Archive for May, 2015

Iraq official: 500 killed, 8,000 fled as Ramadi fell to IS

May 18, 2015

DOHUK, Iraq (AP) — A spokesman for the governor of Iraq’s Anbar province said Monday that about 500 people — both civilians and Iraqi soldiers — are estimated to have been killed over the past few days as the city of Ramadi fell to the Islamic State group.

The estimates follow a shocking defeat as Islamic State seized control of the Anbar provincial capital on Sunday, sending Iraqi forces fleeing in a major loss despite the support of U.S.-led airstrikes targeting the extremists.

Bodies, some burned, littered the streets as local officials reported the militants carried out mass killings of Iraqi security forces and civilians. Online video showed Humvees, trucks and other equipment speeding out of Ramadi, with soldiers gripping onto their sides.

“We do not have an accurate count yet,” said the spokesman, Muhannad Haimour. “We estimate that 500 people have been killed, both civilians and military, and approximately 8,000 have fled the city.” The estimates are for the past three days, since Friday, when the battle for the city reached its final stages. The 8,000 figure is in addition to the enormous exodus in April, Haimour said, when the U.N. said as many as 114,000 residents fled from Ramadi and surrounding villages at the height of the violence.

Local officials have said that IS carried out mass killings of Iraqi security forces and civilians. With defeat looming, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had ordered security forces not to abandon their posts across Anbar province, apparently fearing the extremists could capture the entire desert region that saw intense fighting after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.

Earlier Sunday, al-Abadi ordered Shiite militias to prepare to go into the Sunni-dominated province, ignoring U.S. concerns their presence could spark sectarian bloodshed. By late Sunday, a large number of Shiite militiamen had arrived at a military base near Ramadi, apparently to participate in a possible counter-offensive, said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he remained confident about the fight against the Islamic State group, despite the setbacks like the loss of Ramadi. Kerry, traveling through South Korea, said that he’s long said the fight against the militant group would be a long one, and that it would be tough in the Anbar province of western Iraq where Iraqi security forces are not built up.

Sunday’s retreat recalled the collapse of Iraqi security forces last summer in the face of the Islamic State group’s blitz into Iraq that saw it capture a third of the country, where it has declared a caliphate, or Islamic State. It also calls into question the Obama administration’s hopes of relying solely on airstrikes to support the Iraqi forces in expelling the extremists.

“We welcome any group, including Shiite militias, to come and help us in liberating the city from the militants. What happened today is a big loss caused by lack of good planning by the military,” a Sunni tribal leader, Naeem al-Gauoud, told The Associated Press.

He said many tribal fighters died trying to defend the city, and bodies, some charred, were strewn in the streets, while others had been thrown in the Euphrates River. The final IS push to take Ramadi began early Sunday with four nearly simultaneous bombings that targeted police officers defending the Malaab district in southern Ramadi, a pocket of the city still under Iraqi government control, killing at least 10 police and wounding 15, officials said. Among the dead was Col. Muthana al-Jabri, the chief of the Malaab police station. Later, three suicide bombers drove their explosive-laden cars into the gate of the Anbar Operation Command, the military headquarters for the province, killing at least five soldiers and wounding 12, the officials said.

The extremists later seized Malaab after government forces withdrew, with the militants saying they controlled the military headquarters. A police officer who was stationed at the headquarters said retreating Iraqi forces left behind about 30 army vehicles and weapons that included artillery and assault rifles. He said some two dozen police officers went missing during the fighting. The officer and the other officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

On a militant website frequented by Islamic State members, a message from the group claimed its fighters held the 8th Brigade army base, as well as tanks and missile launchers left behind by fleeing soldiers. The message could not be independently verified by the AP, but it was similar to others released by the group and was spread online by known supporters of the extremists.

Last week, the militants swept through Ramadi, seizing the main government headquarters and other key parts of the city. It marked a major setback for the Iraqi government’s efforts to drive IS out of areas the group seized last year. Previous estimates suggested the Islamic State group held at least 65 percent of the vast Anbar province.

Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have made gains against the Islamic State group, including capturing the northern city of Tikrit. But progress has been slow in Anbar, a Sunni province where anger at the Shiite-led government runs deep and where U.S. forces struggled for years to beat back a potent insurgency. American soldiers fought some of their bloodiest battles since Vietnam on the streets of Ramadi and Fallujah.

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Contested Iraqi city of Ramadi falls to Islamic State group

May 18, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — The contested city of Ramadi fell to the Islamic State group on Sunday, as Iraqi forces abandoned their weapons and armored vehicles to flee the provincial capital in a major loss despite intensified U.S.-led airstrikes.

Bodies, some burned, littered the streets as local officials reported the militants carried out mass killings of Iraqi security forces and civilians. Online video showed Humvees, trucks and other equipment speeding out of Ramadi, with soldiers gripping onto their sides.

“Ramadi has fallen,” said Muhannad Haimour, a spokesman for the governor of Anbar province. “The city was completely taken. … The military is fleeing.” With defeat looming, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered security forces not to abandon their posts across Anbar province, apparently fearing the extremists could capture the entire desert region that saw intense fighting after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.

Sunday’s retreat recalled the collapse of Iraqi security forces last summer in the face of the Islamic State group’s blitz into Iraq that saw it capture a third of the country, where it has declared a caliphate, or Islamic State. It also calls into question the Obama administration’s hopes of relying solely on airstrikes to support the Iraqi forces in expelling the extremists.

Earlier Sunday, al-Abadi ordered Shiite militias to prepare to go into the Sunni-dominated province, ignoring U.S. concerns their presence could spark sectarian bloodshed. By late Sunday, a large number of Shiite militiamen had arrived at a military base near Ramadi, apparently to participate in a possible counter-offensive, said the head of the Anbar provincial council, Sabah Karhout.

“We welcome any group, including Shiite militias, to come and help us in liberating the city from the militants. What happened today is a big loss caused by lack of good planning by the military,” a Sunni tribal leader, Naeem al-Gauoud, told the Associated Press.

He said many tribal fighters died trying to defend the city, and bodies, some charred, were strewn in the streets, while others had been thrown in the Euphrates River. Ramadi mayor Dalaf al-Kubaisi said that more than 250 civilians and security forces were killed over the past two days, including dozens of police and other government supporters shot dead in the streets or their homes, along with their wives, children and other family members.

The U.S.-led coalition said Sunday it conducted seven airstrikes in Ramadi in the last 24 hours. “It is a fluid and contested battlefield,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. “We are supporting (the Iraqis) with air power.”

The final push by the extremists began early Sunday with four nearly simultaneous bombings that targeted police officers defending the Malaab district in southern Ramadi, a pocket of the city still under Iraqi government control, killing at least 10 police and wounding 15, authorities said. Among the dead was Col. Muthana al-Jabri, the chief of the Malaab police station, they said.

Later, three suicide bombers drove their explosive-laden cars into the gate of the Anbar Operation Command, the military headquarters for the province, killing at least five soldiers and wounding 12, authorities said.

Fierce clashes erupted between security forces and Islamic State militants following the attacks, and the extremists later seized Malaab after government forces withdrew, with the militants saying they controlled the military headquarters.

A police officer who was stationed at the headquarters said retreating Iraqi forces left behind about 30 army vehicles and weapons that included artillery and assault rifles. He said some two dozen police officers went missing during the fighting.

The officer and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to talk to journalists. On a militant website frequented by Islamic State members, a message from the group claimed its fighters held the 8th Brigade army base, as well as tanks and missile launchers left behind by fleeing soldiers. The message could not be independently verified by the AP, but it was similar to others released by the group and was spread online by known supporters of the extremists.

Last week, the militants swept through Ramadi, seizing the main government headquarters and other key parts of the city. It marked a major setback for the Iraqi government’s efforts to drive the militants out of areas they seized last year. Previous estimates suggested the Islamic State group held at least 65 percent of the vast Anbar province.

