Christoph Germann

Newsbud Partner Analyst & Author, The New Great Game

Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in, Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus region.
Visit Christoph’s website here.

The Jaber al-Bakr Story: How a White Helmets Volunteer Almost Blew Up Berlin Airport

Chemnitz Terror Plot Turns the Spotlight on NATO’s Terrorist Breeding Ground in ‘Rebel-Held’ Syria

The two-day manhunt, spectacular arrest and shocking death of a Syrian terrorism suspect in Germany have attracted a lot of attention and raised a lot of questions.

On October 8, German police raided an apartment in the eastern city of Chemnitz after being tipped off by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. They found 1.5 kilograms of TATP, the explosive of choice for ISIS terrorists, but the target of the raid, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee named Jaber al-Bakr, managed to escape.

Three alleged associates of al-Bakr were detained in connection with the raid, two of whom were later released. A 33-year-old Syrian refugee, identified only as Khalil A., remains in custody. Kahlil A. was renting the Chemnitz apartment where al-Bakr was staying. He is accused of allowing al-Bakr to use his apartment and of ordering bomb-making materials for him online. Security sources referred to the apartment as “a virtual bomb-making lab.”[1]

After the botched raid on Saturday, German police immediately launched a nationwide manhunt for al-Bakr.

On Sunday evening, three Syrians contacted police in the city of Leipzig, about an hour’s drive from Chemnitz, and informed them that they had captured the wanted suspect.

36-year-old Syrian refugee Mohamed A. later told German media that he and two of his friends had picked up al-Bakr at Leipzig main station after he sent out a request via a Syrian refugee online network for a place to stay. When they noticed that a manhunt for al-Bakr was underway, they decided to tie him up and informed the police.

At 0:42 a.m. local time on Monday, special police forces entered the apartment in Leipzig and found the terrorism suspect tied up.

Mohamed A. and his friends were hailed as heroes by German politicians and media. Some politicians even called for awarding them the Federal Cross of Merit, Germany’s highest civilian honor.[2]

Jaber al-Bakr, on the other hand, told investigators during his interrogation that the three Syrians from Leipzig were involved in the planning of the attack.[3] A few hours later, the most important witness in the case was dead.

Al-Bakr was found hanged in his jail cell at 7:45 p.m. on Wednesday. He had been held in solitary confinement at Leipzig prison since his arrest on Monday. Wardens initially checked on him every 15 minutes. This interval was extended on Wednesday afternoon to every 30 minutes. During the last regular check-in at 7:30 p.m., al-Bakr was still alive. When a trainee guard decided 15 minutes later to check again, she found him hanging from the bars of his cell with his T-shirt. Attempts to revive al-Bakr were unsuccessful and at 8:15 p.m. he was declared dead.

His defense lawyer, Alexander Hübner, accused the authorities of a "justice scandal" and stressed that al-Bakr's suicidal tendencies had been well documented. Hübner pointed out that his client went on hunger strike directly after his arrest on Monday.[4]

One day before his apparent suicide, al-Bakr had already pulled a lamp in the cell out of its fitting and tampered with power sockets. Prison authorities dismissed it as vandalism.[5] The suspected would-be suicide bomber was not classified as an “acute suicide risk.”[6]

Thomas Oppermann, the parliamentary group leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), described the al-Bakr story as an “unprecedented sequence of failures by the police and judicial system."[7]

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere demanded a “rapid and comprehensive inquiry” and stressed that al-Bakr's death had made the task of investigating the possible Berlin airport bomb plot much harder.[8]

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said that al-Bakr initially wanted to target trains in Germany before finally deciding on one of Berlin’s airports.[9] The agency believes that the attack was planned for this week.[10]

The information came from U.S. intelligence, which had tapped phone calls between al-Bakr and an ISIS member in Syria. In a call on October 7, al-Bakr reportedly told his contact in Syria that 2 kilograms of explosives were ready and that a "big airport in Berlin" was "better than trains." According to German security sources, al-Bakr had already spent a night in the German capital during the second half of September to spy out Berlin Tegel Airport.[11]

Jaber al-Bakr was born on January 10, 1994 in Sa’sa’, south of Damascus. He left Syria in 2014 and arrived in Germany in February 2015, receiving asylum in June 2015.

Al-Bakr’s family and former roommates confirmed that he traveled at least twice to Turkey after arriving in Germany. During these trips, al-Bakr also spent a lot of time in Syria. One of his former roommates recalled talking to him over the phone while he was in the northwestern city of Idlib.

According to his roommates, al-Bakr was never particularly religious, but after returning from Turkey, he changed radically. His 18-year-old brother, who is living in Syria, said in a live chat with Germany’s Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR) that someone must have brainwashed or manipulated Jaber.[12]

The suspect’s 31-year-old brother Alaa al-Bakr told Der Spiegel by phone from Sa’sa’ that Jaber first returned to Syria via Turkey in September 2015 and then joined ISIS in Raqqa.[13]

In an interview with Reuters, Alaa said he believed imams in Berlin brainwashed Jaber into returning to Syria for jihad. According to his older brother, Jaber explained his trip to Syria earlier this year by saying that he wanted to volunteer with the White Helmets: “He went to Turkey seven months ago and spent two months in Syria. He called us and told us 'I'm volunteering with the White Helmets (emergency teams) in Idlib'.”[14]

Jaber also mentioned that he was with Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib and doing "humanitarian aid work."[15]

When Alaa talked to his brother two months ago, Jaber said that he was in Idlib and asked him how to get back to Germany. “He asked me if there was a way to go back to Germany but he had burned his documents,” Alaa told The Wall Street Journal, adding that he didn’t know his brother got back.[16]

Jaber al-Bakr’s Facebook page indicates that he sympathized with ISIS since at least January 2016. According to investigators, al-Bakr returned from Turkey at the end of August after spending several months abroad. Shortly thereafter, he caught the attention of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.[17]

If Alaa al-Bakr’s account is accurate and his brother Jaber was able to travel between Germany and Syria at will, possibly without documents, authorities in Turkey and Germany have a lot to answer for.

Even more explosive is the revelation that Jaber al-Bakr spent a lot of time in Idlib, supposedly volunteering with the NATO-funded White Helmets, working with NATO-backed Ahrar al-Sham and doing “humanitarian aid work,” while becoming a bomb-making ISIS terrorist.

In contrast to the city of Raqqa, Idlib is not an ISIS stronghold. The northwestern province of Idlib and its provincial capital of the same name are “rebel-held” territory, at least according to Western governments and media.

Idlib province is reportedly roughly divided into areas controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, areas controlled by Ahrar al-Sham, and areas where they share control.[18]

Al-Nusra was until recently the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda and is still considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the United Nations. Ahrar al-Sham, on the other hand, enjoys the support of the U.S. and its allies and is being protected from the terrorist label despite its close ties to al-Qaeda and other designated terrorist organizations.[19]

In March 2015, the military alliance “Jaish al-Fatah” (“Army of Conquest”), led by al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, seized Idlib city from government forces. Idlib was only the second provincial capital to be captured from the government since the start of the conflict, the other one being Raqqa.

The attack on Idlib city had been planned for months. In November 2014, NATO member Turkey and close U.S. ally Qatar began providing increased logistical and military support to Ahrar al-Sham and several other factions active in northwestern Syria, thereby enabling Jaish al-Fatah’s series of victories in spring 2015.[20]

When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was later asked about the fall of Idlib, he emphasized that “the main factor was the huge support that came through Turkey; logistic support, and military support, and of course financial support that came through Saudi Arabia and Qatar."[21]

Needless to say, all of this constituted a clear violation of international law.

The process that followed Jaish al-Fatah’s takeover of Idlib province has been described as the “Talibanization of Idlib.” As Joshua Landis and Steven Simon noted, “rebel-held” Idlib doesn’t present an attractive or viable alternative to government-held Syria, quite the contrary:

“Schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls. Government offices were looted, and a more effective government has yet to take shape. With the Talibanization of Idlib, the 100-plus Christian families of the city fled. The few Druze villages that remained have been forced to denounce their religion and embrace Islam; some of their shrines have been blown up. No religious minorities remain in rebel-held Syria, in Idlib, or elsewhere.”[22]

When Jaber al-Bakr traveled to Idlib earlier this year, he traveled to a city where youths are being publicly flogged for accompanying girls in public or exchanging “indecent pictures.”[23]

“Rebel-held” Idlib is a place where terrorist groups like al-Nusra and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which are accused of organizing terrorist attacks abroad,[24] can do as they please while enjoying NATO protection due to their “intermingling” with Ahrar al-Sham and other so-called “moderate opposition forces.”

It is not hard to imagine how spending time in Idlib could have contributed to al-Bakr’s radicalization. More difficult to answer is what an ISIS member was doing in Idlib and if he really worked with Ahrar al-Sham and volunteered with the White Helmets.

If Jaber al-Jabkr was a White Helmet “rescue worker,” this would add to the growing evidence that there is no clear line between the self-described “unarmed und neutral rescue workers” and combatants - or even members of designated terrorist organizations.

The White Helmets are not a legitimate Syrian Civil Defense group, as Western governments and media would have you believe.[25]

The White Helmets are a propaganda tool funded by the same governments that are funding the armed opposition in Syria. The U.S. and its NATO allies have provided millions of dollars to the White Helmets while trying to shield themselves from the obvious threat posed by members of the group. When White Helmets leader Raed Saleh was denied entry into the U.S. earlier this year, State Department spokesman Mark Toner explained it as follows:

“And any individual – again, I’m broadening my language here for specific reasons, but any individual in any group suspected of ties or relations with extremist groups or that we had believed to be a security threat to the United States, we would act accordingly. But that does not, by extension, mean we condemn or would cut off ties to the group for which that individual works for.”[26]

After the Germany’s Foreign Ministry “recently increased its financial contribution by two million euros to a total of seven million euros for this year,” the German authorities would be well advised to rethink their support of the White Helmets in light of the al-Bakr revelations.[27]

The story of Jaber al-Bakr provides more evidence that the NATO-funded White Helmets serve as a cover for extremists and that “rebel-held” Idlib is turning into a terrorist breeding ground, similar to Afghanistan under Taliban rule. This terrorist breeding ground is being fostered by NATO members and their GCC allies - and innocent people in Syria, Germany and elsewhere are going to pay the price for that.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

Notes

[1] “Germany manhunt: 'IS link' to bomb suspect Al-Bakr – police,” BBC, 10 October 2016:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37604247.

[2] Madeline Chambers, “Germans say ‘hero refugees’ deserve medals for tying up suspected bomber,” Reuters, 12 October 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-bomb-migrants-idUSKCN12C18B.

[3] “Al-Bakr beschuldigt Leipziger Syrer des Mitwissertums,” Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, 12 October 2016: http://www.mdr.de/sachsen/leipzig/al-bakr-beschuldigt-syrer-aus-leipzig-des-mitwissertums-100.html.

[4] Michael Nienaber and Paul Carrel, “Germany aghast after Syrian bomb suspect kills himself in jail,” Reuters, 13 October 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-bomb-suspect-suicide-idUSKCN12C2K6.

[5] Johannes Graf, “Suizid trotz Vorschriften: Die letzten Tage des Jaber Al-Bakr,” n-tv, 13 October 2016: http://www.n-tv.de/politik/Die-letzten-Tage-des-Jaber-Al-Bakr-article18851046.html.

[6] Ben Knight, “Terror suspect Albakr not classified as 'acute suicide risk' before Leipzig jail death,” Deutsche Welle, 13 October 2016: http://www.dw.com/en/terror-suspect-albakr-not-classified-as-acute-suicide-risk-before-leipzig-jail-death/a-36030348.

[7] Ibid., Nienaber and Carrel.

[8] “German terror suspect Jaber al-Bakr's jail death a scandal, says lawyer,” BBC, 13 October 2016: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37641263.

[9] “IS bomb suspect planned to target Berlin airport: official,” Deutsche Welle, 11 October 2016: http://www.dw.com/en/is-bomb-suspect-planned-to-target-berlin-airport-official/a-36010910.

[10] “Justizminister: Keine akute Selbstmordgefahr bei Albakr,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 13 October 2016: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/kampf-gegen-den-terror/suizid-von-jaber-al-bakr-anwalt-kritisiert-saechsische-justiz-14478174.html.

[11] Michelle Martin, “Syrian bombing suspect in Germany spoke to IS contact about attack plans: newspaper,” Reuters, 15 October 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-bomb-suspect-idUSKBN12F07R.

[12] “Terrorverdächtiger Syrer sympathisierte mit IS,” Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, 12 October 2016: http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/politik/inland/Terrorverdaechtiger-hatte-facebook-kontakt-zu-is-100.html.

[13] “Albakr soll sich in Deutschland radikalisiert haben,” Spiegel Online, 14 October 2016: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/jaber-albakr-soll-sich-in-deutschland-radikalisiert-haben-a-1116645.html.

[14] Joseph Nasr, “Berlin bombing suspect radicalized by imams in Germany, brother says,” Reuters, 14 October 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-bomber-idUSKBN12E2ET.

[15] Eva Marie Kogel, “„Die Polizei hat meinen Bruder umgebracht“,” Welt, 15 October 2016: https://www.welt.de/print/die_welt/politik/article158777693/Die-Polizei-hat-meinen-Bruder-umgebracht.html.

[16] Ruth Bender and Mohammad Nour Alakraa, “Terror Suspect Found Dead in German Jail Cell Had Traveled to Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, 13 October 2016: http://www.wsj.com/articles/terror-suspect-found-dead-in-german-jail-cell-had-traveled-to-syria-1476375285.

[17] Florian Flade, Annelie Naumann, “Die mysteriöse Türkei-Reise des Dschaber al-Bakr,” Welt, 12 October 2016: https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article158688067/Die-mysterioese-Tuerkei-Reise-des-Dschaber-al-Bakr.html.

[18] Sam Heller, “The Home of Syria’s Only Real Rebels,” The Daily Beast, 17 June 2016: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/06/17/the-home-of-syria-s-only-real-rebels.html.

[19] Christoph Germann, “Syria ‘Cease-Fire’ Brings U.S. & Russia Closer to War,” NewsBud, 10 October 2016: http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2016/10/10/syria-cease-fire-brings-u-s-russia-closer-to-war/.

[20] Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2015).

[21] Tom Perry, Humeyra Pamuk and Ahmed Tolba, “Assad says Turkish support 'main factor' in Idlib takeover,” Reuters, 17 April 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-assad-idUSKBN0N80N820150417.

[22] Joshua Landis and Steven Simon, “Assad Has It His Way,” Foreign Affairs, 19 January 2016: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2016-01-19/assad-has-it-his-way.

[23] Ullin Hope, “Idlib youths flogged for unsanctioned contact with girls,” NOW, 22 January 2016: https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/566524-idlib-youths-flogged-for-unsanctioned-contact-with-girls.

[24] Olga Dzyubenko, “Kyrgyzstan says Uighur militant groups behind attack on China's embassy,” Reuters, 7 September 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-blast-china-idUSKCN11C1DK.

[25] Vanessa Beeley, “EXCLUSIVE: The REAL Syria Civil Defence Exposes Fake ‘White Helmets’ as Terrorist-Linked Imposters,” 21st Century Wire, 23 September 2016: http://21stcenturywire.com/2016/09/23/exclusive-the-real-syria-civil-defence-expose-natos-white-helmets-as-terrorist-linked-imposters/.

[26] Mark Toner, U.S. State Department Daily Press Briefing, 27 April 2016: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/04/256667.htm.

[27] Federal Foreign Office, “Federal Foreign Office to support Syrian White Helmets with seven million euros, Press release, 23 September 2016: https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Infoservice/Presse/Meldungen/2016/160923_Weisshelme.html.

 

Syria ‘Cease-Fire’ Brings U.S. & Russia Closer to War

Russia Ramps Up Military Presence in Syria to Deter U.S. Attack

On October 3, the United States announced that it is suspending talks with Russia over the conflict in Syria, accusing Moscow of not living up to its commitments under the September 9 cease-fire agreement as well as its obligations under international humanitarian law and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.[1]

When the U.S. State Department was asked, if the U.S. had lived up to its obligations, State Department Press Director Elizabeth Trudeau responded: “We believe we did.”[2]

In resolution 2254, the UN Security Council reiterated “its call in resolution 2249 (2015) for Member States to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al-Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council.”[3]

In July of this year, the Al-Nusra Front rebranded itself as “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham” and supposedly cut its ties with “al-Qaeda” – with the blessing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri – in an ill-fated attempt to rid itself of the terrorist label. Although the recent “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham” promotion campaign in Western media suggests otherwise, the United States and the United Nations still consider it a terrorist group.

Since the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2254 in December 2015, Russia has repeatedly accused the U.S. of protecting al-Nusra and not living up to its commitment to separate U.S.-backed “opposition forces” from Nusra terrorists.[4]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry conceded early on that it “has proven harder to separate them than we thought.”[5]

But the simple truth is that separating them is almost impossible, as SOFREP’s Jack Murphy recently pointed out:

“Distinguishing between the FSA and al-Nusra is impossible, because they are virtually the same organization. As early as 2013, FSA commanders were defecting with their entire units to join al-Nusra. There, they still retain the FSA monicker, but it is merely for show, to give the appearance of secularism so they can maintain access to weaponry provided by the CIA and Saudi intelligence services. The reality is that the FSA is little more than a cover for the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra.”[6]

The so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) is not the only NATO-GCC-backed group that is little more than a cover for terrorist organizations.

A former CIA officer told SOFREP that the CIA has tracked al-Qaeda operatives from Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas traveling to Syria and joining Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most important opposition groups in Syria and Nusra’s main partner.[7]

If true, the United States would have to explain why it blocked a Russian proposal at the United Nations earlier this year to backlist Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam for links to ISIS and al-Qaeda.[8]

Ahrar al-Sham and its Western supporters have long sought to downplay the group’s organizational ties to al-Qaeda. Given the fact that longtime al-Qaeda operative Abu Khalid al-Suri was one of Ahrar al-Sham’s founding members and senior leaders, this proved to be somewhat difficult.[9] A few weeks before al-Suri’s death in February 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department described him as “al-Qa'ida's representative in Syria.”[10]

At the same time, Western analysts touted Ahrar al-Sham as “an al Qaeda-linked group worth befriending” and warned that “designating Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group would destroy what little chance the United States has of building relationships with the other militias in the Islamic Front.”[11]

Designating Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist organization would also reflect badly on NATO member Turkey, which has been providing arms and training to the group.[12]

By blocking Russia’s attempt to blacklist Ahrar al-Sham in May of this year, the U.S. and its allies protected one of their most important assets in Syria. Moreover, they enabled Nusra’s main battlefield ally to sabotage any future cease-fire deals and efforts to come to a diplomatic solution, as the group has been doing in the past.[13]

On September 9, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov announced a breakthrough agreement on Syria. As part of the deal, the United States agreed to join forces with Russia in the fight against Jabhat al-Nusra. Both sides set out a clear timetable for drawing up targets and separating “moderate opposition forces” from Nusra.[14] It’s important to note that previous cease-fire deals failed primarily because separating them proved to be impossible.

On September 11, one day before the September 9 cease-fire agreement was due to come into force, Ahrar al-Sham came to Nusra’s defense and rejected the deal.[15] Shortly thereafter, a senior Ahrar al-Sham official confirmed that the group has been holding talks with Nusra and other factions about a merger “to unify the factions on the battlefield.”[16]

In other words, a U.S.-backed “moderate opposition group” sabotaged the U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement as soon as it was announced and tried to merge with Nusra instead of distancing itself from the designated terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon also joined the various forces seeking to derail the agreement and openly challenged the deal.[17] This didn’t go unnoticed in Moscow.

On September 15, The Washington Post announced that the Pentagon “grudgingly accepts” the Syria deal, noting that “Pentagon officials acknowledged widespread concern that Russia will not live up to its end of the deal, and they fear that the U.S. military will be blamed for problems or the failure of an initiative it does not fully support.”[18]

Two days later, on September 17, the U.S. military and its “anti-ISIL coalition” partners launched a major attack on the well-known Syrian government positions on al-Tharda Mountain near Deir Ezzor Airport. The attack, which U.S. Secretary of State Kerry later described as a “terrible accident,”[19] lasted one hour and reportedly killed more than 100 Syrian soldiers.[20]

The Syrian government and its Russian allies didn’t believe that this could have been a “terrible accident” and interpreted the attack as a message from the war party in Washington.

Last week, a Russian Defense Ministry source told Kommersant that Russia began shipping one of its S-300V4 anti-ballistic missile systems to Tartus a few days after the Deir Ezzor attack. According to the source, the system was not shipped in over the first October weekend as Fox News and other U.S. media outlets have been reporting but over the past two weeks.[21]

After U.S.-backed “moderate opposition forces” and the Pentagon had undermined the September 9 cease-fire agreement from the beginning, the Kremlin realized on September 17 that the Obama administration is not to be trusted and that a military solution to the conflict is more likely than a diplomatic solution.

As a consequence, Russia was preparing for U.S. military action in Syria already two weeks before Washington suspended talks with Moscow and reports about U.S. plans to strike Assad emerged.

One day after the suspension of talks, The Washington Post reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA are pressuring President Obama to approve “kinetic actions” against Syrian government forces. One administration official told The Post that the options under consideration include “bombing Syrian air force runways using cruise missiles and other long-range weapons fired from coalition planes and ships.”[22]

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said during a recent interview with TV channel Dozhd that the S-300 system was sent to Syria “after experts close to the American establishment had started leaking information…that the US could hit Syrian airfields with cruise missiles.”[23] It is not entirely whether Zakharova was referring to the report by The Washington Post or other leaks.

If Kommersant’s Defense Ministry source is telling the truth, the decision to send the anti-ballistic missile system to Syria was taken at least two weeks before The Washington Post disclosed U.S. plans to hit Syrian airfields with cruise missiles.

The deployment of Russia’s S-300V4 system complicates these plans. As The Wall Street Journal noted, the system “could impose significant restrictions on U.S. military action in Syria, since it can target cruise and ballistic missiles as well as aircraft.”[24]

Charles Lister, the go-to expert for regime change advocates, was rather unimpressed and dismissed Russia’s missile systems as “entirely suppressible.” Lister emphasized that “Russia has *nothing* that could concretely prevent US military action in Syria.”[25]

As other analysts have explained, the question is not whether Russia can prevent U.S. military action in Syria but whether Moscow will decide to back down or to retaliate.[26]

Russia’s military build-up in and around Syria and recent comments by Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov indicate that Russia is not going to abandon its Syrian allies without a fight.

Konashenkov strongly warned the United States against striking Syrian government forces and stressed that Russia would target any unidentified aircraft attacking Syrian government targets. He pointed out that Russian troops were now widely deployed across Syria, implying that any such attack would run the risk of killing Russian soldiers. In reference to the U.S.-led attack near Deir Ezzor on September 17, Konashenkov said: “We have taken all the necessary measures to prevent any such ‘mistakes’ with regard to Russian servicemen and military facilities in Syria.”[27]

On September 30, Russian media reported that Russia has reinforced its Hmeymim Air Base in Syria with a group of Su-24 and Su-34 bombers and is preparing to send Su-25 ground attack aircraft to Hmeymim.[28]

Furthermore, three missile corvettes of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet have left their base in Sevastopol in recent days to join Russia’s permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean and assist in military operations in Syria.[29]

Reuters described the military build-up as “Russia's biggest military deployment to Syria” since the partial withdrawal of Russian forces in March.[30]

Moscow always knew that the September 9 cease-fire agreement was doomed to fail. To this day, the United States and its allies haven’t provided any proof that they are able or willing to separate their “moderate opposition forces” from Nusra and other designated terrorist groups. Nevertheless, the Kremlin has long tried to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The September 9 deal may turn out to be Moscow’s last attempt to do so.

As usual, Western governments and media are blaming Russia for the failure of the latest cease-fire deal and the suspension of talks. Russia’s alleged attack on a UN aid convoy on September 19 received widespread attention, whereas the U.S-led attack on Syrian government forces near Deir Ezzor two days earlier was immediately written off as a mistake.

But from Moscow’s point of view, the Deir Ezzor attack proved beyond doubt that all diplomatic efforts are futile and that Russia must begin working towards a military solution in Syria, thereby making a direct military confrontation between Russia and the United States ever more likely.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

Notes

[1] U.S. Department of State, “Suspension of Participation in Bilateral Channels With Russia Established to Sustain the Cessation of Hostilities in Syria,” Press Statement, 3 October 2016: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/10/262704.htm.

[2] Elizabeth Trudeau, U.S. Department of State Daily Press Briefing, 3 October 2016: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/10/262717.htm.

[3] United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, 18 December 2015: http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12171.doc.htm.

