Opinion: The Kurdish Dilemma

The joint operation by US and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to free 20 Iraqis captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq has created much controversy, given that it is the first ground operation carried out by the Americans in Iraq since the decision to withdraw all US forces from the country. It was an operation that carried some risk, and that was clear when reports and statements confirmed that the US had lost one soldier during the raid to free the hostages from ISIS, which was intent on executing them. But the operation was also noteworthy because it was the first the US had carried out in coordination with any foreign forces on Iraqi territory since the end of the Nuri Al-Maliki era, during which the US had decided against having any permanent military presence in the country.

There has certainly been coordination between the Americans and the Kurds before. But this happened in Kobani, in Syria, where Kurdish forces reached out to the Americans after they were surrounded by ISIS forces. The US then hit the extremist group’s targets in the area with airstrikes, while the Kurdish forces on the ground assaulted ISIS positions with a ferocity that ended up inflicting heavy losses on the extremists and drove them out of the area.

By contrast, Iraqi forces fighting ISIS have not held their ground at all. We saw this most recently in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, which the extremist group captured in May using tactics combining suicide bomb attacks and booby-trapped vehicles. In Syria, meanwhile, the picture remains murky, especially after Barack Obama’s recent announcement that Washington would be reevaluating its support for the moderate Syrian opposition after many of them were captured by ISIS and ended up handing over their US weapons to the extremist group. Then came the Russian military intervention in Syria, which reveals a much more pragmatic strategy for working with forces on the ground fighting ISIS.

However, we must bear in mind that the Russian plan sees Assad’s army as its main partner against ISIS and the most likely candidate for defeating the group in Syria. This is of course a problem for those opposition fighters that both support the Syrian revolution against the Assad regime and are also fighting ISIS on the ground. They view the Assad regime as the problem and not the solution and want revolutionary forces to establish themselves on the ground in Syria and also drive out ISIS from the country so that its fighters can return to the various countries from which they came.

Until now, though, the Kurds have been the only fighting force that has proven its worth against ISIS, whether in Iraq or in Syria. But the Kurds also have political aims—and they have not been coy about them—to gain international backing for the establishment of their own autonomous state in the region. This has indeed been a sticking point for efforts seeking both to find a resolution to the Syrian conflict and drive ISIS out of Iraq.

It is a serious political problem, because anyone who would support such aims would put themselves at odds with Turkey, Iran, and other domestic factions. When it finally comes time for all to sit at the negotiating table and find political solutions to these crises, there would need to be a clear vision for solving this Kurdish dilemma. As things stand, there isn’t one, and this makes it extremely difficult to find any solutions to the current problems. We can put it like this: Turkey considers Kurdish calls for autonomy more dangerous to its national security than the threat of ISIS.

US considers deploying special forces in Syria, helicopters in Iraq to counter ISIS

Defense Secretary Ash Carter testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, October 27, 2015, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
Defense Secretary Ash Carter testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, October 27, 2015, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
Washington, Reuters/Asharq Al-Awsat—The United States is considering sending a small number of special operations forces to Syria and attack helicopters to Iraq as it weighs options to build momentum in the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), US officials said on Tuesday.

President Barack Obama, deeply averse to overcommitting American troops to unpopular wars in the Middle East, could view some of the options as more viable than others as he approaches the final stretch of his presidency.

Still, Obama’s administration is under pressure to ramp up America’s effort, particularly after the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to ISIS in May and the failure of a US military program to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels.

Two US officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations, said any deployments would be narrowly tailored, seeking to advance specific, limited military objectives in both Iraq and Syria.

That option includes temporarily deploying some US special operations forces inside of Syria to advise moderate Syrian opposition fighters for the first time and, potentially, to help call in US airstrikes, one official said.

Other possibilities, including sending a small number of Apache attack helicopters, and US forces to operate them, to Iraq, as well as taking steps to bolster other Iraqi capabilities needed to claw back territory from ISIS.

The options appeared to stop short of deploying American troops in any direct ground combat roles, something Obama has so far ruled out.

One of the officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the proposals were still in a conceptual stage – meaning that even if any were approved in the coming days, a US military deployment could still be weeks or months away.

