The enemy of your enemy is your… frenemy; and so it is across the Middle East as the WSJ notes the spread of The Islamic State has united many parties once at odds with each other to become ‘strange bedfellows’.
Strange Bedfellows – Parties that display friction or outright aggression toward one another are finding themselves aligned in a desire to counter Islamic State.
U.S. and Iran
The U.S. and Iran share an interest in fostering an Iraqi government strong enough to fend off Islamic State.
U.S. and Syria
The U.S. and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad share an interest in quashing Islamic State in Syria, even if the regime appears to put a higher priority on fighting other rebel groups.
Israel and Egypt
Israel and Egypt have come together to oppose Hamas, and they now have a similar long-term interest to do the same in confronting Islamic State.
Syria, Kurds, Turkey and Iraq
Turkey and Syria, long fearful of building up the region’s Kurds, have a shared interest in building up the Kurdish Peshmerga to combat a more immediate threat, Islamic State. Iraq has acquiesced.
Turkey and Qatar
Turkey and Qatar suddenly have a shared interest in keeping the Islamist movement they separately helped foster in check before Islamic State absorbs and consolidates it.
Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq
Saudi Arabia supported Sunnis in Iraq while Iran supported Shiites. They now have an interest in aiding the Shiite-led Iraq government to counter a common threat.
U.S., China and Russia
Russia and China have plenty of disputes with the U.S., but they agree that, as big powers, they are threatened in similar fashion by the expansionist Islamic extremism of Islamic State.
U.S., Egypt, Qatar and Turkey
Egypt’s military ruler sees Qatar, Turkey and the U.S. as hostile to his suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. They all now fear Islamic State will consolidate the Islamic threat.
U.S. and al Qaeda
The greatest odd bedfellow of all: Islamic State threatens al Qaeda as well as the West, meaning that, in fact, al Qaeda and the U.S. now have a shared enemy.
JALAWLA, Iraq (Reuters) – The blood of two militants killed during Islamic State’s rout in the Iraqi town of Jalawla has yet to be washed away, but a turf war is already brewing between Kurdish and Shi’ite forces that jointly drove the insurgents out.
The recapture of disputed territory and towns such as Jalawla is reopening rivalries over the boundary between areas of Kurdish control and those administered by the Shi’ite-led Baghdad government.
Local Sunni Arabs displaced in the fighting have little choice but to align themselves with one side or the other.
Not long after Islamic State began its offensive across Iraq this summer, Kurdish commanders in the eastern province of Diyala invited the head of the largest Sunni Arab tribe in Jalawla to discuss jointly resisting the insurgents.
“We sat with them here in this very building,” said Brigadier General Barzan Ali Shawas, describing the meeting with Sheikh Faisal al-Karwi in a Kurdish peshmerga barracks on the banks of the Diyala river, lined with date palms.
“We said: What do you want? True, you are Arabs and we are Kurds, but the unity of Iraq is in our interest.” The sheikh had replied he would consider the Kurds’ offer to set up a unit for local Sunnis under peshmerga command, but he never came back with an answer.
Since that June day, Jalawla changed hands several times, until the peshmerga and Shi’ite militia drove the militants out on Nov. 23. According to Shawas, they agreed before the offensive that the Shi’ite militia would withdraw as soon as it was over and hand full control to the Kurds, but that has yet to happen.
Jalawla, which lies about 150 km (90 miles) northeast of Baghdad, is overwhelmingly Arab and was under the central government’s jurisdiction until Islamic State overran it. However, the Kurds say it was theirs until the 1970s, when Saddam Hussein brought in Sheikh Faisal’s Karwiya tribe to “Arabise” the area.
Now it is deserted except for stray animals, Shi’ite militiamen and peshmerga, marking their territory with flags and graffiti. The atmosphere is tense.
“Jalawla is Kurdistani,” is spray-painted on the front of a bakery. Fridges dragged into the road as barricades are beginning to rust.
Shi’ite fighters drive a pick-up truck with a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the bonnet. One gets out and approaches the Kurds, finger on the trigger of his rifle, to ask if they have permission to be there from the head of the Shi’ite Khorasani Brigades militia.
“If they retain a fanatic stance about the areas they have taken, there’s no way we will allow them,” said Jawad al-Hosnawi, the Khorasani Brigades’ field commander.
Iraqi Kurds have controlled an autonomous region since the early 1990s and their fighters moved into other disputed areas this year to combat Islamic State.
But Hosnawi rejects any further Kurdish ambitions. “Our problem is if they want to separate from Iraq or form an ethnic state – no way,” he said.