[4] Vladimir Isachenkov, “US asks Russia to not hit Nusra Front in Syria, Moscow says,” The Associated Press, 3 June 2016: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/d5682585f9ef460aa0eb8b5d41d8a0ae/us-asks-russia-not-hit-nusra-front-syria-moscow-says.

[5] Peter S. Goodman, “Russian Military Buildup Near Aleppo, Syria, Threatens Truce, Kerry Warns,” The New York Times, 22 April 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/23/world/middleeast/russian-military-buildup-near-aleppo-threatens-truce-kerry-warns.html.

[6] Jack Murphy, “US Special Forces sabotage White House policy gone disastrously wrong with covert ops in Syria, SOFREP, 14 September 2016: https://sofrep.com/63764/us-special-forces-sabotage-white-house-policy-gone-disastrously-wrong-with-covert-ops-in-syria/.

[7] Jack Murphy, “Meet America’s think-tank fellows who support jihad,” SOFREP, 6 October 2016: https://sofrep.com/65217/meet-americas-think-tank-fellows-who-support-jihad/.

[8] Michelle Nichols, “U.S., Britain, France block Russia bid to blacklist Syria rebels,” Reuters, 11 May 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-sanctions-idUSKCN0Y22F8.

[9] Aron Lund, “Who and What Was Abu Khalid al-Suri? Part I,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 24 February 2014: http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/54618.

[10] U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Designates Al-Qa’ida Supporters in Qatar and Yemen,” Press Release, 18 December 2013: https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl2249.aspx.

[11] Michael Doran, William McCants and Clint Watts, “The Good and Bad of Ahrar al-Sham,” Foreign Affairs, 23 January 2014: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2014-01-23/good-and-bad-ahrar-al-sham.

[12] Ibid., Murphy, 14 September 2016.

[13] Sylvia Westall, “Syria armed group Ahrar al-Sham quits Riyadh conference,” Reuters, 10 December 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-ahrar-idUSKBN0TT1YJ20151210.

[14] “AP EXCLUSIVE: Text of Syria cease-fire deal,” The Associated Press, 22 September 2016: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/f5428d60326c4394a1c95efcefad8d77/ap-exclusive-text-syria-cease-fire-deal.

[15] “Syrian rebels Ahrar al-Sham reject truce: group,” Agence France-Presse, 11 September 2016: https://www.yahoo.com/news/syrian-rebels-ahrar-al-sham-reject-truce-group-210734900.html.

[16] Bassem Mroue, “As Syria truce holds. al-Qaida affiliate denounces it,” The Associated Press, 13 September 2016: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/89d9f405957d47e0b408cfcada469e20/syria-cease-fire-holding-only-minor-violations-reported.

[17] Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger, “Details of Syria Pact Widen Rift Between John Kerry and Pentagon,” The New York Times, 13 September 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/14/world/middleeast/syria-john-kerry.html.

[18] Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan, “Pentagon grudgingly accepts Syria deal amid deep mistrust of Russia,” The Washington Post, 15 September 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-grudgingly-accepts-syria-deal-amid-deep-mistrust-of-russia/2016/09/15/e2ac735c-7a98-11e6-beac-57a4a412e93a_story.html.

[19] John Kerry, Remarks at the Council Session on Syria, United Nations Headquarters, 21 September 2016: https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/09/262235.htm.

[20] Leith Fadel, “US Coalition knew they were bombing the Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor,” Al-Masdar News, 27 September 2016: https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/us-coalition-knew-bombing-syrian-army-deir-ezzor/.

[21] Sergey Strokan, Maxim Yusin and Ivan Safronov, “События в Сирии приняли противовоздушный оборот,” Kommersant, 4 October 2016: http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3107368.

[22] Josh Rogin, “Obama administration considering strikes on Assad, again,” The Washington Post, 4 October 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/josh-rogin/wp/2016/10/04/obama-administration-considering-strikes-on-assad-again/.

[23] “Russia Placed S-300 Missiles in Syria After Learning of US Plan to Bomb Airbases,” Sputnik, 7 October 2016: https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20161007/1046118409/syria-s-300-deployment.html.

[24] “Putin Tightens His Grip on Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 October 2016: http://www.wsj.com/articles/putin-tightens-his-grip-on-syria-1475611567.

[25] Charles Lister, Tweet 4 October 2016: https://twitter.com/Charles_Lister/status/783408687125671937.

[26] Dave Majumdar, “Why the United States Should Exercise Restraint Before Launching A New War in Syria,” The National Interest, 3 October 2016: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-the-united-states-should-exercise-restraint-before-17919.

[27] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia strongly warns US against striking Syrian army,” The Associated Press, 6 October 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/russia-strongly-warns-us-against-striking-syrian-army/2016/10/06/57d1621e-8bd8-11e6-8cdc-4fbb1973b506_story.html.

[28] Dmitry Solovyov, “Russia beefs up its air force in Syria: paper,” Reuters, 30 September 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-idUSKCN12018U?il=0.

[29] “3rd Russian Black Sea fleet ship leaves for Mediterranean to join anti-ISIS op,” Russia Today, 6 October 2016: https://www.rt.com/news/361827-third-ship-syria-op/.

[30] Jack Stubbs and Maria Tsvetkova, “Exclusive: Russia builds up forces in Syria, Reuters data analysis shows,” Reuters, 7 October 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-exclusive-idUSKCN1271YO.

 

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 4, 2016

Georgia Investigates Another Saakashvili 'Coup Plot,’ Azerbaijan's Iskander Problem & More!

Afghanistan Rehabilitates the 'Butcher of Kabul'

After months of talks and severalsetbacks, the Afghan government recently reached a peace agreement with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami (HIG).

On September 29, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed theagreement at the presidential palace in Kabul during a ceremony broadcast live on television.

Warlord Hekmatyar, who is believed to be hiding out in Pakistan, addressed the gathering in Kabul in a recorded video message that showed him signing the peace deal in a small room at an undisclosed location. He called on the Taliban and other parties to join the peace process and urged the Afghan government to fulfill a number of demands not mentioned in the agreement, such as releasing key Taliban prisoners.

Furthermore, the agreement obliges the government in Kabul to lobby the United States and the United Nations to lift sanctions on Hekmatyar and Hezb-i-Islami. One U.S. official,speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Washington will seriously consider such a request by Kabul:

“We will seriously consider any sanctions delisting request put forward by the government of Afghanistan," the U.S. official, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.

"If the security council deems the sanctions imposed on certain individuals to be outdated and no longer in the interest of Afghan peace and stability, then we will need to reconsider these measures."

Hekmatyar, the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, was designated a "global terrorist" by the U.S. government in February 2003 and blacklisted at Washington's request by the UN a few months later. His rehabilitation is being heavily criticized in Afghanistan and abroad. Human Rights Watch researcher Patricia Gossmann called Hekmatyar's return an affront to his victims and warned that this "will compound the culture of impunity that the Afghan government and its foreign donors have fostered."

Criticism came also from the Taliban, albeit for other reasons. The group emphasized thatHekmatyar "committed a major crime" by signing a peace deal with the Kabul government,damping hopes for a similar agreement with the Taliban in the near future.

Nevertheless, several countries welcomed the peace agreement, including the United States and Pakistan, the two nations that have played the biggest role in enabling Hekmatyar's rise to power and his decades-long warlord career.

But some observers cautioned against overestimating the impact of the deal. As Zamir Kabulov, the Russian President's special envoy to Afghanistan, noted, Hezb-i-Islami is no longer what it used to be in terms of military and political power:

"Basically, this is a positive but mostly symbolic step because the Hezb-i-Islami party is not an important player as far as the military confrontation in Afghanistan is concerned. If this agreement really puts an end to the confrontation between this group and the Afghan government, then it is a positive point. But we must realize that the agreement is not going to influence the military and political balance of power in Afghanistan."

Kabulov confirmed that Russia is going to participate in the upcoming Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, which is expected to pledge over $3 billion a year in development support for Afghanistan.

As usual when it comes to benevolent donors, there is a catch.

According to a leaked restricted memo, the European Union (EU) wants to make some of its aid "migration sensitive," thereby forcing the Afghan government to accept tens of thousands of refugees. Despite acknowledging the "deteriorating security situation with record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties," the EU concludes that "more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future."

Caught between Taliban attacks and U.S. drone strikes, many Afghans are trying to flee the endless violence. Forcing refugees to return to the war-torn country and pouring more money into a corrupt system seems more like a recipe for disaster than a long-term solution.

Georgia Investigates Another Saakashvili 'Coup Plot'

With the parliamentary elections in Georgia on October 8 rapidly approaching, tensions between the ruling Georgian Dream coalition and the United National Movement (UNM) of former President Mikheil Saakashvili are running high, once again.

In the run-up to the elections, Georgia's Prosecutor General's Office brought new charges against four Saakashvili-era officials for their role in the bloody dispersal of anti-government protests in May 2011. Only one of them, former security chief Data Akhalaia, is not sitting in prison. Akhalaia left Georgia after the UNM lost power in 2012, thereby escaping prosecutionto this day.

In connection with the new charges against Akhalaia and other Saakashvili-era officials, the Georgian authorities also wanted to question former Deputy Interior Minister Giorgi Lortkipanidze, who followed his old boss to Ukraine and is now serving as Odessa's police chief. After Lortkipanidze refused to show up for questioning, the Tbilisi City Court sentencedhim to pre-trial detention for exceeding official powers during the 2011 protests.

As Ukraine has established itself as the preferred destination for Georgian criminals, an extradition seems highly unlikely, regardless of the charges and their merit.

Lortkipanidze is perhaps best known for his involvement in a secret government training program for Chechen fighters, which received some attention after one of Lortkipanidze's former employees was named as the mastermind behind the June 2016 Atatürk Airport attack. Fortunately for Lortkipanidze, the current Georgian government is not willing to go down that road.
Saakashvili and the United National Movement are confident that they will be able to end the reign of the governing Georgian Dream alliance on October 8, paving the way for the return of former Georgian officials who fled aborad.

During a campaign rally in Zugdidi on September 26, Ukrainian citizen Saakashvili told his supporters via video link from Ukraine that the UNM's election victory is "absolutely inevitable" while his wife Sandra Roelofs claimed that Saakashvili will return to Georgia after the election "to celebrate victory together with us."

Georgian Defense Minister Levan Izoria responded to Roelofs' comments by saying that the country's law enforcers would take "relevant steps" as soon as Saakashvili crosses the border.

One day later, on September 27, Georgia's State Security Service announced that it has launched an investigation under Article 315/1 of the Criminal Code into a possible conspiracy to overthrow the government in connection with an audio recording (English transcript) that was uploaded on YouTube overnight.

The voices featured in the recording purportedly belong to Saakashvili and five MPs from the United National Movement. They talk about paying protesters and establishing some kind of Georgian Maidan on Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue to bring about a "revolutionary scenario":
Petre Tsiskarishvili: "In reality, there will be popular uprising and f*ckin' helter-skelter. We’re still in the East. There will be f*ckin' Gaddafi. They must drag him out and f*ck him in the *ss with a stick."

Saakashvili: "I’m glad we’re on the same page, and I think most people are, too. It’s just that we must punch their lights out openly, but the time is not ripe, and Rustavi 2 will make sure it is ripe."

After the recording emerged, the UNM said it "strongly denies planning destabilization, plotting or having any scenario for revolution." Saakashvili and the implicated MPs dismissed the audio recording as a fabrication. Parliamentarian Petre Tsiskarishvili suggested that the State Security Service put together doctored recordings of various wiretapped conversationswhile his colleague Akaki Bobokhidze denied having held any phone conversation with Saakashvili this year.

Last October, similar recordings of two phone conversations between Saakashvili, senior UNM leader Giga Bokeria and Rustavi 2 director Nika Gvaramia about a "revolutionary scenario" were leaked during the Rustavi 2 court battle. In this particular case, Bokeria and Gvaramia confirmed the authenticity of the recordings, whereas Saakashvili insisted that the calls had been intercepted and doctored by Russian intelligence. At the time, the State Security Service also launched a coup investigation under Article 315/1, the results of which have not been reported.

All of this makes the latest leaked audio recording and coup investigation even more curious.

U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly was quoted as saying that "the only way to come to power is through the ballot box; any other way is illegitimate." This would mark a major shift in U.S. policy and complicate Saakashvili's efforts to return to Georgia.

Opinion polls indicate that neither Saakashvili's UNM nor the Georgian Dream alliance will be able to win a majority in the new parliament. The power struggle between both sides is set to continue and could become even more interesting after the October 8 elections.

Azerbaijan's Iskander Problem

On September 21, Armeniacelebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence with a major military parade in the central square of the nation's capital Yerevan.

After Russian-made Iskander missiles were spotted during a rehearsal a few days earlier,neighboring Azerbaijan watchedthe Armenian military equipmenteven more carefully than usual.During the military parade on September 21, Armenia showcased two Iskander launchers and two reloading vehicles alongside other new equipment.

Given that Armenia's acquisition of Iskander missiles hasn't been announced officially, thedisplay of the powerful short-range ballistic missile system prompted a lot of speculation in Armenia and abroad. Armenians speculated that the missiles were perhaps restricted for use only against Turkey - or that Russia's Iskander-M missiles in Armenia were being used in a joint Russian-Armenian PR stunt to placate the population.

Shortly after the first pictures emerged, two "managers of the Russian military-industrial complex" confirmed the delivery of Iskander missiles to the Armenian military, makingArmenia the first foreign state to have the missile system. One source suggested that the acquisition was intended to deter Azerbaijan from attacking Armenian population centers and from carrying out its threat to inflict "crushing blows" on Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh.

According to Sergey Minasyan, Deputy Director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan, the Iskander missiles have been in Armenia's arsenal for quite some time and for that reason Azerbaijan decided not to launch large-scale artillery attacks against strategic Armenian forces or population centers during the so-called Four-Day War earlier this year.

Azerbaijan tried to play down the significance of Iskander missiles in Armenian hands.

Speaking at the 2nd Azerbajian International Defense Industry Exhibition (ADEX), the head of Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense Industry Yavar Jamalov stressed that Armenia merely acquired the export version Iskander-E, not the more advanced Iskander-M system:

"Armenia did not obtain "Iskander M" missiles, which are able to bring down the target at a distance of 500 km, but "Iskander E" sighting range of which are 280 km. The service life of these ballistic missiles had already expired."

Russia and Armenia were reportedly negotiating about the delivery of Iskander-M systems, but it is unclear which version Armenia eventually obtained.

While claiming that Azerbaijan is not worried about Armenia's Iskander-E missiles, Jamalovannounced that Baku is now trying to acquire the necessary technology for producing ballistic missiles with a range of 280 km.

Many analysts suspect that Azerbaijan is working on a deal with Pakistan. According to some reports, Baku has been in talks with Islamabad to purchase Pakistan's Shaheen 1A (Hatf IV) missile system, which is comparable to the Iskander system.

In the run-up to the ADEX 2016 in Baku, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev received a Pakistani delegation headed by Pakistan's Minister of Defense Production Rana Tanveer Hussain. The two sides agreed to expand their cooperation in the defense sector anddiscussed the production of ballistic missiles, among other things.

As the arms race in the South Caucasus is heating up, Aliyev also found the time to consolidate his grip on power in Azerbaijan.

On September 26, Azerbaijan held a referendum on 29 proposed amendments to the constitution. Aliyev found strong support for all amendments. 91.2 percent voted in favor of extending the presidential term from five to seven years. Neither allegations of fraud nor the fact that the vote-count total exceeded 100 percent seemed to bother Aliyev. He said the referendum showed "the great confidence that the people have placed in our policy."

Azerbaijan's undisputed leader can now focus on solving the country's Iskander problem.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- Newsbud Author & Analyst

Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is

currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

Western-Backed Chechen “Freedom Fighter” Named as Istanbul Attack Mastermind

Meet Akhmed Chatayev: Freedom Fighter - Government Informant - Most Wanted Terrorist   

First details begin to emerge about the suspected Islamic State attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport that left at least 44 people dead and more than 230 injured.

A senior Turkish government official announced on Thursday that the three suicide bombers who carried out the attack were nationals of Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.[1]

Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak quoted police as saying that eight terrorists were involved in the operation. Three of them were killed, one was detained and four others remain at large.

According to the Yeni Safak report, well-known Chechen Islamic State commander Akhmed Chatayev organized the deadly attack.[2]

Turkish officials did not immediately confirm Chatayev’s involvement but a Turkish police source with direct knowledge of the investigation told NBC News that Chatayev is believed to be the planner of the attack.[3]

Turkish police reportedly launched a manhunt to catch the Chechen terrorist leader.[4]

Western governments and media are now scrambling to explain why they dismissed Russian warnings about Chatayev and protected him for many years despite a long history of terrorism-related offenses.

Akhmed Chatayev first caught the Russian authorities’ attention when he was captured during the Second Chechen War in the late 1990s. Depending on whom you want to believe, Chatayev lost his right arm either due to a wound sustained during the fighting or as a result of torture after his arrest.

The circumstances of his release remain unclear, which prompted Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s The Interpreter to suggest that Chatayev might have been recruited as a Russian informer or agent.[5]

Judging by his actions upon release, this seems unlikely.

Chatayev left Russia in 2001 and found refuge in Azerbaijan,[6] like many other Chechen “freedom fighters.”[7]

This can be explained by the fact that Azerbaijan served as one main conduit for the U.S.-NATO-led ‘Gladio B’ operations in the region – the other main conduit being Turkey.[8]

The true extent of U.S.-NATO involvement in the Chechen struggle for independence is still a well-guarded secret but Chatayev’s story sheds some light on dubious Western machinations that have fueled terrorism in Russia and beyond.

In 2003, “Akhmed One-Arm” moved to Austria. He was granted asylum and received Austrian citizenship. While enjoying Austrian hospitality, Chatayev made extensive use of his new passport that “allowed him to travel freely in Europe and elsewhere.”

Russian media reports suggest that Chatayev was wanted by Russian authorities since 2003 on suspicion of recruiting fighters and raising funds for the North Caucasus insurgency. According to sources in Chechen Islamic groups, this task was assigned to him by none other than Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov.[9]

Neither Chatayev’s close connection to Umarov nor his criminal activities seemed to bother anyone in the West. Russia repeatedly tried to get him extradited, to no avail.

In 2008, “Akhmed One-Arm” made headlines in Sweden. He was arrested and sentenced to 16 months in prison for smuggling an automatic weapon and two handguns with munition and silencers into the country. Chatayev had arrived by ferry boat from Germany along with two other Chechens. He told the Swedish authorities that they were on their way to Norway to go fishing and denied having any knowledge of the weapons hidden in a spare wheel in the trunk of his car. Chatayev was convicted in March 2008 and released in January 2009.[10]

A few months later he continued his tour through European prisons in Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities arrested him at Russia’s request. Russia asked for Chatayev’s extradition but the European Court of Human Rights and Amnesty International intervened, reminding the Ukrainian government that the wanted terror suspect had been granted refugee status in Austria.[11]

Instead of enjoying life in Wien, Chatayev then got into trouble in Bulgaria. In summer 2011, he was detained at the Bulgarian border while attempting to cross into Turkey. A Bulgarian court decided to extradite him to Russia but Chatayev filed an appeal and played the refugee card – with success.[12]

Afterwards, Umarov’s trusted associate settled in Georgia, where he was offered a job by then-Deputy Interior Minister Giorgi Lortkipanidze due to his excellent connections to the North Caucasus insurgency.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Lortkipanidze did his best to obfuscate what really happened in Georgia and which role Chatayev played. He claimed that he recruited Chatayev as an informer and negotiator between the Georgian government and the Islamic underground of the North Caucasus to prevent terrorist attacks in Georgia.

Lortkipanidze told The Daily Beast that he was pleased with Chatayev’s work for more than a year until he refused to rat out a group of radical militants that was trying to cross from Georgia into Russia.[13]

Georgia’s former Deputy Interior Minister was referring to the so-called Lopota incident in August 2012, but for some reason he failed to mention that this incident exposed a secret government training program for Chechen fighters. An investigation into the clashes in the Lopota gorge by Public Defender Ucha Nanuashvili unearthed explosive information:

According to the report, in February 2012 senior officials from the Georgian Interior Ministry contacted some of “veterans of the Chechen war”, as well as representatives of Chechen community now living in Europe with the purpose to convince them that the Georgian authorities were ready to give armed militants “so called corridor”, a free passage for infiltrating into Russia’s North Caucasus via Georgia.

These efforts, according to the report, resulted into arrival from Europe of about 120 Chechens and other natives of the North Caucasus in Georgia.

“Flats were rented for them in various neighborhoods of Tbilisi, mainly in Saburtalo district,” the report reads, adding that the Interior Ministry officials were picking them up at Tbilisi airport and providing them with firearms and driving licenses.

Georgian military officials and “Chechen militants with large combat experience” trained the Chechen recruits at the Shavnabada and Vaziani military bases near Tbilisi. There is evidence to suggest that Akhmed Chatayev was involved in this secret program. Nanuashvili’s report named Lortkipanidze as having coordinated the recruitment and training, which explains why he didn’t tell The Daily Beast the whole truth about Chatayev’s work for the Georgian government.

According to Nanuashvili’s sources, the Chechens grew impatient because their training was taking longer than expected and demanded to be taken to the Russian border. But after arriving in the Lopota gorge, the fighters were prevented from entering Russia and told to surrender their arms before returning either to a military base or to Pankisi gorge.[14]

Chatayev was reportedly one of the “authoritative Chechen individuals” that were brought in to mediate after the Chechen fighters refused to lay down their arms. The talks yielded no results and Chatayev was injured during the ensuing fighting. Georgian security forces arrested him a few days later. His injured leg had to be amputated and he was charged with illegal possession of two hand grenades.

Russia asked once again for Chatayev’s extradition, with the same result as before. In December 2012, Chatayev was released on bail and the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office eventually dropped the charge against him one month later.[15]

Former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) seized upon this fact in the aftermath of the Istanbul airport attack to settle political scores.

Saakashvili emphasized that Chatayev was arrested by his government in a counter-terrorist operation led by Lortkipanidze, and lamented that, after a change of government, “the new Georgian government, led by Russian oligarch Ivanishvili, promptly freed him.”[16] The former Georgian leader failed to mention that his close associate Lortkipanidze was in charge of a secret government training program for Chechen fighters and that Chatayev had been working for him.

Lortkipanidze later escaped prosecution in Georgia for his role in the Lopota debacle by following his old boss Saakashvili to Ukraine.[17]

In addition to Chatayev, nine Chechen fighters survived the 2012 clashes. They were allowed to leave the country a few days later and the Georgian Interior Ministry assisted them in traveling to Turkey.[18]

Turkey is the preferred destination of many Chechen “freedom fighters,” and Chatayev was no exception.

According to Russian independent news agency Caucasian Knot, he lived in Turkey between 2012 and 2015. During this time, he came into direct contact with Islamic State commander Tarkhan Batirashvili – a man with a similar story.[19]

After serving as the Caucasus Emirate’s representative in Turkey, Chatayev reportedly joined IS in 2014.[20]

As early as January 2015, “a trustworthy source from Istanbul” told Georgian media that Chatayev was organizing the transit of young recruits from Georgia’s Pankisi gorge to Syria.[21]

One month later, Chatayev removed any last doubts about his activities by appearing in an IS video in Syria as the commander of the Yarmouk Battalion, a Chechen-led IS battalion of Russian-speaking jihadists.[22]

In August, Russian security services identified “One-Legged Akhmet” as the main recruiter of Russian nationals to the Islamic State.[23]

In October 2015, the U.S. government finally acted on the IS video from February and added Chatayev to its list of specially designated global terrorists.[24]

Within a few years, Chatayev had gone from working for the U.S.-backed Georgian government and enjoying protection in the West to becoming one of the most wanted terrorists - despite barely changing his behavior. The biggest difference was that his activities were no longer limited to Russia.

The fact that Akhmed Chatayev has now emerged at the center of the investigation into the Istanbul airport attack raises many inconvenient questions - and Western governments have a lot to answer for.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

[1] Humeyra Pamuk and Daren Butler, “Istanbul airport bombers were Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz: Turkish official,” Reuters, 30 June 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-blast-raids-idUSKCN0ZG0RM.

[2] “Russian national identified as a suicide bomber in Istanbul airport attack,” Yeni Safak, 30 June 2016: http://www.yenisafak.com/en/news/russian-national-identified-as-a-suicide-bomber-in-istanbul-airport-attack-2488906.

[3] William M. Arkin, Mansur Mirovalev and Corky Siemaszko, “Chechen Akhmed Chatayev Is Called Suspected Planner of Istanbul Attack,” NBC News, 1 July 2016: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/istanbul-ataturk-airport-attack/chechen-akhmed-chatayev-called-suspected-planner-istanbul-attack-n602401.