The Pentagon and White House declined comment on the options, which were also reported by The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

Earlier on Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter signaled his intent to step up the US military’s activity in Iraq and Syria, just days after US forces participated in a raid to rescue ISIS hostages in Iraq.

One US soldier was killed in that mission.

“We won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground,” Carter told a Senate hearing, using another acronym for the militant group.

Marine Corp General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate hearing he would consider recommending putting more US forces with Iraqi troops to support the ISIS fight if it improved chances of defeating the militants.

“If it had operational or strategic impact and we could reinforce success, that would be the basic framework within which I’d make a recommendation for additional forces to be co-located with Iraqi units,” Dunford said, without elaborating.

Opinion: The Middle East Facing the Unknown

There is no agreement yet among those following the Syrian situation as regards what Washington thinks of Russia’s direct involvement in combat. Most comments and analyses seem closer to smart guesswork than reliable information.

Some among analysts see nothing new in Washington’s virtual silent consent pointing to its policy towards Syria for more than four years. These include those who suggest that this silence may be partly attributed to some sort of tacit agreement that gives Russia a free hand in Syria in return for Moscow’s acceptance of a Washington-run Iraq.

Others give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt; believing that Washington is actually pulling Russia into a terrible quagmire which would damage its standing, while relieving itself of its traditional enemy.

A third group of analysts reckon that in order that Iran’s strident regional ambitions are checked, and the fears of what remains of Middle Eastern Christians and sectarian and ethnic minorities are put to rest, Washington would be happy to commission Moscow to secure Bashar Al-Assad an honorable exit while keeping in place the infrastructure of the Syrian state.

All these guesses deserve to be taken seriously, and why not? At least, they make sense, although they are unethical and have got nothing to do with human rights and the right of self-determination.

However, what worries many as far as the Russian airstrikes are concerned – and contrary to Moscow’s announcements – is that they are not targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but rather 9 out 10 strikes are targeting the areas controlled by moderate opposition groups, which are supposed to be the international community’s future partners in the expected Syrian political settlement. What Russia’s warplanes are doing so far, in addition to aiding and providing air cover to the regime’s land assault, has been to weaken and defeat the acceptable alternative not ISIS, which is exactly what Assad and Iran want. This reality proves false all Russia’s claims about its intentions in Syria; the last of such claims were made by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who, while denying “helping Assad,” said that he still recognized him as Syria’s “legitimate president.”

On the other hand, Russia is not the only active combatant in Syria. There is also Iran, which is rumored to be preparing a massive land offensive aimed at enabling the weak regime to retake the districts of northwestern Syria, lost to the opposition in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo. Interesting to note here, in fact, was how Russian air strikes – particularly in Aleppo province – were taking place against opposition areas at the same time these same areas were coming under recurrent attacks by none other than ISIS!

Furthermore, Russian heavy bombardment of Al-Ghab Plains (south of Idlib province and northwest of Hama province), Jabal Al-Akrad (in northeast Lattakia province) has nothing to do with fighting ISIS, but rather protecting the eastern borders of Lattakia province, Assa’s stronghold. The same applies to the southern fronts, where Moscow and Tehran are doing their utmost to defend the regime’s headquarters and security facilities in the capital, Damascus, and its environs.

Evidently, no one would like to see a political and security vacuum in Syria similar to that of the post-Saddam Iraq, leading to endless disasters; and sure enough, even the real opposition – not the regime’s fabricated opposition of Qadri Jameel and Ali Haydar – has a vested interest in maintaining a bare minimum of the state’s institutions, reassuring minorities and preventing extremist forces from becoming part of the new decision-making future authority. But it is also true that the international community is neither talking to the Syrians in one voice, nor seriously subduing the regime’s killing machine and confronting Iran’s blatantly sectarian and militaristic regional project.

Iran is now behaving in both Syria and Lebanon exactly as it has been behaving in Iraq, where it is now a de facto mandatory power and sponsor of an armed demographic and sectarian subjugation intended not only to be perpetuated, but also politically and constitutionally legitimized. It is now exploiting the nuclear deal reached with the US and the West, the lifting of international sanctions, and Turkey’s preoccupation with its parliamentary elections and Kurdish Problem, to cement its aforementioned mandate.

