Britain weighs possible involvement in campaign against Islamic State as Denmark pledges seven fighter jets

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This US Air Forces Central Command photo released by the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) shows a US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle flying over northern Iraq early in the morning of September 23, 2014 after conducting airstrikes in Syria. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets
in Syria. (photo credit: AFP/US Air Force/Senior Airman Matthew Bruch)

US-led air strikes in Syria disrupted the Islamic State group’s lucrative oil-pumping operations as Britain’s parliament on Friday debated joining anti-jihadist raids in neighboring Iraq.

As MPs in London prepared to vote on whether to join the military campaign in Iraq against the IS, American planes destroyed four tanks operated by militants in Syria as well as several vehicles and jihadist positions in neighboring Iraq, the Pentagon said.

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The US-led coalition also bombed oil refineries in east and northeast Syria where IS jihadists extract crude for sale on the black market, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
In recent days, Washington and its allies have taken aim at the funding sources of what US President Barack Obama has branded a “network of death.”
Experts say sales of oil from Syria and Iraq usually earn IS between $1 million and $3 million a day. But now, according to activists in Deir Ezzor, pumping has stopped.
“Oil extraction has been halted because of the security situation,” said Leith al-Deiri who spoke to AFP via the Internet.
Another activist from Deir Ezzor, Rayan al-Furati, confirmed the halt.
“There are no traders or clients going to the fields, fearing the strikes,” he said, also via the Internet. In London, Prime Minister David Cameron sought to convince members of parliament that Britain should join military action against IS in Iraq.
He also warned that such involvement could last years, saying the “hallmarks” of the campaign would be “patience and persistence, not shock and awe.”

Washington is eager to build the broadest possible coalition to tackle IS, which has captured large areas of Syria and Iraq and declared an Islamic “caliphate.”

If, as expected, the British parliament votes to take part, the Royal Air Force will join warplanes from the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Jordan hitting IS targets.

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Both France and Britain have ruled out launching strikes in Syria, however, unlike the Arab allies taking part in the aerial campaign. Denmark said it would send seven F-16 fighters to help combat IS militants in Iraq, joining Belgium and the Netherlands which also plan to deploy six aircraft each. The Netherlands will also provide 250 military personnel and 130 trainers for the Iraqi military, and Greece said it would send arms to Kurdish forces battling the jihadists. Turkey has so far declined to take part in military action, and has denied claims that its airspace or airbases have been used by coalition forces.

But Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Ankara would support “any military operation or a solution (that) carries the perspective of bringing peace and stability to the region.”

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Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday blamed Western “blunders” for creating extremist havens, and said outside interference would not solve the problem.

IS’s brutal abuses against civilians, rival fighters and Arab and Western hostages, as well as its success in recruiting Western members, have triggered international alarm.

On Friday, FBI director James Comey said there was “no doubt” that jihadists would try to stage revenge attacks in the United States. “The logic is that if they aspire to be the leader of the global jihad you don’t get there without striking America,” he said.
On Thursday, police in London arrested nine people suspected of links to Islamic extremists, including a notorious radical preacher.

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And the FBI said it had identified the Islamic State jihadist who has appeared in videos showing the beheading of two US journalists and a British aid worker, although it declined to give further details. The coalition strikes in Syria are reported to have killed at least 140 jihadists as well as 13 civilians.
Fighting between regime troops and rebels has continued on the ground in Syria alongside the international air strikes, with the army recapturing a key strategic town near Damascus on Thursday.

The conflict that began in Syria in March 2011 as an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime has spawned a massive refugee crisis, with more than three million Syrians now taking refuge from the war abroad.

Syria’s Islamist rebels fear US could hit them next.

After American airstrikes on Islamic State, other rebel factions — including al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front — begin to evacuate bases

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In this Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014 photo released by the US Air Force, a formation of US Navy F-18E Super Hornets leaves after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq as part of US led coalition airstrikes on the Islamic State group and other targets in Syria. (AP/US Air Force, Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel)

When the United States opened its aerial campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria this week, its first salvo also hit an al-Qaeda cell it says was planning terror attacks — a move that has injected more chaos into the conflict and could help Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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Amid fears they could be targeted next, two rebel factions already have evacuated their bases, and residents in areas under the control of other Islamic brigades cower at home, wondering whether their districts will be hit.

While al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, is considered a terrorist group by the United States, among the Syrian opposition it has a degree of support and respect because its fighters are on the front lines alongside other rebels battling Assad’s forces.

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To them, the US strikes, which hit several Nusra Front facilities and killed dozens of its fighters, appeared to signal an American move to take out any rebel faction that adheres to an Islamist ideology — a large segment of the rebellion against Assad.

US officials say the strikes were aimed at a cell of hardened jihadis within the Nusra Front called the Khorasan Group, which Washington says poses a direct and imminent threat to US and Western interests.

