France, Russia strike Islamic State; new suspect sought


France and Russia bombed Islamic State targets in Syria on Tuesday, punishing the group for attacks in Paris and against a Russian airliner that together killed 353 people, and made the first tentative steps toward a possible military alliance.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a coordinated onslaught in Paris on Friday and the downing of the Russian jet over Sinai on Oct. 31, saying they were in retaliation for French andRussian air raids in Iraq and Syria.

Still reeling from the Paris carnage that killed 129 people, France made an unprecedented appeal for European Union support and investigators said they were making progress in unraveling the plot, which was hatched in Syria and nurtured in Belgium.

Seven attackers died on Friday night, but video footage suggested that two other men were directly involved in the operation and subsequently escaped, not one as previously said.

Police also discovered two places in Paris where the militants probably stayed before the violence and also found a third car abandoned in the city that was used in the operation.

In Moscow, the Kremlin acknowledged that a bomb had destroyed the jet last month, killing 224 people. President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible and intensify air strikes against Islamists in Syria.

“Our air force's military work in Syria must not simply be continued,” he said. “It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”

Syrian targets hit by Russian long-range bombers and cruise missiles on Tuesday included the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, while French warplanes also targeted Raqqa on Tuesday evening — the third such bombing raid within 48 hours.

Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their operations, but French President Francois Hollande has called for a global campaign against the radicals in the wake of the Paris attacks.

The Kremlin said Putin spoke to Hollande by telephone and had ordered the Russian navy to establish contact with a French naval force heading to the eastern Mediterranean, led by an aircraft carrier, and to treat them as allies.

“We need to work out a plan with them of joint sea and air actions,” Putin told military chiefs.

Russia began air strikes in Syria at the end of September. It has always said its main target is Islamic State, but most of its bombs in the past have hit territory held by other groups opposed to its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

“Russia is shifting because today Russian cruise missiles hit Raqqa. Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening.

JANGLING NERVES

The West blames Assad for the chaos in Syria and says he must quit as part of any political solution to the crisis — a demand rejected by Syria's main backers Russia and Iran.

Hollande will visit Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26, two days after the French leader is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

A French presidential source said Hollande also spoke by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who backed calls for a united front against the militants. 

In Brussels, Le Drian invoked the EU's mutual assistance clause for the first time since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility, saying he expected help with French operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa.

“This is firstly a political act,” Le Drian told a news conference after a meeting of EU defense chiefs.

The 28 EU member states accepted the French request but it was not immediately clear what assistance would be forthcoming.

With nerves jangling across Europe, German police arrested and then released seven people around Aachen, near the Belgian border, and later canceled a Germany-Netherlands soccer match in Hanover, evacuating the stadium shortly before kick-off.

One of the targets on Friday was outside a Paris stadium where France was playing Germany in a friendly.

French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday — four Frenchmen and a fifth man who was fingerprinted in Greece among refugees last month. 

A Syrian passport was found near his body, but a justice source said investigators doubted whether it was his, suggesting the attacker might have been using someone else's ID. 

Police issued a photograph of the militant and asked the public for help in identifying him.

Despite a massive manhunt across Europe, police have failed to find Salah Abdeslam, 26, a Belgian-based Frenchman who is believed to have played a central role in both planning and executing the deadly mission.

Abdeslam drove back to Belgium from Paris early on Saturday with two friends, who have both been detained. A lawyer for one of the men told Belgian media that French police had pulled over their car three times early on Saturday as they headed to the border, but each time let them continue their journey.

The two men in detention deny any role in the attacks.

“DON'T SCAPEGOAT REFUGEES”

The U.N. refugee agency and Germany's police chief urged European countries not to demean or reject refugees because one of the Paris bombers was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece.

“We are deeply disturbed by language that demonizes refugees as a group,” U.N. spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said after government officials in Poland, Slovakia and the German state of Bavaria cited the Paris attacks as a reason to refuse refugees.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Paris would spare no expense to reinforce and equip its security forces and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism, even though that was bound to involve breaching European budget deficit limits.

“We have to face up to this, and Europe ought to understand,” he told France Inter radio.

The European Commission said it would show understanding to France if additional security spending pushed up its deficit.