This highly unclear picture carries with it grave dangers throughout the Middle East; and as the Obama administration enters its last 12 months in office, one may claim that the Middle East Barack Obama first knew, as president, seven years ago has become a totally different place. And as it would be foolish to expect any changes in Washington’s policies during the next few months, what were – for a long time – regarded as “unshakeable constants” in regional politics are diminishing by the day.

In all honesty, the roles of Egypt and Turkey may change; and some regional groupings may in the near future lose their cohesion due to diverging outlooks and differing short-term interests. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is now gradually moving away from the safety of mutual deterrence. It is now impossible to guarantee anything there, as people are being stabbed and shot in the streets, against the background of horrendous collusion by a Benjamin Netanyahu government hell bent on collective punishment and provocative shoot-to-kill executions.

In the absence of honest dealing, the Middle East is indeed moving towards the unknown. Thus, if Washington does not revise, and fast, its assessment of the regional situation in the aftermath of the Iran – Russia deal under the pretext of “fighting terrorism” through the so-called “Baghdad information center”, the repercussions will be catastrophic.

Washington “disturbed” by Baghdad’s alliance with Moscow: source

US President Barack Obama (R) holds a bilateral meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi during the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York City, on September 24, 2014. (AFP Photo)
US President Barack Obama (R) holds a bilateral meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi during the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York City, on September 24, 2014. (AFP Photo)

Baghdad and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The United States has expressed its disapproval regarding Iraq’s cooperation with Russia on combating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to an informed source.

The source told Asharq Al-Awsat that during a visit to Baghdad 11 days ago, Gen. John Allen, the head of the US-led coalition targeting ISIS, informed Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi that Washington is “disturbed” by Baghdad’s recent alliance with Moscow in the fight against the extremist group.

The Iraqi military announced on September 27 that it would begin coordinated efforts to share “security and intelligence” information with Russia, Syria, and Iran to help combat ISIS.

The source said: “John Allen . . . informed Haider Al-Abadi that Washington was disturbed by Iraq’s alliance [with Russia], and said, to the letter, that ‘President Barack Obama is enquiring regarding his role [in the fight against ISIS] . . . Shouldn’t Iraq be thanking the US?’”

The US-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since June of 2014. US military experts have also been in Baghdad to train and advise Iraqi forces to aid in their fight against the extremist group, which currently controls vast swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria.

The source added that Gen. Allen—who is due to leave his post as head of the coalition in November—asked Abadi “to not proceed” with cooperating with Russia, especially in light of Moscow’s commencing its airstrike campaign in Syria on September 30.

“Abadi promised him [Allen] that this would not happen and that Baghdad would coordinate with Washington and the US-led anti-ISIS coalition if it were to take any steps in this direction,” the source said.

Abadi has been facing pressure from inside Iraq’s largest Shi’ite-led parties to involve Russia in the country’s fight against ISIS, the source said, adding that the PM was “stuck” between appeasing these voices at home and his commitment to cooperating with Washington.

There has also been pressure from Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, known as the Popular Mobilization. The US has been wary of the involvement of such militias in the fight against ISIS, as they have been accused by a number of international organizations such as Human Rights Watch of carrying out sectarian attacks against Sunni civilians in areas they have liberated from ISIS control.

The US has instead been keen to arm local Sunni tribal groups to help in the fight against ISIS, a move that is controversial in Abadi’s ruling, Shi’ite-dominated Islamic Da’wa Party.

Meanwhile, Hadi Al-Ameri, the head of the influential group the Badr Organization—the armed wing of one of Iraq’s leading Shi’ite political parties the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)—has told Abadi that areas under ISIS control, such as the city of Ramadi, which fell to ISIS in May, “cannot be liberated without the involvement of the Popular Mobilization.”