Cats pick through uncollected rubbish in Jalawla and a cow strolls down the street, oblivious to the danger of thousands of mines planted by the militants. A burst of gunfire and the occasional thud of an explosion can be heard.
Shawas promised civilians would be allowed to return, except those who sided with Islamic State, once a bomb disposal team finishes its work, and water and electricity are restored.
Hosnawi said the Kurds were bulldozing Sunni homes to discourage them from coming back.
Many Jalawla residents are camping a few kilometers away on a football pitch, its perimeter fence draped with laundry. They celebrated the news that Islamic State had been forced from Jalawla and the adjacent town of Saadiya.
Most said they had fled not the militants, but air strikes targeting them. Now they fear the Shi’ite forces, who have killed Sunnis and destroyed their homes in other towns they recaptured from Islamic States.
“We want to go back but the militias will slaughter us,” said a 40-year-old farmer from Saadiya who was too afraid to give his name. “We ask the peshmerga to annex Jalawla and Saadiya to the (Kurdistan) region so we can live in peace.”
To slow enemy advances, Islamic State blew up bridges across the milky waters of the Diyala river, into which some militants flung themselves to escape when the game was up.
The blood of two insurgents who did not get away stains the entrance to a shop that used to sell roofing. Its shutters are down now and daubed with Shi’ite slogans.
Sheikh Faisal confirmed rejecting the Kurds’ proposal, and says his tribe had fought the peshmerga to prevent them taking over a base abandoned by the Iraqi army.
“They won’t let Arabs return, mostly the Karwiya. They want to take Jalawla. It’s an Arab area,” he said by telephone from the nearby town of Baquba.
He denies collaborating with Islamic State, as the Kurds allege, and says the militants blew up his house in Jalawla because he refused to join them.
Unlike the displaced residents, Sheikh Faisal’s nephew Zumhar Jamal al-Karwi said Jalawla should remain under the Baghdad government, not the Kurds.
“We won’t accept Jalawla remaining in Kurdish clutches. If they cling to it by force, it will be retaken by force,” Zumhar said. “We are prepared to fight against the Kurds alongside the militias unless the peshmerga leave Jalawla.”
Tribal militia had played prominent role in fighting al-Qaida and offshoots since 2007
The bodies of more than 150 men killed by Islamic state (Isis) militants were recovered from a ditch in the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on Thursday in the latest of a series of mass executions of tribal figures who oppose the group.
Iraqi officials said the men had been captured in the town of Heet, west of Ramadi, over the last week. All were members of the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe, which had faced off against Isis and had played a prominent role in fighting al-Qaida and its offshoots in Anbar province since 2007.
At least 60 more tribal members were killed in Heet earlier this week, in an execution videotaped and uploaded to the internet by the executioners.
Mass killings have become synonymous with the jihadists’ rampage through western Iraq and eastern Syria, in which large numbers of captured soldiers and civilians on both sides of the border have been murdered and their bodies gruesomely displayed.
Human Rights Watch reported that up to 600 prisoners, all Shia, were executed when the group overran Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in June. The Shias were separated from Sunni prisoners and a small number of Christians, all of whom were spared. The NGO said it had spoken to 15 Shia prisoners who survived the massacre and said that those killed had been forced to kneel next to a ravine before being shot.
Since then up to 800 captured Syrian troops have been murdered after their bases were overrun in eastern Syria. And at least 1,000 Iraqi troops – all Shia – remain missing after they were captured in Tikrit.
Interior ministry intelligence chief General Ali al-Saede said Isis felt gravely threatened by a tribal revolt, which is seen as perhaps the only way to force it from large parts of the country it has conquered.
“They are trying to consolidate in the desert areas and in Falluja and Ramadi,” he said in an interview. “They know that the tribes are allying with us and that will be their downfall.”
Iraqi officials are trying to raise a national guard that would be led by Sunni tribal leaders and partnered with the beleaguered national army. However, tribal leaders say they have yet to be formally approached about the idea and that their fight against Isis is largely piecemeal. “Nobody has talked to me about a new awakening, of forming a national guard,” said Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, the leader of a tribal revolt in Anbar in 2007 that forced an earlier incarnation of Isis to leave the province.
“If they did, they would know that we need a lot more than we have now to fight them properly.”
More than four months into the insurgency that has seen large parts of Iraq fall out of government hands, much of Anbar remains dominated by Isis. Falluja and Ramadi, the two largest cities in the province, are mostly in insurgent hands, as are towns and villages in the desert that sprawls to the Syrian border.
