Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Ben Hubbard

NY Times Correspondent in the Middle East

Ben Hubbard is a New York Times correspondent in the Middle East. He has spent 10 years in the region, studying and reporting for the US newspaper.

During this time he has covered events taking place in the Arab world, particularly the Syrian civil war and its repercussions on the entire region, the rise of armed groups and the influx of immigrants on the Greek island of Lesbos

Andrew Bossone shared this link

“knowing Arabic (the formal, and also the Lebanese and Egyptian dialects?) has made a great difference in what I do, allowing me to do interviews without a translator, to read local newspapers and websites and to become friends with people in Saudi Arabia and other countries whom I would have had a hard time communicating with otherwise.

Knowing the language allows a reporter to access a deeper level of the culture in a way that can greatly inform the reporting.” –Ben Hubbard|By Saudi Research & Marketing (uk) Ltd. Mohammed Al-Shafey

His interview with Asharq Al-Awsat appears below:

Can you please tell our Arab readership a little about yourself?

I am a Beirut-based Middle East correspondent with the New York Times newspaper. I am an American citizen who was raised in Colorado and I studied history, Arabic language and journalism before starting my career.

I have now been living in the Arab world for about 10 years, two as a student in Arabic language at the American University in Cairo and now eight working full-time as a journalist. I have covered a range of countries and stories, including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Libya.

I came to The New York Times from the Associated Press in 2013 and my focus most of the time since then has been on the civil war in Syria and its echoes throughout the region, from the rise of militant groups like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State to the migration crisis on the Greek island of Lesbos.

How did you start your career in journalism?

I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be a journalist, but I eventually realized that I needed a job and wanted to write for a living, so journalism seemed like the best option.

I had been a big reader since I was young and much of my interest in writing stemmed from wanting to produce writing like that I had always loved reading.

I did a master’s in journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and an internship at The Associated Press, which offered me a job. I worked there for five years before moving to The New York Times.

What was the duration of your trip to the Saudi prison?

My first visit to Saudi Arabia was in 2013 and I have been back since around 10 times, getting to know many different types of Saudis and making some good friends. My visits have grown more frequent lately because the changes in the kingdom have led to new interest in Saudi Arabia among our readers.

I am fascinated by the changes taking place in the kingdom because of the economic situation, the regional dynamics and the country’s large youth population.

I am also very curious about the new initiatives being headed by Prince Mohammed bin Salman and I hope to meet him in order to better understand this leader who is trying to address the kingdom’s biggest challenges.

How can you describe your experience at Haer Prison?

I arranged to visit the Haer prison though contacts at the Saudi Interior Ministry, who are proud of the programs there and like to show them off to visitors, including foreign diplomats and journalists. My visit lasted half a day and the assistant to the prison director escorted me through the different sections.

I was able to have a few brief chats with inmates. We visited the prison radio studio (funny) and met a man who did a funny show in which he impersonated accents from different parts of the kingdom. He said he had been arrested years ago for trying to go to Iraq to fight the Americans! And here he was chatting with me and making a comedy show. He said he was glad that he had never made it to Iraq because things had turned out so badly there. Of course, it is always hard to know how much of the story you are getting from a prisoner when the assistant prison director is standing with you…

Do you think this is your best story yet? If not, kindly tell our readers about another prominent story you have managed to cover?

Last year, I took about ten days to travel around Saudi Arabia by myself for a story about tourism in the kingdom. I went to Al-Ula and Madain Saleh (Al-Hijr) and the Farasan Islands, both of which were very beautiful.

I was in the city of Buraida working on another story when some friends took me to the Ghada Festival in Anezah. I found it fascinating to see what a cultural festival looks like in that part of Saudi Arabia and since they apparently don’t have many foreign visitors, I ended up being treated like a celebrity, with Saudi girls trying to take photos of me with their phones.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences with any other different language? How has this benefitted your career?

I have studied a number of different languages and used to speak French well, but my focus on learning Arabic, both reading and speaking, has pushed all the other languages out of my head.

But knowing Arabic has made a great difference in what I do, allowing me to do interviews without a translator, to read local newspapers and websites and to become friends with people in Saudi Arabia and other countries whom I would have had a hard time communicating with otherwise. Knowing the language allows a reporter to access a deeper level of the culture in a way that can greatly inform the reporting.

You have reported from many different conflicts and countries and have no doubt witnessed many disturbing things. Do these experiences linger with you or do you forget about them and move on when an assignment is over?

I have spent some time in war zones but I don’t consider myself a war correspondent. Some people focus on conflict; I focused on the Arab world and there happened to be wars there, so I covered them.