[4] Dominique Soguel and Suzan Fraser, “Attention in Istanbul bombing focused on Chechen extremist,” The Associated Press, 1 July 2016: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/fad6ca6eda9142bead29b11b7b259981/turkish-official-mastermind-feb-terror-attack-killed.

[5] Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, “Russian Press Claims Alleged Mastermind of Istanbul Attacks Was Detained For Terrorism In Four Countries But Was Let Go,” The Interpreter, 30 June 2016: http://www.interpretermag.com/turkey-claims-airport-bombers-were-russian-uzbek-and-kyrgyz-georgian-ties-possible/#14408?pressId=14408.

[6] Nino Burchuladze, “‘Ahmed One-Arm’ - The man who sends Jihadists from Pankisi to Syria,” Georgian Journal, 31 January 2015: http://www.georgianjournal.ge/military/29509-ahmed-one-arm-the-man-who-sends-jihadists-from-pankisi-to-syria.html.

[7] Sibel Edmonds, “BFP Exclusive: US-NATO-Chechen Militia Joint Operations Base,” Boiling Frogs Post, 22 November 2011: http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2011/11/22/bfp-exclusive-us-nato-chechen-militia-joint-operations-base/.

[8] Nafeez Ahmed, “Why was a Sunday Times report on US government ties to al-Qaeda chief spiked?,” Ceasefire Magazine, 17 May 2013: http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/whistleblower-al-qaeda-chief-u-s-asset/.

[9] Fatima Tlisova, “Chechen Suspected in Istanbul Attack, but Questions Remain,” Voice of America, 30 June 2016: http://www.voanews.com/content/chechen-suspected-istanbul-attack-questions-remain/3399309.html.

[10] “The Latest: Tunisian town buries doctor killed in Istanbul,” The Associated Press, 1 July 2016: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/fda76e4091a14140b0c30212f60139d0/latest-us-official-chechen-organized-airport-attack.

[11] “Ukraine: Ukraine obliged to halt extradition: Ahmed Chataev : Further information,” Amnesty International, 22 January 2010: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur50/002/2010/en/.

[12] “Bulgarian court refuses to hand over terror suspect to Russia,” Russia Today, 22 July 2011: https://www.rt.com/news/terror-suspect-denied-extradition/.

[13] Anna Nemtsova, “Mastermind of Istanbul Airport Attack Had Been Georgian Informant, Official Says,” The Daily Beast, 1 July 2016: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/01/mastermind-of-istanbul-airport-attack-had-been-georgian-informant-official-says.html.

[14] “Public Defender Calls on MPs to Probe into Lopota Armed Clash,” Civil Georgia, 1 April 2013: http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25911.

[15] Liz Fuller, “President Again Denies Georgia Co-Opted Chechen Fighters,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 28 April 2013: http://www.rferl.org/content/georgia-chechen-militants-allegations-saakashvili-denial/24970927.html.

[16] Mikheil Saakashvili, Facebook, 30 June 2016: https://www.facebook.com/SaakashviliMikheil/posts/1224494270914285.

[17] “New head of Odessa Police escapes prosecution in Georgia,” Caucasian Knot, 17 June 2015: http://eng.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/32068/.

[18] Ibid., Civil Georgia.

[19] Ibid., Tlisova.

[20] “Details of Atatürk Airport attack planner emerge,” Yeni Safak, 2 July 2016: http://www.yenisafak.com/en/news/details-of-ataturk-airport-attack-planner-emerge-2489718.

[21] Ibid., Burchuladze.

[22] Joanna Paraszczuk, “Russian Citizen Linked To Lopota Gorge Incident Now Heads IS Battalion In Syria,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 25 February 2015: http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-lopota-gorge-incident-islamic-state-syria/26869379.html.

[23] Joanna Paraszczuk, “Main Russian IS Recruiter 'Identified In Turkey,' But Who Is One-Legged Akhmet?,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 10 August 2015: http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-islamic-state-one-legged-akhmet-recruiter/27181197.html.

[24] “Treasury Sanctions Individuals Affiliated With Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Caucasus Emirate,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, 5 October 2015: https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0199.aspx.

Syrian Turkmens, Turkish Nationalists, Russian Jets & the Battle for Bayırbucak

Alleged killer of Russian pilot mourns MHP official killed by Russian airstrikes

Within hours after the first Russian airstrikes in Syria, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Western journalists began to explain why Russia’s intervention “is doomed to fail.”[1][2] A few days later, Western media gleefully announced that Russia’s intervention has failed.[3]

But four months into Russia’s Syria campaign, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to deny that the Kremlin is actually pursuing a viable military strategy in Syria. Therefore, Western media has recently resorted to explaining why it is a bad thing that the Russian airstrikes are working.[4]

Especially in terms of the situation on the Syrian-Turkish border, Russia’s intervention has been a game-changer. Thanks to Russian air support, Syria is able to exert control over parts of its own border for the first time in years.

Whereas Syrian aircraft refrained from conducting airstrikes close to the Turkish border for fear of being shot down,[5] Russian aircraft have not been deterred by Turkey’s efforts to protect its proxies in northern Syria.

Last November, Ankara summoned the Russian Ambassador and warned Moscow that the continued bombing of Syrian Turkmens “could lead to serious consequences.”[6]

Shortly thereafter, just as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was meeting with high-level Turkish officials to discuss the issue,[7] Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian jet over Latakia’s Turkmen-populated Bayırbucak region.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated, it is doubtful that NATO member Turkey made this momentous decision on its own.[8]

The Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber aircraft was ambushed on its way to a target about five miles south of the important Yayladagi border crossing that has been used by the Turks to slip jihadists into Syria. The Syrian Turkmens who occupy this sparsely populated area in northwestern Syria are sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and harbor Turkish-backed Chechen terrorists.[9]

True to form, the “moderate Turkmen rebels” did their best to kill the two Russian pilots after they managed to eject from their jet. Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov was shot dead while parachuting to the ground whereas Captain Konstantin Murakhtin could be rescued by special forces.[10]

Nevertheless, “Syrian rebel leader” Alparslan Çelik and his men boasted of killing both pilots.[11] As Çelik’s interview went viral, it was quickly discovered that the Turkmen militia leader is actually a Turkish citizen with an ultranationalist background. His father Ramazan Çelik served as mayor for the far-right National Movement Party (MHP) in the eastern Turkish province of Elazig and Alparslan himself is a member of the Grey Wolves, the paramilitary youth wing of the MHP.[12]

Both the MHP and the Grey Wolves have close ties to Turkish and U.S.-NATO intelligence going back to the days of Operation Gladio.[13]

The increasing involvement of Turkish nationalist and Islamist organizations in supporting “Turkmen rebels” in Syria has been extensively documented [14] but the crucial role played by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and agents like Heysem Topalca is often being omitted.[15]

Despite all Turkish efforts, Turkmen militias have now lost control of most of Latakia’s Bayırbucak region,[16] prompting a few hundred Turkmen refugees to cross into Turkey via the contested Yayladagi border post.[17]

Much to dismay of the Turkish authorities, the downing of the Su-24 didn’t stop Russia from striking targets close to the Turkish border, quite the contrary.[18] This has enabled Syrian government forces to make significant progress on the ground.

To make matters worse for Ankara, Turkmen sources told Turkish pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak that Russia is preparing to deploy S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in the former “rebel” stronghold Salma on Turkmen Mountain.[19] The strategic town was captured by government forces in mid-January “thanks to the support of the friendly Russian aviation” after having been under opposition control since 2012.[20]

Although the battle for Bayırbucak has already taken a heavy toll on all sides, the Turkish government is not willing to back down.

On 27 January, Turkey’s National Security Council (MGK) reaffirmed its support for “the Turkmens in Northwestern Syria who are being targeted by the Russian airstrikes.”[21]

On the very same day, hundreds of people gathered at Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque to attend the funeral of MHP official Ibrahim Küçük. The former deputy chairman of the MHP's Fatih district office was recently killed by Russian airstrikes while fighting in Latakia.

As Küçük’s hearse left for the cemetery, many people raised their hands making the grey wolf sign and some shouted: “Killer Russia, get off of Turkmen Mountain.”

Among the funeral’s attendees were not only many leading MHP figures but also Turkmen militia leader Alparslan Çelik who described Küçük as a friend and told reporters that they had been fighting together in the Bayırbucak region. Çelik emphasized that he can move freely between Turkey and Syria and that he will return to the battlefield very soon.[22]

One day after the funeral, Çelik gave an interview to Doğan News Agency, in which he criticized the Turkish government for not doing enough to support the Turkmens and insisted that he is not afraid of the Russians who are reportedly looking for revenge.[23]

At the end of last year, Moscow called on Turkey to arrest Çelik after the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet had published a similar interview.[24] As the battle for Bayırbucak continues, this looks highly unlikely but Çelik would be well advised to stay away from both Syria and Istanbul for the future.[25]

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

Notes

[1] “Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Carter in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” U.S. Department of Defense, 30 September 2015: http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/621301/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-secretary-carter-in-the-pentagon-briefi.

[2] Max Fisher, “Why Putin is doomed to fail in Syria,” Vox, 1 October 2015: http://www.vox.com/2015/10/1/9431773/putin-russia-syria-doomed.

[3] Louisa Loveluck, “Russia ‘reducing air strikes against Syrian rebels’ as intervention fails,” The Telegraph, 16 October 2015: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11934564/Russia-reducing-air-strikes-against-Syrian-rebels-as-intervention-fails.html.

[4] Liz Sly, “Russian airstrikes are working in Syria – enough to put peace talks in doubt,” The Washington Post, 19 January 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/russian-airstrikes-are-working-in-syria--enough-to-put-peace-talks-in-doubt/2016/01/19/64127084-beb2-11e5-98c8-7fab78677d51_story.html.

[5] “Turkey downs Syria military jet ‘in airspace violation,’” BBC, 23 March 2014: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26706417.

[6] Ercan Gurses, Daren Butler, Richard Balmforth and David Dolan, “Turkey summons Russian envoy over bombing of Turkmens in Syria: PM,” Reuters, 20 November 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey-russia-idUSKCN0T91MO20151120.

[7] “US air force Gen Selva visits Ankara to discuss terror, Syria,” Daily Sabah, 23 November 2015: http://www.dailysabah.com/diplomacy/2015/11/23/us-air-force-gen-selva-visits-ankara-to-discuss-terror-syria.

[8] Rose Troup Buchanan, “Vladimir Putin claims US ‘leaked’ to Turkey the flight path of downed Russian jet,” The Independent, 27 November 2015: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/putin-claims-us-leaked-flight-path-of-downed-russian-jet-to-turkey-a6750966.html.

[9] Andrew Cockburn, “Mountain Ambush,” Harper’s Magazine, 4 December 2015: http://harpers.org/blog/2015/12/mountain-ambush/.

[10] Neil MacFarquhar, “Navigator of Downed Russian Plane Says There Was No Warning,” The New York Times, 25 November 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/26/world/europe/turkey-russia-jet.html.

[11] Adam Withnall, “Syrian rebels ‘shot dead Russian pilots as they descended in parachutes,’” The Independent, 24 November 2015: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syrian-rebels-shot-dead-russian-pilots-as-they-descended-in-parachutes-a6746981.html.

[12] Johnlee Varghese, “Syria: Photos of Alparslan Celik, rebel leader from Turkey who shot Russian pilot, go viral,” International Business Times, 27 November 2015: http://www.ibtimes.co.in/syria-photos-alparslan-celik-rebel-leader-turkey-who-shot-russian-pilot-go-viral-656993.

[13] Desmond Fernandes and Iskender Ozden (2001), “United States and NATO inspired ‘psychological warfare operations’ against the ‘Kurdish communist threat’ in Turkey,” Variant, 2(12), pp. 10-16: http://www.variant.org.uk/pdfs/issue12/Fernandes.pdf.

[14] Sam Heller and S.G. Grimaldi, “A cause for all Turks: Turkey and Syria’s Turkmen rebels,” War on the Rocks, 21 January 2015: http://warontherocks.com/2016/01/a-cause-for-all-turks-turkey-and-syrias-turkmen-rebels/.

[15] Fehim Taştekin, “Wiretaps reveal Turkey’s attacks on Syrian regime positions,” Al-Monitor, 18 February 2015: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/02/turkey-syria-weapons-civil-war-kessab-armenian.html#.

[16] “Syrian Turkmen control only 3 of 73 villages in Bayır-Bucak,” Yeni Şafak, 27 January 2016: http://www.yenisafak.com/en/world/syrian-turkmen-control-only-3-of-73-villages-in-bayir-bucak-2396707.

[17] Humeyra Pamuk, “Syrian Turkmens cross to Turkey, fleeing advances of pro-Assad forces,” Reuters, 29 January 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkmens-idUSKCN0V720O.

[18] Kathrin Hille, Noam Raydan and Josh Noble, “Russia vows to continue Syria air strikes close to Turkish border,” Financial Times, 25 November 2015: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6bb618c8-9355-11e5-94e6-c5413829caa5.html.

[19] “Russia set to deploy S-400 missile system on Turkmen Mountain,” Yeni Şafak,” 28 January 2016: http://www.yenisafak.com/en/world/russia-set-to-deploy-s-400-missile-systems-on-turkmen-mountain-2398288.

[20] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Syrian government thanks Russia for help capturing key town,” 22 January 2016: http://news.yahoo.com/syrian-government-thanks-russia-help-capturing-key-town-131542247.html.

[21] “Turkey will continue to support Turkmens under Russian attacks in Syria: National Security Council,” Daily Sabah, 27 January 2016: http://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2016/01/27/turkey-will-continue-to-support-turkmens-under-russian-attacks-in-syria-national-security-council.

[22] “Turkish fighter who allegedly killed Russian pilot in Syria attends funeral in Istanbul,” Today’s Zaman, 28 January 2016: http://www.todayszaman.com/national_turkish-fighter-who-allegedly-killed-russian-pilot-in-syria-attends-funeral-in-i-stanbul_410830.html.

[23] Haluk Turgut, “I have no fear of the Russians, says alleged killer of Russian pilot,” Doğan News Agency, 28 January 2016: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/i-have-no-fear-of-the-russians-says-alleged-turkmen-killer-of-russian-pilot.aspx?pageID=238&nID=94474&NewsCatID=352.

[24] “Russia demands arrest of Su-24 pilot’s murderer who gave interview to Turkish media,” Russia Today, 30 December 2015: https://www.rt.com/news/327494-russia-turkey-downed-jet/.

[25] Shaun Walker, “Murder in Istanbul: Kremlin’s hand suspected in shooting of Chechen,” The Guardian, 10 January 2016: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/10/murder-istanbul-chechen-kremlin-russia-abdulvakhid-edelgireyev.

BFP Exclusive- Paris Attacks: Western Intelligence’s Vision Blinded by Allah?

“…through its massacres in Paris, ISIS may now have dealt Assad the death blow.”

When the United States and Saudi Arabia decided to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East by embarking on a strategy that involved bolstering Sunni extremist forces, Prince Bandar bin Sultan and other Saudi officials told Washington not to worry about religious fundamentalists. Their message was plain and simple:

“We’ve created this movement, and we can control it. It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”[1]

At that time, the Bush administration began forging closer ties with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood “to keep up the pressure” on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[2]

Four years later, the U.S. and its allies tried to capitalize on growing public discontent in Syria by launching an Operation Cyclone-style war against the Assad government. Western media played a decisive role in enabling the covert operations which inevitably led to an escalation of violence.[3]

While Western and Gulf media were trying to perpetuate the myth of the “moderate rebels,” U.S. intelligence knew full well that “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) predicted early on that the insurgents “will try to use the Iraqi territory as a safe haven” and pointed out that “there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in eastern Syria.” According to the DIA, “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”[4]

As former DIA chief Michael Flynn emphasized in an interview with Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, the rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) came not as a surprise.[5]

What came as a surprise to U.S. intelligence was the resilience of the Assad government and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).

Thanks to support from Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah, Assad and the SAA are still standing after 30,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries have poured into Syria, turning parts of the country into a jihadist paradise.[6]

Reports of Western countries encouraging radicalized Islamists to join the fight cast doubt on claims that Western intelligence agencies have tried to stem the flow of jihadists to Syria.[7]

Moreover, NATO member Turkey has been instrumental in funneling fighters, weapons and all kinds of other supplies to anti-government forces in Syria, including ISIS.[8]

Parts of southern Turkey increasingly resemble Pakistan in the 1980s. The border region from Hatay to Gaziantep has already been dubbed the “Peshawar of the Middle East.”[9]

Turkey has paid a high price for its ill-fated policy vis-à-vis Syria and even the Saudis have gotten a taste of their own medicine,[10] but for the most part, the Salafis have thrown bombs at the “right” people.

Since the start of the conflict, terrorist attacks have become the new normal in Syria. When a car bomb rips through a residential area, Western media focuses on stressing that “the rebels have managed to infiltrate” an Assad stronghold, which “shows how the regime is losing ground.”[11]

Similarly, after ISIS suicide bombers recently targeted a busy residential district in southern Beirut, killing at least 43 people and wounding more than 200 in the worst attack in the city in decades, Western media turned the victims into Hezbollah human shields.[12]

When ISIS claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane which claimed the lives of 224 people, the West didn’t even bother hiding its Schadenfreude and gloated over Russia paying the price for “Vladimir Putin’s military adventurism in Syria.”[13] British foreign secretary Philip Hammond told The New York Times that he hoped the attack would persuade the Russian President “to take a more flexible posture in the Syria talks.”[14]

But on November 13, one day before the Syria talks in Vienna and one day after the bombing of a “Hezbollah stronghold” in Beirut, “everything changed” because the terror reached a Western capital.

The world watched in horror as at least 129 people were killed and more than 300 injured in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks across Paris.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks and French President Francois Hollande left no doubt that this was "an act of war committed by Daesh that was prepared, organized and planned from outside [France]” with help from inside France.[15]

Investigators quickly found that the trail of the Paris killers leads to Belgium and Syria. Three of the seven suspected perpetrators are from Brussels’ Molenbeek district, which has “grown into a hub for jihadist networks,”[16] and according to French officials, six of the people directly involved in the attacks had spent time in Syria.[17]

The presumed mastermind of the Paris attacks, Belgian citizen Abdelhamid Abaaoud, returned to Belgium “at some point under the radar of authorities” after fighting with ISIS in Syria. He left again for Syria in January 2015 when Belgian police foiled a terrorist plot that he allegedly masterminded.[18] In February, the ISIS magazine Dabiq published an interview with Abaaoud, in which he boasted that Western intelligence agencies were neither able to prevent him from entering Belgium and establishing a terror cell nor from leaving the country:

“Allah blinded their vision and I was able to leave and come to Shām despite being chased after by so many intelligence agencies. All this proves that a Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence. My name and picture were all over the news yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary.”[19]

Another Belgian citizen who has emerged at the center of the Paris probe can tell a similar story. Salah Abdeslam lived only a few blocks away from Abaaoud in Molenbeek and spent time in the same prison. Belgian officials have no doubt that the two men knew each other.

Abdeslam also tried to travel to Syria earlier this year but he was one of the few would-be jihadists that were stopped by Turkish authorities. Despite his attempt to cross from Turkey into Syria, the Belgian government concluded that he didn’t pose a risk. A Belgian official said that “the investigation showed no signs of him actively going to terrorism.” Perhaps he was just trying to join the “moderate rebels” and he is really as innocent as his family claims.[20]

The first Paris killer who was been identified by French police is French national Ismael Omar Mostefai. Like Abdeslam, Mostefai caught the Turkish authorities’ attention when he tried to travel to Syria. But in contrast to Abdeslam, he was more successful.[21] Turkey notified France twice in December 2014 and June 2015 about Mostefai but only heard back after the Paris attacks.[22]

Either French authorities didn’t view Mostefai as a major threat or their vision was “blinded by Allah.”

This would also explain how someone managed to steal 180 detonators, 40 grenades and 10 blocks of 250 grams of plastic explosives from the Miramas military site near Marseille in July although France had been on high alert for terrorism since the Charlie Hebdo attacks.[23]

As the military website SOFREP revealed, some of the stolen explosives were later found when terrorists tried to blow up industrial targets in France. French and German police and intelligence were reportedly meeting in the weeks prior to the Paris attacks “to discuss an imminent pre-planned terrorist attack in Paris.” French security services were only wondering “whether or not the target would be soft (civilian) or hard (military, government, industrial) in nature.”[24] The bomb threat that forced Germany’s national football team to evacuate their Paris hotel on the morning of the attacks should have raised red flags.[25]

Instead of holding intelligence agencies to account for failing to prevent terrorist attacks at home while supporting terrorists in Syria and elsewhere, the response to the Paris attacks will likely entail even greater powers for security services and more support for the “Syrian rebels” under the guise of fighting ISIS.[26]

There is a certain irony in the fact that individuals like former senior CIA official Graham Fuller are now calling for the elimination of ISIS.[27] After all, Fuller has been one of the leading proponents of using jihadists against adversaries of the United States. He is credited with saying, “The policy of guiding the evolution of Islam and of helping them against our adversaries worked marvellously well in Afghanistan against the Red Army. The same doctrines can still be used to destabilize what remains of Russian power, and especially to counter the Chinese influence in Central Asia.”[28]

Fuller himself has been heavily involved in these operations.[29] Therefore, it came as a surprise when he called for ending Operation Cyclone 2.0 in Syria [30] and conceded that ISIS is “made in the USA.”[31]

After facilitating the rise of ISIS “in order to isolate the Syrian regime,” the U.S. and its allies are now stepping up their fight against the terrorist group. But as Graham Fuller noted, the real target is somebody else and the Paris attacks may prove very useful in this regard:

“Ironically the enormity of the ISIS/ al-Qaeda alternative to Asad had lately sparked some western hesitation in pursuing his overthrow, but now,  through its massacres in Paris, ISIS may now have dealt Asad the death blow.”[30]

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

[1] Seymour M. Hersh, “The Redirection,” The New Yorker, 5 March 2007: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/03/05/the-redirection.

[2] Jay Solomon, “To Check Syria, U.S. Explores Bond With Muslim Brothers,” The Wall Street Journal, 25 July 2007: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB118530969571176579.

[3] Sibel Edmonds, “What & When We Exposed, and the MSM- Quasi Alternative Culprits Who Fought Our Exposés,” Boiling Frogs Post, 29 August 2013: http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2013/08/29/bfp-syria-coverage-track-record-what-when-we-exposed-and-the-msm-quasi-alternative-culprits-who-fought-our-exposes/.

[4] Brad Hoff, “2012 Defense Intelligence Agency document: West will facilitate rise of Islamic State ‘in order to isolate the Syrian regime,’” Levant Report, 19 May 2015: http://levantreport.com/2015/05/19/2012-defense-intelligence-agency-document-west-will-facilitate-rise-of-islamic-state-in-order-to-isolate-the-syrian-regime/.

[5] Brad Hoff, “Former DIA Chief Michael Flynn Says Rise of Islamic State was “a willful decision” and Defends Accuracy of 2012 Memo,” Levant Report, 6 August 2015: http://levantreport.com/2015/08/06/former-dia-chief-michael-flynn-says-rise-of-islamic-state-was-a-willful-decision-and-defends-accuracy-of-2012-memo/.

[6] Eric Schmitt and Somini Sengupta, “Thousands Enter Syria to Join ISIS Despite Global Efforts,” The New York Times, 26 September 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/world/middleeast/thousands-enter-syria-to-join-isis-despite-global-efforts.html?_r=0.

[7] “Lethal exports - Germany admits to urging some Islamists to leave in past,” Deutsche Welle, 2 October 2014: http://www.dw.com/en/lethal-exports-germany-admits-to-urging-some-islamists-to-leave-in-past/a-17971327.

[8] “’IS’ supply channels through Turkey,” Deutsche Welle, 26 November 2014: http://www.dw.com/en/is-supply-channels-through-turkey/av-18091048.

[9] Kadri Gursel, “Has Turkey Become the ‘Pakistan of the Middle East?,’” Al-Monitor, 24 September 2013: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2013/09/time-act-al-qaeda-turkey-jabhat-al-nusra.html#.

[10] Kareem Shaheen, “Islamic State claims suicide bombing at Saudi Arabian mosque,” The Guardian, 6 August 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/06/suicide-bomber-attacks-mosque-in-saudi-arabia.

[11] David Blair, “Syria car bomb kills 10 in Bashar al-Assad’s stronghold,” The Telegraph, 2 September 2015: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11839761/Syria-car-bomb-kills-10-in-Bashar-al-Assads-stronghold.html.

[12] Ben Norton, “Media Turn Civilian ISIS Victims in Beirut Into Hezbollah Human Shields,” FAIR, 13 November 2015: http://fair.org/home/media-turn-civilian-isis-victims-in-beirut-into-hezbollah-human-shields/.