On Friday, with Ramadi on the brink of collapse, the U.S. military command downplayed IS gains there, describing them as fleeting. “We’ve seen similar attacks in Ramadi over the last several months which the (Iraqi security forces) have been able to repel,” said Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas D. Weidley, chief of staff for the campaign fighting the militants, adding that the U.S. was confident the Iraqi government will be able to take back the terrain it lost in Ramadi.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he remained confident about the fight against the Islamic State group, despite the setbacks like the loss of Ramadi. Kerry, traveling through South Korea, said that he’s long said the fight against the militant group would be a long one, and that it would be tough in the Anbar province of western Iraq where Iraqi security forces are not built up.

Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have made gains against the Islamic State group, including capturing the northern city of Tikrit. But progress has been slow in Anbar, a Sunni province where anger at the Shiite-led government runs deep and where U.S. forces struggled for years to beat back a potent insurgency. American soldiers fought some of their bloodiest battles since Vietnam on the streets of Ramadi and Fallujah.

U.S. troops were able to improve security in the province starting in 2006 when powerful tribes and former militants turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, a precursor to the Islamic State group, and allied with the Americans.

But the so-called Sunni Awakening movement waned in the years after U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011, with the fighters complaining of neglect and distrust from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef and Jon Gambrell in Cairo, Vivian Salama in Baghdad and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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Iraq sends troops to Ramadi, largely held by Islamic State

May 16, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s military has dispatched reinforcements to help its battered forces in Ramadi, a city now largely held by the Islamic State group after its militants swept across it the day before, an Iraqi military spokesman said Saturday.

The spokesman of the Joint Operations Command, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan Ibrahim, told Iraqi state television that the U.S.-led coalition was supporting Iraqi troops with “painful” airstrikes since late Friday.

Ibrahim didn’t give details on the ongoing battles, but described the situation on the ground as “positive” and vowed that the Islamic State group would be pushed out of the city “in the coming hours.”

On Friday, the militants swept through Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, launching a coordinated offensive included three near-simultaneous suicide car bombs. The militants seized the main government headquarters and other key parts of the city.

Local officials said dozens of security forces and civilians were killed, mainly the families of the troops, including 10 police officers and some 30 tribal fighters allied with Iraqi forces. In a sign of how the latest advance is worrying Washington, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi on Friday, promising the delivery of heavy weapons, including AT-4 shoulder-held rockets to counter suicide car bombs, according to a U.S. Embassy statement.

The statement said both leaders agreed on the “importance and urgency of mobilizing tribal fighters working in coordination with Iraqi security forces to counter ISIL and to ensure unity of effort among all of Iraq’s communities,” using a different acronym for the group.

Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, Iraqi forces and Kurdish fighters have made gains against the Islamic State group, including capturing the northern city of Tikrit. But progress has been slow in Anbar, a vast Sunni province where anger at the Shiite-led government runs deep and where U.S. forces struggled for years to beat back a potent insurgency. American soldiers fought some of their bloodiest battles since Vietnam on the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi.

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Thousands flee as IS group advances on Iraq’s Ramadi

April 16, 2015

BAGHDAD (AP) — More than 2,000 families have fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi with little more than the clothes on their backs, officials said Thursday, as the Islamic State group closed in on the capital of western Anbar province, clashing with Iraqi troops and turning it into a ghost town.

The extremist group, which has controlled the nearby city of Fallujah for more than a year, captured three villages on Ramadi’s eastern outskirts on Wednesday. The advance is widely seen as a counteroffensive after the Islamic State group lost the city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, earlier this month.

Hundreds of U.S. troops are training Iraqi forces at a military base west of Ramadi, but a U.S. military official said the fighting had no impact on the U.S. soldiers there, and that there were no plans to withdraw them.

The fleeing Ramadi residents were settling in the southern and western suburbs of Baghdad, and tents, food and other aid were being sent to them, said Sattar Nowruz, an official of the Ministry of Migration and the Displaced.

The ministry was assessing the situation with the provincial government in order “to provide the displaced people, who are undergoing difficult conditions, with better services and help,” Nowruz said.

Sporadic clashes were still underway Thursday, according to security officials in Ramadi. Government forces control the city center, while the IS group has had a presence in the suburbs and outskirts for months. They described Ramadi as a ghost town, with empty streets and closed shops.