Heet was one of the last towns to fall to the group. A large Iraqi military base near the town was abandoned as the jihadists advanced, yielding a haul of US-supplied advanced weapons, such as seven M-1 Abrams tanks, which have now become targets of US air force jets.
Meanwhile, in north-eastern Syria around 100 Kurdish peshmerga have assembled near Kobani, on the border with Turkey, to reinforce Kurdish fighters who have been battling Isis for more than a month. Kobani, which is known as Ain al-Arab in Arabic, has been a key battleground in Syria’s civil war.
US-led air strikes have regularly beaten back Isis, but it still controls at least half the town – the third largest urban centre for Syrian Kurds. The fall of Kobani would be a huge boost for Isis and a serious blow for the Kurds, the US and its allies, who have focused much of their air campaign on saving it.
A group of 150 Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have arrived in Turkey from where they plan to cross into Syria to battle Islamic State (IS) militants besieging the town of Kobane.
One contingent flew from Iraq to a south-eastern Turkish airport.
Another contingent, carrying weapons including artillery, is travelling separately by land through Turkey.
Turkey agreed to the deployment last week after refusing to allow Turkish Kurds to cross the border to fight.
Thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters gathered to see off the first batch of Peshmerga forces as they left the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil by plane.
The group of 90-100 fighters landed in the early hours of Wednesday at Sanliurfa airport in south-eastern Turkey.
They were then reported to have left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces.
A few hours later, just after dawn, a convoy of 80 lorries carrying weapons and more fighters crossed by land into south-eastern Turkey through the Habur border crossing.
Turkish police fired into the air to disperse a large crowd of Kurds who had come to welcome their arrival. Some in the crowd threw stones at the police.
The two groups of fighters are expected to meet later on Wednesday in Suruc, some 10 miles (16km) from Kobane, before crossing the border into Syria.
Turkey has come under considerable international pressure to do more to prevent Kobane falling into IS hands but has refused to allow Turkish Kurds from the militant PKK to cross the border.
The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, although a ceasefire was declared last year. The government in Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters across the border in Kobane as linked to the PKK, which it views as a terrorist organisation.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has rejected claims that not enough was being done to end the jihadist assault.
He told the BBC that Turkey would only take part once the US-led coalition against IS had an “integrated strategy” that included action against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Kurdistan Parliament authorised sending 150 Peshmerga to help defend the predominantly Kurdish Syrian town last week. It was unclear why their deployment was delayed.
The Kurdish population in both Iraq and Syria is under significant threat because of the rapid advance by IS.
US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that America would “certainly encourage” the deployment of Iraqi Peshmerga forces to Kobane.
The battle for Kobane has emerged as a major test of whether the coalition’s air campaign can push back IS.
Weeks of air strikes in and around Kobane have allowed Kurdish fighters to prevent it from falling, but clashes continued on Tuesday and a local Kurdish commander said IS still controlled 40% of the town.
More than 800 people have been killed since the jihadist group launched an offensive on Kobane six weeks ago.
The fighting has also forced more than 200,000 people to flee across the Turkish border.
IS has declared the formation of a caliphate in the large swathes of Syria and Iraq it has seized since 2013.
The UN says that millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict have had an “enormous” impact on neighbouring countries in terms of “economics, public services, the social fabric of communities and the welfare of families”.
More than three million Syrians have fled their country since the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011, with most of them now sheltering in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
Maria Karjian threw back her head and laughed.
“We used to call this Midan St but now we call it Tora Bora,” she said.
How did a street in the Armenian district of Aleppo come to be nicknamed after the caves where the Taliban fought in Afghanistan? It lies on the frontline between Syrian government-held west Aleppo and the rebel controlled east.
Rubble is strewn across the road and the front half of an orange car has taken a direct hit, probably from a rocket. Maria pointed up to the second storey apartment. Part of the wall was missing.
“My mother was inside when the bomb hit,” she said.
Syria’s Armenian community are staunch supporters of President Bashar al-Assad whose picture adorns almost every shop window. As Christians, one of Syria’s minorities, they see him as their protector against Islamism and the old enemy, the Turks.
In the complexity of the current conflict, it’s easy to forget the strong grip of the past. The Armenians, victims of genocide by Turkish forces in 1915, at the end of WW1, fear history repeating itself.
President Erdogan has been clear that he wants to see the overthrow of President Assad. Turkey has not only backed the opposition groups that control the streets just east of Midan but also allowed foreign fighters to cross its border to fight for the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda linked group Jabat al-Nusra.