As France geared up for a long war, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would present a “comprehensive strategy” for tackling Islamic State to parliament. British war planes have been bombing the militants in Iraq, but not Syria.

“It is in Syria, in Raqqa, that ISIL has its headquarters and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threat against this country are planned and orchestrated,” Cameron said, referring to Islamic State by one of its many acronyms. 

“Raqqa, if you like, is the head of the snake.”

Crowded skies over Syria


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

In response to the Paris terror attacks that have so far claimed 129 lives and wounded 300 more, French warplanes have for the first time attacked Islamic State (ISIS) targets inside of Syria.  Until now, France had limited its attacks to Iraqi airspace, matching the policy of a number of its coalition partners.

However, with the skies over Syria increasingly full of combat aircraft, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of which factions on the ground are being bombed, let alone the safety of coalition air craft. Analysts suggest that despite being the focal point for fear and anger among Western media, ISIS might not even be on the receiving end of the majority of airstrikes launched from the Syrian skies.

Air strikes against fighters in Iraq and Syria can generally be linked to three main thrusts: attacks against forces battling the Assad regime and carried out by Russian and Syrian jets; targeting of Kurdish groups by the Turkish military; and the anti-ISIS strikes by the United States-led coalition. To add to the confusion, some of the US coalition partners operate in Syrian airspace while others only conduct sorties over Iraq.

“The coalition does not target non-ISIS (groups), but the US, Russia and Turkey do to various degrees,” Chris Woods, founder of the nongovernmental organization Airwars, told The Media Line. The US has conducted attacks against other groups, in particular the Al-Nusra Front, which the Americans conduct outside the coalition framework, Woods explained. Al-Nusra is the official affiliate of Al-Qa’ida in the Syrian Civil War and are rivals to the Islamic State. But these attacks are a small part of the operations reported by the coalition, roughly 30 attacks out of the more than 8,000 conducted, Woods said.

Yet, Russia is conducting a far higher proportion of strikes against groups other than ISIS. “Russians are targeting ISIS in places like Raqqa and Idlib but primarily it looks like only 1 out of 5 attacks are targeting the group,” Woods, whose organization monitors airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, said.

Previously the US State Department has accused Russia of avoiding targeting ISIS and instead hitting moderate Syrian opposition groups.

The majority of attacks by the Russian air force are against Ahrar Al-Sham and Al-Nusra, and have not targeted ISIS, Nikolay Kozhanov, a fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center and a visiting fellow at Chatham House in London, told The Media Line. But, he stressed, this was for legitimate tactical reasons on the ground and not to push a Russian agenda. “The (Syrian) government and ISIS have quite a limited frontline with each other…(and) even if they are more targeting Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra, this is a good thing because these guys are no better than the Islamic State,” Kozhanov argued.

Ahrar Al-Sham, one of the many factions fighting on the ground in Syria, is estimated to comprise upwards of 10,000 fighters. The group has been seen as jihadist in nature with links to the Qatari government, but has apparently attempted to rebrand itself in order to become more palatable to Western backers. Ahrar Al-Sham fought against the Islamic State, which they have said represents a threat to the people of Syria.

Like the US, Turkey is a member of the anti-ISIS coalition but conducts its own unilateral operations. The majority of these strikes take place in Iraqi airspace and target the PKK, Chris Woods explained. The PKK, or the Kurdish Workers Party, is a left-wing Kurdish independence movement that has fought an armed conflict with the Turkish government since 1984. Ankara was accused of using the premise of striking at ISIS in order to target the group which is based in northern Iraq, and of ignoring the threat that ISIS represents in order to do so.

Yusuf Kanli, a journalist with Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News disagrees. He told The Media Line that on the contrary, the Turkish government does recognize the threat from ISIS, citing the suicide bombings in Ankara last month which were attributed to the Islamic State. As many as one hundred people were killed in the explosions.

But the government’s position is confused, Kanli suggested. “On the one hand, Turkey is a part of the anti-ISIS coalition and collaborating in every way possible in fighting that extremist group. On the other hand, we all know that that group is exporting oil through the (Turkish) private sector,” the journalist explained. Turkey’s border with Syria has previously been one of the main supply routes for the Islamic State through which weapons and foreign fighters from Europe have reportedly travelled. Oil revenues represent an important source of income for the Islamic State since it captured key petroleum infrastructure in Iraq and Syria.

