Visiting Afrin, Syria, Where Some Kurdish Locals Cheer Turkish Air Strikes

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One of the strangest things we saw upon entering the northern Syrian city of Afrin was the crowded marketplace. Just 18 kilometres away in the town of Bulbul there was a fierce fight going on between local military who control security here and the Turkish army. Yet here, in the centre of town, the market place was as crowded as any in the Iraqi Kurdish cities of Erbil or Sulaymaniyah.

We will not leave the city. Afrin will not fall,” the olive oil seller said defiantly

It had taken several days to get here. Afrin is a district in the Aleppo province of Syria but much of it has been under the control of Syrian Kurdish forces since 2012. To the Kurdish locals in this area, it is known as the Afrin canton and borders on areas of Syria controlled by the government and on Turkey. Up until recently Afrin was one of the safest parts of Syria during the long-running civil war here. Now, under attack from all sides – by Turkish troops from the Turkish border, by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces from Jarablus and under siege by the Syrian government – it has become one of the more dangerous.

The distance between Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan inside Iraq, and Afrin is around 750 kilometres. It’s extremely difficult to get there at the moment. But we were able to travel with a delegation of Iraqi Kurdish politicians who wanted to visit Afrin and after obtaining a permit on the Iraqi Kurdish borders we crossed to the Syrian side with no problems. The road is under the control of many different forces but we continued on quite normally until we got to the Syrian city of Qamishli.

There we had to stay a night, in order to obtain a further permit from the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, who control this area. We also had to change our car and our clothes, even our security detail, so that we did not arouse suspicions. It was almost like being in disguise. Nobody should know that we are actually Iraqis. 

We then drove through Aleppo province. Here some of the neighbourhoods are now controlled by the Syrian military, others are still under the command of the SDF. Some parts of town house offices belonging to the Iranian government. In the areas under Iranian control, there are slogans such as: Death To America and Israel.

 

 

Beyond Aleppo, we passed through 36 consecutive Syrian army checkpoints, before we got to the area controlled by the SDF, that is commonly known as the de-facto, semi-autonomous region of Rojava. During this journey, we had to change our clothes, our car and our guards again – and more than once. We were actually in disguise at one stage.

Then once we got to the outskirts of Afrin, we had to stay in the basement of a bombed out building for several hours, before we were issued permits to enter the city itself. We finally arrived in Afrin on February 10.

 

A Syrian army checkpoint.

 

We travelled with several Iraqi Kurdish politicians going to look at the city too, as part of an official delegation from the Iraqi Kurdish parliament.

“We haven’t yet entered the city, so it is hard to say what the situation is,” Shirko Hama Amin, an MP from the Iraqi Kurdish party, the Change movement, told us. “But we are sure that Afrin won’t fall, because its people won’t leave. That is why it is important that international organizations and the international community help them. Getting here,” the politician continued, “is like being in a long, feverish dream.”

Once we arrived in the centre of town, we were surprised. It was bustling. “Afrin will not fall,” Sharfan Hassoun, a local who owns a store selling olive oil, told NIQASH. “Yes, there is buying and selling, and the markets are stable,” he said. “But it’s true that there is fighting and that there are battles on the borders, with a member of NATO attacking us. Comrades are fighting back though, and we are defending the city. We will not leave the city. Afrin will not fall,” he said defiantly.

There is a decrease in grocery and other items in the city due to the informal siege of Afrin on the Syrian government side. The people of the city are apparently waiting for their leaders to do a deal with the Syrian government, in order to allow food and medical supplies in.

From time to time, there is the sound of shelling. But the war did not seem to have reached the city centre where many buildings are decorated with murals or posters of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK.

The SDF have tried to distance themselves from the PKK, a controversial group that has been fighting for Kurdish independence and rights in Turkey for years, in an ongoing conflict that has seen tens of thousands of both Turkish and Kurdish deaths. In fact, the PKK is categorised as a terrorist organisation by some Western nations. Nonetheless here in Afrin, just looking at the murals, it’s clear that there is a connection.

“We are so determined that Afrin will not fall,” says Nazi Mesto, a 19-year-old woman at the market. “We will all defend it,” she said, noting that while soldiers are on the borders fighting, the people of the city are doing their part by sending them food and other supplies.

In fact, some locals almost seem to be relishing the chance to engage with the enemy. Another of the strangest things we saw was people going out onto the roofs of buildings in Afrin and cheering when Turkish fighter jets flew overhead, instead of hiding in shelters. We speculated that this might be due to their willingness to act as human shields or that it was a way to boost morale here. 

Then again, even in funeral processions, some locals seemed to be celebrating. This was because the person had died defending the Kurdish homeland, they told us. 

 

As yet, it seems the Turkish planes have not targeted the more densely populated parts of Afrin. Many of the buildings around here are undamaged. The only really significant destruction we saw was in Ain Dara, south-east of the city, which had been badly damaged by air strikes.