[13] Simon Tisdall, “Sinai plane crash may show price of Putin’s military adventurism in Syria,” The Guardian, 5 November 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/05/sinai-plane-crash-putin-military-adventurism-syria-analysis.

[14] Somini Sengupta, “Invitation List Looms as Test for Syria Talks,” The New York Times, 9 November 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/10/world/middleeast/invitation-list-looms-as-test-for-syria-talks.html.

[15] Tom Heneghan, “Hollande says Paris attacks ‘an act of war’ by Islamic State,” Reuters, 14 November 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/14/us-france-shooting-hollande-idUSKCN0T30JG20151114.

[16] Natalia Drozdiak and Julian E. Barnes, “Brussels District of Molenbeek Is Home to Some Suspects in Paris Attacks,” The Wall Street Journal, 16 November 2015: http://www.wsj.com/articles/brussels-district-is-home-to-some-suspects-in-paris-attacks-1447718699.

[17] Jethro Mullen and Margot Haddad, “’France is at war,’ President Francois Hollande says after ISIS attack,” CNN, 17 November 2015: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/16/world/paris-attacks/.

[18] Benoit Faucon, Matthew Dalton, Stacy Meichtry and David Gauthier-Villars, “Paris Attacks Suspect Was Monitored by Western Allies Seeking to Kill Him,” The Wall Street Journal, 17 November 2015: http://www.wsj.com/articles/french-authorities-raid-suspected-islamists-after-paris-attacks-1447661092.

[19] Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn, “Key suspect in Paris attacks has been featured in Islamic State propaganda,” The Long War Journal, 16 November 2015: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/11/key-suspect-in-paris-attacks-has-been-featured-in-islamic-state-propaganda.php

[20] Ibid., Faucon et al.

[21] David Chazan and Rory Mulholland, “French suicide attacker ‘trained in Syria,’” The Telegraph, 15 November 2015: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11997470/French-suicide-attacker-trained-in-Syria.html.

[22] Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk, “Paris attacks: Turkey says it notified France twice about attacker, says senior official,” The Independent, 16 November 2015: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/paris-attacks-turkey-says-it-notified-france-twice-about-attacker-says-senior-official-a6736131.html.

[23] Jamey Keaten, “200 detonators, explosives stolen from French military site,” The Associated Press, 7 July 2015: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/bbd903968f6142bfa1bd4225a9e9fee7/200-detonators-explosives-stolen-french-military-site.

[24] Jack Murphy, “Breaking: French and German Police Knew Paris Attack Was Coming a Month Prior,” SOFREP, 13 November 2015: http://sofrep.com/44480/french-and-german-police-knew-paris-attack-was-coming/#ixzz3rQM86ve0.

[25] Chuck Penfold, “Bomb threat forces Germany out of Paris hotel,” Deutsche Welle, 13 November 2015: http://www.dw.com/en/bomb-threat-forces-germany-out-of-paris-hotel/a-18847733.

[26] Phil Stewart, “Exclusive: U.S. delivers ammunition to Syrian Arab fighters battling Islamic State,” Reuters, 15 November 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/15/us-mideast-crisis-ammunition-exclusive-idUSKCN0T412O20151115.

[27] Graham E. Fuller, “ISIS- The Hour Has Struck,” grahamefuller.com, 14 November 2015: http://grahamefuller.com/isis-the-hour-has-struck/.

[28] Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, “Our terrorists,” New Internationalist, 1 October 2009: http://newint.org/features/2009/10/01/blowback-extended-version/.

[29] Sibel Edmonds, “Turkish Intel Chief Exposes CIA Operations via Islamic Group in Central Asia,” Boiling Frogs Post, 6 January 2011: http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2011/01/06/turkish-intel-chief-exposes-cia-operations-via-islamic-group-in-central-asia/.

[30] Graham E. Fuller, “Embracing Assad Is a Better Strategy for the U.S. Than Supporting the Least Bad Jihadis,” The Huffington Post, 29 September 2014: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/graham-e-fuller/us-assad-isis-strategy_b_5898142.html.

[31] Ezgi Basaran, “Former CIA officer says US policies helped create IS,” Al-Monitor, 2 September 2014: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2014/09/turkey-usa-iraq-syria-isis-fuller.html#.

[32] Ibid., Fuller, 14 November 2015.

BFP Exclusive- Russia’s Syria Intervention Enrages US-led Coalition, ISIS & Al-Qaeda

‘Syrian Taliban’, Sinai crash & ‘Gladio B’ give Moscow food for thought

Russia’s intervention in Syria has whipped up feelings across the region and around the world. As soon as Russian aircraft began conducting airstrikes in Syria, Western media started complaining that Russia is bombing the wrong terrorists.[1]

After the Pentagon failed to find more than a few dozen “moderate rebels” for its much-publicized training program,[2] Russian bombs supposedly managed to find countless “moderate Syrian rebels” and U.S. officials suddenly remembered that the CIA has been running a much more effective training program than the Pentagon.[3]

U.S. government and media are still pretending that the CIA “began a covert operation in 2013 to arm, fund and train a moderate opposition to Assad” and that this secret program “is the only way the U.S. is taking on Assad militarily.”[4]

As Boiling Frogs Post exposed four years ago, U.S. covert operations started as early as April-May 2011 when a joint U.S.-NATO training camp was set up in Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.[5]

Moscow’s intervention is now complicating efforts to hide the true extent of U.S. involvement in the conflict as well as Washington’s real objectives. Even the neocon comedians at The Daily Beast couldn’t help but wonder why CIA-trained “rebels” were fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra against Syrian government forces instead of battling the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).[6]

To make matters worse, Russia’s move has scuppered U.S. coalition plans for a no-fly zone in Syria, as the Financial Times so aptly put it.[7] Under the guise of establishing an “ISIS-free zone,” the United States and Turkey had been leading efforts to set up a no-fly zone and wanted to seize Syria’s Aleppo Governorate. Turkish media was already cheerfully proclaiming Aleppo as the 82nd province of Turkey before the Russians ruined everything.[8]

Although it is not exactly a secret that “an imminent move to ramp up coalition activity in Syria” forced Moscow’s hand,[9] the very same countries that are operating illegally in Syria[10] tried to claim the moral high ground when the Russian Air Force joined the fight at the request of the Syrian government.

The U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other coalition members called on Russia “to immediately cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians” and warned that Russian military actions “will only fuel more extremism and radicalization.”[11]

In case anybody had not gotten the message, a senior Qatari source told the Middle East Eye that the Russians “will be begging Qatar in 10 years time to negotiate a ceasefire with the ‘Syrian Taliban’” if they don’t back down.[12]

Both ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra also called for jihad against Russia.[13] The terrorists apparently don’t share the U.S. government’s assessment that 85 to 90 percent of Russian airstrikes are hitting “the moderate Syrian opposition.”[14]

By now, the Islamic State has probably realized that The Daily Beast cannot be trusted.[15] Instead of giving air support to ISIS fighters, the Russian Air Force is actually targeting vital supply lines from Turkey after the U.S. had allowed “these supply lines to continue flowing.”[16]

This might explain why ISIS was so eager to claim responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane that crashed in Egypt‘s Sinai peninsula. According to the Islamic State’s Aleppo “province,” the plane was attacked in retaliation for Russia’s intervention in Syria.[17]

While investigators were still trying to figure out what caused the crash, a former U.S. diplomat with an interesting background,[18] who features in Sibel Edmonds’ The Lone Gladio, took the same line as ISIS and gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a little advice:

Matthew Bryza and the Kremlin clearly have a different interpretation of “truly fighting ISIS.” The Russians have no illusions about the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS and the true nature of the so-called Islamic State.

After calling the U.S.-led coalition out for “pretending” to bomb ISIS,[19] influential Russian lawmaker Alexey Pushkov recently explained that Russia is fighting for its own security in Syria because “those behind Islamic State are the same people who were in the past destabilizing Central Asia and attempted to break Chechnya away from Russia.”[20]

Pushkov’s allusion to the Pentagon-led ‘Gladio B’ operations in Central Asia and the Caucasus region is particularly interesting in light of recent reports suggesting that al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who participated in these operations,[21] is now taking a more prominent role in the Syrian conflict.

In a newly released audio message, Zawahiri urged his “mujahideen brothers in all places and of all groups” to join forces against Russia and the West.[22] According to unconfirmed reports, he has already sent senior al-Qaeda leader Saif al-Adel to Syria to mediate between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.[23] Given Zawahiri’s background, it is safe to say that he is more interested in fighting Russia than the West.

As the U.S. and its allies are stepping up arms supplies to the non-existent “moderate Syrian rebels,”[24] the Russians might be wondering if there is any difference between the “Syrian Taliban” and their Afghan prototypes.

# # # #

Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

[1] Nancy A. Youssef, “Putin Hits West’s Rebels Instead of ISIS,” The Daily Best, 30 September 2015: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/30/putin-orders-u-s-jets-out-of-syria.html.

[2] Tom Vanden Brook, “Pentagon’s failed Syria program cost $2 million per trainee,” USA Today, 5 November 2015: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/11/05/pentagon-isil-syria-train-and-equip/75227774/.

[3] Ken Dilanian, “Officials: CIA-backed Syrian rebels under Russian blitz,” The Associated Press, 10 October 2015: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/dfe1547ba36f4f968deee227d467dc08/officials-russian-bombs-cia-rebels-had-syrian-gains.

[4] Ibid., Dilanian.

[5] Sibel Edmonds, “What & When We Exposed, and the MSM- Quasi Alternative Culprits Who Fought Our Exposés,” Boiling Frogs Post, 29 August 2013: http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2013/08/29/bfp-syria-coverage-track-record-what-when-we-exposed-and-the-msm-quasi-alternative-culprits-who-fought-our-exposes/.

[6] Nancy A. Youssef, Michael Weiss and Tim Mak, “U.S. Admits: We Can’t Protect Syrian Allies From Russia’s Bombs,” The Daily Beast, 1 October 2015: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/01/u-s-admits-we-can-t-protect-syrian-allies-from-russia-s-bombs.html.

[7] Sam Jones, “Moscow scuppers US coalition plans for no-fly zone in Syria,” Financial Times, 4 October: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/cee6fcba-69bf-11e5-8171-ba1968cf791a.html.

[8] Selin Nasi, “Conquering Aleppo,” Hürriyet Daily News, 18 August 2015: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/conquering-aleppo.aspx?pageID=238&nID=87106&NewsCatID=396.

[9] Ibid., Jones.

[10] Theo Farrell, “Are the US-led air strikes in Syria legal – and what does it mean if they are not?,” The Telegraph, 23 September 2014: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11116792/Are-the-US-led-air-strikes-in-Syria-legal-and-what-does-it-mean-if-they-are-not.html.

[11] “Joint Declaration on Recent Military Actions of the Russian Federation on Syria,” Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1 October 2015: http://www.mfa.gov.tr/no_-267_-02-october-2015_-joint-declaration-on-recent-military-actions-of-the-russian-federation-on-syria.en.mfa.

[12] David Hearst, “Putin’s Syrian bombing ‘will spark jihad against Moscow’: Qatar source,” Middle East Eye, 8 October 2015: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/russias-syrian-bombing-will-create-frankensteins-monster-qatar-source-634154673.

[13] Joanna Paraszczuk, “Islamic State, Al-Nusra Front Call For ‘Jihad’ Against Russia,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 14 October 2015: http://www.rferl.org/content/islamic-state-nusra-jihad-russia/27306477.html.

[14] Arshad Mohammed and Patricia Zengerle, “85-90 percent of Russian strikes hit moderate Syria rebels: U.S.,” Reuters, 4 November 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/04/us-mideast-crisis-usa-russia-idUSKCN0ST26920151104.

[15] Michael Weiss, “Russia’s Giving ISIS An Air Force,” The Daily Beast, 8 October 2015: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/10/08/russia-s-giving-isis-an-air-force.html.

[16] Angelo M. Codevilla, “U.S. And Russian Airpower In The Desert,” War on the Rocks, 5 November 2015: http://warontherocks.com/2015/11/u-s-and-russian-airpower-in-the-desert/.

[17] Thomas Joscelyn, “Islamic State video congratulates Sinai ‘province’ for downing Russian airliner,” The Long War Journal, 6 November 2015: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/11/islamic-state-video-congratulates-sinai-province-for-downing-russian-airliner.php.

[18] Sibel Edmonds, “Obama Appoints a Not-Too-Long-Ago-Hatched Neocon Larva,” Boiling Frogs Post, 27 July 2010: http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2010/07/27/obama-appoints-a-not-too-long-ago-hatched-neocon-larva/.

[19] Astrid Wendlandt, “Russian air strikes in Syria to last three-four months: Putin ally,” Reuters, 2 October 2015: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/02/us-mideast-crisis-russia-strike-idUSKCN0RW0I020151002.

[20] “Lawmaker: IS sponsors once tried to break Chechnya from Russia,” TASS, 23 October 2015: http://tass.ru/en/politics/831336.

[21] Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, “Why was a Sunday Times report on US government ties to al-Qaeda chief spiked?,” Ceasefire Magazine, 17 May 2013: https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/whistleblower-al-qaeda-chief-u-s-asset/.

[22] Vasudevan Sridharan, “Al-Qaeda: Ayman al-Zawahiri urges jihadis to unite against Russia and West,” International Business Times, 2 November 2015: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/al-qaeda-ayman-al-zawahiri-urges-jihadis-unite-against-russia-west-1526714.

[23] J.J. Green, “Mysterious al-Qaida figure emerges in Syria,” Washington’s Top News, 5 November 2015: http://wtop.com/national-security/2015/11/mysterious-al-qaida-figure-emerges-in-syria/.

[24] Adam Entous, “U.S., Allies to Boost Aid to Syria Rebels,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 November 2015: http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-allies-to-boost-aid-to-syria-rebels-1446682624.

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 28, 2015

Russia Lashes Out at ISIS Sponsors Who Tried to Seize Chechnya, Georgian Government Determined to Destroy Saakashvili Party & More!

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

Former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his nemesis Mikheil Saakashvili have left Georgian politics some time ago, one more voluntarily than the other, but the conflict between Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream and Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) continues to shape the country's political landscape to this day. In an effort to curtail the UNM's influence in the media, the Georgian Dream-led government is currently trying to shut down the influential pro-UNM private TV broadcaster Rustavi 2. This amounts to a declaration of war from the UNM's point of view. The Saakashvili party responded by calling for the resignation of the government and snap elections, to no avail. After Tbilisi's flirt with Gazprom added more fuel to the fire, the exchange of blows then escalated into all-out war a few days ago, when another Saakashvili-era rape video found its way onto the Internet:

UNM regional offices assaulted amid rape video scandal United National Movement’s several regional offices were attacked in Georgia on Monday, in the wake of publication of disgusting video depicting rape of a detainee allegedly during the previous government. Small crowds of 30 to 100 protested at Kutaisi, Batumi, Gori, and Ozurgeti offices demanding to ban the UNM. In several occasions a violent squabble happened between the protesters and UNM members. In Kutaisi protesters broke into the office but police managed to drive them out.

The UNM, former ruling party and currently the main opposition power, claims the protests have been masterminded by the authorities, as many members of the local authorities and local offices of the ruling Georgian Dream were present during the rallies.

“These groups have been mobilized by the authorities, which try to mitigate outrage for its attempts to seize Rustavi 2 (TV),” Nugzar Tsiklauri, MP, said to journalists. 

Georgian Government Determined to Destroy Saakashvili Party

Evidence suggests that the video was leaked by the Georgian government in order to ramp up the pressure on the UNM. The video first surfaced on a website in Ukraine, where Saakashvili has started a second career as governor of Odessa, and the leak coincided with the release of the latest poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) showing a sharp decline in support for the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. While Saakashvili was celebrating the poll results on Facebook, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili appeared before to press to question the credibility of the NDI poll and draw attention to the rape video, which surfaced shortly after the poll was released. Garibashvili used the opportunity to highlight once again that the previous administration was a "sadistic regime, which was torturing [its] own population brutally." One day later, the attacks against UNM offices across the country started and Prime Minister Garibashvili made no move to stop the violence, quite the contrary:

PM: UNM Has ‘No Right to Remain in Politics’ PM Irakli Garibashvili said UNM opposition party is a “criminal organization”, which has “no right to remain in politics” and “aggression” against the party is “natural” after videos of sexual abuse of detainees by law enforcement officers, when UNM was in power, were leaked to public domain. Speaking during a government session on Thursday morning, PM Garibashvili said, referring to UNM: “They should be grateful for the fact that over the past three years people have not done to them the same what is depicted in these videos – my remarks might be rude, but they deserve it.” In his lengthy statement the PM also commented on ownership dispute over the Rustavi 2 TV and also said that the UNM should “give up plans for any kind of provocation”, otherwise warned that the opposition party “will get what it deserves” from the people.

Several Western-backed civil society organizations, such as U.S. government-funded Transparency International Georgia and George Soros' Open Society Georgia Foundation, condemned Garibashvili's remarks and called on the government to "immediately eradicate violent actions" and "refrain from aggressive rhetoric and public statements that incite violence." Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili also sounded the alarm and tried to calm the waves but Garibashvili and the Georgian Dream party are determined to crush the United National Movement once and for all. Amid the video scandal fallout, the government continued its campaign against Rustavi 2, much to the dismay of the U.S. State Department and other supporters of the broadcaster. And while President Margvelashvili was still trying to mediate, Georgia's security service took the fight against the UNM to a whole another level:

Security Service Says Probe Opened into Alleged ‘Conspiracy to Overthrow’ Govt The Georgian State Security Service said in a brief statement on Saturday it has opened investigation under article 315 of the criminal code involving “conspiracy to overthrow” the government. It said that the probe was launched “based on operative-investigative activities carried out by the counter-intelligence department and information reported in the media outlets.” The State Security Service has declined to elaborate on its statement. “Information reported in the media outlets”, noted in the security agency’s statement, appears to be a reference to a text, which was posted on a murky website called “Ukrainian WikiLeaks”, hosted and registered in Russia, and then re-printed or reported by some Georgian media outlets, including Imedi TV, on October 23. The text in question, veracity of which has not been substantiated in any way, is alleged to be a transcript of a conversation between Georgia’s ex-President and governor of Odessa region in Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili, and one of the leaders of UNM opposition party Giga Bokeria in Istanbul airport on October 22. According to this text, carried by the website which is focused mostly on publishing unsubstantiated stories against Saakashvili, the two men were speaking about plotting an attack against Rustavi 2 TV personnel in order to then trigger mass protests against the government.

A few days before the Georgian State Security Service announced its investigation, Saakashvili and his former national security advisor Bokeria participated in the congress of the European People's Party in Madrid. Bokeria's wife Tamar Chergoleishvili, who was leading the recent protests against Tbilisi's talks with Gazprom, confirmed that she and her husband met Saakashvili at Istanbul airport but both denied the coup allegations. UNM leader Bokeria suggested that the government had made up the transcript and pointed out that this "shows that the current government is in agony." Prime Minister Garibashvili begs to differ and keeps launching one attack after another against the UNM. He emphasized that "time is up for them in Georgia." It remains to be seen whether or not his words will come true but it is safe to say that the conflict between the two parties won't be resolved anytime soon:

Georgian Energy Minister Speaks of Need to Buy Russian Gas Energy Minister, Kakha Kaladze, said on October 20 that Georgia will have to buy gas from Gazprom on top of what the country is already receiving from Russia as a transit fee, claiming that “there is no possibility” to import additional volumes from Azerbaijan. “There is no possibility to buy additional gas from Azerbaijan. If there was such a possibility then why were we buying additional volumes of gas from Russia, on top of what we were receiving as a transit fee, in previous years, including when [UNM] was in government?” he said. UNM lawmakers dismissed Kaladze’s claims as a “lie.” MP Giorgi Gabashvili condemned government’s intention to increase Russia’s share in Georgia’s gas supplies as a “traitorous step” that would be a blow for country’s energy security.

Russia Lashes Out at ISIS Sponsors Who Tried to Seize Chechnya 

Georgia-Russia relations have improved since the Georgian Dream coalition came to power. Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian Prime Minister's Special Representative for relations with Russia, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin are scheduled to meet in Prague next month to continue talks on normalizing ties between the two neighboring countries. South Ossetia's plans to join Russia could impede the rapprochement but Moscow wants to postpone this issue indefinitely, for various reasons. Russia is currently focused on its campaign in Syria and the fight against ISIS, which might be expanded from Syria to Iraq or possibly even Afghanistan. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of the fact that Moscow's primary objective is to support the Syrian government, Western governments and media are still complaining that Russia is bombing the wrong terrorists. The Kremlin is less interested in differentiating between the various jihadist gangs, knowing full well that the real threat are the powers behind these groups and not "al-Qaeda" or "ISIS":

Lawmaker: IS sponsors once tried to break Chechnya from Russia Sponsors of Islamic State, a terrorist group banned in Russia, once tried to break Chechnya away from Russia, the chairman of the State Duma lower house’s international affairs committee, Alexey Pushkov, said on Friday. "Those behind Islamic State are the same people who were in the past destabilizing Central Asia and attempted to break Chechnya away from Russia," Pushkov said at talks with a delegation of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party. "That is why, it not an abstract threat for us, and in carrying out our military operation in Syria we are indeed fighting for the strengthening of our own security," he said, explaining Russia’s stance.

Alexey Pushkov's words didn't get the attention they deserved. This marks the second time this year that a senior Russian politician has hinted at the Pentagon-led 'Gladio B' operations in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. In a two-hour documentary released in April, President Putin noted that, during the early 2000s, Russian intelligence agencies had gathered evidence proving that U.S. intelligence in Azerbaijan was supporting separatists in the North Caucasus. Putin recalled how Moscow's complaints were ignored and how his counterparts told him that "they had decided for themselves by then that Russia would cease to exist in its current form." Pushkov picked up where Putin left off by highlighting the connection to current events in Syria. Moreover, just a few days earlier, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov had used a similar reasoning to explain why Russia has to get involved in Syria:

‘ISIS was created against Russia’ – Kadyrov Islamic State was “created first of all against Russia” said the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, warning of the threat that the militant group and the conflict in Syria pose to Russia’s security. “If we think that the Syrian issue will be resolved quickly and will not affect the security of our country, it is not true. I am sure they will show up. ISIS was created primarily against Russia,” Kadyrov said during a press conference in Grozny. The Chechen leader has also offered to impose capital punishment on terrorists and those who “recruit, distort the [Muslim] religion, and misinterpret the Quran.”

Kadyrov is still waiting for Putin's permission to go to Syria and join the fight. In the meantime, the Chechen leader will have to make do with jihadists in Russia. Due to the military intervention in Syria, Russian law enforcement agencies feel compelled to present credible terror threats at home. In recent weeks, several plots have been foiled and dozens of suspects arrested. Each and everyone is now being linked to ISIS. Kadyrov's men played a vital role in foiling one of the high-profile "ISIS plots" and the Chechen President lamented that this hasn't been properly acknowledged by Moscow. Perhaps it would have been wiser to keep quiet about this issue considering that the foiled plot raises more questions than answers. But Kadyrov is not known for keeping quiet. He is still talking about the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and vouching for the innocence of the main suspect who wants to clear his name:

'Send me to Syria to fight Isil,' Boris Nemtsov murder suspect asks Vladimir Putin The former solider accused of murdering Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov has asked Vladimir Putin to send him to Syria to fight Isil, in a bid to prove his "patriotism" and clear his name. Zaur Dadaev, who denies involvement in the contract killing of Mr Nemtsov in February, wrote to Russia’s president last week to protest his innocence and complain that he had been tortured into giving a false confession. He went on to ask Mr Putin that he be sent to join Russian forces in Syria to prove his "loyalty" and "innocence" on the field of battle.

Dostum's Offensive Exposes Turkmenistan's Border Woes

It is only a question of time before Russian volunteers will show up in Syria but Zaur Dadaev won't be one of them. As Russia's campaign in Syria is picking up pace, the Kremlin is stepping up its ISIS rhetoric. Listening to the Russian Foreign Ministry, one might get the impression that the Islamic State is about to take over Afghanistan as well. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned recently that ISIS has settled in 25 out of 34 Afghan provinces. This seems to be over the top. The Islamic State has managed to gain a foothold in Afghanistan but its Afghan branch has been largely confined to the eastern province of Nangarhar after being defeated by the Taliban in other provinces. Moreover, the group is already in disarray because one of its senior leaders suddenly realized that he had joined a bunch of thugs who don't care about Islamic principles. Therefore, it is highly improbable that Russia would feel compelled to support the Taliban in order to contain the ISIS threat:

A Taliban-Russia Team-Up Against ISIS? A former Afghan Taliban governor and member of the group’s military committee, who does not want to be cited by name, tells The Daily Beast that “the American global attitude and the threat from ISIS makes for a convergence of Taliban and Russian interests, and we could not rule out further cooperation, depending on the emerging scenario in the Middle East.” That is, if Russia proves successful in its Syrian venture to defend the Assad dictatorship (which is far from certain), the Taliban will be encouraged to increase their contacts and perhaps cooperation with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But for now the contacts with Moscow are being kept very quiet and often are conducted through cut-outs. The main venue for the talks is Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan’s embattled Kunduz province, whose intelligence operatives may have been involved with a substantial shipment of arms to the Taliban. The government and intelligence services of Tajikistan are understood by the Taliban to have remained close clients of Moscow.