While ISIS is recognized as a threat by the [Turkish] government, the Kurds are still considered “the real problem,” Kanli said, as “their objective is to carve out a Kurdish state along Turkey’s border.”

Powers struggle to agree on Syria; Russia urged to strike Islamic State


France challenged Russia to back its words with deeds over fighting Islamic State militants in Syria as major powers on Tuesday struggled to resolve differences between Moscow and the West over ending the civil war in the Middle Eastern country.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sent warplanes and tanks to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called for a new anti-Islamic State coalition, diplomats pursued new ways to build a solid front against the militants.

Ideas suggested on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York included using the model of a small group of world powers that succeeded in negotiating the July 14 Iran nuclear deal, and breathing new life into a virtually moribund broader U.N. peace mechanism.

“What's important in the fight against Islamic State is not the media strike, it's the real strike,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in response Putin's statements Monday at the gathering of world leaders.

Fabius said the Russians “talk a lot, but as far as I can tell they haven't committed any planes against Islamic State.” He added: “If it (Russia) is against the terrorists, it's not abnormal to launch strikes against them.”

A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria for about a year with a separate coalition with some of the same countries striking the militants in neighboring Iraq.

The militants control large areas in both countries, exploiting chaos created in Syria by a civil war that began more than four years ago when Assad cracked down on protests against his government.

PUTIN'S PLANS

Western officials have questioned whether Russian objectives in Syria are more to strengthen Assad and build up Moscow's presence as a power in the region than fighting the militants.

Putin told the General Assembly that Assad should be part of the coalition fighting Islamic State. Washington and its allies have indicated Assad might stay in power in the short term but a transition was essential and he had no long term role.

“Bashar has been qualified by the U.N. as a criminal against humanity. How can you imagine Syrians coming back if we tell them that their future passes through Assad?” Fabius said.

After Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama met on Monday, both powers said they were committed to destroying Islamic State and they agreed their militaries would communicate to avoid any accidental clashes between forces in the area.

“There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL (Islamic State) needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday.

Kerry told MSNBC: “Everybody understands that Syria is at stake, and the world is looking rapidly for some kind of resolution.”   

ASSAD'S FUTURE

Assad's future role remained the biggest sticking point and Kerry told MSNBC differences remained on what the outcome of such a transition would be. He said he would have further talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov here on Wednesday.

Obama told a U.N. meeting on Tuesday: “Defeating ISIL requires, I believe, a new leader and an inclusive (Syrian) government that unites the Syrian people in the fight against terrorist groups. This is going to be a complex process.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said foreign ministers from Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the United States, who met for dinner on Monday, had considered the idea of using the model of that P5+1 group to address Syria.

She said in another meeting of the 28 European Union foreign minister members explored that and other options, including using the EU's influence in the region. “I guess we will have to do a little bit of shuttle diplomacy,” she told reporters.

Russia's Lavrov said he hoped a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on counter terrorism on Wednesday would be another chance to build a solid international legal basis for whatever action might be necessary to fight Islamic State.

Russia is president of the 15-member Security Council for September and Lavrov would chair the meeting.

Western council diplomats, however, voiced doubts that the meeting would yield any significant results.

A bid by Russia for a unanimous council statement on counter terrorism failed after Washington refused to negotiate on the text, which diplomats said strayed into divisive political issues such Syria and Yemen and the Middle East peace process.

In his speech to the General Assembly on Monday Putin proposed talks on a possible Security Council resolution “aimed at coordinating the actions of all forces that confront Islamic State.”

ISIS urges attacks on U.S., French citizens, taunts Obama


ISIS urged its followers on Monday to attack citizens of the United States, France and other countries which have joined a coalition to destroy the ultra-radical group.

ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani also taunted U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western “crusaders” in a statement carried by the SITE monitoring website, saying their forces faced inevitable defeat at the insurgents' hands.

The United States is building an international coalition to combat the extremist Sunni Muslim force, which has seized large expanses of territory in Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a caliphate erasing borders in the heart of the Middle East.