Hevi Mustafa, one of the co-heads of Afrin’s local council, says that an ancient temple there was also badly damaged by Turkish air strikes.

 

One does see the impact of the fighting in other ways. Every day, cars arrive in Afrin carrying the dead and wounded, who are taken to a temporary cemetery and the hospital respectively. Every two days special services are held to farewell the dead in the cemetery. The temporary graveyard is named after Avista Khabur, a female fighter who blew herself up to stop the advance of a Turkish tank.

A picture and a video of the funeral of 18 fighters from the People’s and Women’s Protection Units

On February 13, we were close to Afrin hospital when four rockets fell. We were told that one civilian had been killed and four others wounded by the air strike. Afrin hospital gave out statistics for the number of dead and wounded civilians. They say that 111 men, 17 women and 26 children have been killed and that 305 men, 63 women and 45 children have been wounded since the fighting began. The hospital won’t give out numbers for military casualties though, for security reasons. The head of the hospital, Khalil Sabri, told NIQASH that the informal siege on Afrin has stopped medical supplies from getting through. “We are asking international organisations to help us with this,” he said.

 

A young patient in Afrin’s hospital.

Despite the major trial it had been to get to Afrin, in general, our movement inside the city was fairly normal. Civilians and foreigners were not allowed to go anywhere near Afrin’s borders though; the council’s Mustafa told us that there had been a lot of fighting there but that the SDF had prevented the Turkish advance.

“We are fighting with passion,” says Brusk Hasakeh, a spokesperson for the military arm of the SDF, the so-called Popular, or People’s Protection Units. “Turkey has started to attack us with sophisticated NATO weapons, but we will not let Afrin fall.”

Shortly after meeting with Hasakeh, we left Afrin to return to comparative safety in Iraq, currently one of the more peaceful countries in the Middle East.

 

*All videos and pictures by Awara Hamid. 


source: Niqash

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Syria, Lebanon, Yemen? For Some Iraqi Militias, The Fight Will Go On

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For a few moments, locals in the Dawra area, in southern Baghdad, verged on panicking when they heard heavy gun fire begin. But they could relax. It turned out to be a salute.  during a funeral; guns are traditionally fired as a way of commemorating the deceased.

Later on, they discovered the funeral in question was being held for a member of one of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim militias. This was even though the war against the extremist group known as the Islamic State had been officially declared at an end. Whilst often described as controversial, the militias, most of which began as units of volunteers, have played an essential part in the fight against the Islamic State, or IS, group.  The man in question had actually died in Syria, in Abu Kamal, fighting against the IS group there.

We are ready to fight in any land where there is injustice. Whether in Syria or Lebanon or even in Yemen, if necessary.

It is clear that certain units of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim militias are still very active. The battle against the IS group has not yet ended in Syria. In Iraq, the country’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, declared victory over them in early December. As a result of the latter, a message came during the weekly prayers in Najaf last Friday: The highest clerical authority for Shiite Muslims in Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, said that now that the Islamic State group had been defeated, it was time to integrate the militias into the existing Iraqi security forces. Al-Sistani also warned against the militias participating in upcoming federal elections, in a statement read by his representative, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai.

The religious authorities’ statement had been expected as it was al-Sistani who called the volunteers to action in the first place, at the beginning of the security crisis.

In the political realm, the fate of the Shiite Muslim militias has also been a fraught topic. A number of the different militia leaders had signalled their willingness to hand over their weapons to the Iraqi state and put their fighters under government control.

However, as evidenced by those who are still fighting in neighbouring Syria, not all of them are so willing.

There is a large faction among the Shiite Muslim militias who are referred to as the “loyal” or “resistance” group. This is because they often profess loyalty to Iran rather than Iraq, and they praise Iran for having supported them, both logistically and spiritually.

Some of these groups did exist before al-Sistani’s call for volunteers and had strong links to Iran even then. When al-Sistani called for volunteers, these groups joined the thousands of others who offered to fight and protect their homeland.

One of the these is the Khorasani Brigades. The militia has pictures of Iran’s highest religious authority on the walls of its headquarters and on its military vehicles; senior Iranian general Hamid Taghavi was killed in December 2014 while advising the Khorasani Brigades in Iraq.

“There is a difference between the volunteer factions and the loyal factions,” Abbas al-Muhammadawi, a member of the Khorasani Brigades told NIQASH in a phone interview. “The former fights only in Iraq under the leadership of the Iraqi government while the latter has bigger goals. We fight in any country where the terrorists are present and that includes Syria and elsewhere.”  

The Khorasani Brigades have several units. One of these is involved with Iraq’s formerly-volunteer forces, another two are in Syria. “We have decided to put our Iraqi unit at the disposal of the Iraqi government and to return the weapons we received from the state,” al-Muhammadawi continues. “But that does not include our fighters in Syria. Our units in Syria also include Syrian members, not just Iraqis.”