As Joshua Kucera notes, the more plausible explanation for Tajikistan's arms shipment to the Taliban is "that Tajikistan had access to weapons that the Taliban wanted, and needed to get its soldiers back." The Taliban had captured four Tajik border guards and demanded weapons in exchange for their release. Curiously, The Daily Beast didn't mention Qatar's vital role in brokering the release of the guards but this would probably undermine the narrative of a larger Russian-Taliban cooperation. Afghan officials apparently don't read The Daily Beast and think they can trust the Russians. As Afghanistan descends into chaos, Kabul is turning to Russia for help. President Ashraf Ghani has asked Moscow for artillery, small arms as well as Mi-35 helicopter gunships and the recent Russia trip of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum seems to be paying off. Dostum has now returned to the frontline in northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been gaining ground in recent weeks:

Dostum's Northern Offensive Highlights Ex-Soviet Ties On Wednesday, Afghanistan's security forces started an operation in the province of Jawzjan, which borders Turkmenistan, led personally by Dostum. The offensive is meant to beat back recent Taliban gains in the north, both in Jawzjan and in neighboring Faryab, which also borders Turkmenistan. Dostum led another offensive in Faryab in August, but his advances were quickly reversed. Dostum's increasing involvement in the fighting in northern Afghanistan comes as he has also apparently sought to strengthen his ties to the former Soviet states to the north. He visited Grozny and Moscow earlier this month, meeting with officials including Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, to arrange increased Russian military aid. After arriving in the north, Dostum appeared on Afghan television and publicly thanked his northern neighbors. "The countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from Russia to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, all of these states are ready to stand with us against [the Islamic State], against extremism, against the bloody Taliban," he said.

Dostum returned to the frontline just after the Taliban had seized Faryab's Ghormach District, which borders Turkmenistan. Therefore, the Afghan Vice President lost no time in trying to retake Ghormach. On October 24, Afghan officials announced that government forces have regained control of the district. Dostum's forces also launched an offensive in Jowzjan province and managed to retake another district on the Turkmen border. Several dozen Taliban fighters were chased to an island in the Amu-Darya river, which divides Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. Only a few days after the Turkmen government was vehemently denying that there has been any unrest along its border, Dostum's offensive reduced Ashgabat's claims to absurdity. As the fighting reaches Turkmenistan's door step, Ashgabat can no longer deny the reality on the ground and Turkmen forces have to get involved:

Afghanistan-Turkmenistan Plan Joint Operation in Border Areas TOLOnews correspondent Wali Arian who is embedded with troops in Khamab district of Jawzjan province has reported that the Afghan security forces have cleared the district from insurgents. "We have regular contact with our Turkmenistan border forces, they have also certified their [Taliban] location, we will coordinate with them, they [Turkmens] have also moved on that side to attack them," Dostum said. He went on to say: "We have also undertaken our own plans, you can see up to 100 heavy weapons deployed over there, they [Taliban] will be arrested. They will be arrested, if they resist, they will be eliminated."

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 20, 2015

Turkmenistan to CIS: ‘Move Along Folks, Nothing to See Here!,’ United National Movement Protests Georgia's Talks with Gazprom & More!

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

Islamabad's recent offer to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table for renewed peace talks with the Afghan government is just one example of Pakistan's influence over the Taliban movement in general and its new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in particular. According to some Taliban sources, Pakistan is now taking a two-pronged approach in dealing with the movement. On the one hand, the Pakistani authorities are backing Mansoor and negotiations with Kabul but, on the other hand, they are also supporting the hawkish anti-Mansoor faction in order to keep the new supremo in check and continue the fight in Afghanistan. A senior Afghan intelligence official confirmed this, pointing out that Pakistan recently helped Mansoor's rival Abdul Qayyum "Zakir" launch large-scale offensives in the south of the country, which prompted Mansoor to offer Zakir to become his first deputy or Taliban shadow defense minister. Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note that the United States is now implicating Pakistani intelligence in the Taliban's takeover of Kunduz as well:

APNewsBreak: US analysts knew Afghan site was hospital American special operations analysts were gathering intelligence on an Afghan hospital days before it was destroyed by a U.S. military attack because they believed it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity, The Associated Press has learned.

The special operations analysts had assembled a dossier that included maps with the hospital circled, along with indications that intelligence agencies were tracking the location of the Pakistani operative and activity reports based on overhead surveillance, according to a former intelligence official who is familiar with some of the documents describing the site. The intelligence suggested the hospital was being used as a Taliban command and control center and may have housed heavy weapons. After the attack — which came amidst a battle to retake the northern Afghan city of Kunduz from the Taliban — some U.S. analysts assessed that the strike had been justified, the former officer says. They concluded that the Pakistani, believed to have been working for his country's Inter-Service Intelligence directorate, had been killed.

U.S. Keeps Troops in Afghanistan as Kabul Takes Desperate Measures 

The Associated Press emphasizes that it is unclear whether the responsible commanders knew about these reports or that the site was a hospital. But although the U.S. keeps changing its story every few days, it is becoming more and more evident that the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz was deliberately targeted. The American military's "unannounced and forced entry" into the hospital compound immediately after the bombing suggests that Washington is not telling the whole truth. Interestingly, there is no public evidence to suggest that a Pakistani was killed in the attack, which makes the allegations against the ISI even more curious. Meanwhile, government forces have managed to drive the Taliban out of Kunduz - the Taliban claim to have withdrawn by their own choice "to avoid further civilian casualties" - but the situation remains highly volatile. The fall of Kunduz has put Afghanistan back on the map and U.S. President Barack Obama used the opportunity to announce that thousands of American troops will stay in the country when he leaves office:

Citing 'very fragile' security in Afghanistan, Obama slows pace of U.S. troop withdrawal Reversing policy on Afghanistan, President Barack Obama announced on Thursday he will prolong the 14-year-old U.S. military engagement there, effectively handing off the task of pulling out troops to his successor. Calling it a "modest but meaningful" adjustment to winding down the American presence in Afghanistan, Obama said Afghan forces were not yet as strong as they needed to be given a "very fragile" security situation and the United States will maintain a force of 9,800 through most of 2016. Obama had previously aimed to withdraw all but a small U.S.-embassy based force in the capital, Kabul, before he leaves office in January 2017. Under the new plan, troops will be drawn down to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017 and will be based at four locations - Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar.

It comes as no real surprise that Obama won't keep his promise to end the war in Afghanistan. First of all, Obama is not known for keeping his word, and second, it has long been painfully obvious that the Afghan security forces are unable to cope with the deteriorating security situation. U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani and the American military, which had been lobbying for slowing the withdrawal, immediately welcomed Obama's decision but the announcement also engendered criticism. The Taliban reacted as expected, emphasizing that this "means they aren't sincere about a peaceful solution to the Afghan crisis." Russia's Foreign Ministry joined in the criticism as well and stressed that "this forced step is another graphical evidence of the full blunder of the 14-year Washington military campaign and its allies in Afghanistan." And nothing illustrates this better than Kabul's latest idea:

Afghan Plan to Expand Militia Raises Abuse Concerns With the Afghan security forces gravely challenged by Taliban offensives, the government is moving to rapidly expand the troubled Afghan Local Police program by thousands of members, Afghan and Western officials say. The move to expand the police militias, prompted by the disastrous loss of the northern city of Kunduz to the Taliban almost three weeks ago, is being described by officials speaking privately as an attempt to head off panic in Afghan cities threatened by the insurgents. But the expansion also amounts to an open admission that the United States’ main legacy in Afghanistan — the creation of nationalized police and army forces numbering more than 350,000 members — is failing under pressure even before any final American military withdrawal. On Thursday, President Obama called off that pullout, originally due at year’s end, leaving 9,800 American troops in the country for at least another year.

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is part of the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan. U.S. planners created the ALP in 2010 to support the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP). General David Petraeus modeled the program after the 'Sons of Iraq' initiative. Many ALP members are former Taliban who are now on the payroll of the United States. It is not difficult to imagine what will happen when the money dries up. But the biggest problem are the serious human rights abuses at the hands of ALP units, which are nothing more than village militias with AK-47s. Contrary to what the name suggests, Afghan Local Police members don't have police powers and don't care about the law. Although ALP forces have repeatedly been accused of all kinds of heinous crimes, including torture, rape and murder, Kabul is now planning to expand the program. This shows that the Afghan authorities are becoming increasingly desperate in the face of Taliban advances across the country:

Another Afghan district falls to the Taliban Reports from the northwestern province of Faryab indicate that the Taliban has overrun yet another district in Afghanistan. Ghormach, a district that borders Turkmenistan, is now effectively under Taliban control, according to the jihadist group and the Afghan press. The fall of Ghormach took place just 10 Days after the Taliban seized the districts of Garziwan and Pashtun Kot in Faryab; the Afghan government later claimed to have liberated Garziwan. On week prior, the Taliban attempted to seize control of Maimana, the provincial capital of Faryab. The two districts are on the outskirts of Maimana, and control access from the east.

Turkmenistan to CIS: Move Along Folks, Nothing to See Here!

Ghormach's seizure by the Taliban is not only noteworthy because the district borders Turkmenistan but also because warlord-turned-vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum and his family are still being celebrated for the successful government offensive in Faryab province. As previously discussed, the success in Faryab was short-lived. The insurgents picked up where they had left off as soon as Dostum returned to Kabul. Faryab has long been one of the most contested provinces in Afghanistan and it looks as if this won't change anytime soon. To make matters worse, the situation on the Tajik border isn't much better either. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about Russia's possible return to the Tajik-Afghan border. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov fueled the speculations in the run-up to last week's Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) meeting, which focused on the issue:

Russia, ex-Soviet states to jointly defend borders in crisis The leaders of ex-Soviet states, led by Russian President Vladimir Putin, responded to growing instability in Afghanistan on Friday by agreeing to create a joint task force to defend their bloc's external borders if a crisis arises. The move could mean that Russian troops, as part of collective forces, will be deployed to Afghanistan's borders as the U.S.-led coalition gradually withdraws from the country, leaving behind a power vacuum. They agreed on the creation of what is described in a summit document as a "grouping of border (forces) and other institutions from CIS member states designed to resolve crisis situations on the external borders".

Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to convince his CIS colleagues that closer military cooperation is necessary because the situation in Afghanistan is "close to critical". However, it remains to be seen how much this agreement is actually worth. Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, for his part, remarked after the meeting that the CIS is pretty much useless and that the issues discussed "are detached from reality." Disagreements between CIS members have often rendered the organization useless. So Karimov might have a point. At any rate, Russian President Putin and Kazakh President Nazarbayev used the latest CIS meeting in Kazakhstan to draw attention to the alarming situation in Afghanistan and to call for closer cooperation in dealing with the problem. Whereas Tajikistan welcomed the initiative, Turkmenistan preferred to deny that there is any problem and to attack anyone who suggests otherwise:

Turkmenistan Strongly Denies ‘Incidents’ at Afghan Border Turkmenistan has registered no incidents at its border with Afghanistan, the Central Asian state's government said on Friday, denouncing as untrue a remark by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The strongly worded statement came ahead of a meeting of ex-Soviet nations to discuss the security of Afghan borders, among other issues, and followed comments by Nazarbayev who said he was aware of "incidents" that had happened at the Afghan-Turkmen border, but did not elaborate. "The Turkmen side expresses its extreme concern and incomprehension with regards to such a statement by the president of Kazakhstan about the situation on Turkmenistan's state border, which is untrue," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Turkmenistan's strongly worded statement indicates that Nazarbayev struck a nerve by bringing up the situation on the Afghan border. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry was not impressed by the harsh words coming from Ashgabat and defended Nazarbayev's remarks. After all, it is absolutely ludicrous to deny that there has been unrest on the Turkmen-Afghan border. Last year, Turkmen forces even crossed the border in order to drive the insurgents back and there have been several "incidents" ever since. According to the foreign-based website Alternative News of Turkmenistan, the Turkmen military has stationed up to 70 percent of its combat-ready military equipment along the Afghan border. The Turkmen government is obviously aware of the alarming situation in northern Afghanistan, but for some reason Ashgabat is now trying to play down the issue. Perhaps this has something to do with Turkmenistan's efforts to push the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, regardless of whether or not that makes any sense:

Hunt on for leader to lay $10 billion TAPI gas pipeline The four-nation consortium has revived the search for a leader to help lay the $10-billion TAPI gas pipeline, laying bare the lack of confidence among the countries to go ahead on their own and threatening to delay the project further. Just two months back, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India had agreed to co-own the project with TurkmenGaz, the state-owned firm of Turkmenistan, expected to make the majority investment in laying the 1800-km pipeline that would begin the construction work in December. Now again the timeline looks shaky. "The key challenge is to select a consortium leader or a partner. We are still looking for one," said BC Tripathi, chairman of GAIL, the state-run firm that represents India in the consortium. The top executives of GAILBSE 1.97 % and other state companies representing three other nations have been negotiating the terms between themselves and figuring out the nuances of the project for the last two months since the oil ministers of the four countries agreed in Ashgabat to go on their own without waiting for a firm with experience in laying and operating pipeline to lead the consortium.

United National Movement Protests Georgia's Talks with Gazprom

Although a TAPI consortium leader is nowhere to be found and the Taliban are making themselves at home on the Turkmen-Afghan border, Turkmenistan is already starting with the construction of the ambitious pipeline project in an attempt to diversify its gas exports. In order to lessen the increasing dependence on China, the Turkmen authorities are also turning to Japan and still promoting the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Russia's launch of cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea should serve as a warning to supporters of the Trans-Caspian project but Ashgabat and Baku refuse to give up on the pipe dream. Azerbaijan's efforts to strengthen its position in the energy market suffered recently an unexpected setback when close ally Georgia announced its plans to buy more gas from Russia and Iran. The words of Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze caused a great stir and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili had to travel to Baku to calm the waves:

Georgian PM Reaffirms ‘Friendly, Strategic’ Relations with Azerbaijan PM Irakli Garibashvili said on October 12 that Tbilisi’s relations with Baku will remain “friendly and strategic” and dismissed talk of “diversification, replacement of Azerbaijani gas” supplies as “utterly absurd”. 

Georgian Energy Ministry said late last week that Tbilisi was open for talks with Gazprom on possible gas supplies for private entities in Georgia in order to, as Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze and his deputy put it, “diversify” energy supplies for the country. Kaladze, who met Gazprom chief executive in Brussels in late September, reiterated on October 12 that private entities might be interested in purchasing Russian gas if the price is acceptable. After the Georgian Energy Minister spoke about possible gas supplies from Gazprom last week, PM Garibashvili made a brief and unannounced visit to Baku on October 10, where he met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, triggering speculation in Tbilisi that the surprise visit aimed at mending ties after potential fallout caused by Tbilisi’s suggestions over Gazprom gas supplies.

Georgian opposition parties tried to exploit the situation and some people went as far as alleging that the government plans to revise the country's relations with Azerbaijan. Garibashvili vehemently denied this and assured everyone that things will stay as they are. The Georgian Prime Minister stressed that talks with Gazprom are just about a possible increase of transit of natural gas to Armenia. Neither President Giorgi Margvelashvili nor the Georgian opposition were entirely convinced by Garibashvili's words. Last Friday, Tbilisi police detained Tamar Chergoleishvili, the head of pro-Saakashvili TV channel Tabula TV, one of her producers and another activist when they were hanging up posters mocking former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and Gazprom. One day later, a few hundred protesters gathered in front of the central government building to protest against the negotiations with Russia's energy behemoth:

Tbilisi Protests Russia’s Gazprom On Saturday, at the State Chancellery, the protest ‘No to Gazprom’ rallied against Gazprom’s possible entrance into the Georgian energy market. Energy giant Russia is believed to attempt to re-enter Georgia and is said by some to be a non-trivial tool for the Russian government to manage political processes on the ground. The concerns arose after the government initiated talks with Russian energy company Gazprom. The rally involved politicians, public activists and members of the National Movement, as well as concerned citizens from all over Georgia. Tabula, a political magazine, organized the protest action against Gazprom’s possible entrance into the Georgian energy market.

Tamar Chergoleishvili is not only the head of Tabula TV but also the editor-in-chief of the Tbilisi-based Tabula magazine. Tabula is known for its pro-United National Movement (UNM) views, which is hardly surprising considering that Chergoleishvili is the wife of senior UNM leader Giga Bokeria. As mentioned last week, the opposition party is currently trying to prevent the government from taking control of another important pro-UNM media outlet. According to the latest polls, neither the Georgian Dream ruling coalition nor the UNM have benefited from the endless fighting. Although many voters are disappointed by the government, the UNM isn't gaining any support as more and more Georgians don't know which party they should vote for. But more worrying for the West are the rising pro-Russian sentiment and the declining support for joining the European Union and NATO:

NDI Poll on Foreign Policy Issues

Number of Georgian respondents who support “government’s stated goal to join the EU” has dropped by 17 percentage points over the past year to 61%, according to a public opinion survey, commissioned by the NDI and fielded by CRRC in August. Asked whether they support or not Georgia joining Russia-led Eurasian Union, 31% responded positively, same as in April 2015, and 46% negatively, up by five percentage points from four months earlier. When the respondents were offered a choice between two answers – “Georgia will benefit more from joining EU and NATO”, and “Georgia will benefit more from abandoning Euro-Atlantic integration in favor of better relations with Russia” – 45% chose the former and 30% the latter.

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 13, 2015

U.S. Tries to Keep Georgia in Line, Afghanistan Turns to Russia for Help as Taliban Gain Ground & More!

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

New Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor faced a lot of opposition within the movement, when he officially took over from Mullah Omar two months ago. Several leading Taliban commanders decided to go their own ways and Mullah Omar's family only reluctantly endorsed the new supremo. Despite all that, the Taliban have stepped up their game in the first few weeks of Mansoor's reign, dashing Kabul's hopes that the confirmation of Mullah Omar's death would weaken the group. It seems like an eternity ago that Kabul and the Taliban were holding peace talks to stop the fighting. At the end of July, the two sides were about to meet in Pakistan for the second round of talks when Afghan intelligence leaked Omar's death to the press, thereby unleashing a new wave of violence. After the Taliban demonstrated their power in Kunduz, Pakistan renewed its offer to restart the talks and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reminded his Afghan colleagues that they should have kept their mouth shut:

Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif says working for revival of Afghan peace talks The Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he is trying to revive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban group which was stalled by the announcement of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s death. In televised remarks to the media Nawaz said “The news of Mullah Omar should not have been broken just before the start of the second round of talks.” Sharif further added “We are now trying to resume the (peace) process and pray to God to crown our efforts with success.”

Afghanistan Turns to Russia for Help as Taliban Gain Ground

Given that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) more or less controls Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, the Pakistani government should be able to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table, or at least the faction that is interested in talks with Kabul. Mansoor supported the reconciliation process and authorized the delegation for the first round of talks. That is why several top Taliban commanders turned against him. U.S. Gen. John F. Campbell, the top commander of U.S. and allies forces in Afghanistan, just told the House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee that 60 percent to 70 percent of the Taliban movement may ultimately be reconciled with Kabul but that is of course still a long way off. As for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, they will have no choice but to talk to Mansoor and his Pakistani backers if the Taliban continue to gain ground across the country:

Afghan Taliban’s Reach Is Widest Since 2001, U.N. Says The Taliban insurgency has spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001, according to data compiled by the United Nations as well as interviews with numerous local officials in areas under threat. In addition, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan over the past two weeks has evacuated four of its 13 provincial offices around the country — the most it has ever done for security reasons — according to local officials in the affected areas. The data, compiled in early September — even before the latest surge in violence in northern Afghanistan — showed that United Nations security officials had already rated the threat level in about half of the country’s administrative districts as either “high” or “extreme,” more than at any time since the American invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001.

As The New York Times pointed out, the United Nations' assessment is at odds with Gen. Campbell's rosy assessment in his recent testimony to Congress. The top U.S. commander even had the nerve to play down the alarming situation in Kunduz, while at the same time, the U.S. was using the latest crisis to tell its NATO allies that they will probably have to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has already endorsed the idea. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is seeking help from other countries as well. Last week, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum visited Grozny and Moscow to ask for Russian support in the fight against ISIS. During his meetings with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and top Russian officials, Dostum commended Russia's campaign in Syria and stressed that Kabul needs Moscow's support because "ISIS is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead." This clearly resonated with his Russian hosts:

Afghanistan's Dostum Turns To Old Ally Russia For Help "The Russian side is committed to support and help Afghanistan in terms of helping its air and military forces," Dostum's spokesman, Sultan Faizy, told RFE/RL by telephone. "We're lacking air support, weapons, ammunition. We need a lot of backing and support to fight against terrorism." But Faizy said that would not mean direct military intervention by Russia, which is still mindful of the 1979-89 war that killed some 15,000 Soviet soldiers and has repeatedly said it would not send troops to Afghanistan. Faizy said that Moscow had promised to evaluate the situation in Afghanistan and "see what they can help with."

An Afghan parliamentary delegation also visited Moscow to ask for support. Russian Federation Council member Igor Morozov told TASS that the Afghans cited a lack of helicopters as the reason for the Taliban takeover of Kunduz and Morozov used the opportunity to have a dig at the Americans. Zamir Kabulov, President Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, announced after the meetings that Moscow and Kabul are planning to sign a deal on the delivery of several Mi-35 helicopter gunships later this month. That is music to the ears of Afghan Air Force (AAF) commanders who have repeatedly complained about the useless MD 530F helicopters provided by the United States. Whether or not Russia considers extending its "anti-ISIS" bombing campaign to Afghanistan, remains unclear. Kabulov dodged the question when he was asked but he provided an explanation for the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan:

ISIS training militants from Russia in Afghanistan, 'US and UK citizens among instructors' Russian officials accused Washington of orchestrating the deterioration of security in Afghanistan and the expansion of Islamic State there. “It seems like someone’s hand is pushing freshly trained ISIL fighters to mass along Afghanistan’s northern border. They don’t fight foreign or Afghan government troops,” Kabulov said. He added that on several occasions Taliban groups that refused to join Islamic State were “set up” to be targeted by airstrikes. “The Afghan Army practically has no aircraft. Only the Americans do. These details bring some very bad thoughts and concerns. We have to take them into account and draw conclusions accordingly,” he said.

Russia Sends Helicopters to Alleviate Tajikistan's Border Woes 

Kabulov emphasized that the Afghanistan branch of ISIS numbers already 3,500 fighters despite emerging only one year ago. Russia's military intelligence chief Igor Sergun added that the Islamic State's expansion in Afghanistan is in line with Washington's long-term goal of destabilizing Central Asia and "surrounding Russia and China with a network of regimes loyal to America and hotspots of tension." As the situation in northern Afghanistan deteriorates, Russian officials seem to be stepping up their ISIS rhetoric in an effort to justify further military involvement in the region. Although the Russians are clearly exaggerating the threat posed by ISIS, the increasing activities of insurgents on the Tajik-Afghan border cannot be denied. Tajikistan's intelligence agency claims that more than 1,000 Taliban fighters have massed in close proximity the border and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently briefed his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the latest developments during a meeting in Sochi:

Tajikistan 'Extremely Concerned' About Situation Along Afghan Border President Emomali Rahmon has said Tajikistan was "extremely concerned" about the situation along the Tajik-Afghan border. During a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on October 6, Rahmon said the situation in Afghanistan was "getting worse by the day." "Practically, fighting is going on along more than 60 percent of the Tajik border with Afghanistan," he added.

Russian President Putin also voiced concerns about the deteriorating situation on the border but both leaders agreed that there was no need for boosting Russian military presence in Tajikistan. Apparently this didn't include helicopters. One day after the meeting between Putin and Rahmon, a Russian Defense Ministry official announced that Russia will reinforce its 201st military base in Tajikistan with Mi-24P attack and Mi-8MTV transport and combat helicopters. The helicopters will be stationed at Ayni Air Force Base, which was renovated with $70 million from India a few years ago. Both India and Russia have been trying to gain control of the base, to no avail. The Tajik Defense Ministry just clarified that Russia can use the base but it remains under Tajik control. Russia's military presence in the country is a controversial issue because Russian soldiers are not always on their best behavior:

Russian officer sacked for assaulting Tajik taxi driver A court at Russian’s military base in Tajikistan has delivered a judgment over the case of Russian officer Denis Borisenko, who was charged with assaulting a Tajik taxi driver and stealing his vehicle. Under a ruling handed down at the court at the Russian military base, Senior Lieutenant Denis Borisenko was sacked and he will pay compensation (60,000 Russian rubles (RR) to local tax driver Dilshod Khoushov. According to investigators, Borisenko was drunk when he attacked Khoushov and drove away in his car. Borisenko later hit another vehicle and was detained at the scene. 