New Syrian rebel alliance formed, says weapons on the way

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (L) and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (C), join forces to fight ISIS militants in Kobani, Syria, on November 19, 2014 (AP Photo/Jake Simkin, File)
Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (L) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (C), join forces to fight ISIS militants in Kobani, Syria, on November 19, 2014 (AP Photo/Jake Simkin, File)
Amman and Beirut, Reuters—A Kurdish militia in northern Syria has joined forces with Arab rebels, and their new alliance has been promised fresh weapon supplies by the United States for an assault on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces in Raqqa, a spokesman said on Monday.

The alliance calling itself the Democratic Forces of Syria includes the Kurdish People’s Protection Unites (YPG) militia and Syrian Arab groups, some of which fought alongside it in a campaign that drove ISIS from wide areas of northern Syria earlier this year.

The Arab groups in the new alliance are operating under the name “The Syrian Arab Coalition” – a grouping which US officials have said would receive support under a new US strategy aimed at fighting ISIS in Syria.

A spokesman for some of the Arab rebels said they were told by Washington that new weapons were being sent to help them launch a joint offensive on the city of Raqqa.

“We met the Americans and this has been approved and we have been told these new arms … are on their way,” said Abu Muazz, a spokesman for the Raqqa Revolutionaries Front, a grouping of mainly Arab tribal insurgents who are mostly drawn from the Raqqa area.

He said the group constituted a 3,200-strong, well trained fighting force which could begin using the weapons within days of their arrival. It has an additional 600 fighters who are currently wounded, he said.

A major offensive against the ultra-hardline ISIS fighters could capture Raqqa in less than two months provided the “right weapons and quantities” arrived, Abu Muazz, himself from the ISIS-held city, said without elaborating.

A US military official has told Reuters that the Syrian Arab Coalition would push down towards Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, while staying east of the Euphrates River.

Keeping the YPG-backed force east of the river could ease Turkish concerns about any further expansion of Kurdish influence in northern Syria. Turkey is worried about the Kurds’ growing power in Syria fueling separatism among its own Kurds.

The United States last week announced a shakeup of its support to Syrian rebels fighting ISIS, effectively ending its program to train fighters outside Syria and focusing instead on providing weapons to groups whose commanders have been US-vetted.

The YPG has to date proved the most effective partner on the ground for US-led airstrikes against ISIS. By deepening ties with groups from Syria’s Arab majority, it could deflect concern among some Arabs that it exists solely to fight for the interests of Kurds.

The YPG drove deep into Raqqa province earlier this year, but stopped short of advancing on ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa city, saying it wanted Syrian Arab rebels to lead such an assault.

The new alliance includes the YPG, various Arab groups including Jaysh Al-Thuwwar (Army of Rebels) and the Arab tribal Jaysh Al-Sanadeed, and an Assyrian Christian group, according to a statement announcing its establishment.

“The sensitive stage our country Syria is going through and rapid developments on the military and political front … require that there be a united national military force for all Syrians, joining Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs and other groups,” said the statement, which was sent to Reuters by a YPG spokesman.

“Given that these forces in general are democratic and secular forces that believe to a great degree in diversity, we hope that they will receive support” from the US-led coalition, said Nasir Haj Mansour, an official in the defense ministry of the Kurdish administration in YPG-held territory.

“The current goal in practical terms is to confront Daesh, given that it is the first enemy, but the goal is also to build a democratic Syria in the future,” he said by telephone, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Scuffles break out as police hold back Turkish mourners

Protesters throw Molotov cocktails towards a water cannon during clashes with police on October 10, 2015 at the Gazi district in Istanbul, a few hours after a deadly terrorist attack in Ankara that killed at least 95 people. (AFP Photo/Yasin Akgul)
Protesters throw Molotov cocktails towards a water cannon during clashes with police on October 10, 2015 at the Gazi district in Istanbul, a few hours after a deadly terrorist attack in Ankara that killed at least 95 people. (AFP Photo/Yasin Akgul)

Ankara, AP—Scuffles broke out Sunday in the Turkish capital as police used tear gas to prevent pro-Kurdish politicians and other mourners from laying carnations at the site of two suspected suicide bombings that killed 95 people and wounded hundreds in Turkey’s deadliest attack in years.