Video obtained by The Associated Press showed plumes of thick, black smoke billowing above the city as fighter jets pounded militant targets. On the city outskirts, displaced residents frantically tried to make their way out amid the heavy bombardment.

U.S.-led coalition airstrikes targeted the IS group in Sjariyah, Albu-Ghanim and Soufiya, the three villages the extremists captured Wednesday, the officials added. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk to the media.

Anbar’s deputy governor, Faleh al-Issawi, described the situation in Ramadi as “catastrophic” and urged the central government to send in reinforcements. “We urge the Baghdad government to supply us immediately with troops and weapons in order to help us prevent the city from falling into the hands of the IS group,” he told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, said access to the city was limited but humanitarian workers were trying to verify the reports of fleeing residents. Prior to the current bout of fighting, some 400,000 Iraqis were already displaced, including 60,000 in Ramadi district, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Al-Bayan, the Islamic State group’s English-language radio station, claimed IS fighters had seized control of at least six areas and most of a seventh to the east of Ramadi since Wednesday, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant websites.

American troops fought some of their bloodiest battles in Anbar during the eight-year U.S. intervention, when Fallujah and Ramadi were strongholds of al-Qaida in Iraq, a precursor to the IS group. Fallujah was the first Iraqi city to fall to the militants, in January 2014.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was visiting Washington on Wednesday, made no mention of the events in Ramadi. Instead he spoke optimistically about recruiting Sunni tribal fighters to battle the extremists, saying about 5,000 such fighters in Anbar had signed up and received light weapons.

The IS-run Al-Bayan station also reported that an attempt by Iraqi troops to advance on the Beiji oil refinery in Salahuddin province, about 250 kilometers (115 miles) north of Baghdad, was pushed back and that fighters “positioned themselves in multiple parts of the refinery after taking control of most of it,” according to SITE.

Iraqi officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the fighting around Beiji. On Monday, Oil Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said that Iraqi forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, had repelled an IS attack on Beiji over the weekend.

Meanwhile, a senior U.S. military official told The Associated Press that there were no plans to evacuate U.S. troops from the Ain al-Asad air base, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) west of Ramadi — and stressed that the current fighting around Ramadi had no impact on the base. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Since January, hundreds of U.S. forces have been training Iraqi troops at the base.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Vivian Salama in Baghdad and Cara Anna in New York contributed to this report.

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Shia militias refuse to stop looting in Tikrit

Monday, 06 April 2015

Iraqi security sources have said that the Shia militias in Tikrit have refused to stop mass looting and killings in the city recaptured from ISIS a couple of days ago, Jordan’s Al-Sabeel newspaper reported on Sunday. It was said earlier that Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi had sent his forces to the city to end the looting, killing and destruction of houses and shops.

However, claim the sources, these particular militias refused to leave the city along with the “Popular Crowd” militia, which withdrew from the city on Saturday and handed over responsibility for security to the federal police.

Several international media reports allege that the Shia militias have carried out mass executions and widespread looting and destruction of property in Tikrit since it was recaptured last week. As many as 76 people were summarily executed by the militias, it is claimed; their bodies were dragged through the streets.

According to the Wall Street Journal, one Tikrit resident, Waleed Omar, fled the city during the fighting earlier this month. “This looting issue is 100 per cent true,” he said, “and it means new suffering for the people of Tikrit.” ISIS displaced people in Tikrit after committing horrible crimes against them, he added, and now the militias are looting and burning their homes.

The head of the provincial council of Salahuddin province, Ahmed Al-Kareem, told reporters, “Tikrit is chaotic and things are out of control. The police forces and officials there are helpless to stop the militias.”

Both Al-Kareem and the governor of Salahuddin left Tikrit, the provincial capital, on Friday night, in protest at the failure of the Iraqi government to curb looting and murder. “Houses and shops were burnt after they stole everything,” Al-Kareem told Reuters. Pointing out that hundreds of buildings have been set on fire, he said: “Our city was burnt down in front of our eyes. We cannot control what is going on.”