A few weeks ago, two other Russian soldiers were convicted of killing a Tajik taxi driver and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Such crimes and similar incidents reignite the never-ending debate about Russia's military presence in the country from time to time but the Tajik government hasn't been swayed by the criticism. In fact, Dushanbe has never been easily swayed by criticism. Washington has apparently realized this and preferred to keep quiet while the Rahmon regime was cracking down on the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). Even after the IRPT had been branded a terrorist organization, the U.S. only voiced mild criticism in an emailed statement, which went largely unnoticed. Meanwhile, the Tajik authorities are coming up with evermore charges against arrested IRPT lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov and the remaining top officials of the Islamic Renaissance Party:

Tajik Prosecutors Say 23 Islamic Party Officials Arrested Tajik prosecutors say 23 top officials of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (HNIT) have been arrested, many on suspicion of leading a deadly mutiny by a serving deputy defense minister in early September. The Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office said on October 6 that criminal probes are under way against the party officials who face charges including terrorism, inciting religious and racial hatred, and attempting to seize power by force. Many also face forgery, fraud, and other economic crime charges.

U.S. Tries to Keep Georgia in Line

As Tajikistan continues its crackdown on the IRPT without much resistance from the West, Georgia is probably wondering what the secret is. After the Georgian authorities recently tried to shut down pro-opposition private TV broadcaster Rustavi 2, the United States immediately reprimanded the government and U.S. Ambassador Ian C. Kelly met with Rustavi 2 executives to assure them that the U.S. Embassy "is closely following" the case. Rustavi 2 has long been a thorn in the side of the current government due to its close ties to former President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM). Three opposition activists were detained for assaulting a lawmaker from Georgian Dream ruling coalition during a rally in support of Rustavi 2 in front of the parliament building. The UNM has tried to exploit this by calling for a snap election but even other government critics reject the idea:

Free Democrats against holding snap election The Free Democrats has rejected a proposal by the National Movement to hold a snap election one year before the next scheduled one. The Free Democrats has now ruled out supporting a snap election. The party was a member of the Georgian Dream coalition but withdrew in November, when party leader Irakli Alasania was dismissed as defense minister. Also the foreign minister and minister of Euro integration resigned in protest and are now active members of the Free Democrats. Maia Panjikidze, the former foreign minister, said Tuesday that the Free Democrats do not support holding a special election. She said there is indeed dissatisfaction about the government, but it is a signal for them to feel responsibility. However, she said, only one year is left until the parliamentary election. 

Irakli Alasania's Free Democrats would like to remove the "pro-Russian" government of Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili sooner rather than later but they won't join forces with the UNM to this end. In Georgia, the crimes of the Saakashvili regime haven't been forgotten. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague is now considering to take a break from prosecuting Africans and Serbs to investigate one of these crimes: the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. Much to the dismay of Moscow, the statements coming from The Hague and Saakashvili's reaction suggest that an investigation is going to be every bit as "objective" as previous ICC "investigations." After all, the ICC would never dream of going after a would-be NATO member. Georgian Foreign Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli underlined Tbilisi's commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration once again during recent meetings with EU and NATO officials in Brussels but the Georgians have no illusions:

Georgian Deputy FM: MAP Not Expected at NATO Warsaw Summit

Georgia is not likely to get NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the alliance’s summit next year in Warsaw, Deputy Foreign Minister, Davit Dondua, said. According to him the Georgian officials and diplomats’ rhetoric abroad in communication with NATO partners is different from messages they try to use for domestic consumption in Georgia. He said that although knowing that there is a little chance for MAP, Georgia is still pushing the issue intensively in its talks with NATO partners as a “bargaining” tool in order to then get at least something; but domestically, he said, the authorities do not want to prioritize MAP in order not to create false expectations, because it will then cause frustration, which will be exploited by the “Russian propaganda” in Georgia.

Georgia's quest for NATO membership has played into the hands of the "Russian propaganda" and contributed to a rise of pro-Russian sentiments in the country, as more and more people began to realize that Georgian soldiers are dying in Afghanistan for nothing at all. Equally worrying for the West are Tbilisi's latest efforts to expand economic cooperation with Russia and Iran. Georgia wants to diversify its gas imports away from Azerbaijan, which provides about 90 percent of the country's gas imports at the moment. That is why Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze met last month with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller to discuss Russian gas supplies. To make matters worse, Khaladze announced a few days ago that Georgia is not only talking about additional supplies from Russia but also "actively working in respect of Iran." This didn't go down particularly well in Washington:

Deputy FM Says Georgia Told by U.S. not to Rush into Full-Scale Cooperation with Iran Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister, Davit Dondua, said the U.S. has asked Tbilisi to “refrain from full-scale cooperation” with Iran until Tehran fully complies with the Vienna nuclear deal reached in July. “We have permanent contacts with our American colleagues, who are asking us to refrain from full-scale cooperation with Iran and from becoming open [for Iran] for now – until all the commitments agreed in Vienna are fulfilled and until Iran is given final green light,” Dondua said on October 9. “We are telling our American and other friends that we remain committed to the policy and sanctions pursued by [the West] in respect of Iran, but you should also take into consideration specifics of Georgia’s situation. Iran is a regional state, our important partner, including from the economic point of view, and we want some sort of space for maneuvering,” Dondua said.

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: October 6, 2015

China Keeps Mum on Violence as Xinjiang Marks 60th Anniversary, If ISIS Won't Come to Kadyrov-Kadyrov Will Come to ISIS & More!

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

After the Taliban shocked the world by seizing the northern Afghan provincial capital of Kunduz, the Afghan government pulled out all the stops to retake the city. Leaving the strategic city of 300,000 in the hands of the Taliban would create major problems for Afghanistan and neighboring countries, given the fact that Kunduz is an important transport hub for the north of the country and a gateway to Central Asia. For example, the distance to Tajikistan is only about 70 kilometers (44 miles). Aware of city's importance, Taliban fighters tried to win residents over with a "charm offensive" but they quickly fell back into old patterns. As government forces were struggling to launch a successful counterattack, U.S.-backed President Ashraf Ghani was coming under increasing pressure. He tried to shift the blame on others and replaced the governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar Safi, who had just reappeared after watching the fall of the provincial capital from abroad. But despite rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, Ghani could not hide the fact that the Afghan security forces are unable to cope with the situation and that they need help to retake the city:

More US airstrikes as special forces join fight against insurgents outside Kunduz American special operations troops joined the battle around Kunduz on Wednesday, exchanging fire with Taliban fighters near the airport where Afghan forces withdrew after ceding control of the city two days before, the U.S.-led coalition announced. U.S. aircraft carried out more airstrikes against Taliban forces threatening the Kunduz airport, where Afghan government are regrouping after fleeing the city Monday. The increased American support follow signs that Afghan forces are struggling in the face of the massive Taliban assault, which has plunged the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani into the deepest crisis of its first year in office.

U.S. Bombs Hospital to Help Afghans Retake Kunduz

After three days of intense fighting, Afghan forces, led by U.S.-trained special forces from the Crisis Response Unit (CRU) and supported by U.S. special forces, eventually managed to retake control of key areas in Kunduz on October 1. According to local officials, more than 300 insurgents, including Arab, Chechen and Pakistani jihadists, were killed during the battle. Afghanistan’s Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Murad Ali Murad, who was in charge of the operation, said that the Taliban had planned to stage a major propaganda coup by bringing their new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor to Kunduz. Security forces foiled this plan but government claims that the entire city had been cleared of insurgents were swiftly contradicted by residents who pointed out that the Taliban are still controlling several party of Kunduz. While ground forces were trying to eliminate the remaining pockets of resistance, the American military was ramping up its airstrikes across northern Afghanistan, with dire consequences:

Airstrike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan At least 19 people were killed when a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz was badly damaged early Saturday after being hit by what appears to have been an American airstrike, sparking international outrage. The United States military, in a statement, confirmed an airstrike at 2:15 a.m., saying that it had been targeting individuals “who were threatening the force” and that “there may have been collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.” Accounts differed as to whether there had been fighting around the hospital that might have precipitated the strike. Two hospital employees, an aide who was wounded in the bombing and a nurse who emerged unscathed, said that there had been no active fighting nearby and no Taliban fighters in the hospital. 

Kunduz police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hussaini and other Afghan officials, on the other hand, insisted that Taliban fighters had entered the hospital and were using it as a firing position. Given that Afghan officials have a long history of distorting the truth to cover up their own crimes and the crimes of their Western partners, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) strongly denied the claims and pointed out that "these statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present." As MSF rightly noted, "this amounts to an admission of a war crime." Notwithstanding the obvious hypocrisy, the U.S. initially tried to play the 'collateral damage' card but Gen. John F. Campbell later confirmed that MSF was right:

US commander says Afghans requested US airstrike in Kunduz The U.S. airstrike that killed 22 at a medical clinic in northern Afghanistan over the weekend was requested by Afghan forces who reported being under Taliban fire, and was not sought by U.S. forces, the top commander of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan said Monday. Gen. John F. Campbell made the statement at a hastily arranged Pentagon news conference. He said he was correcting an initial U.S. statement that said the airstrike had been in response to threats against U.S. forces. "We have now learned that on Oct. 3, Afghan forces advised that they were taking fire from enemy positions and asked for air support from U.S. forces," Campbell said. "An airstrike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck. This is different from the initial reports which indicated that U.S. forces were threatened and that the airstrike was called on their behalf."

Afghan officials are probably having second thoughts about the "Taliban threat" after Campbell tried to shift the blame on the Afghans, basically admitting that U.S. and Afghan forces committed a war crime. As MSF emphasized, the Americans had the GPS coordinates of the hospital and knew exactly what they were bombing. But the attack comes as no real surprise considering that the hospital has previously been targeted by Afghan security forces who were "irked" by its policy of treating the wounded from all sides of the conflict. Thanks to the latest attack, they finally got what they wanted. Doctors Without Borders announced on October 4 that it was forced to withdraw from Kunduz after U.S. jets destroyed its facility amid a growing humanitarian crisis in the city. Security forces have now regained control of most of the strategic provincial capital but there is no end in sight to the fighting in northern Afghanistan:

Taliban overruns another 2 districts in Afghan north As fighting in the city of Kunduz continues, the Taliban seized two more districts in the Afghan north.`The district of Wardoj, which has switched hands in the past, and Baharak were overrun during Taliban assaults over the past two days, the jihadist group and Afghan officials reported. Dawlat Mohammad Khawar, the district governor for Wardoj, “confirmed that the Afghan security forces have retreated from Wardoj following hours of gun battle with the Taliban militants,” Khaama Press reported. Additionally, the Taliban overran the Baharak district in Badakhsan. “On Friday Mujahideen stormed the district and after intense fighting with the enemy and soon seized control of the district as well as overrunning a number of the checkpoints based near the district headquarters for the security arrangements,” the Taliban stated on Voice of Jihad. 

China Keeps Mum on Violence as Xinjiang Marks 60th Anniversary

Badakhshan was relatively stable as long as troops of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were stationed there but after they handed over control to the Afghan security forces, the province turned into one of the most contested areas in Afghanistan. Neighboring Tajikistan and China are keeping a close eye on the situation. Beijing's efforts to stop the violence by facilitating peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban suffered a major setback at the end of July when Afghan intelligence spilled the beans on Mullah Omar's death. It remains to be seen whether or not new supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansoor will stick to previous understandings that Omar reached with Beijing regarding Xinjiang. The Chinese authorities would prefer not having to worry about Uyghur jihadists on Afghan territory given that Uyghur jihadists on Chinese territory are already causing enough problems:

China slams a lid on news of violence from its western frontier Earlier this month, a knife-wielding gang attacked security guards at a coal mine in Xinjiang, a volatile region in the northwest of China. By the time the attack was repelled, at least 40 people had been killed or injured, according to a report by Radio Free Asia, which quoted a local state security chief about the incident four days after it occurred. Chinese state media still hasn’t reported on the Sept. 18 coal mine attack, more than two weeks later. It’s only the latest example of what appears to be a Chinese government news blackout on growing violence in Xinjiang, an oil-rich region crucial to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan for a Silk Road economic development belt stretching across Asia. Other unpublicized incidents include a police shooting of eight suspects in June; the police killing of two men in May after they reportedly attacked a patrol; and a Han Chinese town official knifed to death, also in May.

Whereas Chinese media tries to keep a lid on bad news from Xinjiang, U.S. propaganda outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA) continues to rub salt into the wound. Thanks to the help of the local authorities, RFA won't run out of useful material anytime soon. In addition to frequent terrorist attacks, there are plenty of absurd anti-terror measures to talk about. One of the more reasonable ideas is to teach Chinese soldiers Uyhgur folk dances and songs in an effort to improve relations between the military and the local population. As Chinese officials emphasize time and again, the military plays a vital role in safeguarding the stability of the autonomous region. At the end of September, Beijing released a 20,000-word white paper on ethnic equality, unity and development in Xinjiang, lauding the "tremendous achievements" in the region and highlighting the fight against terrorism and religious extremism. The white paper was issued on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Xinjiang's founding on October 1, 1955:

China stresses stability, security on Xinjiang's founding anniversary Top political advisor Yu Zhengsheng on Thursday said that long-term stability and security is the top priority in Xinjiang, stressing counterterrorism as the focus of the current work. Yu, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, made the remarks at a grand rally in Urumqi, the regional capital, marking the 60th anniversary of the autonomous region's founding. "The three forces (separatism, terrorism and extremism) are the biggest threats for Xinjiang and the common enemies for people of all ethnic groups. We must clench our fists tight and take the initiative to crack down on violence and terror activities strictly and lawfully and fight the three forces," Yu said.

Yu Zhengsheng and other central government officials toured Xinjiang ahead of the anniversary festivities to pose for a few photo ops and to check how the fight against the 'three evils' is going. During their tour, Yu made the case for expanding an aid program for Xinjiang in order to help the region fight terrorism. According to the Xinjiang white paper, Beijing has poured more than 1 trillion yuan (HK$1.2 trillion) into the autonomous region between 2010 and 2014. Yu's statements indicate that this is only the beginning, as the Chinese government spares neither trouble nor expense to ensure Xinjiang's long-term stability and security. If recent media reports are to be believed, these efforts could also include Chinese military involvement in Syria. Chinese naval expert Zhang Junshe dismissed the reports as rumors but the growing presence of Uyghurs in Syria has certainly not gone unnoticed in Beijing:

Uighur jihadist group in Syria advertises ‘little jihadists’ The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), an al Qaeda-affiliated Uighur jihadist group that is operating in Syria, recently released a video that includes photos of children with weapons and jihadist garb accompanied by an Uighur-language nasheed [A cappella Islamic music]. The children were described as “little jihadists” on the TIP’s official Twitter feed. This is not the first time that the TIP has shown children in training. In July, the group first publicized a training camp in Idlib, which appears to be in the same area. Several of those photos depict the children learning how to operate AK-47’s, sub-machine guns, and other handguns. In both cases, many of the children appear to be Uighur, but it is possible that some are native Syrians. The group’s former military leader was a native Syrian and the group has featured other Syrians in its ranks before.

If ISIS Won't Come to Kadyrov, Kadyrov Will Come to ISIS

Considering Turkey's meddling in "East Turkestan" and Syria, it is hardly surprising that the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) is being linked to Turkish intelligence. Much to the dismay of Turkish officials, Uyghurs in and around Jisr al-Shughur are now at risk of being killed by Russian airstrikes. As Ankara is seeing its hopes dashed, Turkish Islamist "charities," such as IMKANDER and Özgür-Der, took a break from supporting NATO-backed jihadists in Syria and elsewhere to protest against Russia's intervention. These protests won't stop Russia's campaign in Syria but they could encourage Moscow to make another attempt at putting IMKANDER on the Al-Qaida Sanctions List. However, Russian officials have no illusions about the West's "War on Terror." Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who keeps eliminating IMKANDER's beloved terrorist leaders, just emphasized again that "the main target of the West is Assad and not the 'Iblis State' terrorist organization." Therefore, Kadyrov asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for permission to take matters into his own hands:

Kadyrov asks Putin to allow Chechen infantry to fight in Syria The head of the Chechen Republic has asked the Russian president to send Chechen units to fight Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in Syria, adding that his fighters have sworn to fight terrorists till the end. “This is not idle talk, I am asking for permission to go there and participate in special operations,” Ramzan Kadyrov said in the Friday interview with the RSN radio. “Being a Muslim, a Chechen and a Russian patriot I want to say that in 1999 when our republic was overrun with these devils we swore on the Koran that we would fight them wherever they are,” the Chechen leader said. “But we need the Commander-in-Chief’s decision to do this,” he emphasized. According to the Russian Constitution, the president is also the commander-in-chief of the military forces.

Ramzan Kadyrov's expertise in fighting terrorism is well-known. That is why another former warlord, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, visited Chechnya the other day to get some advice from him and ask for Russian support in the fight against ISIS. The Chechen leader was immediately hooked and assured Dostum that Russia won't let Afghanistan down. Some people in Moscow want to get rid of Chechnya's "enfant terrible" and probably wouldn't mind sending him to Afghanistan or Syria but President Putin counts on Kadyrov to maintain order and stability in Chechnya, by all available means. This includes public naming and shaming of ISIS supporters. Although there have been a few isolated cases of attempted ISIS recruitment in Chechnya, the group has not been able to get a foothold in the Chechen republic. Local security forces are doing their best to nip the threat in the bud, forcing the Islamic State to focus on neighboring Dagestan:

IS's North Caucasus Affiliate Calls For Recruits To Join It In Daghestan The Islamic State extremist group's North Caucasus affiliate, Wilayat al-Qawqaz (Caucasus Province) has issued a call for would-be militants in Russia to join it and fight against Russian forces rather than joining IS in Syria. In a video message released last week by Furat Media, IS's official Russian-language media wing, the leader of IS's Caucasus Province in Daghestan, Abu Mukhammad Kadarsky (Rustam Asilderov), said this was the wish of IS's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Despite the propaganda, IS's Caucasus Province is weak and unlikely to attract large numbers of recruits to swell its ranks in the forests of Daghestan, particularly as winter draws near.

The Islamic State's Caucasus Province got off to a bad start. Its first official attack in Russia, allegedly targeting Russian army barracks in Dagestan, was just made-up and now the group is struggling to find new recruits. Wilayat Qawqaz owes its existence to the defection of several Caucasus Emirate (IK) commanders. This has crippled the once powerful terrorist organization and seems to have caused some bad blood between the groups. IK's affiliate in Syria was really upset when the Russian "kuffars" didn't target ISIS positions during their recent bombing campaign. It is not exactly a secret that Moscow's primary objective is to support the Syrian government against all terrorists, regardless of whether they belong to ISIS or "moderate" groups "vetted" and armed by the United States. And another important objective is to prevent Russian jihadists fighting in Syria from returning to Russia:

Russian Jailed For Fighting Alongside Islamic Militants In Syria A Russian man from the city of Tyumen has been sentenced to two years in jail for fighting with Islamic militants in Syria. The regional branch of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) says Vitaly Makarov, a convert to Islam, was found guilty by a court of taking part in military operations in Syria in 2013-2014 with an illegal armed group loyal to the Islamic State (IS) group. FSB First Deputy Director Sergei Smirnov said earlier this month that some 2,400 Russians are fighting alongside IS militants and other extremist Muslim groups in Syria and Iraq.

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: September 29, 2015

Tajikistan's Attempt to Prove IRPT-Nazarzoda Plot Backfires, Taliban Seize Kunduz as U.S. Mulls Drawdown Options & More

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

With the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine dominating the headlines, the latest escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has gone largely unnoticed. It all started on September 24, when Azerbaijani forces shelled Armenian villages in the northeastern Tavush region close to the border. Mortar and gunfire killed three civilian women, aged 41, 83 and 94, and wounded four other residents. It was the highest number of civilians killed in one day for quite some time. Moreover, targeting villages with mortar fire is not a common tactic and has only rarely been seen since the end of the war in 1994. As Armenia called on the international community to get involved and prevent a further escalation of the conflict, Azerbaijan tried to play the innocent by using Israel's tried and tested 'human shields' rhetoric. But it quickly became clear which side is provoking an escalation:

Four Armenian Servicemen Killed by Azerbaijani Fire Four Armenian servicemen were killed today in an offensive operation launched by Azerbaijan on Sept. 25. Norayr Khachatryan (b. 1995), Robert Mkrtchyan (b. 1995), Harout Hakobyan (b. 1997), and Karen Shahinyan (b. 1997) of the Artsakh Armed Forces were killed in the Azerbaijani attack, announced the Nagorno Karabagh Republic (NKR) Ministry of Defense. According to the Ministry, Azerbaijani forces used Turkish-made TR-107 rocket launchers in the attack. Intensive shelling reportedly took place on Sept. 24 and 25. A day earlier, 83-year-old Parakavar resident Baydzar Aghajanyan and Berdavan residents Shushan Asatryan, 94, and Sona Revezyan , 41, were killed by Azerbaijani artillery fire targeting Armenian border villages in Armenia’s Tavush province. Four other residents were also wounded in the attack.

Azerbaijan Kills Armenian Grannies, Blames Armenia

True to form, after killing seven Armenians in two days, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of escalating the conflict in an attempt to derail negotiations between the countries' Foreign Ministers and the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group in New York. Ironically, that is exactly the strategy that Azerbaijan has been using time and again in the run-up to important meetings and negotiations. The OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs were not swayed by Baku's antics and urged the warring parties to accept an OSCE mechanism to investigate ceasefire violations. Armenia has already agreed to discuss the details of the mechanism and Azerbaijan is now under pressure to follow suit. The month of September has taken a turn for the worse for Baku. Two weeks ago, Azerbaijani officials were chuffed to bits, thinking that they have a golden opportunity to claim the moral high ground in the conflict with Armenia:

Armenian 'Activist' Defects To Azerbaijan An Armenian man has defected to archrival Azerbaijan in a case that is sure to rankle in Yerevan. Vahan Martirosian, who says he is the head of an NGO called Internal National Liberation Movement, told reporters in Baku on September 18 that he had requested political asylum in Azerbaijan. There is no NGO by that name in the official registry. Martirosian slammed the policies of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, calling them anti-Armenian, and said Azerbaijani media are the only source offering "truthful information" about the current situation in Armenia.

Azerbaijani media is not exactly known for offering "truthful information" about anything but Martirosian went even further in his efforts to please his new hosts. The Armenian "activist" vowed to draw the international community's attention to the "criminal regime" of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and claimed that most people living in Nagorno-Karabakh would vote to join Azerbaijan if they were allowed to hold a referendum. Martirosian's strange Baku press conference perplexed not only the Armenian authorities but also the country's opposition and civil activists because they couldn't recall ever meeting him during protests in Armenia. Ruzanna Marguni, the woman who accused Martirosian of stealing $3,800 from her apartment before he left the country, described him as "a skillful fraudster." This being the case, Martirosian's defection is not the propaganda coup the Aliyev regime had been hoping for and it won't help to deflect attention from Azerbaijan's crackdown on journalists and human rights activists, which is once again causing tensions between Baku and the West:

Aliyev Goes On The Attack Against EU Values Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has thrown down the gauntlet in the face of criticism from the European Union, accusing the bloc of being "anti-Azerbaijani" and mocking European values amid the ongoing refugee crisis. During a joint press conference with visiting Czech President Milos Zeman in Baku on September 15, Aliyev blasted a recent European Parliament resolution that condemned his country's human rights situation and called for the release of all political prisoners and imprisoned journalists. Speaking earlier on September 15 at the opening ceremonies of a new school in Baku, Aliyev called on the country's youth to stay away from "foreign influence and the so-called Western values that our people do not share."​

Aliyev and Co. were furious about the latest "anti-Azerbaijani" European Parliament resolution. Baku responded by canceling the planned visit by a European Commission delegation and by suspending its participation in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, an inter-parliamentary forum of the EU and its eastern neighbors which was established as part of the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative. Some Azerbaijani lawmakers have even called for rethinking Azerbaijan's participation in the Eastern Partnership. As usual, Baku's anger about "anti-Azerbaijani" activities is not only directed at Brussels but also at "some circles" in the United States. After cracking down on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) at the end of last year, the Aliyev regime is now going after Voice of America and other foreign media outlets. And last but not least, Azerbaijan continues its half-hearted campaign against the U.S.-backed Gülen movement, much to the joy of Turkish President Erdogan:

Azerbaijan deports Turkish citizens for Nur movement propaganda Turkish citizens, suspected of promoting the Nur movement in Azerbaijan, were deported from the country.   The Yasamal district court fined Turkish citizens Sunkur Nurulla and Senol Miktat AZN 2000 under article #300.04 (violation of the law on religious freedom) of the Code of Administrative Offences.   Under the court decision, they were deported from Azerbaijan. In addition, 5 Azerbaijani citizens faced fine AZN 1500.