Police held back the mourners, including the pro-Kurdish party’s co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, insisting that investigators were still working at the site.

Turkey declared three days of mourning following Saturday’s nearly simultaneous explosions that targeted a peace rally in Ankara to call for increased democracy and an end to the renewed fighting between the Turkish security forces and Kurdish rebels. The rally was attended by activists, labor unions and members of the pro-Kurdish party, and came just weeks as Turkey holds a new election on November 1.

A group of about 70 mourners was eventually allowed to enter the cordoned off area outside the capital’s main train station Sunday to briefly pay their respects for the victims.

The group of mourners then marched toward a central square in Ankara, chanting slogans against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom many hold responsible for the spiraling violence that has plagued Turkey since the summer.

Addressing hundreds of mourners, Demirtaş accused the government of failing to prevent the attack.

“The state which gets information about the bird that flies and every flap of its wing, was not able to prevent a massacre in the heart of Ankara,” Demirtaş said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Kurdish rebels and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants were the most likely culprits.

The government announced Sunday that it had appointed two civil and two police chief inspectors to investigate the attack. Yeni Şafak, a newspaper close to the government, said investigators had determined that one of the bombers was a male aged about 25 or 30.

The attacks came at a tense time for Turkey, whose security forces have seen renewed fighting with autonomy-seeking Kurdish rebels since July. Hundreds have died in the last few months as a 2012 peace process with the Kurds was shattered.

The fighting was rekindled following a similar suicide bombing in July that killed 33 peace activists near the border with Syria, which authorities said was the work of ISIS.

Critics have accused Erdoğan of inflaming tensions and reigniting the fighting with the Kurds in the hope that the turmoil would rally voters back to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Electoral gains by the pro-Kurdish party caused the ruling party, founded by Erdoğan, to lose its parliamentary majority in a June election after a decade of single-party rule.

Erdoğan, who strongly denies the accusation, condemned the attacks which he said targeted the country’s unity and called for solidarity.

Hours after Saturday’s bombings, the Kurdish rebels announced a temporary ceasefire to allow the November 1 elections to proceed in a secure environment. Turkey’s government has however rejected the declaration, saying the rebels must lay down arms for good and leave Turkey.

The NATO member is also on edge over developments across in Syria, with which it shares a 560-mile-long border.

Turkey agreed to take a more active role in the US-led battle against ISIS. Turkey opened up its bases to US aircraft to launch air raids on the extremist group in Syria and carried out a limited number of strikes on the group itself.

Russia has also entered the fray on behalf of the Syrian government recently, bombing sites in Syria and reportedly violating Turkish airspace a few times in the past week. On Sunday, Turkey’s military said two Syrian jets and surface-to-air missile systems based in Syria locked radars on three F-16 jets patrolling the Turkish–Syrian border, in a new incident of harassment of Turkish planes from Syria.

ISIS makes gains near Syrian city of Aleppo; US abandons rebel training program

In this image posted on Thursday, October 8, 2015, by the Rased News Network, a Facebook page affiliated with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), shows ISIS militants preparing to fire a mortar to shell towards Syrian government forces positions at Tal Arn in Aleppo province, Syria.  (ISIS militant website via AP)
In this image posted on Thursday, October 8, 2015, by the Rased News Network, a Facebook page affiliated with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), shows ISIS militants preparing to fire a mortar to shell towards Syrian government forces positions at Tal Arn in Aleppo province, Syria. (ISIS militant website via AP)
Beirut and Ankara, Reuters/Asharq Al-Awsat—Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters have seized villages close to the northern city of Aleppo from rival insurgents, a monitoring group said on Friday, despite an intensifying Russian air-and-sea campaign that Moscow says has targeted the militant group.

News of the advance came as the United States announced it was largely abandoning its failed program to train moderate rebels fighting ISIS and would instead provide arms and equipment directly to rebel leaders and their units on the battlefield.

The Obama administration is grappling with a dramatic change in the four-year-old Syrian civil war brought about by Moscow’s intervention in support of President Bashar Al-Assad.