“We are ready to fight in any land where there is injustice,” al-Muhammadawi continued. “Whether in Syria or Lebanon or even in Yemen, if necessary.”

One of the bigger goals of another of the Shiite Muslim militias, the Sayed al-Shuhada Brigades, is apparently also to continue to fight US troops – even though, in the fight against the IS group, both have been on the same side recently.

 “We will resist against the Us occupier,” a member of the Sayed al-Shuhada Brigades, Abu Fatima al-Darraji, told NIQASH. “We have been taking part in the fight against them in Iraq since 2006. We have inflicted heavy losses on them and we will continue to do so.”

According to al-Darraji, fighters from his group were killed inside Syrian territory in August 2017 and in May 2017 and this was as a result of US air strikes. 

 

 

Members of the Sayed al-Shuhada Brigades.

 

Al-Darraji says that his fighters were already battling the IS group in Syria before they actually re-entered Iraq and took control of the northern city of Mosul. “We fought them in eastern Ghouta, and in the Damascus countryside, and many were killed” he says. “When Mosul fell, hundreds of our fighters returned to join new volunteers in battle. We have had many victories in Diyala, Salahaddin and in Mosul and we were also able to push the terrorists out of outskirts of Baghdad.”

This international adventurism continues to cause a major headache for the Iraqi government.

Last Saturday in the city of Karbala, during a ceremony celebrating victory over the IS group, Qais al-Khazali, who heads another Iran-loyalist group, the League of the Righteous, announced that they now had three new enemies: Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia. The latter, in particular, is trying to deceive the Iraqi government, al-Khazali said, with the instigation of better diplomatic relations.

In his speech al-Khazali didn’t forget to thank Iran and the military group, Hezbollah, for their support to Iraq either. This is a common sentiment among leaders of the Iran-loyal militias.

Just two days afterwards, al-Khazali appeared again, this time in a video in the south of Lebanon, near the border with Israel. Dressed in military clothing, al-Khazali said his fighters were ready to stand with the Lebanese and Palestinian people, after the US government’s decision to recognise the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. 

This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened either. n March this year, another pro-Iranian militia, Harakat al-Nujaba, announced they were forming a special unit called the Golan Heights Liberation brigade. This refers to the Golan Heights, which belonged to Syria until 1967, after which Israel took control of the area. The Iraqi militia said it was willing and able to take back the Syrian territory from Israel.

Meanwhile Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi is busy trying to calm everyone down. He has denounced the US decision on Jerusalem too, but he also stresses that the Iraqi government is against the use of violence.

Another issue around the less obedient militias that the Iraqi government must be worried about: It is actually illegal for any official Iraqi security forces to fight outside of their borders – that is according to Article 8 of the Iraqi Constitution itself, which preaches “good neighbourliness”. There is some concern that the militias could drag the whole country into an international conflict.

What the Iraqi government can do about these rebel militias remains to be seen. Last week, government spokesperson Saad al-Hadithi said that the militias – known as the popular mobilization units or PMUs – are now an official body and part of the Iraqi security forces. “But factions that are not part of the PMUs no longer have any legal justification for their existence,” he concluded.  It was a clear reference to the Iran-loyalists who want to take their fight over the border. 

 

Members of the Sayed al-Shuhada Brigades carry a poster showing Iranian leaders during a religious ceremony in Iraq.


source: Niqash

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Russian President Putin arrives in Turkey for talks on weapons deal, Syria

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Ankara (AFP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday met his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks on Syria and a key weapons deal, hoping to strengthen an increasingly active relationship that has troubled […]

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Islamic State seeks alliance with al-Qaeda after suffering heavy losses in Iraq, Syria

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ARA News

The Islamic State (ISIS) radical group is seeking a possible alliance with al-Qaeda after suffering heavy losses, Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said on Monday.

The Iraqi official said that ISIS has launched talks with al-Qaeda after losing large territory in northern Iraq.

This comes as the Iraqi army and security forces continued to close in on Western Mosul, the final stronghold of ISIS in Iraq’s second largest city.

“The discussion has started now,” Allawi said, based on information he got from local and regional contacts. “There are discussions and dialogue between messengers representing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and representing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.”

ISIS split from al Qaeda in 2014 and the two groups have since waged an acrimonious battle for recruits, funding and the mantle of global extremism.

Al-Zawahiri has publicly criticized ISIS for its brutal methods, including beheadings, drownings and immolation.

“It is unclear how exactly both groups may work together,” Allawi said.

In 2014, the Islamic State group took over large territory across Syria and Iraq, and declared its so-called Caliphate.

According to Allawi, even after its defeat in Mosul ISIS will continue its activities.

“I can’t see ISIS disappearing into thin air,” Allawi said. “They will remain covertly in sleeping cells, spreading their venom all over the world.”

Reporting by: Eyaz Ciziri

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