Tajikistan's Attempt to Prove IRPT-Nazarzoda Plot Backfires

If Aliyev eventually wants to get rid of the Gülen movement altogether, he can ask his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon for advice. Rahmon is currently demonstrating how to rid oneself of pesky opposition groups. Government forces had a hard time catching former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda but the Tajik regime is now making the best of the situation by using Nazarzoda's rebellion to crush the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) once and for all. To this end, they have come up with an elaborate plot linking Nazarzoda and the IRPT, putting even the most ludicrous conspiracy theories to shame. On September 17, Tajikistan's Prosecutor General's office set the stage with an official statement saying that IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri had ordered Nazarzoda to establish 20 small criminal groups. Charitable foundations of foreign countries allegedly provided the funding. This story is becoming more convoluted and more implausible day by day:

Tajikistan State Media Rants Undermine Uprising Account In providing updates to its would-be insurgency and smears of the opposition almost daily, Tajikistan’s government has succeeded mostly in undermining its own credibility.

A dispatch circulated by Khovar state news agency on September 26 reaches new heights of implausibility. The story contends that the alleged renegade deputy defense minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda had plotted his uprising since 2010 in collusion with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT). Allegations that plotting should have been happening for so long at the highest level is at best an astonishing admission of incompetence by Tajikistan’s security structures. Alternatively, Dushanbe is spinning a yarn in full confidence that nobody within the country, including all the diplomatic stations based there, will dare to question its narrative.

International extremist organizations, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. and the EU have all featured in recent Tajik state media ramblings about the alleged Kabiri-Nazarzoda plot. Ironically, Washington has been remarkably silent on Tajikistan's crackdown and just showcased its support of the Rahmon regime by donating tactical equipment worth $260,000 to the country's OMON unit, which made headlines a few months ago when its commander defected to ISIS. Khovar lashed out at the U.S. nevertheless. Even Russian analysts, who are usually quick to blame unrest in Central Asia on the West and/or extremists, had to take flak because they dared to cast doubt on the government's narrative. Dushanbe's main problem is that the narrative doesn't stand up to scrutiny, as the Tajik authorities learned when they confronted IRPT deputy leader Mahmadali Hayit with a member of Nazarzoda's group:

IRP deputy leader confronted with member of Abduhalim Nazarzoda’s group His defense lawyer, Jamshed Yorov, says Hayit was confronted with one of members of mutinous general’s armed group on September 22. “The men said that Mahmadali Hayit and IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri allegedly met with General Abduhalim Nazarzoda on March 6 and drew the plan of attacks on the government institutions and distributed public positions among them,” they lawyer said. “Hayit, however, managed to prove that there was no such a meeting. At that time, Hayit was at IRP’s head office to hold a post-election meeting. All accusations were rebutted,” Yorov noted.

Predictably, the Tajik authorities couldn't take the embarrassment. Jamshed Yorov's colleague Buzurgmehr Yorov, who is also defending the Islamic Renaissance Party, was pressured to abandon his clients and later detained after he refused to play along. Buzurgmehr's detention came shortly after the Prosecutor General's office formally charged the 13 arrested IRPT members with creating a criminal organization. They face between 15 and 20 years in jail if they are found guilty. As Buzurgmehr told RFE/RL's Tajik service before his arrest, the IRPT members deny having anything to do with Nazarzoda's rebellion and the creation of criminal groups. It appears that this won't stop the Tajik regime from prosecuting them. However, instead of putting all their efforts into destroying the IRPT, the Tajik authorities would be well advised to pay more attention to the alarming situation on the Afghan border:

Islamic Jihad Union claims to control areas along Afghan-Tajik border

The Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), an al Qaeda and Taliban-linked group that operates in Afghanistan, has claimed it controls large areas of the northern border with Tajikistan. While the IJU’s claim cannot be independently confirmed, the jihadist group released several photos of a small team of fighters purportedly crossing the Amu Darya River in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. It is unclear exactly where the crossing took place, but it likely occurred in the district of Qala-i-Zal, the only district in Kunduz that borders the Amu Darya River. The northern Kunduz districts of Imam Sahib and Dasht-i-Archi, which also border Tajikistan and the Panj River, are considered to be contested or controlled by the Taliban. The IJU is an offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which joined the Islamic State this past summer. The IJU swore allegiance to the Taliban’s new emir, and has been active in the Taliban’s “Azm” spring offensive.

Taliban Seize Kunduz as U.S. Mulls Drawdown Options 

As if the IJU's announcement was not worrying enough, the Taliban have been making significant progress in Kunduz province in the last few days. The provincial capital has been under siege for months and was already on the verge of falling to the Taliban earlier this year. After keeping the insurgents at bay during the summer, government troops eventually lost the fight for Kunduz on September 28, when the Taliban managed to take over the city. One of their first actions was to release 700 prisoners - most of whom were Taliban - from Kunduz city prison. New Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor lost no time in commenting on his first major victory and urged residents to cooperate with the city's new masters. As the world reacted with shock to the news, the Afghan government tried to play down the devastating defeat and vowed to retake the city but that is easier said than done:

Afghan Forces Seek to Regain Kunduz, Major Northern City, From Taliban A day after the Taliban took their first major city in 14 years, a counterattack was underway Tuesday, but ground forces sent from other provinces to recapture the northern city, Kunduz, were delayed by ambushes and roadside bombs, officials said. American forces carried out an airstrike outside the city Tuesday morning, said Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the United States forces in Afghanistan. He did not specify the target, but said the strike was carried out to eliminate a threat to coalition and Afghan forces. Ghulam Rabbani, a member of the Kunduz provincial council, said ground forces from Kabul and the northern province of Balkh had been repeatedly ambushed by the Taliban on their way to Kunduz. Some of the reinforcements were waiting in nearby Baghlan to meet with the forces from Kabul, said Col. Abdul Qahar, an Afghan Army spokesman in the north.

In addition to offensives in Kunduz and Helmand province, Taliban fighters have also been consolidating their grip on areas in eastern Afghanistan, where they just overran a U.S.-built military outpost on the Pakistani border. As discussed last week, warlord-turned-vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum succeeded in driving back the insurgents in Faryab province but his victory was short-lived. All in all, the security situation in Afghanistan is alarming, to the say least. To make matters worse, the Afghanistan branch of the Islamic State recently launched its first attack on Afghan security forces. Up until then, ISIS had largely focused on fighting the Taliban. The rise of ISIS in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed and even the U.S. is now acknowledging the threat after initially playing down the issue. In light of the Taliban's largest victory in years and the rise of ISIS, the timing of General John Campbell's testimony before Congress about the U.S. "withdrawal" could hardly be any better:

U.S., Allied Military Review New Options for Afghan Pullback U.S. and allied defense officials, increasingly wary of White House plans to scale back the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, are reviewing new drawdown options that include keeping thousands of American troops in the country beyond the end of 2016, American and allied officials said. The top international commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. John Campbell, has sent five different recommendations to the Pentagon and to North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials in Brussels, each with its own risk assessment, officials said. Some officials worry that too large a cut could cause the Afghan government to come under increased pressure from the Taliban and other militants, officials said. Others believe a smaller force of several thousand Americans still could be effective at backing the Afghan government.

The options range from keeping the current U.S. presence of about 10,000 toops in Afghanistan beyond 2016 to continuing with the planned drawdown to a force of several hundred troops by the end of 2016. Taliban leader Mansoor has already announced his preferred option, the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Washington is probably not going to consider this option and the continued presence of thousands of U.S. contractors is a non-negotiable matter, anyway. The only ones leaving Afghanistan currently in record numbers are Afghans, much to the dismay of the Afghan government. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that he wants to tackle the problem by introducing a "combination of security and economic measures." He didn't specify which sort of measures he was alluding to but Kabul's social media campaign is definitely not going to stem the tide:

Afghanistan Tries To Stem Tide Of Migration 'Brain Drain' "Don't go. Stay with me. There might be no return!" That's the message Kabul is sending to Afghans thinking of abandoning their home country for a new life in the West. The Refugees and Repatriations Ministry has launched a slick social-media campaign to get its message out, and doesn't pull any punches in its effort to dissuade Afghans from making the jump to Europe. Graphics being circulated on Facebook and Twitter show that the ministry is using a healthy dose of stark images and guilt to urge Afghans to fulfill their patriotic duty and stay on to help rebuild their war-torn nation.

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: September 22, 2015

Tajikistan Exploits General's Rebellion to Crush IRPT Once & for All, Kadyrov Takes Unique Approach in Dealing with ISIS Recruitment & More

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

At the beginning of last week, the leaders of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan gathered in the Tajik capital Dushanbe for a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The summit came at an inconvenient time for host Emomali Rahmon, who was struggling to quell a small rebellion led by former Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda. Rahmon had sacked Nazarzoda immediately after identifying him as the mastermind of the attacks that rocked the country on September 4. The renegade general subsequently fled with his supporters toward Romit Gorge, about 45 kilometers east of Dushanbe, and kept the Tajik authorities on their toes for several days. Nazarzoda's rebellion overshadowed Tajikistan's 24th independence anniversary as well as the CSTO summit and left dozens of people dead until the general was eventually eliminated on September 16:

Tajik Mutineer And Special Forces Commander Killed In Battle Tajikistan's authorities say they have killed the fugitive general who mutinied two weeks ago. In the fight, however, the commander of the most elite special forces unit in the country, the Alfas, was killed as well. The former general, Abduhalim Nazarzoda, was killed on September 16 at 14:00 local time after a day-and-a-half-long battle in the Romit Gorge at an altitude of 3,700 meters above sea level, Tajikistan's Interior Ministry and State Committee on National Security said in a joint statement. During the fighting, the chief of the Alfas, Colonel Rustam Khamakiyev, and three other officers of the Alfas and OMON (a special forces unit of the Interior Ministry) were killed, the statement added.

Tajikistan Exploits General's Rebellion to Crush IRPT Once and for All 

The motive for Nazarzoda's mutiny remains unclear and there are many different theories about what caused the violence, ranging from a coup attempt to the always popular Islamist angle. However, the most likely explanation seems to be that the former Deputy Defense Minister went rogue after being warned about an impending prosecution against him. Nazarzoda was a field commander of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) during the Tajikistani civil war and joined the Defense Ministry in 1997 after the government signed a power-sharing deal with the UTO. Despite the power-sharing deal, the Tajik regime has tried to neutralize a number of former UTO commanders over the years. The crackdown on political opponents is now again picking up pace. At the end of last month, the Tajik Justice Ministry banned Central Asia's only officially registered Islamic party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), and Nazarzoda's rebellion offers a perfect opportunity to crush the IRPT once and for all:

Tajikistan Pins Recent Violence on Islamic Party Slowly, over months and years, the government of Tajikistan has been eroding the peace accord that ended the civil war. On September 4, a pair of attacks in and near Dushanbe set off a chain of accusations that have seemingly ended with the final closure of the country’s most prominent opposition party*. If the state is to be believed, a constellation of bogeymen connived to overthrow the government right under the defense ministry’s nose. The Tajik Prosecutor-General’s office released an official statement today linking the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), its exiled leader Muhiddin Kabiri, and (until the day of the attacks) Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda. The statement says that Nazarzoda, on behalf of Kabiri and the IRPT, established 20 “small criminal groups” in recent years. The two attacks in early September–in Vahdat and Dushanbe–were preceded by an influx of “so-called charitable funds of foreign countries.”

Nazarzoda in the past had links to the IRPT when both were part of the United Tajik Opposition fighting against the government but even then his connections to the party were tenuous at best. Dushanbe's claims that Nazarzoda was a member of the IRPT don't hold water. Nevertheless, the government lost no time in blaming the Islamic Renaissance Party for the outbreak of violence. IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri rejected the accusations and argued that Nazarzoda's motives rather lie in the government's "erroneous" policies. Kabiri has been living in self-imposed exile since March because he had seen it coming. While the manhunt for Nazarzoda was still underway, the Tajik authorities launched an all-out attack on the IRPT. Police seized the party's property and began arresting the remaining IRPT leaders in Tajikistan. As for Muhiddin Kabiri, he hasn't been forgotten by the Tajik regime as well:

Tajikistan reportedly turns to Interpol over IRP leader The Interior Ministry of Tajikistan is reportedly preparing documents to turn to Interpol over the Islamic Revival Party (IRP) leader Muhiddin Kabiri. An official source at the Interior Ministry says the documents for detention and extradition of Kabiri will be sent to the country where he is probably living now. “Criminal proceedings have not yet been instituted against Muhiddin Kabiri, but the Prosecutor-general’s Office is going to institute criminal proceedings against him one of these days,” the source added.

The latest crackdown may very spell the end of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Warnings that the party's closure will cause its members to go underground and join extremist groups have apparently fallen on deaf ears in Dushanbe. In the eyes of Tajik President Rahmon, most opponents are terrorists anyway. That is also a popular view among Rahmon's CSTO colleagues. As usual, threats of terrorism and extremism were high on the agenda during the CSTO summit in Tajikistan and the deteriorating situation in northern Afghanistan was of course discussed as well. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev raised a few eyebrows when he went as far as to link Tajikistan's border worries with the Nazarzoda rebellion. However, the most noteworthy statement regarding the situation on the Tajik-Afghan border came from a Kommersant source close to the CSTO Secretariat:

Russia may deploy soldiers on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan: CSTO The Russian forces may return on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan amid fears the deteriorating security situation may affect the security of Central Asian countries, it has been reported. A source close to the Secretary General of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) has said the return of Russian forces on Afghanistan-Tajikistan border is not unlikely. According to the Russian newspaper – kommersant, the Russian forces may return once they receive a request from the government of Tajikistan.

Dostum Urged to Fight ISIS after Short-Lived Success in Faryab

Up until now, Dushanbe has only requested technical assistance from the CSTO and another source pointed out that the current situation does not require the continued presence of Russian forces or CSTO contingents on the Tajik-Afghan border. In the meantime, Russia is encouraging the Afghan government to deal with this problem on its own by offering more military hardware in exchange for Afghanistan's provision of security along the Tajik border. It is doubtful that this will be enough to secure the border considering the bad shape of the Afghan security forces despite years of training by the United States and its allies. Moscow is not impressed with the results of NATO's mission in Afghanistan as President Putin emphasized once again during the CSTO summit. In addition to the escalating violence, the Kremlin is worried about the rising opium production. Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, raised this issue recently at the UN Security Council:

ISIL Gains Control Of Several Drug Trafficking Routes From Afghanistan The Islamic State (ISIL) extremist group has taken control of a number of drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan, Russian envoy to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said Thursday. The envoy urged the UN Security Council to closely monitor and respond quickly to developments in the drug situation in Afghanistan, as international terrorist groups use drug trafficking to fund their activities. "There is information that a group of militants from ISIS [IS] already control a part of the routes of illegal drug supply from the Badakhshan Province [in northeastern Afghanistan]," Churkin said.

Taliban fighters are constantly causing trouble in Badakhshan but Churkin's assertion that ISIS controls a part of the drug supply routes from the province comes as a surprise. It is not the first time that Russian officials have highlighted the connection between ISIS and the Afghan drug trade. Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, claimed last year that ISIS "obtains fabulous profits by providing half of the total heroin supply to Europe via destabilized Iraq and some African countries." After suffering a few setbacks in Afghanistan, ISIS has gained a foothold in the war-torn country and is now vying with the Taliban for influence. As the fighting between the two groups escalates, some people are pinning their hopes on First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum to destroy ISIS' stronghold in Nangarhar province and repeat the success of his Faryab campaign. They seem to have missed that Dostum's success in Faryab didn't last very long:

Troops Battle Insurgents in Faryab After Short-Lived Clearance Despite weeks of military clearing operations in Faryab, to rid the area of insurgents, the militants immediately returned to their old battle field following Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum's return to Kabul. In August, Dostum donned his military uniform and joined troops on the Faryab frontline. After only a few weeks they cleared the area. However, peace was short-lived and insurgents have once again overrun the area.

Two months ago, Dostum and the powerful governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor agreed to join forces with government troops in order to subdue the insurgents in northern Afghanistan. Noor has recently followed Dostum's example in leading military operations in the north but as Dostum's short-lived success in Faryab shows, defeating the insurgency won't be easy. While the government is stepping up its efforts, the Taliban are trying to settle differences that emerged after the confirmation of Mullah Omar's death. Mullah Omar's family and several other leading Taliban figures didn't approve of new supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Instead they preferred Mullah Omar's son Yaqoob. After weeks of infighting and intense negotiations, Yaqoob and his family eventually agreed to a power-sharing deal and pledged allegiance to Mansoor, much to the dismay of the remaining Mansoor critics:

Afghan Taliban divided as talks between two factions fail The Afghan Taliban may split into two factions, said a spokesman for one group on Saturday, because they cannot agree who should be leader following the death of their founder.  

On Saturday, Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a spokesman for the anti-Mansour faction, said talks between Mansour and the dissatisfied commanders had failed. Niazi's comments come after Omar's son Yaqoob and brother Manan swore allegiance to Mansour this week. Omar's family had initially opposed Mansour but agreed to support him after he agreed to a list of their demands. Niazi said Mansour had threatened to cut Taliban funds that Manan had been receiving if he did not support Mansour's leadership.

Kadyrov Takes Unique Approach in Dealing with ISIS Recruitment

A split of the Taliban into two factions would complicate the messy situation in Afghanistan even further and drive more Taliban fighters into the arms of ISIS. The much-hyped terrorist group has managed to establish new branches in several countries by wooing jihadists away from other groups. The Islamic State's "Wilayat Qawqaz" in the North Caucasus is a prime example of this highly successful franchise model. ISIS' Caucasus branch made headlines at the beginning of this month when it claimed responsibility for its first official attack in Russia, which allegedly targeted barracks of the Russian army in southern Dagestan. Unfortunately, security forces and local residents were quick to deny that an attack took place and pointed out that the supposed target doesn't even exist. To make matters worse for "Wilayat Qawqaz," ISIS recruiters in Chechnya are facing unexpected problems:

Chechen Leader Takes Unique Approach in Dissuading Youths From Joining ISIL Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov has taken a blunt approach to flushing out pro-ISIL extremist sentiment in his republic, holding direct face-to-face talks with youths suspected of supporting the terror group, Chechen television channel Grozny has reported. At the event, conducted earlier this week, Kadyrov faced down several young men, who he shamed for voicing their sympathies for the terror group on social media. The talk was attended by local Imams, the heads of municipalities, and the youths' parents; it was then broadcast on Chechen television. Speaking at the event, parents noted that they had tried to raise their children to become pillars of support for their families, devout Muslims and worthy members of their communities and their country. They emphasized that they did not need sons "who betrayed family, relatives, friends, Islam and the Chechen people."

Kadyrov made it quite clear to the humiliated ISIS supporters that "there's no place in Chechnya for anyone who even glances in the direction of ISIS." The Chechen leader is well known for his unorthodox measures and never shies away from causing a scandal. Lately, Kadyrov picked a fight with the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk city court over a ruling that labeled a booklet containing quotes and commentary on verses from the Quran as "extremist." He vowed to appeal the court ruling and branded the responsible judge and prosecutor "national traitors and shaitans [devils]" - a term that is usually reserved for terrorists. Kadyrov also didn't mince his words when he added his two cents to the debate on the alleged participation of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in the First Chechen War. While it seems highly unlikely that Yatsenyuk fought in the North Caucasus, other Ukrainians definitely supported the "Chechen rebels" and two of them just went on trial in Chechnya:

Russia puts Ukrainians on trial for Chechnya killings Two Ukrainians went on trial in Russia on Tuesday accused of murdering dozens of Russian soldiers in Chechnya in the 1990s while fighting with separatists in a nationalist hit squad. The powerful Investigative Committee said that the supreme court of Chechnya in Grozny began hearing the case of Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpyuk, both of whom are charged with murder and belonging to a militant organisation. The men have been held in pre-trial detention for over a year after being arrested separately when they came to Russia last year.

Klykh and Karpyuk are accused of being members of the infamous Ukrainian ultranationalist group Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People's Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO), which bears all the hallmarks of NATO's 'Gladio' operations. Since its inception in late 1990, UNA-UNSO participated in several conflicts against Russia or Russian-backed forces, ranging from the War in Abkhazia to the First Chechen War. Last year, the group caught again Russian authorities' attention when its members featured prominently in the Euromaidan movement. Chechnya's supreme court will probably use this opportunity to make an example of the two Ukrainian defendants after Ukrainian nationalists repeatedly voiced support for their "Chechen brothers" and even celebrated the terrorist attack in Grozny last December. Although the situation in the North Caucasus has been relatively quiet in recent months, the local authorities have to keep their guard up all the time:

Another Imam Shot Dead In Russia's North Caucasus An imam in Russia's Daghestan region in the North Caucasus has been killed. The Investigative Committee of Russia says two masked men shot dead Magomed Khidirov early in the morning of September 9 while he was on his way to a mosque in Novy Kurush. The killing of Khidirov, 34, came three weeks after another Islamic cleric, Zamirbek Makhmutov, 32, was shot dead in Russia's Stavropol region neighboring Daghestan.

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

The New Great Game Round-Up: August 12, 2015

Russian Soldiers Cause a Stir in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan Refuses to Give Up on Pipe Dreams & More!

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

The recent confirmation of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar has aggravated the alarming situation in Afghanistan. New Taliban supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansoor is struggling to stop the factionalism that has been fueled by Omar's death and the Afghan peace talks have been put on hold for the time being. Many of Mansoor's critics oppose the talks with Kabul and favor Mullah Omar's son Yaqoob as Taliban leader. A few days ago, Afghan parliament member Abdul Zahir Qadir created a stir when he claimed that Yaqoob was assassinated in the Pakistani city of Quetta on behalf of Mansoor and Pakistani intelligence agencies. The Taliban immediately denied the claims but Yaqoob's whereabouts are still shrouded in mystery. As more and more leading Taliban figures come out in opposition to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, senior members of the movement are meeting in Pakistan to resolve the dispute:

Taliban Hold Open Meetings in Pakistan to Discuss Leadership

Senior members of the Taliban are reportedly holding open meetings in Pakistan to discuss the disputed appointment of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as the group's new chief in the wake Mullah Omar's death. Several top Taliban leaders have expressed strong opposition to Mansour's leadership, calling him a puppet of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). Sources within the Afghan government told TOLOnews on condition of anonymity on Thursday that scores of Taliban members - including both those who agree and disagree with Mansour's appointment - met with clerics in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan on Wednesday to resolve the dispute over Omar's successor.

Taliban Strain Pak-Afghan Ties with New Wave of Terror

As many as 300 clerics or ulema reportedly met in Pakistan to mediate between the rival groups. Influential Pakistani cleric Sami ul-Haq, the "Father of the Taliban," was chosen by both sides to lead the reconciliation efforts. Haq has endorsed new Taliban leader Mansoor and he tried to convince Mullah Omar's family of doing the same by telling them that people would never forgive them if they "wasted sacrifices of thousands of Afghan Mujahideen by creating divisions within the Taliban movement." Mullah Omar's only surviving brother Abdul Manan Niazi, who is the anti-Mansoor faction's spokesman, said that they are willing to accept any decision taken by the ulema. The religious scholars are expected to announce their decision within the next few days. Predictably, the huge Taliban meetings didn't go unnoticed in neighboring Afghanistan. Many Afghans were furious about the fact that the Taliban were allowed to meet openly in Pakistan while unleashing a new wave of terror in Afghanistan:

Attacks on army, police and U.S. special forces kill 50 in Kabul A wave of attacks on the Afghan army and police and U.S. special forces in Kabul have killed at least 50 people and wounded hundreds, dimming hopes that the Taliban might be weakened by a leadership struggle after their longtime leader's death. The bloodshed began on Friday with a truck bomb that exploded in a heavily populated district of the capital and ended with an hours-long battle at a base used by U.S. special forces. It became the deadliest day in Kabul for years. The Islamist insurgents claimed responsibility for both the police academy attack and the battle at the U.S. special forces base, though not for the truck bomb.