The Pentagon said on Friday it expected to hold new talks with Russia’s military on pilot safety in Syria’s war as soon as this weekend, as the former Cold War foes seek to avoid an accidental clash as they carry out rival bombing campaigns.

The Russian defense ministry said stepped-up airstrikes on rebel positions in Syria killed 300 anti-Assad rebels and that it hit 60 ISIS targets over the last day. There was no independent confirmation of the death toll.

About 200 insurgents were killed in an attack on the Liwa Al-Haqq group in Raqqa province while 100 died in Aleppo, the defense ministry said. Two ISIS commanders were among the dead in Russia’s most intense raids since it launched strikes in Syria 10 days ago. In previous updates Russia has reported hitting 10 targets daily.

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the fighting, said there had been no significant advances by government forces backed by allied militia in areas where ground offensives were launched this week. “It’s back and forth,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Observatory.

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps said separately that one of its generals had been killed near Aleppo, once Syria’s most populous city. Iran, like Russia an Assad ally, says it has advisers in the country.

ISIS is now within 1.2 miles (2 km) of government-held territory on the northern edge of Aleppo, which has suffered widespread damage and disease during the civil war that erupted in the wake of protests against Assad.

Syria’s military, backed by Russia, Iran and allied militias, has launched a major attack in Syria’s west to recapture land lost to non-ISIS rebels near the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. That area is vital to Assad’s survival.

As the government operation in the west pushed ahead, ISIS said its fighters had captured five villages in its northern offensive and had killed more than 10 soldiers or militiamen.

The British-based Observatory said it was the biggest advance by ISIS since it launched an offensive against rival rebels in Aleppo near the Turkish border in late August.

“Daesh has exploited the Russian airstrikes and the preoccupation of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army in its battles in Hama, and advanced in Aleppo,” said one rebel commander with fighters in the region, using an Arabic name for ISIS.

Russian warplanes and warships have been bombarding targets across Syria in a campaign Moscow says is targeting IS fighters, who control large parts of eastern Syria and of Iraq.

But the campaign appears to have mainly struck other rebel groups, some of which had been battling to stop the ISIS advance across Aleppo province.

US and Russian warplanes are now flying missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two, risking incidents between the two air forces and their fast jets.

Washington said it was pulling the plug on a short-lived USD 580 million program to train and equip units of fighters at sites outside of Syria, after its disastrous launch this year fanned criticism of President Barack Obama’s war strategy.

The Pentagon said it would shift its focus to providing weapons and other equipment to rebel groups whose leaders have passed a US vetting process to ensure they are not linked to militant Islamist groups.

Alongside the Russian air-and-sea campaign, regional officials have told Reuters that hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria since late September to support the Syrian army and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

Senior Iranian officials have been in Syria for several years as military advisers. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards said a senior general, Hossein Hamedani, was killed near Aleppo late on Thursday. Hamedani was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and was made deputy chief commander in 2005. Several senior Guard commanders have been killed in Syria.

Turkey said on Friday it was concerned about a possible fresh wave of Syrian migrants arriving at its border as a result of Russian air strikes. The conflict has killed 250,000 people and displaced millions, causing a refugee crisis in neighboring nations and in Europe.

Russia backs Syrian forces in major assault on insurgents

In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Wednesday, October 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Wednesday, October 7, 2015, a Russian navy ship launches a cruise missile in the Caspian Sea. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
Beirut, Reuters—Syrian troops and militia backed by Russian warplanes mounted what appeared to be their first major coordinated assault on Syrian insurgents on Wednesday and Moscow said its warships fired a barrage of missiles at them from the Caspian Sea, a sign of its new military reach.

The combined operation hit towns close to the main north-south highway that runs through major cities in the mainly government-held west of Syria, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group which tracks the conflict via a network of sources within the country.

Ground attacks by Syrian government forces and their militia allies using heavy surface-to-surface missile bombardments hit at least four insurgent positions and there were heavy clashes, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdulrahman, said.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia took part in the fighting, according to a regional source who is familiar with the military situation in Syria.

Abdulrahman said later there was no sign that Syrian troops and their allies had made any tangible advances on the ground.