Adnani said the intervention by the U.S.-led coalition would be the “final campaign of the crusaders,” according to SITE's English-language transcript of an audio recording in Arabic.

“It will be broken and defeated, just as all your previous campaigns were broken and defeated,” Adnani said, according to the recording, which urged followers to attack U.S., French, Canadian, Australian and other nationals.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the group's call showed once again, “if it needed to be shown, the barbarity of these terrorists, and shows why we must fight them relentlessly…” In a statement, he added, using an Arabic acronym for the militants: “We must also eliminate the risk that Daesh represents to our security.”

U.S. and French warplanes have struck ISIS targets in Iraq, and on Sunday the United States said other countries had indicated a willingness to join it if it goes ahead with air strikes against the group in Syria too.

Washington has also committed $500 million to arm and train Syrian rebels and to send 1,600 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to help fight ISIS, while stressing the U.S. personnel would not engage in combat.

Adnani mocked Western leaders over their deepening military engagement in the region and said Obama was repeating the mistakes of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

“If you fight it (ISIS), it becomes stronger and tougher. If you leave it alone, it grows and expands. If Obama has promised you with defeating the ISIS, then Bush has also lied before him,” Adnani said, according to the transcript.

“DRAGGED TO DESTRUCTION”

Addressing Obama directly, Adnani added: “O mule of the Jews, you claimed today that America would not be drawn into a war on the ground. No, it will be drawn and dragged … to its death, grave and destruction.”

Obama, who has spent much of his tenure since 2009 extracting the United States from Iraq after its costly 2003 invasion and occupation, is sensitive to charges that he is being drawn into another long campaign that risks the lives of U.S. soldiers.

While Obama has ruled out a combat mission, military officials say the reality of a protracted campaign in Iraq and possibly Syria may ultimately require greater use of U.S. troops, including tactical air strike spotters or front-line advisers embedded with Iraqi forces.

In his statement, Adnani criticised Kurdish fighters who are battling the ISIS militants in both Syria and Iraq.

“We do not fight Kurds because they are Kurds. Rather we fight the disbelievers amongst them, the allies of the crusaders and Jews in their war against the Muslims,” Adnani said.

He added that there were many Muslim Kurds within the ranks of the ISIS army.

On Monday, Syrian Kurdish fighters halted an advance by ISIS to the east of a predominantly Kurdish town near the border with Turkey, a spokesman for the main Kurdish group said.

Adnani also condemned Saudi Arabia, whose senior Muslim clergy have denounced ISIS and whose ruling royal family has joined other Arab states in a pledge to tackle militant ideology as part of a strategy to counter the group.

Adnani condemned Western inaction over Syria's conflict, in which President Bashar Assad's forces have been embroiled in civil war with mainly Sunni Muslim fighters since 2011. He said the West had “looked the other way” when barrel bombs were dropped and chemical weapons were used against Muslim civilians.

“So know that – by Allah – we fear not the swarms of planes, nor ballistic missiles, nor drones, nor satellites, nor battleships, nor weapons of mass destruction.”

Additional reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo and Mark John in Paris; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Heinrich

U.S. believes Syria used chemical weapons but says facts needed


U.S. intelligence agencies believe Syria's government has likely used chemical weapons on a small scale, the White House said on Thursday, but added that President Barack Obama needed “credible and corroborated” facts before acting on that assessment.

The disclosure of the assessment, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said was made within the past 24 hours and the White House said was based in part on physiological samples, triggered immediate calls for U.S. action by members of Congress who advocate deeper U.S. involvement.

But while President Barack Obama declared that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, his administration made clear it would move carefully – mindful of the lessons of the start of the Iraq war 10 years ago.

Then, the George W. Bush administration used faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion in pursuit of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that turned out not to exist.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making,” Miguel Rodriguez, White House director of the office of legislative affairs, said in a letter to lawmakers.

One senior U.S. defense official told reporters that “we have seen very bad movies before” where intelligence was perceived to have driven policy decisions that later, in the cold light of day, were proven wrong.

The White House said the U.S. intelligence community assessed with varying degrees of confidence that the chemical agent sarin was used by the Syrian government. But it noted that “the chain of custody is not clear.”