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On Thursday, FBI director James Comey acknowledged that the US did not have precise intelligence on where or when the group might attack, adding that there was no indication the airstrikes had disrupted the cell’s plots.

“It’s hard to say whether that’s tomorrow, three weeks from now or three months from now. But it’s the kind of threat you have to operate under the assumption that it is tomorrow,” Comey told reporters in Washington.

US intelligence officials say the group has been trying to perfect a non-metallic bomb that can get past airport security and be used to blow up an airplane in flight.
But many in the Syrian opposition are skeptical of the US claims and believe the airstrikes simply aimed to hurt the Nusra Front — and by extension the anti-Assad uprising. The Khorasan Group — a name given the cell by American officials — was unheard of publicly less than a month ago.

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“I don’t think it’s ever been a separate group on the ground,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on Syrian and Iraqi militants.

“I think the problem for the US is that in wanting to target Nusra, there’s still this problem that Nusra has local support and there are still many rebel groups that work with Nusra.”

Fighters from the al-Qaida group in the Levant, Al-Nusra Front, stand among destroyed buildings near the front line with Syrian government solders in Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus on September 22, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ RAMI AL-SAYED

While US and Western officials view both the Islamic State group and the Nusra Front as a threat, on the ground, Syrians make a huge distinction between the two — despite their shared history.

The Nusra Front was created with financing, manpower and military hardware provided by the Islamic State group when the Islamic extremists were still known merely as the Islamic State in Iraq. The Nusra Front and its patron eventually had a falling out in 2013 for ideological as well as strategic reasons.

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The Nusra Front, while loyal to al-Qaida, has cooperated with other Syrian rebel factions in the fight to oust Assad. The Islamic State group, on the other hand, focused not on Assad but rather on creating its version of a medieval Islamic state — and was happy to battle all comers, government and rebels, to achieve that goal.

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Now, the Islamic State group controls a vast tract of land stretching from the Turkish border in northern Syria to the western outskirts of Baghdad, where it has declared a self-styled caliphate, or Islamic state, ruled by its brutal version of Islamic law. Its aggressive push across Iraq in June spurred the US to gather an international coalition to try to defeat the extremists.

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The Nusra Front, meanwhile, has seen its fortunes fade. The al-Qaida affiliate is reportedly struggling with its finances, and has shed fighters as its clout has waned. It remains locked in battle with the Islamic State group in Syria as well as Assad’s forces — all the while fighting arm-in-arm with some Western-backed groups against both.

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It is that cooperation with other rebel groups that could be undermined by the US airstrikes, said Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis report. He noted that the US would likely have had to have informants on the ground — such as activists or Western-backed rebels — to pinpoint facilities belonging to the Nusra Front in order to target them.

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“You have the potential, I think, for the Nusra Front to sort of react defensively to this by attacking or forcing out rebel groups that they feel will work with the US in targeting them,” Lund said.
That could trigger a bout of infighting that the anti-Assad movement can ill afford at a time when it is already under pressure from fighting a two-front war against the government and the Islamic State.

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Another source of instability in the rebel ranks stems from concerns among other Islamic rebel brigades — and there are many — that US airstrikes could target them as well.

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On Wednesday, Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful ultraconservative rebel group that has been among the most effective forces fighting to oust Assad, began evacuating its bases in northern Syria. The group issued a statement calling for its fighters to limit the use of wireless communication devices to emergencies, to move heavy weapons and conceal them, and to warn civilians to stay away from the group’s camps. For its part, the Nusra Front has packed up its camps in Idlib province and decamped to try to avoid being hit again.
The reverberations of the US decision to strike the al-Qaeda affiliate were being felt as far away as the opposition-held Damascus suburb of Douma, where rebels have held out against relentless shelling from Syrian government forces.

 

“Does the coalition think the Islamic Union in Damascus is a terrorist? Is it going to be bombed?” activist Hassan Taquleden asked worriedly, referring to his small rebel faction. “Residents are terrified that they will be bombed,” Taquleden said via Skype. “Honestly, we are barely handling the strikes by Assad. It would be a disaster if the coalition hits here, even with the pretext of helping” moderate rebels.

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In Damascus, an activist who goes by the name of Abu Akram al-Shami said US strikes against Nusra Front and other Islamic factions are “against the Syrian revolution and everything we worked for,” noting that the most powerful armed groups fighting Assad’s forces were the Islamic brigades. The jolt from targeting the Nusra Front has provided an opening the Syrian government might exploit, Lund warned.

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“Militarily, if these groups are weakened or coordination breaks down, because you’ve had coordination between groups that now suddenly start getting suspicious of each other or want to move away from Nusra because Nusra is targeted, I’m sure that could help the regime in many ways,” he said.

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