They briefly entered one town, but were forced to pull back, he said, and around 15 of their tanks or armored vehicles had been either destroyed or disabled.

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants have seized much of Syria since civil war grew out of anti-government protests in 2011, but the areas targeted in Wednesday’s combined assault are held by other rebels, some US-backed, fueling accusations by Russia’s critics that its real aim is to help the government.

Moscow says it shares the West’s aim of preventing the spread of ISIS, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin during a televised meeting that four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea had launched 26 missiles at ISIS in Syria earlier in the day.

The missiles would have passed over Iran and Iraq to reach their targets, covering what Shoigu described as a distance of almost 1,500 km (900 miles), the latest display of Russian military power at a time when relations with the West are at a post-Cold War low over Ukraine.

The air campaign in Syria has caught Washington and its allies on the back foot and alarmed Syria’s northern neighbor Turkey, which says its air space has been repeatedly violated by Russian jets.

Ankara summoned Russia’s ambassador for the third time in four days over the reported violations, which NATO has said appeared to be deliberate and were “extremely dangerous”.

Turkey said Syria-based missile systems harassed its warplanes on Tuesday while eight F-16 jets were on a patrol flight along the Syria border.

Iraq looks to Russia

Syrian state television quoted a military source as saying the missiles fired by Russian ships targeted 11 ISIS positions in Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib.

The missiles destroyed bomb-making factories, command posts, weapons and ammunition and fuel depots, as well as “terrorist training centers”, the TV said.

Russian air strikes destroyed the main weapons depots of a US-trained rebel group, the Liwa Suqour Al-Jabal, their commander said.

In conversation with Shoigu, Putin said it was too early to talk about the results of Russia’s operations in Syria and ordered his minister to continue cooperation with the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq on the crisis.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the United States would not cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria, although it was willing to hold discussions to secure the safety of its own pilots bombing ISIS targets in Syria.

The Pentagon said US-led coalition aircraft bombing ISIS in Syria had been re-routed at least once in the last six days to avoid a close encounter with Russian planes.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said only two of 57 Russian air strikes in Syria so far had hit ISIS, while the rest had been against the moderate opposition, the only forces fighting the hard-line insurgents in northwestern Syria.

But in Iraq, the head of parliament’s defense and security committee said Baghdad may request Russian air strikes against ISIS on its soil soon and wants Moscow to have a bigger role than Washington in fighting the group.

Iraq’s government and powerful Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias question the United States’ resolve in fighting ISIS militants, who control a third of the country, saying US-led coalition air strikes are ineffective.

The Kremlin said it had not received any official request from Iraq for air strikes against ISIS there.

Yemeni government will stay in Aden despite attack on HQ: minister

Smoke rises following an explosion that hit the Al-Qasr hotel where cabinet members and other government officials are staying, in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, on Tuesday, October 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Wael Qubady)
Smoke rises following an explosion that hit the Al-Qasr hotel where cabinet members and other government officials are staying, in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen, on Tuesday, October 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Wael Qubady)

Aden, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Western-backed government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi will not be leaving the southern port city of Aden despite the recent attack on its headquarters that killed and injured dozens, a minister told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“The government will remain in Aden and tomorrow [Wednesday] the council of ministers will discuss the situation there,” Nayef Al-Bakri, Yemen’s minister of youth and sports, told Asharq Al-Awsat.

At least 11 Yemeni and four Emirati soldiers were killed Tuesday in three coordinated bombings targeting Al-Qasr hotel, the government temporary headquarters in Aden, and two military sites belonging to Arab coalition forces who have been fighting the Houthis in Yemen for more than six months.

Tuesday’s bombings were the first to target Hadi’s government since last month when it returned from exile to Aden where it established a temporary seat. The government condemned the attacks which it described as “terrorist,” stressing that it will continue its duties despite the security challenges.

Khaled Bahah, Yemen’s vice president and prime minister, and all other ministers present were unharmed by the attack which, although claimed by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, locals said “bore the fingerprints of extremist organizations historically known for their connection to Yemen’s ousted ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

Meanwhile, volunteer government loyalists, known as the Popular Resistance, accused Saleh’s followers of staging the bombings against the government headquarters and the Emirati military site in Aden.