I spent some time in Syria with the rebels in Idlib and Aleppo in 2012, which was both fascinating and terrifying. These experiences generally don’t affect me long afterward psychologically, but I do remember coming home to Beirut after being in Syria and looking up nervously at the sound of an airplane, wondering if I had to worry about an airstrike.

Do you have any advice you would like to give Arab journalists in particular?

The rules for doing good work are the same for journalists no matter where you are: work hard, get the facts straight, make an honest effort to understand all sides of an issue and remain skeptical of official narratives.

The difficulty in the Middle East now (and not just in the Arab world) is that the conversation is so polarized that many people only want to hear information that supports their side and will refuse to listen to media that comes from a different perspective.

So instead of informing people about the complexities of issues and the different motivations driving different actors, the media ends up solidifying what many people already believe. That, in my view, makes it harder to build the understanding that could help resolve some of the region’s conflicts.

How do you think the Syrian crisis will end?

Unfortunately, I don’t see many indications that the Syria conflict will end soon. Neither side obviously has the power to win militarily, but they are also clearly not ready to come to a negotiated solution. I think the war has some more time in it.

How many hours do you spend working a week? Does this leave you with much personal time?

I have no idea how many hours I work per week, but definitely too many! For me, the best part of being a correspondent is that I am largely in charge of my own time. No one cares when I come into the office or when I leave as long as I am on top of the news and keep producing good work.

That does mean that I end up working lots of nights and weekends, and the total hours certainly add up to more than I would put in in a normal job. But who wants a normal job?

What advice would you give to young journalists about to embark on a career in journalism?

The best thing a young journalist can do is to find a job where they are doing what they like – whether it’s writing, shooting videos or making webpages – all the time.

The only way to get better is to put in lots of time trying new things, failing and learning from those failures. As my friend, the American writer and poet John Evans, likes to say, “Writing is like doing push-up. The more you do the easier it gets.”

Note: I have posted many of Ben’s articles and got to meet with him personally on a couple of occasions

In Saudi Arabia. A kingdom to Myself

I reached the port of Jizan in southwestern Saudi Arabia just in time to catch the speedboat. After buying my ticket and having my passport checked by a mustachioed police officer, I climbed into the small, closed cabin with a few other passengers, a box of vegetables, a green shag rug and a parakeet in a wire cage, and we set off for what I had been told was one of the most enchanting places in the kingdom.

Sabine Choucair shared this link

The husband takes us to Saudi Arabia on a touristic trip
Ben Hubbard I can’t wait smile emoticon shall we go this coming vacation ?!|By Ben Hubbard

My destination lay 28 miles off the coast: Farasan Island, the largest of a cluster of sunbaked sand and coral outcroppings in the Red Sea that are festooned with pristine beaches, prime dive sites, mangrove forests and historic relics dating back centuries.

The trip was my first lesson in what it means to travel in a country full of potential tourist sites that the government is ambivalent about letting foreigners see.

Most people reach the island aboard passenger ferries bequeathed to residents by the previous Saudi king. But I had missed the last trip, so I had to endure an hourlong, bone-shattering trip across the waves on a wooden bench in the speedboat

After we landed, I rolled my bag to the parking lot to find scores of dust-covered pickup trucks but not a taxi in sight, because, as I was later informed, the island doesn’t really have taxis. But before long, a student I had chatted with on the boat divined my predicament and delivered me to my hotel. His parakeet chirped the whole way.

In a region where countries like Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have invested to make tourism pillars of their economies, Saudi Arabia stands apart, and for good reason.

The country’s identity revolves around being the birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest sites. Part of that heritage is adherence to a strict creed by which shops close throughout the day for prayer, women wear head-to-toe black gowns and are barred from driving or from socializing with unrelated men, alcohol is illegal and drug dealers and other criminals are beheaded in public squares.

That keeps the kingdom off the list of where most Westerners — and even many Saudis — want to spend spring break.

Saudi officials say they are not against visitors; more than 10 million expats reside in the kingdom and millions more Muslims come every year for religious visits. And on a personal level, Saudis can be disarmingly friendly and hospitable.

But as the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has long lived without tourism income and has seen little need to attract tourists who might make out on beaches or hold hands at the mall. (Or who may be women traveling alone.)

For now, the priority is encouraging Saudis to visit their own country. Tourist visas are not imminent, but for the intrepid tourist like me who gets in for other reasons (in my case a conference, as I report on the region) and follows the rules, there is the exhilaration of having awe-inspiring sites virtually to yourself.

“For those who like history, culture and nature, there is lots to do,” Salah Al-Bukhyyet, the commission’s vice president, said in an interview. “But here in Saudi, you won’t see people on the beach in bikinis.”

Despite their vast idyllic coastlines, the Farasan Islands have not a single beachfront restaurant. And despite extensive coral reefs, no one rents scuba gear, unless you book far enough in advance for it to be brought from the mainland.