Meanwhile, Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Salim Al-Jabbour said that the deterioration of the situation in Diyala province, north-east of Baghdad, ended after an agreement with the head of Al-Sadri militias, in addition to other parties to the political process. Before this agreement, Shia militias were also engaged there in mass looting, property destruction and killing after recapturing the area from ISIS.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/17895-shia-militias-refuse-to-stop-looting-in-tikrit.

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Iraq’s Tikrit, free of the Islamic State, is a city in ruins

April 04, 2015

TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) — In Iraq’s Tikrit, liberation from the Islamic State group comes at a heavy price, both in loss of life and in the sheer devastation the militants leave in their wake.

Much of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown and once a bustling city north of Baghdad, now lies in ruins. Islamic State extremists captured it during a blitz last June that also seized large chunks of northern and western Iraq, along with a huge swath of land in neighboring Syria.

After a nearly 10-month Islamic State occupation, it took Iraqi forces and their allies, including Iranian-backed Shiite militias, a month of ferocious street battles to win the city back. They declared victory in Tikrit on Wednesday, and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes also helped turn the tide in the final weeks of the battle.

Today, the houses that still stand are pocked with bullet holes and Tikrit’s streets are lined with potholes where mortars slammed down. The provincial headquarters in the downtown — now adorned with Shiite militia flags in place of the Islamic State group’s black banner — is burned from fire and damaged from heavy fighting.

On Friday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that the military will start arresting and prosecuting those who loot abandoned Tikrit properties. He also urged security forces to quickly ensure that normalcy is restored so that Tikrit’s residents, most of whom fled the Islamic State onslaught, can return home.

The looting was first reported within hours of the military victory but authorities have refrained from blaming anyone. A number of human rights organizations have accused the Shiite militias of carrying out revenge attacks on Sunnis in newly-recaptured towns, or destroying their homes so they can never return.

Some Shiite militias have set up checkpoints on the southern approaches of Tikrit, and stop passing cars to check for looted goods. A satellite image of Tikrit, released in February by the United nations, showed that at least 536 buildings in the city have been affected by the fighting. Of those, at least 137 were completely destroyed and 241 were severely damaged. The Iraqi offensive to recapture Tikrit also exacerbated previous damage, particularly in the city’s southern neighborhoods where clashes were the most intense.

So much about life in Tikrit under the Islamic State group’s rule remains unknown. On the city’s outskirts, near Camp Speicher — a base once used by American forces — blood stains are splattered on a wall, next to a window offering a picturesque view of the Tigris River.

Government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, say a mass grave was found on the camp’s grounds with bodies of up to 1,700 Iraqi soldiers killed by the extremists in Tikrit and northern Iraq last June.

In the heart of the city, Iraqi policemen are out in full force, along with explosives experts working to clear remaining roadside bombs and booby traps left behind by the militants. Evidence of the damage caused by the bombs is everywhere — charred military vehicles and remains of cars bombs have yet to be collected from the city streets.

But elsewhere, there is little law and order, and the Shiite militias roam Tikrit streets freely, spray-painting their graffiti and slogans on buildings and homes. Much remains to be done before Tikrit residents, most of whom are Sunnis, can return. Services such as power and water are yet to be restored.

The government says police and local Sunni tribes eventually will be empowered to maintain law and order in Tikrit, and the militias are expected to leave. But that is still off in the future.

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APNewsBreak: Turkey, Saudi in pact to help anti-Assad rebels

May 08, 2015

ISTANBUL (AP) — Casting aside U.S. concerns about aiding extremist groups, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have converged on an aggressive new strategy to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The two countries — one a democracy, the other a conservative kingdom — have for years been at odds over how to deal with Assad, their common enemy. But mutual frustration with what they consider American indecision has brought the two together in a strategic alliance that is driving recent rebel gains in northern Syria, and has helped strengthen a new coalition of anti-Assad insurgents, Turkish officials say.

