran convoy was attacked on Haftar's command.The situation in eastern Libya appears increasingly unstable with a possible military coup in the offing rather than any signing of the LPA.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

No peace talks in Yemen as Hadi government refuses to attend

Exiled Yemen president Mansour Hadi and his government announced on Sunday that they will not participate in planned UN peace talks. Hadi insists that Houthis must withdraw from any areas they seized during their offensive, including the capital Sanaa.
This and other demands are part of a UN resolution passed in April. Hadi has always taken the view that any peace talks should simply discuss ways of implementing the UN demands. Peace talks for Hadi would more appropriately be called "surrender talks." The Houthis have already agreed at least in part with the UN resolution in order to achieve a political solution. UN envoy Ismail Ahmed says the Houthis have accepted most of the UN resolution. Hazsan Zaid, president of the Houthi-allied Haq party, claimed accepting the UN resolution is not the concern but rather the problem is its implementation:The Houthis have accepted to withdraw their forces and hand in the arms they seized, but want to ensure they take place in a manner that doesn't keep Yemen lawless. Withdrawing forces with no replacement for security will allow al Qaeda to take control, as they did in southern provinces."
An earlier statement about the peace talks from the UN also indicated all sides had agreed to abide by a Security Council resolution that among other things called for the Houthis to pull out of major cities as well as return arms seized. Naturally, the Houthis want something in return. The Hadi government and the Saudi coalition seem convinced that they can defeat the Houthis militarily.
There had been no talk of a ceasefire while the peace talks went on this time, and the Saudi coalition appears to be massing forces for a march towards the capital Sanaa. Hadi and the Saudis may be simply reaching for excuses not to join the talks while they press on with the battle or try to force an immediate surrender by the Houthis. Hadi talked of the Houthis being required not only to accept the UN resolution but to agree to its unconditional implementation, better phrased as "unconditional surrender" Latest reports indicate that the Saudi-led offensive has already begun and air attacks on Houthis have intensified.
UN Human Rights chief Zeid al-Hussein called for an independent inquiry into violations of human rights by both sides in the conflict. The Saudi-led coalition has used cluster bombs in northern Yemen, and bombed civilian areas in some cities, as well as targeted port facilities in Hodeida occupied by the Houthis. The port is a key area for UN delivery of aid to Houthi-controlled areas. The Houthis are accused of shelling civilian areas. Al-Hussein claimed that more than 2,000 civilians had been killed and another 4,000 wounded in the conflict. He also said 21 million people or 80 percent of the population needed humanitarian aid.
Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula(AQAP) has been able to turn the conflict to its advantage. It has extended considerably the range of territory it controls and forged close alliances with various Sunni tribal leaders to battle the Houthis. The US has continued sporadic drone attacks on the group but the Saudi coalition forces have not bombed nor even joined battle with AQAP. Apparently, they see the battle against the Houthis as the first order of business. However, once the Houthis are cleared from an area AQAP may advance. It appears to already have control of a part of the port of Aden. The many foreign troops now in Yemen will have problems with the Southern Movement militia as well. They often clashed with the Hadi government when it was in power. Now with the help of the foreign troops they have control of Aden and other parts of the south. They will demand autonomy or even separation of the south as their reward for driving out the Houthis. Even if the Saudis eventually are able to take most of Yemen from the Houthis their problems will be far from over. As indicated in the appended video, earlier the Hadi government had said it would attend the planned peace talks.

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