There is only one hotel on the water, the Coral Farasan Resort (400 riyals, about $107, a night), a boxy, two-star affair whose green hallway smelled faintly of sewage but whose simple rooms were clean. After checking in, I found its restaurant’s windows closed despite the balmy weather and a single man devouring a plate of fried chicken.

I wanted fish, so Mohammad Saigal, a local English teacher I had hired as a guide (1,000 riyals a day), drove me to the fish market, where we bought two fish as long as my forearm for 80 riyals and gave them to some men to grill. Back at the hotel there were no tables outside, so we walked to the end of a sandy pier, sat on the ground under the stars and ate with our hands. The fish were as tasty as I have ever had.

After dinner, I confronted one reality of traveling alone in Saudi Arabia: When the sun goes down, there isn’t much to do. Groups of men played loud rounds of cards in the lobby, and kids kicked a soccer ball on the grass outside. I went to bed early.

I woke early, too, to the sounds of large Saudi families mobilizing for the beach. So I took a run along the coast and within 10 minutes was alone on a sandy track near clear, blue water, with no signs of other humans but the occasional remains of campfires.

That afternoon, Mohammad and I hired a boat and a captain (250 riyals an hour) and looped around the back of the island, passing smaller coral isles along the way and spotting tall, stick-legged cranes fishing and gliding overhead.

We later entered an inlet with mangrove forests on both sides. Skinny green fish skipped in front of the boat, and we watched dozens of large pelicans nesting in the branches and unfurling their wings to take flight. The captain killed the engine, and all was silent but the waves and the squawking of the birds.

He also said he worried that no one was protecting the island, that the gazelles that used to be common had become rare, as had falcons and foxes.

“There is too much neglect,” he said.

We headed out to sea, where our captain dropped anchor and passed out fishing lines on plastic spools. We baited our hooks and dropped them from the sides of the boat.

“As soon as you feel the line jiggle, pull,” Mohammad said.

A moment later, I did, and reeled in a six-inch fish, pink with brown eyes. That was my sole catch, but in about 20 minutes, Mohammad and the captain caught three each, which they had grilled and gave me for dinner.

The next morning, I met two single American women in T-shirts and capri pants sitting in the sun at the hotel and asked them about their experiences traveling as foreign women.

They taught at an international school and said they had flown to Jizan and taken the ferry by themselves with no problems, although they had asked a male friend to drive them to the airport.

Their advice: Be open-minded about the culture and don’t judge, be prepared to cover up, respect gender rules and you will probably be surprised at how welcome you are.

“It is definitely very segregated, but the Saudi people are lovely, hospitable and kind,” one said.

And if you are lucky, they said, you’ll get invited to a party with Saudi women, with music, dancing, food and fashion, but no alcohol, tobacco or men.

“Just good clean fun,” one said.

Mohammad and I spent the day visiting sites around the island. At an old Ottoman fort, we found a group of out-of-work tour guides eating beans and fried dough on the steps. The site had been refurbished, but there was no information on its history, its windows had been shattered, and trash was everywhere.

We visited a one-room, private “maritime museum” full of curios from the sea, including dolphin skulls, shells, shark jaws, a massive sea tortoise preserved in lacquer, and a sword made from the nose of a sawfish that the museum owner had planned to give to King Abdullah before his death.


Saudi tourists at Mada’in Saleh. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

“Total neglect,” Mohammad said.

But it was still fun to scramble over the ruins sinking back in the date palms, with no sounds but the distant pounding of a resident building a new cinder block home.

I wanted to treat myself to a nice lunch before I returned to the mainland. As Mohammad had heard that another hotel had a new cook, we dropped by.

We were told that you have to order two hours in advance. So instead, I had tasty rice and chicken at a local joint full of laborers and bachelors (married men eat at home) where I was the only one using a spoon rather than my hands.

I took the ferry from the island and passed the much smoother trip dozing and watching children play tag in the aisles. As in much public space in Saudi Arabia, including Hardee’s and Starbucks, the passengers were divided, with single men on the left and families and single women on the right. But before I figured that out, I had sat in the ambiguous middle. No one seemed to care.

My next stop was a site seen by many as the showpiece of Saudi archaeology: Mada’in Saleh, or al-Hijr in Arabic, an ancient settlement of the Nabatean Empire that left its biggest traces about 2,000 years ago.

It was the Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage site and where the astronaut prince took Prince Charles when he visited the kingdom last year.

Visiting it should be easier than visiting Farasan, given the new airport nearby. There are currently four flights in and four out each week, so when I got a ticket, I assumed I was fine. But I soon discovered that the airplane holds more people than the town’s main hotel (the other one burned down a few years ago), which was fully booked, leaving me no place to stay. (I was later told about a tent camp out in the desert.)

