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Thousands of civilians fleeing Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State terror group in Syria

The composition of the force to mount the final assault on the Sunni Arab city appears to be undecided, as does how the city will be governed without IS

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Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of U.S.-backed Kurdish and Ara fighters, advance in an area northeast of Raqqa, VOA

Syria, April 4, 2017: Thousands of civilians have been fleeing Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State terror group in Syria, in the past few days as airstrikes on the city intensify — a foretaste of when the battle to oust the militants from the besieged city starts in earnest.

But the composition of the force to mount the final assault on the Sunni Arab city appears to be undecided, as does how the city will be governed after IS militants have been expelled.

Will it be the U.S.-backed Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, or some of their aligned Sunni Arab and Turkmen militiamen who will retake Raqqa? Will the Turks play a role with their allied Syrian Arab rebel militias?

Will U.S. combat troops participate in significant numbers because of the tactical difficulties encountered by an indigenous, proxy ground force, much as they have in taking a more forward-leaning role in Mosul than planned?

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Last month, several hundred U.S. Marines were deployed with artillery to northern Syria, to be ready to assist local forces to retake the city, according to U.S. officials, who confirmed another 1,000 troops will be sent to Kuwait to be ready if needed.

At some point during the final assault, U.S. and Kurd forces might stand aside and allow forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to make the final push and seize the city. Some analysts suspect that’s being considered by war planners in the Pentagon and President Donald Trump’s advisers.

Might Trump “judge Assad the best of a sorry lot of choices, and take the plunge to join forces with Damascus?” queried analyst Thanassis Cambanis during a roundtable discussion organized last month on the future of the conflict on Syria by The Century Foundation, a U.S. policy research institute.

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Tillerson in Turkey

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara, the first senior administration official to visit Turkey, to try to seal a deal about the battle for Raqqa and to overcome President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strong objections to Washington’s backing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) militias.

Turkish forces have attacked SDF forces in the past around Manbij, west of Raqqa, forcing the United States to deploy dozens of soldiers on the outskirts of the town in a mission to prevent a repeat of clashes, which risk derailing an assault on Raqqa.

Tillerson appeared to indicate no agreement had been reached in Ankara about how Raqqa should be seized and by whom.

“They are difficult decisions, to be very frank,” he said. “They are not easy, they are very difficult choices that have to be made.”

On Monday, Erdogan increased pressure on Washington, saying his government is planning new offensives this spring against groups deemed terrorist organizations by Ankara, including IS, the outlawed Kurdish PKK, and the PYD’s militia.

There are no signs that Washington intends to end its alliance with the PYD’s militia. U.S. officials say they envisage the Raqqa battle will be similar to the fight in neighboring Iraq, where local indigenous forces have been waging the struggle to retake the northern city of Mosul, the last IS major urban stronghold in that country.

The Pentagon doubts the Turks and their Syrian rebel militias have sufficient capability or skill to wage the urban warfare they will encounter inside Raqqa, or that they will be able to minimize their own casualties or keep the civilian death toll to a minimum.

“The Kurds have been effective partners for us,” a senior Pentagon official told VOA. “Why would we change horses in midstream?”

But the Kurds and their allied Arab militias will also be hard-pressed to limit a bloodbath in a city Islamic State has had plenty of time to prepare to defend. The terror group’s defense tactics have been on vivid and gruesome display for months in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

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Post-IS Raqqa

Analysts and former U.S. diplomats also worry not enough thought is being given to what happens after the militants are expelled from the city, and how and who will administer Raqqa. If those questions are not answered before the assault takes place, the United States could be drawn deeper into Syrian conflict than the Trump administration wants, warn some former diplomats.

They worry Washington could be on the verge of repeating the Iraq War mistakes of 2003, when the Bush administration didn’t plan sufficiently for a post-invasion political order.

“Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011 teach a valuable lesson: Plan carefully for post-combat governance,” said former U.S. diplomat Fred Hof.

Kurdish officials have repeatedly said in recent months they have no interest in administering Raqqa after IS militants are ousted. A local Arab council could be formed to run the city, but it would be beholden to whoever wields post-IS military power in Raqqa.