Friday's attacks ended a period of relative calm in Kabul and heralded the start of a terror campaign shaking Afghanistan. One day after the attacks in the Afghan capital, up to 29 people were killed in the northern province of Kunduz when a Taliban suicide bomber targeted members of an irregular anti-Taliban militia and on Monday another Taliban suicide bombing struck Kabul, killing five people and injuring a least 16. Former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh was quick to point out that new Taliban leader Mansoor is trying to show his critics that he remains committed to fighting the Afghan government. Considering that one of Mansoor's first actions was to distance himself from the peace talks, Saleh may have a point. Furthermore, Saleh emphasized Pakistan's role in enabling such Taliban attacks and this issue has also been highlighted by many other Afghans, including President Ashraf Ghani:

Afghan President Points Finger at Pakistan After Bombings in Kabul Under pressure after a wave of deadly bombings in the Afghan capital, President Ashraf Ghani on Monday accused Pakistan of turning a blind eye to mass gatherings of Taliban fighters in its territory, where such attacks are planned. Mr. Ghani’s words, a sharp break from the conciliatory tone he had taken toward Pakistan for much of his first year in office, came just hours after a suicide car-bomb struck a crowded entrance of the international airport in Kabul, leaving at least five people dead and 16 wounded. Attacks in the Afghan capital over the last four days have left nearly 70 people dead and hundreds wounded. After the news of Mullah Omar’s death, Mr. Ghani told his ministers that Pakistan had promised him that no new Amir ul-Momineen, as the Taliban call their leader, would be selected on its soil and that no large gatherings of the Taliban would take place to give him legitimacy. But within days, not only had Mullah Mansour replaced Mullah Omar and been endorsed in large ceremonies in Quetta, but also he had announced that his new deputy would come from the Haqqani network, an aggressive organizer of terrorist attacks that has strong links to the Pakistani military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

A senior Afghan official recently suggested that Sirajuddin Haqqani's was mainly promoted to Mansoor's deputy because of his networks in urban areas. It appears that he already used these networks. The attacks in Kabul bore many of the hallmarks of the Haqqani network, reinforcing Ghani's argument that "war is declared against us from Pakistani territory." Ghani essentially buried the peace process on Monday by saying that he no longer wanted Islamabad to bring the Taliban to the table. Instead he urged the Pakistani authorities to destroy the group's sanctuaries in Pakistan. As usual, the Pakistanis have other ideas. However, the overt influence over the Taliban also entails all kinds of problems. Mansoor's critics are trying to exploit this issue for their own political ends and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) cited the same point as a key reason for pledging allegiance to ISIS. Mullah Omar's death has been a gift from heaven for ISIS in Afghanistan and the group spares neither trouble nor expense to woo more fighters away from the Taliban:

ISIS release horrific execution video, claiming to be filmed in Afghanistan The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group has released a new execution video claiming to be filmed in eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. A group of ten men is shown being blown up after forcing them sit on Improvised Explosive Device (IED) planted beneath them in the ground. They have been accused of apostasy and supporting the Taliban militants in their fight against the ISIS affiliates and being the supporter of ISI.

Turkmenistan Refuses to Give Up on Pipe Dreams  

As ISIS and the Taliban are trying to outdo each other in terms of barbaric crimes, the violence is escalating all over the country. Women and children are dying in record numbers and the Afghan security forces have been suffering casualties at an "unsutainable rate" for quite some time. To make matters worse, Kabul is losing even more fighters due to desertions. That is why local militias are playing an increasingly important role, especially in northern Afghan provinces such as Faryab. Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is now personally leading the fight in Faryab to take the pressure of the local pro-government forces, which were unable to cope with the Taliban on their own. He would have preferred to bring his own 9,000-strong militia to the frontline but President Ghani didn't allow this for various reasons. Nevertheless, Dostum didn't travel to Faryab without support. He took his two sons along to show his determination. Not only Afghanistan is counting on the Dostum family to win the fight on the Turkmen border. Turkmenistan is already pushing ahead with ambitious plans:

Consortium Leader Picked for Trans-Afghan Pipeline The pipeline intended to forge a new export route through Afghanistan for Turkmenistan’s natural gas riches has made a fresh stride with the naming a consortium leader for construction. Turkmenistan’s state news agency reported on August 6 that state-owned Turkmengaz will be in charge of bringing TAPI — named for the initials of the four countries it crosses — into existence. Backers of the project, which include the United States and the European Union, appear to be unfazed by occasional and loosely sourced reports of unrest along the Turkmen-Afghan border that would stand to disrupt any major construction work. Security issues do not typically feature in official statements on TAPI, which suggests either that anxieties are overblown or that the parties to the project are simply hoping for the best.

French energy giant Total and several other foreign majors initially evinced interest in leading the consortium, but only on condition of getting a stake in the Turkmen gas field that will feed the pipeline. Turkmenistan refused to accept this condition, prompting one company after another to back out of the project. Even as Turkmenistan was coming under increasing pressure to diversify its gas exports, the Turkmen authorities didn't budge an inch. However, they didn't want to give up on the pipeline either. In a last-ditch attempt to implement the project, Ashgabat proposed to put Turkmengaz in charge of constructing the pipeline. The three other TAPI countries were apparently every bit as desperate as Turkmenistan and endorsed the idea despite Turkmengaz's lack of capacity and experience. Although the construction is scheduled to begin in December, TAPI's actual implementation remains highly doubtful and the same is true of Turkmenistan's other pipe dream:

NATO: We'll Help Protect Trans-Caspian Pipeline

NATO could get involved in protecting a potential trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which Russia strongly opposes, an alliance official has said. The idea of building a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's massive reserves to Azerbaijan and then further on to Europe has been on the drawing board for a long time, but has been held back for a number of reasons, not least Russia's strong opposition. But now a NATO official has said that the alliance would play a part in protecting it. In an interview with Azerbaijani news website AzVision, NATO's South Caucasus Liaison Officer William Lahue weighed in on the pipeline and made some surprisingly bold endorsements of it...

Lahue pointed out that the construction of the Trans-Capsian gas pipeline is technically possible and suggested that NATO's "protection" could remove political obstacles. Given that Washington and Brussels are the driving forces behind the Trans-Caspian project, Lahue's bold statement comes as no real surprise. Russia and Iran, the project's opponents, have seen it coming. That is why they convinced the other Caspian states of rejecting a foreign military presence (i.e. NATO) in the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan desperately wants to diversify its gas exports, and even more so after the recent dispute with Gazprom over unpaid deliveries, but Ashgabat will think twice about asking NATO for "protection." Currently, Turkmenistan's only viable pipeline project is the fourth branch line of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline, which could yield at least a small-scale expansion into Kyrgyzstan's energy market:

Kyrgyz, Turkmen leaders discuss energy and transport issues Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have agreed to move forward in building a railroad and a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China via Kyrgyzstan during Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's official visit to Bishkek on August 5. It is Berdymukhammedov's first official visit to Kyrgyzstan. "The construction of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan will be implemented in the very near future," Berdymukhammedov said after his talks with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev.

Russian Soldiers Cause a Stir in Tajikistan

Tajikistan will host the longest section of the new 1,000-kilometer Line D and is already looking forward to getting millions of dollars in transit fees every year. The poor Central Asian country needs the money more than ever after remittances from labor migrants in Russia, which account for almost half of the country's GDP, declined sharply in recent months due to Russia's economic problems. One could argue that Tajikistan is suffering from Western sanctions as much as Russia. But Tajikistan's close ties with Russia are also creating other problems. The never-ending debate about Russian military presence in the country was recently reignited after a group of drunken Russian soldiers in their underwear got into a brawl with local Tajik men who confronted them about their rude behavior. And just as the Tajik government was trying to assure its people that Russian soldiers don't enjoy "judicial impunity," Tajiks were reminded of another controversial incident last year:

Tajik Murder Trial Starts For Russian Soldiers Two Russian soldiers suspected in the killing of a Tajik taxi driver last year have gone on trial in the capital, Dushanbe. Russian army's deputy platoon commander Fyodor Basimov and former military unit commander Ildar Sakhapov were arrested in August last year after taxi driver Rahimjon Teshaboev, 36, was found dead near Dushanbe. An autopsy revealed that Teshaboev, a father of three, was severely beaten before his throat was slashed.

http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/081115_GGR4.pngAccording to the Tajik service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Ildar Sakhapov admitted to killing the taxi driver. The judge said that Basimov had just assisted Sakhapov who had planned the murder. Two correspondents from RFE/RL's Tajik Service attended the trial and filmed a few minutes. The presiding Russian judge had granted them permission to do so but the present Russian officers were apparently not big fans of "anti-Russian U.S. propaganda tool" RFE/RL. As RFE/RL and others like to point out, hosting Russian military bases entails a few problems but that applies to foreign military presence in general. Moreover, the escalating violence in northern Afghanistan has reinforced Dushanbe's decision to let the Russians stay in the country for the foreseeable future. Instead of kicking out Russian soldiers, the Tajik authorities are going after Western-backed schools:

Tajikistan greenlights take over of Gulen-run schools Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has authorized the take over and renaming of a network of schools run by the U.S.-based preacher, Fethullah Gulen, in the country, according to Tajikistan's national news agency NIAT Hovar. In accordance with the decision signed by Rahmon, seven schools run by the Selale Educational Institution are going to be turned into public schools, and renamed as "schools for gifted children", the agency said. The decision to shut down the Gulen-run schools, and reopen them as state-run schools with different names was announced in May.

Gülen's schools in Tajikistan have been under high scrutiny for months, and with good reason. The Tajik regime sees the potential radicalization of the population as a major threat to its rule. This has led to some questionable decisions. The defection of Tajikistan's OMON commander to ISIS served as a warning that Dushanbe's war on Islam does more to fuel radicalization than to stop it but Rahmon & Co. didn't learn their lesson. Although experts are warning that the closure of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) will cause its members to go underground and join extremist groups, the regime is doing its best to destroy the IRPT. In doing so, the Tajik authorities risk boosting the terrorist recruitment that they are trying to stop. Tajikistan recently requested Interpol to put 16 Tajik ISIS fighters on the wanted list and announced that the list could be expanded significantly:

Tajikistan puts 16 people fighting for Islamic State on wanted list through Interpol

Interpol has put on the wanted list 16 Tajik citizens who are accused of involvement with the Islamic State terrorist group at the request of Tajikistan, a spokesman for Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS) told TASS on Friday. He noted that "the list of wanted Islamic State supporters could grow to 600 and more people." "More than 600 our fellow countrymen are fighting in the ranks of Islamic State, their names and presumable locations in Syria, Iraq and partially in Afghanistan, are known to the country’s law enforcement agencies. Criminal cases against them have been opened under the "mercenary activities" article," the spokesman said. "Explanatory work is conducted among relatives of Islamic State supporters, other methods are used, which made it possible to return several young people to their home country."

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here

         

The New Great Game Round-Up: August 5, 2015

Turkish Meddling in Xinjiang Overshadows Erdogan's China Visit, Russia: ISIS Comes- NED Goes & More

*The Great Game Round-Up brings you the latest newsworthy developments regarding Central Asia and the Caucasus region. We document the struggle for influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Caucasus region between a U.S.-dominated NATO, its GCC proxies, Russia, China and other regional players.

On July 31, representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban were scheduled to meet in Pakistan for the second round of the recently launched Afghan peace talks. The first round of talks in the hill resort of Murree just outside Islamabad was hailed as a "breakthrough," raising hopes that the warring parties could come to an agreement. Pakistan's efforts to facilitate the meeting and the attendance of Chinese and U.S. officials signaled widespread support for the peace talks. But just as people were getting their hopes up, two days before the next meeting in Pakistan, BBC's Afghan Service dropped a bombshell by reporting the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Two weeks earlier, the Taliban leader had purportedly endorsed the peace talks in a statement posted on the Taliban's official website, making the reports of his death all the more surprising. It was not the first time that Mullah Omar's death has been reported but this time everyone agreed that Mullah Omar was dead:

Afghan government formally confirms death of Mullah Omar The government of Afghanistan formally confirmed the death of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. A statement by the President Palace said “The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan.” The statement further added “The government of Afghanistan believes that grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before, and thus calls on all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

Mullah Omar's Death Spoils Afghan Peace Talks

Pakistan reportedly confirmed the death as well and the U.S. deemed the reports credible. According to Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS), Mullah Omar died in a hospital in Karachi in April 2013. A former Afghan Taliban minister and member of the central leadership mentioned the same time of death and added that Omar died of tuberculosis. Last but not least, Mullah Omar's family and the Taliban leadership officially confirmed the death after Taliban deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor had been chosen as Omar's successor. As usual, the Taliban put their own spin on the whole story by claiming that "Mullah Omar never visited Pakistan or any other country except Afghanistan" but all parties agreed to finally acknowledge the death of the long-time Taliban leader and move on. However, the choice of Mullah Omar's successor didn't go down well with everyone:

Mullah Omar's son says he cannot support new Taliban leader

No sooner had the Taliban selected a new chief to replace Mullah Omar than deep fractures emerged on Friday, as the former leader's son said he rejected the choice of successor. Mullah Yacoob, Mullah Omar's oldest son, said he and three other senior leaders walked out of a meeting called to elect a leader, and were demanding a wider vote. “I am against the decision to select Mullah Akhtar Mansoor as leader,” he told The Associated Press.

Signs of deep fractures within the Taliban movement have already surfaced during the Afghan peace talks. Mansoor endorsed negotiations with Kabul, whereas battlefield commander Abdul Qayyum "Zakir" went as far as threatening to join ISIS if the talks continued. Zakir is now spearheading efforts to form a new leadership council that would replace the existing Quetta Shura because he wants to see Mullah Omar's son Yacoob as the new supremo. With the Taliban in disarray, the prospects for the Afghan peace talks are bleak. Although Mansoor is clearly more inclined toward dialogue, he felt the need to pander to his audience by distancing himself from the peace process. Moreover, he offered to meet his critics and address their grievances. Mansoor emphasized the "need for unity" as "the world tried its best to create rifts in our ranks." His top priority is to stop the factionalism that has been fueled by Mullah Omar's death. Otherwise, the Taliban are also going to lose more fighters to ISIS:

IMU Pledges Allegiance to Islamic State Only days after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar was announced, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist group has reportedly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. In a video posted by the IMU-controlled Furqon TV on July 31, a figure identified as the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Ali, stands in front of the black flag of IS and pledges loyalty to the organization. The rest of the 16-minute video shows IMU militants carrying out attacks on Afghan army posts in Zabul province, which borders Pakistan. Usman Ghazi, the IMU’s leader since 2012, features in the clip. This is the first time the IMU’s central leadership has formally sworn allegiance to ISIS. But it is not the first report of IMU-linked militants allying themselves with ISIS.

Mullah Omar's jihadist credentials have long prevented more insurgents from joining ISIS. The confirmation of his death is going to have profound ramifications for the Taliban movement and the Afghan peace process. Remarkably enough, shortly after his death was finally confirmed, Pakistani media reported that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the Haqqani network, has also been dead for some time. Members of the Haqqani family and the Taliban immediately denied the reports and published a statement purportedly quoting Jalaluddin Haqqani as mourning the loss of Mullah Omar and giving his backing to Mullah Akhtar Mansoor. Jalaluddin Haqqani's son Sirajuddin was recently named as Mansoor's deputy. Considering that the Haqqani network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's ISI intelligence service, there is some evidence to suggest that Pakistan used Mullah Omar's death to put more easily controllable leaders in charge of the Taliban. After all, the Pakistani authorities don't want to take any chances in light of the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor [emphasis mine]:

Any attempt to obstruct, impede CPEC will be thwarted: COAS The army chief on Friday reiterated that any attempt to obstruct or impede the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will be thwarted. According to a statement issued by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) on Friday evening,, Army Chief General Raheel Sharif congratulated the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA) on its 88th anniversary. He also commended the deep ties between Pakistan and China. Gen Raheel also fired broadsides at state and non-state actors trying to destabilise Afghanistan. “Our cooperation for regional stability will squeeze space for state and non-state actors for a stable Afghanistan,” the statement added.

Turkish Meddling in Xinjiang Overshadows Erdogan's China Visit

It remains to be seen whether or not the 'all-weather friends' Pakistan and China will be able to walk the talk. Given that new Taliban leader Mansoor has to put his house in order first, it is unlikely that the Afghan peace talks will resume anytime soon. As the Taliban are already killing each other over Mansoor's appointment, China is also getting worried about how Mullah Omar's death will affect previous understandings with the Taliban regarding Xinjiang. Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura normally promised Beijing not to allow Uyghur jihadists to operate autonomously or launch attacks against China from Afghan territory. These kind of guarantees are more difficult to obtain when dealing with various warring factions. The Chinese authorities spare neither trouble nor expense to convince other state and non-state actors of supporting China's war on terror. Mullah Omar and the Taliban more or less kept their promises but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not to be trusted in this regard:

Turkish president opposes terror against China Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday vowed to cooperate with China to fight against the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) during his visit to Beijing, a clear signal that observers say indicates Turkey is ready to remove obstacles in Sino-Turkish ties and seek closer economic cooperation. 

During his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Erdogan said that Turkey will respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, oppose any terrorist acts against China, including those launched by ETIM, and will not allow any force to harm Sino-Turkish ties. He added that Turkey is also a victim of terrorism, China Central Television reported.  Zan Tao, an expert on Turkey affairs and an associate professor at Peking University, told the Global Times that Erdogan's remarks about ETIM are very clear and strong, compared with his previous remarks over similar matters.

Erdogan's visit to China came at a crucial moment in Sino-Turkish relations. China is Turkey's second-largest trade partner and both countries want to boost economic cooperation in order to build a new Silk Road but disagreements over China's Uyghur minority have strained the relationship significantly in recent months. Beijing publicly reprimanded Ankara twice for its support of the East Turkestan independence movement by revealing damning information about Turkey's role in Uyghur smuggling and terror operations. The latest disclosure was prompted by an ongoing row over Uyghur refugees in Thailand and a vicious propaganda campaign during Ramadan, which has given rise to anti-China sentiments in Turkey. In the run-up to his China trip, Erdogan eventually tried to defuse the situation as Asians in Turkey were about to get lynched. A few days ago, the Turkish President then continued his reconciliation efforts in Beijing, much to the dismay of the East Turkestan crowd at home:

Erdoğan’s ’terrorism’ reference regarding Uighurs draws public criticism Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's use of the term “terrorism” in reference to Uighurs -- an ethnic Turkic minority in western China -- while in Beijing where he pledged to cooperate with the Chinese government to combat terrorism, including activities by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), have drawn fierce criticism from the Turkish public as well as opposition lawmakers. "For the president of Turkey, these remarks were not proper. Just to make a gesture to China, Erdoğan's remarks are not only misleading and wrong, but also will encourage Chinese officials to treat Uighurs as they used to do in the past," veteran Turkish diplomat and former deputy for the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Faruk Loğoğlu told Today's Zaman. "Considering the fact that Uighurs have been subjected to restrictions and pressure over their identity and religion, this reference to ETIM would likely to undercut righteous struggle of Uighurs to fully realize their cultural and religious rights," said Oktay Vural, deputy chairman of opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The far-right MHP and its paramilitary youth wing, the Grey Wolves, have been leading Turkey's fight against Asian tourists and "China's brutality in East Turkestan" but Erdogan and the Turkish government are doing their bit as well. Ankara's support of the East Turkestan independence movement is being exposed more and more. A few weeks after Beijing complained that Turkish diplomats in Southeast Asia are handing out travel documents to Chinese Uyghurs, Reuters revealed lately that the documents even list "East Turkestan" as their nationality. Erdogan's pledge to respect China's territorial integrity and to support Beijing's war on terror should therefore be taken with a grain of salt. Even Ankara's flirt with a Chinese air defense system cannot disguise the fact that relations between the two countries remain uneasy. To make matters worse, Turkey's favorite terrorist group has recently called on China's Uyghurs to join its "caliphate," which means more work for Turkish border guards:

Turkey detains 457 Syria-bound 'foreign terror' suspects Almost half of the 457 people detained by Turkish authorities on the Turkish-Syrian border between January 1 and June 30 are Chinese nationals, Turkish Armed Forces sources told Anadolu Agency Wednesday. According to the sources, out of the 457 people detained, 241 are Chinese, 13 British, seven Afghans, five Germans, two Americans, one Australian, five Azerbaijanis, one Bangladeshi, five Belgians, one Brazilian, two Bulgarians, one Danish, one Moroccan, 12 French, 30 Palestinians, six South Koreans, five Dutch, one Kazakh, two Maldivian, one Egyptian, one Romanian, 56 Russians, two from Trinidad and Tobago island, one Slovakian, nine Saudis, six Tajiks, two Tunisians, 29 Turkmen, three Uzbeks, two Iranians, two Spanish and two Italians.

The suspects were detained at the Turkish border when they tried to enter Syria illegally and were being treated by authorities as suspected “foreign terrorist fighters", the sources added.

Russia: ISIS Comes, NED Goes

The exceptionally high number of Chinese nationals detained on the Turkish-Syrian border suggests that either the Turkish authorities are deviating from standard operating procedure by actually preventing Uyghurs from crossing into Syria or previous estimates of Uyghur fighters in Syria were dead wrong. Turkey has now officially declared war on ISIS but wannabe caliph al-Baghdadi and his minions don't have to be afraid because the Kurds are the real target. Only a small fraction of the more than 1000 "terrorist suspects" recently detained in Turkey were ISIS supporters while over 80 percent of the suspects were linked to the PKK. The Russian authorities can consider themselves fortunate to have convinced the Turks of arresting two suspects linked to ISIS recruitment in Russia. LifeNews just reported that the man in charge of ISIS recruitment in Russia has been identified and that two of his subordinates in Turkey were detained. This comes shortly after ISIS made headlines in the North Caucasus:

Russia says security forces kill 14 Islamist militants Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) forces killed eight Islamic State militants on Sunday and six other Islamist rebels on Monday in the North Caucasus, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) said. NAK said the rebels killed on Sunday in the republic of Ingushetia were involved in "terrorist crimes" including killing law enforcement officials and extorting money. NAK identified one of those killed in Ingushetia as Adam Tagilov, who it said was behind fighting in the city of Grozny, capital of Chechnya, that killed more than 20 people — policemen and militants — in December 2014.

The killing of eight ISIS "rebels" on Sunday was one of the first major incidents involving ISIS in Russia. Given that ISIS has taken over from the Caucasus Emirate as the leading terrorist group in the North Caucasus, it was certainly not the last one. Russian officials have been hyping the ISIS threat from day one and the actual emergence of ISIS supporters in the North Caucasus provides the perfect pretext for ramping up the war on terror. Human rights activists have their work cut out but they have to look for new sources of funding if they don't like the "foreign agent" label. After the Kremlin has long been threatening to go after organizations that receive funding from abroad, they are now finally walking the talk. The Russian NGO "Committee Against Torture," which has long been a thorn in the side of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, was one of the first groups to adapt to the new circumstances:

Igor Kalyapin announces creation of "Committee to Prevent Torture" The "Committee against Torture" (CaT), liquidated because of being put on the registry of "foreign agents", will be replaced by the "Committee to Prevent Torture" (CPT). The new organization will continue working in Chechnya, said its chairman Igor Kalyapin. "This week we'll submit documents (to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) of the Russian Federation – note of the "Caucasian Knot") on the liquidation of the organization; and on the following week, the CaT ceases to function. On August 3, another interregional organization – the "Committee to Prevent Torture" – will start working," the TASS quotes Mr Kalyapin as saying. He stressed that the new organization will not receive any foreign funding and will exist "solely on donations of Russian citizens," the RIA "Novosti" reports.

Russian NGOs will now have to make do without grants from the U.S. government, George Soros and other generous foreign sponsors. Although Russia is just following the example of the Foreign Agent Registration Act in the U.S., the West is of course freaking out. On July 21, Russia's Justice Ministry issued warnings to the Committee Against Torture and 11 other Russian NGOs that were identified as "foreign agents." The MacArthur Foundation, which is one of the foreign NGOs on Russia's "patriotic stop list," announced shortly thereafter that it is closing its branch office in Moscow because the new regulations make it "impossible to operate effectively" in Russia. George Soros' Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) are just two of the many high-profile NGOs on the "patriotic stop list." The Khodorkovsky Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Jamestown Foundation and others could join them soon. These organizations are at risk of being banned from Russia:

U.S. National Endowment for Democracy Becomes Russia's First 'Undesirable Organization' The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S.-based international organization that exists to promote democracy, was declared an “undesirable organization” Tuesday by Russia's Prosecutor General's Office, meaning all its activities are banned on Russian soil. “Using the capabilities of Russian commercial and non-commercial organizations under its control, the National Endowment for Democracy participated in work to recognize election results as illegitimate, to organize political action with the goal of influencing government policy, and to discredit Russian army service,” the Prosecutor General's Office said in an online statement. Earlier this month, senators of the Federation Council — the upper chamber of the Russian parliament — proposed a list of 12 foreign NGOs whose work they said posed a threat to national security and who should therefore be declared undesirable. The NED was one of them.

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Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here