Thankfully, getting around the kingdom is cheap and easy on Saudia, the national carrier, which serves more than two dozen domestic airports and plays prayers over the P.A. system before takeoff. So I changed my dates and flew to Medina, where I rented a car for a four-hour drive though a stunning desert to reach the expansive palm groves of Al-Ula, an oasis town.

And gas is cheap: 15 riyals to fill up my Hyundai. Though prices have increased recently, they are still very low..

Visitors need permission to visit Mada’in Saleh, something the hotel handled with a copy of my passport, along with finding me a guide named Tamir (800 riyals a day).

When we reached the site the next morning, it was completely empty. Large sandstone formations rose from the rolling expanse of sand.

About 2,000 years ago, the Nabateans had lived nearby and carved massive, elegant tombs into the rocks, adorning their entryways with statues of birds and images of flowers, faces and serpents.

Their doors lead to large rooms, some with separate tombs inside, others with long shelves carved into the rock. And while the facades are perfectly flat, the inside walls bear the marks of thousands of chisel blows. My wrists got sore just thinking about it.

I spent the morning happily wandering from tomb to tomb, snapping photos, marveling at the workmanship and wondering what the rest of the civilization had looked like. My guide was no help.

“I don’t know the history,” he said. “I just know where stuff is.”

The tombs are empty, mostly cleaned out by grave robbers long ago, and the plaques around the site lacked detail on the wider culture. Compared with sites in Egypt, it was pleasant to be left alone. There were no touts, no hawkers, no Bedouins offering camel rides, not even rangers to protect the sites.

But some of the tombs had bullet holes in their facades and many were covered with graffiti.

The inscription above the door to one tomb seemed to foresee that eventuality, warning that anyone who wrote on the tomb had to pay 3,000 harithis to someone named Thi al-Shira and the same amount to “our lord the king.”

On the facade, two recent visitors had spray-painted their names and written “Memories of Wednesday, 3/11/2011.”

After a few hours at the site, tomb fatigue set in.

“They all look the same after a while,” my guide said.

Then, as we approached another necropolis, I spotted a man in a burgundy cardigan, khakis and running shoes wielding a camera and scrambling excitedly from tomb to tomb. Another tourist!

He introduced himself as Tag Elkhazin, a 76-year-old semiretired mechanical engineer and a Canadian of Sudanese descent. A professed archaeology buff, he had been dreaming of seeing Saudi Arabia’s sites for years but had never been able to get in.

“I did my tribute to God and then decided to do my tribute to learning and knowledge,” he said with a grin.

He called the site “majestic” but said he was frustrated that Saudi Arabia had shown little interest in its pre-Islamic heritage.

“This is part of the history of the kingdom,” he said. “Saudi history did not start with Islam, with all due respect.”

I visited a few more tombs, but soon felt I had seen enough and decided to see what I could learn at the complex of small museums near the entrance.

Not much, apparently. The visitors’ center, the multimedia building, the Hejaz Railway Museum, the Syrian Pilgrim Road Museum and the Islamic fortress were all closed, even though, according to the hours posted by their doors, they should have been open.

“They are supposed to be open, but no one came to work today,” a guard said with a shrug.

The tourism commission may have a hard time persuading Saudis to visit such sites instead of going to the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain, neighboring countries with more relaxed social codes and attractions lacking in the kingdom, like movie theaters and bars.

And my Saudi friends were more interested in picnics in the desert, where young men like to cruise the dunes in their S.U.V.s.

But I had seen some local tourism earlier in my trip when some Saudi friends took me to the Ghada Festival in Unayzah, a local fair named after a desert shrub.

The tourism commission supports more than two dozen similar festivals across the kingdom, but they are hard to find out about if you don’t speak Arabic. Your best bet is to ask the locals, who will tell you what is happening nearby and maybe take you for a visit. Which is what happened to me.

We reached the fairgrounds midafternoon, and there were already hundreds of people there: men in long white robes, women in black gowns with only their eyes showing through face veils, and children wearing whatever they wanted.

The festival was a series of exhibits celebrating the area’s history. There were traditional markets where men made ropes from plant fibers and women sold embroidered clothing and wove rugs on traditional looms.

“This is what they fight with in Palestine,” one woman said, trying to sell me a woven sling.

Young Saudis are social media crazy, and the kingdom has some of the world’s highest usage rates of Twitter and YouTube. At one point, I stopped to snap a photo of some women baking honey-filled cookies in a big black oven and turned to see three Saudi girls aiming their camera phones at me and snapping away.

“Hey!” I said, and they giggled and scurried off, typing captions with their thumbs before sending my image into cyberspace. I decided to respond in kind and kept my phone at the ready to take pictures of anyone I caught taking pictures of me. I caught quite a few.