“Turkey is the first enemy,” said Pierre Bedrossian, a local businessman who showed me around. “They know Armenians live here. Everyone knows.”
It’s unlikely that the Armenians were uppermost in President Erdogan’s mind when he decided to back the Syrian rebels. He is a Sunni, with ideological roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, while Assad is an Alawite, from the Baath Party and linked to Shi’a Iran. They are sectarian, political and regional rivals.
Still, the visit to Midan got me thinking about how Turkey’s struggles are entwined in this war. The Turks are still refusing to allow weapons across the border for the Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State militants in Kobani. Why? One Turkish minister said he saw it as “a battle between two terrorist groups”.
The Syrian Kurds are linked to the PKK, the Kurdish group which has been fighting the government within Turkey for decades. The Turkish state still sees the Kurds as more of a threat than the jihadis.
In a half destroyed health centre, Pierre and his friends showed me a small library.
“This is our culture,” they said. “We fear it will be destroyed.”
At least half of Aleppo’s Armenians have left the country, most for Lebanon. Once again, their community is divided and endangered. And once again, they regard Turkey as the chief cause of their problems.
The UN special envoy to Syria has warned that up to 700 people, mainly elderly, are still trapped in the Syrian border town of Kobane.
Staffan de Mistura also urged Turkey to allow in volunteers to Syria to defend the town from Islamic State militants.
There are reports that IS has taken control of the Kurdish headquarters in the town, but this has been denied by a Syrian Kurdish official there.
Kobane has been a major battleground for IS and the Kurds for three weeks.
The fighting has forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians, mainly Kurds, to flee into neighbouring Turkey, which has so far ruled out any ground operation on its own against IS.
Kurdish forces, who are being helped by US-led coalition strikes against IS, say they urgently need more weapons and ammunition to push back the militants’ advance in the town.
The US Central Command (Centcom) said that US fighter jets alongside UAE and Saudi Arabian military aircraft carried out fresh airstrikes on Thursday and Friday around the southeast of Kobane and in Deir al-Zour, in eastern Syria, destroying several IS vehicles and training facilities.
Kurdish sources inside Kobane told the BBC that four air strikes hit the western side of the town in one half-hour period.
Except for one narrow entry and exit point, Mr de Mistura said Kobane was “literally surrounded” by IS, with hundreds of mainly elderly civilians still inside the city centre and another 10-13,000 gathered nearby, AFP reports.
He said the civilians would “most likely be massacred” if the town fell to IS, warning that the UN did not want to see another Srebrenica – where thousands of Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995 during the Bosnian conflict.
“We would like to appeal to the Turkish authorities in order to allow the flow of volunteers at least, and their equipment to be able to enter the city to contribute to a self-defence operation,” Mr de Mistura said, addressing reporters in Geneva on Friday.
He also urged Turkey to support the US-led coalition in carrying out air strikes on IS targets around Kobane “through whatever means from their own territory”.
But the vice chairman of Turkey’s governing AK party, Yasin Aktay, told the BBC on Friday that all of Kobane’s civilians had left the town and were already in Turkey.
“There is no tragedy in Kobane as cried out by the terrorist PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]”, he said. “There is a war between two terrorist groups.”
Turkey is reluctant to get involved militarily, partly because it is concerned about arming the Kurdish forces who are fighting the IS militants. Turkey fought a long civil war with its Kurdish minority.
A Syrian Kurdish source inside Kobane has denied reports that IS has taken almost complete control of the town’s “security quarter” – where the Kurdish civilian headquarters are based.
The source told the BBC that Kurdish fighters remained in control of two administrative buildings in the east of the town, saying that “heavy fighting has reached the ‘security quarter’ but it has not fallen yet”.
Earlier, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the jihadists had seized the main headquarters of the Kurdish military and civilian authorities.
“IS now controls 40% of the town,” the monitoring group’s director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP news agency.
The observatory also said that an IS militant had carried out a suicide car bomb attack to the west of the Kurdish headquarters but did not give any details of the casualties.
Turkey has been granted parliamentary approval for possible military action, allowing it to launch an offensive into Syria and Iraq against militants who threaten Turkey.
But while Turkish tanks are stationed along the border, there has so far been no move by Turkish forces into Syria.
Pro-Kurdish protesters have ramped up the pressure on the Turkish authorities to do more to save Kobane in recent days. Interior Minister Efkan Ala says more than 30 people have been killed in clashes with police in several Turkish cities this week.