“So we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions,” according to the White House letter, sent to lawmakers.

The term “varying degrees of confidence” also usually suggested some debate within the intelligence community about the assessment, the defense official noted.

The scale of the sarin use appeared limited, with one U.S. intelligence official noting that nobody was “seeing any mass casualties” from any Syrian chemical weapons use.

France, Britain and Israel have concluded evidence suggests chemical arms have been used in Syria's conflict.

A top Israeli military intelligence officer said on Tuesday that evidence supported the conclusion Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons – probably sarin – several times against rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

RED LINE CROSSED?

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, one of the leading advocates of deeper U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war, said the U.S. intelligence assessment demanded Washington follow with action.

“The president of the United States said that if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, it would be a game changer, that it would cross a red line,” he said.

“I think it's pretty obvious that red line has been crossed.”

Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there was likely still a need to check on chemical weapons use.

“There realistically is probably some additional steps that need to be taken to verify, but … there are indications a red line has been crossed,” he told reporters.

Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, told Reuters that U.S. aid to the rebels may backfire and lead to attacks on American soil like those of September 11, 2001.

“Once the fire of terrorism spreads in Syria it will go everywhere in the world,” he said in an interview in Damascus.

The White House has not specified what action Obama might take if he determines with certainty that Syria has used chemical weapons. But in its letter to lawmakers, it said it was “prepared for all contingencies.

Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Patricia Zengerle, Tabassum Zakaria, writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Xavier Briand

Israel says Syrian mortar strike was attack on NATO


Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said on Thursday a deadly Syrian mortar strike on a Turkish town had to be considered an attack on a member of the NATO alliance.

Israel is technically at war with Damascus and occupies the Golan Heights that it seized in the 1967 war and later annexed, but it has generally taken a cautious line on the uprising in its Arab neighbor.

“One has to say that according to the NATO treaty, it was an attack on a member of NATO, and that means France,” Meridor told reporters during a visit to Paris, referring to France's membership of NATO.

Syria and Israel have not exchanged fire in three decades, and a parliamentary briefing in July by the Israeli armed forces chief about the risk of “uncontrollable deterioration” in Syria were interpreted by local media as a caution against opening a new fighting front with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Meridor said he did not want to go into details about the incident but said the deaths in Syria had to end.

“Syria is in a horrible situation, a civil war. Each day men, women and children are being killed and it must be stopped,” Meridor said after meeting France's foreign and defense ministers.

“We are in a process that isn't finished. We don't see the end for now.”

Turkey's government on Thursday said “aggressive action” against its territory by Syria's military had become a serious threat to its national security and parliament approved the deployment of Turkish troops beyond its borders if needed.

Immediately after the incident, Ankara, which has the second-largest army in NATO, called a meeting of the organization's North Atlantic Council.

Syria has apologized through the United Nations for the mortar strike in Turkey and said such an incident would not be repeated.

Israel has been particularly worried that Hezbollah, the Iranian-inspired Shiite militia in neighboring Lebanon, may gain access to the chemical weapons should Assad's grip slip amid a 18-month-old insurgency.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect, considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, has close ties both with Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah, which was originally set up to oppose Israel.

“The alliance with Iran is extremely worrying (for us). Iran on one side, Hezbollah on the other, with Syria in the middle. For us, it's very important that this unholy alliance is broken,” Meridor said.

“If the Assad regime were to fall, it would be a vital strike on Iran,” he said.

Reporting By John Irish

Report: U.S., France nixed Kerry visit to Syria


The Obama administration and France reportedly nixed a visit by U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to Syria.

Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has cultivated a relationship with the regime otherwise treated as a pariah in the West in the hope of drawing it away from Iranian influence.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Kerry had planned a visit last month, but the governments of the United States and of French President Nicolas Sarkozy blocked the visit out of concern that it would signal “Western weakness” as pro-Iranian and pro-Western forces jockeyed for influence in Syria’s neighbor, Lebanon.

Israel, the United States and France are closely watching the anti-government protests that have spread in Syria, part of broader regional unrest, with a degree of ambivalence. The Western governments fear the prospect of a Syria descended into chaos, but they also perceive the prospect of a weakened Assad government as an opportunity for diminishing Iranian influence.

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