There were tents set aside for prayer, bonfires where we stopped for coffee and tea, and a kids’ area with games and music (voice only; no instruments). We even saw an itinerant clown, who sat in the back of a truck and made up a song about me for a small tip.

We visited an exhibit on traditional medicine showing bone setters, local diseases that had largely been eradicated and a mannequin giving birth standing up with a midwife on the ground in front of her.

Elsewhere, a family wearing traditional garb acted out scenes in front of an adobe house. A woman shook milk in a suspended metal container to churn butter, and a group of men chanted while digging a well.

Nearby, a gas-powered water pump chugged away, one of the first machines to reach the area powered by the same oil that had distanced most Saudis from the very life the festival sought to recall.

On a patch of sand, a teacher and a group of children with wooden pallets recreated a traditional Koranic school. As the sun set, they marched through the festival, chanting “Hafiz! Hafiz!” to celebrate a student who had memorized the Quran.

As they passed, a young boy ran up to me, smiled and asked, “How are you?”

Well-to-do young Saudis to work for money? About time

Young Saudis discover that they have to work for money

In pressed white robes and clutching crisp résumés, young Saudi men packed a massive hall at a university in the capital city this month to wait in long lines to pitch themselves to employers.

It was one of three job fairs in Riyadh in two weeks, and the high attendance was fueled in part by fear among the younger generation of what a future of cheap oil will mean in a country where oil is everything.

For decades, the royal family has used the kingdom’s immense oil wealth to lavish benefits on its people, including free education and medical care, generous energy subsidies and well-paid (and often undemanding) government jobs.

And No one paid taxes, and if political rights were not part of the equation, that was fine with most people.

But the drop in oil prices to below $30 a barrel from more than $100 a barrel in June 2014 means that the old math no longer works.

Low oil prices have knocked a chunk out of the government budget and now pose a threat to the unwritten social contract that has long underpinned life in the kingdom, the Arab world’s largest economy and a key American ally.

Bechara Choucair and Georges Azzi shared this link
Saudi Arabia has survived oil shocks before, but now 70 percent of its citizens are under 30, and they face a harder future than their parents.|By Ben Hubbard

The shift is already echoing through the economy, with government projects delayed, spending limits imposed on ministries and high-level discussions about measures long considered impossible, like imposing taxes and selling shares of Saudi Aramco, the state-run oil giant that is estimated to be the world’s most valuable company.

(Today, Saudi Arabia cancelled out $4 billion aid to Lebanon, promised 3 years ago. It did prevent Saudi Arabia of purchasing this year over $30 billion in new weapons from the US, England and France)

The proposal announced on Tuesday by the oil ministers of Saudi Arabia, Russia, Qatar and Venezuela to freeze output levels is one attempt to stabilize world oil prices, but it remained uncertain how effective it would be if other countries, like Iran and Iraq, declined to follow suit.

For younger Saudis — 70% of the population is under 30 — the oil shock has meant a lowering of expectations as they face the likelihood that they will have to work harder than their parents, enjoy less job security and receive fewer perks.

“For the older generation, it was easier,” said Abdulrahman Alkhelaifi, 20, during a break from his job at McDonald’s. “They’d get out of university and get a government job. Now you need an advanced degree.”

 Of his generation, he said, “The weight is on our necks.”

It is hard to overstate the importance of oil in the development of modern Saudi Arabia.

In decades, it rocketed a poor, mostly rural country to affluence, with most of its 21 million citizens now living in cities festooned with skyscrapers and streets filled with S.U.V.s.

Oil wealth also allowed the ruling Al Saud family to maintain its grip on power, wield clout abroad through checkbook diplomacy and invest billions of dollars in promoting an austere interpretation of Islam around the world.

The oil boom over the past decade helped all of this, and was good for Saudis at home. Household incomes rose, and the number of men and women pursuing higher education multiplied.

But the fat years left the economy poorly structured, economists say: 90 percent of government revenues are from oil; 70 percent of working Saudis are employed by the government; and even the private sector remains heavily dependent on government spending. (like most high-tech companies in the USA depend on the military and the government)

Nor did advances in education create a large professional class or inculcate a culture of hard work.

Most of the country’s engineers and health care workers are foreign, and many government employees vacate their offices midafternoon, or earlier.

But with oil revenues crashing and the numbers of young people reaching the work force growing by the day, those jobs have become harder to get as the government cuts costs and pushes Saudis toward the private sector, where job security and salaries are lower on average.

“There is an issue with the sustainability of the economic model in Saudi Arabia, and the oil price can be seen as a wake-up call,” said Fahad Alturki, chief economist at Jadwa Investment in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia still has room to maneuver, he said, thanks to large cash reserves, low public debt and lots of new infrastructure that can aid economic growth.