“If ISIS is going to stay down, it needs to be replaced in these areas by a sufficiently inclusive, consensual political order to short-circuit the cycle of resentment and hate that ISIS feeds off,” analyst Sam Heller said at last month’s roundtable discussion, using an acronym for Islamic State.
-VOA

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Facebook Asked to Take Down Auto-Generated Al-Qaida Pages

Facebook likes to say that its automated systems remove the vast majority of prohibited content glorifying the Islamic State group and al-Qaida before it's reported

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facebook, Al-qaida, terror, islamic state, pages
Monika Bickert, head of global policy management at Facebook, joined at right by Nick Pickles, public policy director for Twitter, testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Sept. 18, 2019. VOA

In the face of criticism that Facebook is not doing enough to combat extremist messaging, the company likes to say that its automated systems remove the vast majority of prohibited content glorifying the Islamic State group and al-Qaida before it’s reported.

But a whistleblower’s complaint shows that Facebook itself has inadvertently provided the two extremist groups with a networking and recruitment tool by producing dozens of pages in their names.

The social networking company appears to have made little progress on the issue in the four months since The Associated Press detailed how pages that Facebook auto-generates for businesses are aiding Middle East extremists and white supremacists in the United States.

On Wednesday, U.S. senators on the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will be questioning representatives from social media companies, including Monika Bickert, who heads Facebooks efforts to stem extremist messaging.

The new details come from an update of a complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission that the National Whistleblower Center plans to file this week. The filing obtained by the AP identifies almost 200 auto-generated pages, some for businesses, others for schools or other categories, that directly reference the Islamic State group and dozens more representing al-Qaida and other known groups. One page listed as a “political ideology” is titled “I love Islamic state.” It features an IS logo inside the outlines of Facebook’s famous thumbs-up icon.

facebook, Al-qaida, terror, islamic state, pages
Facebook auto-generating Al-Qaida, terror group, pages. Pixabay

In response to a request for comment, a Facebook spokesperson told the AP: “Our priority is detecting and removing content posted by people that violates our policy against dangerous individuals and organizations to stay ahead of bad actors. Auto-generated pages are not like normal Facebook pages as people can’t comment or post on them and we remove any that violate our policies. While we cannot catch every one, we remain vigilant in this effort.”

Facebook has a number of functions that auto-generate pages from content posted by users. The updated complaint scrutinizes one function that is meant to help business networking. It scrapes employment information from users’ pages to create pages for businesses. In this case, it may be helping the extremist groups because it allows users to like the pages, potentially providing a list of sympathizers for recruiters.

The new filing also found that users’ pages promoting extremist groups remain easy to find with simple searches using their names. They uncovered one page for “Mohammed Atta” with an iconic photo of one of the al-Qaida adherents, who was a hijacker in the Sept. 11 attacks. The page lists the user’s work as “Al Qaidah” and education as “University Master Bin Laden” and “School Terrorist Afghanistan.”

Facebook has been working to limit the spread of extremist material on its service, so far with mixed success. In March, it expanded its definition of prohibited content to include U.S. white nationalist and white separatist material as well as that from international extremist groups. It says it has banned 200 white supremacist organizations and 26 million pieces of content related to global extremist groups like IS and al-Qaida.

facebook, Al-qaida, terror, islamic state, pages
An Islamic State flag is captured in this photo illustration. VOA

It also expanded its definition of terrorism to include not just acts of violence attended to achieve a political or ideological aim, but also attempts at violence, especially when aimed at civilians with the intent to coerce and intimidate. It’s unclear, though, how well enforcement works if the company is still having trouble ridding its platform of well-known extremist organizations’ supporters.

But as the report shows, plenty of material gets through the cracks and gets auto-generated.

The AP story in May highlighted the auto-generation problem, but the new content identified in the report suggests that Facebook has not solved it.

ALSO READ: U.S. Media Industry Going Through A Bad Phase

The report also says that researchers found that many of the pages referenced in the AP report were removed more than six weeks later on June 25, the day before Bickert was questioned for another congressional hearing.

The issue was flagged in the initial SEC complaint filed by the center’s executive director, John Kostyack, that alleges the social media company has exaggerated its success combatting extremist messaging.

“Facebook would like us to believe that its magical algorithms are somehow scrubbing its website of extremist content,” Kostyack said. “Yet those very same algorithms are auto-generating pages with titles like `I Love Islamic State,’ which are ideal for terrorists to use for networking and recruiting.” (VOA)