“Targeting a site belonging to the Emirati forces and the government headquarters in Aden with car bombs is a continuation of the terror scenario which ousted president Saleh began 25 years ago,” Ali Sahyef Al-Hariri, a Popular Resistance spokesman, told Asharq Al-Awsat.

The recapture of the strategic Bab El-Mandeb strait last week by government loyalists and Saudi-led coalition forces, the spokesman said, “has pained the militias of the Houthi movement and Saleh and prompted them to retaliate.”

He said: “The militias’ inability to enter into military confrontations on the ground after their successive defeats and their ejection from Bab El-Mandeb made them resort to using their terrorist elements to retaliate through carrying out suicide operations and car bombs.”

Commenting on an online statement in which ISIS militants purportedly claimed Tuesday’s attacks, the spokesman said: “Saleh is using ISIS’s name after years of using Al-Qaeda’s name.”

“This terrorist act is the latest in a series of acts of terrorism, murder, and destruction suffered by [Yemen’s] south at the hands of the Sana’a regime,” Brig. Gen. Thabit Hussein Saleh, a Yemeni military expert, said, referring to an alliance of Houthis and Saleh supporters who took over the capital in September of 2014.

Russia, US move to resume talks on air-to-air conduct over Syria

In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Tuesday, October 6, 2015, two Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft take off from an airbase Hmeimim in Syria.  (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo made from the footage taken from Russian Defense Ministry official web site on Tuesday, October 6, 2015, two Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft take off from an airbase Hmeimim in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, Reuters—Russia moved on Tuesday to resume military talks with the United States aimed at setting rules for air-to-air conduct over Syria, a US official said, as the former Cold War foes carry out parallel, uncoordinated campaigns of airstrikes.

The discussions on ways to keep the US and Russian aircraft from clashing over Syria, launched last week, have gained urgency after the US and NATO denounced Russia for violating Turkish airspace.

Turkey, a NATO ally, threatened to respond, raising the prospect of direct confrontation.

During a trip to Europe, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter described the need to resume talks as urgent, and condemned Russia’s “seriously irresponsible and unprofessional” violation of Turkish airspace.

Hours later, a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters Moscow had indicated it was willing to resume talks but no date had been set.

Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, was quoted by the Tass news agency on Tuesday as saying the Russian military agreed in principle with the proposals made by the US on coordinating military flights.

But he was quoted as saying differences remained, that the potential for collaboration was “much wider” than what Washington was offering, and that Russia had made its own proposals, though he did not specify what they were.

“To our regret, the Americans are for now saying that our co-operation should be limited to technical questions concerning our pilots when they carry their missions,” said Antonov.

“The Americans have handed us a document, which we are working on. The general staff supports the document in principle.”

“Strategic confusion”

He said the two countries would hold a second joint video conference on the subject in the “coming days”.

“But it would be better if our (US) colleagues came to see us at the Defense Ministry so we could talk face to face about all the problems we face,” Antonov was quoted as saying.

The US proposal includes basic safety protocols, such as maintaining a safe distance between US and Russian aircraft and using common radio frequencies for distress calls, officials say, adding they would be similar to civil aviation.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the US awaited a formal response from Russia on the US proposals.

“We stand ready to meet again to continue our earlier discussion as soon as possible,” Cook told reporters traveling with US defense secretary in Italy, declining to offer further details.

Carter expressed frustration that Russia, after calling for talks with the US, had let so much time elapse before getting back in touch on the US proposals for air conduct.

“That may be a further sign of their strategic confusion, I don’t know,” he said, speaking to reporters earlier in Spain.

The US and Russia say they have the same enemies – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group of Sunni Muslim militants who have proclaimed a caliphate across eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

But Washington fiercely opposes Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and accuses Moscow of mainly targeting other insurgents who oppose Assad, rather than ISIS.

Carter said Moscow’s strategy of bolstering Assad would backfire.

“In Syria, they are going to be checked in the first instance by the backlash that they’re going to get on account of siding with Assad against everyone else,” Carter said.