But the generational differences are clear.

One woman who recently earned a Ph.D. in a medicine-related field in the United States said that her father had been tracked into the military, where he got training abroad, free housing, medical care and schooling for his children. When her mother finished her degree in Arabic, she immediately got a job near her house — and a cash bonus from the state, just for graduating.

Their daughter has struggled to find work, despite being better educated and fluent in English. Her husband, also educated in the United States, is also unemployed, and they live with her family.

“My parents had great opportunities,” she said, requesting anonymity so as not to hinder her job search. “They provided well and we had a comfortable life, so I always thought it would be the same for us.”

These economic stresses come at a time of chaos in the Middle East and of generational change in the royal family.

Spearheading economic policy is Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose father, King Salman, passed over older and more experienced princes to put the 30-year-old in charge of many of the country’s most important affairs, stirring private anger among some other royals.

Prince Mohammed, who is also the defense minister and second in line to the throne, has launched a costly war in Yemen and talks about radical changes to the economy, like raising fuel prices, imposing taxes on undeveloped land and some consumer goods, and privatizing state-run companies.

But details on implementation are scarce, causing uncertainty over many issues like what it will cost to fill a gas tank or power a factory in five years. That has made it hard for businesses to plan for the future, which further undermines the sputtering economy.

At the same time, Saudis are not accustomed to the government taking bold, fast action.

Change tends to be introduced incrementally. That cultural trait is now complicating the need to move fast to meet the economic and demographic challenges.

A Saudi executive in the construction industry said that change was needed, but that moving too fast could hurt businesses.

“It has to be done and I am with it, but you can’t change decades’ worth of problems in a few years,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his business interests. “No way.”

Economists say that at least 250,000 young Saudis enter the job market every year, and that making them effective members of the work force is a major challenge.

The glut of graduates was clear at the job fair, where most applicants had come from large public universities that often fail to give students the language and technical skills employers want.

Most of those interviewed had never had a job before and said their fathers worked for the government. While some thought private companies offered better experience, many wanted the perks of a government job.

“It’s a good experience, but there is no rest and no job security,” said Ali al-Ariyani, 24, who worked at a private hospital and wanted a change. “The days are long and you can’t even go out to smoke.”

At a separate location for women, many applicants complained that their degrees had not given them the skills, like fluency with computers, that employers want. One group of women had earned degrees in microbiology only to learn that they lacked the required licenses for hospital jobs.

“Our main issue is that our university did not prepare us for the job market,” said Khuloud al-Khateeb, 23, adding that many hospitals preferred to hire foreigners for lower salaries.

In recent years, the government has pushed for greater Saudi employment, penalizing companies with few Saudi employees. Many employers hate the program, saying it forces them to swell their payrolls with people who contribute little.

Even companies that have hired lots of Saudis have often had to rely on significant social engineering to get them working.

Saudis made up one-third of the crew at a Riyadh McDonald’s on a recent morning, manning the drive-up window and cash register and making fries.

“Is this spicy?” one yelled to a colleague. “One large fries, please!”

While they do the same work as foreigners, they earn much more. Salaries for foreign crew start at $320 a month, while Saudis get $1,460, part of which is subsidized by the government.

The company also gives Saudis more flexibility and has created fast-track programs to move them into management.

Four Saudi workers gathered in a break room said they liked their jobs but worried that they would not be as successful as their fathers, all of whom worked for the government.

They knew the government had less money to employ citizens, which meant their generation would have to work harder.

“The government is good, but our generation is spoiled,” said Ahmed Mohammed, 21. “Everyone wants a government job.”

His colleagues agreed. “Everyone wants to sit at home and get paid,” Mr. Alkhelaifi said.

Sheikha al-Dosary contributed reporting.

Note: It is to be reminded that this a new dynasty taking over and other section of the princes and princesses will be reaping whatever the sovereign fund has accumulated.


Syrian Family’s Tragedy Goes Beyond Iconic Image of Boy on Beach


Hivrun Kurdi, an aunt of Alan’s, with her children in a refugee shelter in Bramsche, Germany, this month. 
Weeks after Alan drowned, Hivrun and her children made the same perilous sea journey from Turkey to Greece.
Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

ISTANBUL — When Alan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a beach in Turkey, forcing the world to grasp the pain of Syria’s refugees, the 2-year-old boy was just one member of a family on the run, scattered by nearly five years of upheaval.

As a Turkish officer lifted the boy from the shallow waves at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, one of Alan’s teenage cousins was alone on a bus in Hungary, fleeing the fighting back home in Damascus.