That is provoking concern in the United States, which does not want rebel groups, including the al-Qaida linked Nusra Front, uniting to topple Assad. The Obama administration worries that the revived rebel alliance could potentially put a more dangerous radical Islamist regime in Assad’s place, just as the U.S. is focused on bringing down the Islamic State group. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, said the administration is concerned that the new alliance is helping Nusra gain territory in Syria.

The coordination between Turkey and Saudi Arabia reflects renewed urgency and impatience with the Obama administration’s policy in the region. Saudi Arabia previously kept its distance and funding from some anti-Assad Islamist groups at Washington’s urging, according to Turkish officials. Saudi Arabia and Turkey also differed about the role of the international Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the Syrian opposition. Turkey supports the group, while the Saudi monarchy considers it a threat to its rule at home; that has translated into differences on the ground — until recently.

“The key is that the Saudis are no longer working against the opposition,” a Turkish official said. He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Turkish officials say the Obama administration has disengaged from Syria as it focuses on rapprochement with Iran. While the U.S. administration is focused on degrading the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, they say it has no coherent strategy for ending the rule of Assad, Iran’s key ally in the region.

The new Turkish and Saudi push suggests that they view Assad as a bigger threat to the region than groups like Nusra. Turkish officials discount the possibility that Nusra will ever be in a position to hold sway over much of Syria.

Under Turkish and Saudi patronage, the rebel advance has undermined a sense that the Assad government is winning the civil war — and demonstrated how the new alliance can yield immediate results. The pact was sealed in early March when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Riyadh to meet Saudi’s recently crowned King Salman. Relations had been tense between Erdogan and the late King Abdullah, in great part over Erdogan’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudi shift appears to be part of broader proxy war against Iran that includes Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The new partnership adds Saudi money to Turkey’s logistical support.

“It’s a different world now in Syria, because the Saudi pocketbook has opened and the Americans can’t tell them not to do it,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “It’s quite clear that Salman has prioritized efforts against Iran over those against the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Turkish-Saudi agreement has led to a new joint command center in the northeastern Syrian province of Idlib. There, a coalition of groups — including Nusra and other Islamist brigades such as Ahrar al-Sham that Washington views as extremist — are progressively eroding Assad’s front. The rebel coalition also includes more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army that have received U.S. support in the past.

At the end of March, the alliance — calling itself “Conquest Army” — took the city of Idlib, followed by the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour and then a government military base. “They have really learned to fight together,” the Turkish official said.

Turkish officials say that Turkey provides logistical and intelligence support to some members of the coalition, but has no interaction with Nusra — which it considers a terrorist group. But the difference with IS, the officials say, is that Turkey does not view Nusra as a security threat and therefore does not impede it.

The Turkish official who touted the Conquest Army’s ability to fight cohesively said, however, that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have moved to bolster Ahrar al-Sham at Nusra’s expense. This strays from the U.S. line that al-Sham is an extremist group, but Turkish officials say they distinguish between international jihadist groups and others with more localized aims. They place al-Sham in the latter category.

Moreover, they hope to use al-Sham’s rise to put pressure on Nusra to renounce its ties to al-Qaida and open itself to outside help. Turkish officials say that the U.S. has no strategy for stabilizing Syria. One Turkish official said that the CIA has even lately halted its support for anti-Assad groups in northern Iraq. U.S. trainers are now in Turkey on a train-and-equip program aimed at adding fighters to counter the Islamic State group and bolster moderate forces in Syria, but Turkish officials are skeptical that it will amount to much.

Usama Abu Zeid, a legal adviser to the Free Syrian Army, confirmed that the new coordination between Turkey and Saudi Arabia — as well as Qatar — had facilitated the rebel advance, but said that it not yet led to a new flow of arms. He said rather that the fighters had seized large caches of arms from Syrian government facilities.

So far, Abu Zeid said, the new understanding between the militia groups and their international partners has led to quick success. “We were able to cause a lot of damage and capture more territory from the regime,” he said.

But Landis said that it is a dangerous game — especially for Turkey. “The cautionary tale is that every power in the Middle East has tried to harness the power of Islamists to their own ends,” he said, noting that Assad’s government also backed Islamists in Iraq who later turned their guns on him. “It always seems to blow back.”

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