An aunt was stuck in Istanbul, nursing a baby, as her son and daughter worked 18-hour shifts in a sweatshop so the family could eat. Dozens of other relatives — aunts, uncles and cousins — had fled the war in Syria or were making plans to flee.

And just weeks after Alan’s image shocked the world in September, another aunt prepared to do what she had promised herself to avoid: set sail with four of her children on the same perilous journey.

“We die together, or we live together and make a future,” her 15-year-old daughter said, concluding, as have hundreds of thousands of other Syrians, that there was no going back, and that the way to security led through great risk.

Alan, whose mother and brother drowned with him, belonged to a sprawling clan from Syria’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority. But for most of his closest relatives, that identity was secondary to the cosmopolitan ethos of the Syrian capital, Damascus, where they grew up. They barely spoke Kurdish, identified mainly as Syrian and joined no faction.

So when war broke out, and political ties, sect and ethnicity became life-or-death matters, they were on their own

Interviews with 20 relatives, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Istanbul, in five German towns and by phone in Syria, tell a story of a family chewed up by one party to the Syrian conflict after another: the Syrian government, the Islamic State, neighboring countries, the West.

Since Alan’s death, at least 100 more children have drowned in the Mediterranean.

A million refugees and migrants entered Europe this year, half of them Syrians, part of the biblical dispersion of a country where half the population has fled.

Alan’s father, Abdullah, who is 39, sometimes blames himself, wishing he could turn back time and not get on the boat. He was trying to steer it in the chaos when it foundered in the waves.

But even for Abdullah’s sister Hivrun, grieving her nephew, the calculus remained in favor of risking her children to save them. Weeks after Alan died, she tried again to start for Germany. Once again, she and her children clambered onto a rubber raft.

Kurdish Roots

Alan’s grandfather was born in Kobani, a mostly Kurdish enclave near the Turkish border in the north. After compulsory army service, he moved to Damascus looking for work and settled in the mostly Kurdish neighborhood of Rukineddine, on the slopes of Mount Qasioun. He opened a barbershop and married a Kurdish woman who considered herself above all Damascene.

Rukineddine grew fast, with jumbled, unplanned housing and steep, narrow alleys cramming in poor rural workers, the kind of place where rebellion would later flare.

They had six children. They remember living modest lives not much affected by tensions between the government and Kurds. They spent the summers harvesting olives in Kobani, but saw themselves as city kids. Most left school after ninth grade to learn the family’s barbering trade.

Fatima, the oldest daughter, was the first to emigrate. In 1992, she moved to Canada to marry an Iraqi Kurd. They soon divorced, and she raised their son. Working nights in a printing plant, she caught the attention of a kindly boss.

“She said, ‘Every night I’ll teach you 10 English words,’” Fatima, known as Tima, recalled recently. “The rest I got from watching ‘Barney’ with my son.”

English led to a hairstyling license, jobs at high-end salons and citizenship — successes that made the family’s later journeys possible.

A commanding presence, Fatima became her siblings’ source of advice, information and emergency cash.

When war broke out, she became their fiercest advocate, supplying the plans and means to seek asylum in the West and, later, the political savvy to make Alan’s death a force for change.

But before the war, the rest of the Kurdis were not thinking of leaving Syria. They were putting down roots in the patchwork of communities that gave Syria its richness.

They acquired in-laws and property in the Damascus suburbs, in Kobani and in the bustling Palestinian district of the Yarmouk refugee camp — all places soon to be shattered by violence.

Driven From Damascus

The ripples of conflict reached the capital in the spring of 2011, just as Abdullah Kurdi was starting a family with his wife, Rihanna, a cousin from Kobani.

As the protests, inspired by other Arab uprisings, began to spread against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Rihanna headed back to Kobani to give birth to Ghalib, Alan’s older brother. Abdullah went back and forth, working in the family’s Damascus barbershop.

Some of the Kurdis sympathized with the initially peaceful demonstrations, but most avoided involvement. They feared going into details, since some relatives are still in Damascus. Abdullah said only, “I participated.”

The government cracked down across Syria, and the neighborhood quickly came under pressure. Security forces, always able to detain people at will, became jumpier, quicker to scapegoat Kurds or anyone without political connections.

“After the revolution started, I saw the differences between me and others, the racism,” Abdullah recalled. “Any simple policeman can accuse you. If someone writes a fake report against me, saying this Kurd did this or that, I will never come back.” (Only a victory in a civil war can change behaviour)

One day, officers burst into the family home of some of the Kurdis’ in-laws and dragged away two brothers, who had no known political involvement. They have not been heard from since.

Next, Alan’s cousin Shergo, 13, saw a friend die, shot through the neck by the police while protesting outside school.

Government artillery began shelling the restive suburbs of Damascus — where an armed insurgency was taking shape — from bases atop Mount Qasioun, up the slope from Rukineddine. The army guns were so close that the pressure of outgoing blasts cracked the wall of a family house.

The flight to Kobani came after Shergo and another teenage cousin witnessed a suicide bombing in the street. Flesh stuck to a wall, and shrapnel lodged in one boy’s leg.

At the hospital, security officials questioned the boys, who were afraid to say what they had seen. The secret police started asking to talk to the Kurdi men.

“So I said: ‘Let’s go. Let’s leave,’” Shergo’s mother, Ghousoun recalled. “It’s better than if they take us.”

Kobani seemed like a refuge then, as Kurds there tried to establish a safe semiautonomous zone. But, Abdullah lamented, “It didn’t work out that way.”

Life on the Run

At first, the problems were strictly economic. Kobani offered few jobs.

Abdullah went to Istanbul to work, while his wife raised Ghalib, and later gave birth to Alan, sometimes spelled the Turkish way, Aylan. (Previous reports put his age at 3.) Ghousoun and her family lived for a time in a sheep stable; she made money by bringing clothes from Damascus to sell.

“I suffered a lot, because I’m a very neat person,” Ghousoun recalled later, in her small and spotless Istanbul apartment.

Then a new threat arose. The extremist Islamic State group split from others fighting Mr. Assad, declared a state, and preyed on Kurds and other minorities.

Ghousoun’s travels grew perilous. Her accentless Arabic and conservative dress hid her Kurdishness at Islamic State checkpoints, but made her suspect at Kurdish roadblocks.

By September 2014, the Islamic State was shelling Kobani. Word came that the militants would invade. Families fled toward Turkey, and some were caught between Islamic State fighters and the border fence.

There, fighters grabbed Ghousoun’s husband, Mohammad, Abdullah’s brother. They spoke Arabic, but their accent was not Syrian.

“They beat and beat and beat him with a gun, my husband,” Ghousoun said later, sobbing. “In front of me.” Next, she said, they handed her son Shergo, by then 15, a gun.

“Shoot your father,” they told him.

“They kept saying we were infidels,” Ghousoun said. “But we are not.”

She collapsed on the ground, calling on God, begging the fighters, and somehow, she said, “they took mercy.”

The family spent days looking for a crossing, with hundreds of other Kurds. Finally, the group tried to breach the border. The Turkish police beat most of them back, but a Kurdish woman on the Turkish side hid Ghousoun’s family in her cowshed.

Back in Kobani, the Kurdi clan’s olive groves were burned, houses destroyed, and 18 relatives slaughtered.

Many of the survivors made it to Istanbul, and a new round of ordeals.

A Way Station in Turkey

Abdullah had managed to send money from Istanbul by working, and sleeping, in a clothing workshop. But when his wife and children finally joined him, he said, the burden overwhelmed him, “like a chain on my hands.”

The only apartments he could afford were so far from his work that he had to quit his job, instead lifting 200-pound bags of cement, making $9 per 12-hour day.

Ghalib and Alan jumped into his bed each morning to snuggle before he slathered them with ointment for their eczema, a ritual that he relished, even as he fretted over the cost of the balm.

“They sat in the house all day,” he said, choking with tears. “The only thing they were waiting for was me.”

Other Kurdis fared no better in Turkey.

Syrians there were often invited to bring their children to factory job interviews, but found, instead of day care, children packing goods in boxes.

Jobs disappeared when new Syrians arrived, willing to work for less, and employers sometimes withheld pay. Abdullah’s sister Hivrun cleaned hotel rooms, dozens a day. Ghousoun washed dishes in a restaurant; her son Shergo worked in a clothing sweatshop.

The promise of emigrating to the West seemed distant.

In Canada, Alan’s aunt Fatima raised $20,000 to sponsor Mohammad for asylum, with his wife, Ghousoun, and their five children. But Canada required proof of refugee status. Turkey granted Syrians only guest status, which Canada did not accept.

Hivrun applied for resettlement in Germany. Last summer, she received a date for her first interview: Sept. 27, 2016.

Options dwindling, Abdullah, Mohammad and Shergo traveled west and crossed a river to Greece. The police beat them with sticks, then sent them back in a rubber raft.

In June, Mohammad took a smugglers’ boat to Greece and made it to Germany.

Alan’s cousin Yasser, 16, fled Damascus to avoid the draft. He, too, boarded a smuggler’s boat out of Turkey.

Disasters at Sea

Hivrun and her husband were the first to take children to sea. They took four children and an adult nephew south to Izmir, the epicenter of the smuggling trade in Turkey.

Smugglers packed them in windowless vans, left them alone in a wooded area to dodge the police, then put them on a raft aimed at a Greek island a few miles off, but the raft had a broken engine. Only when Hivrun objected was the trip aborted.

On the next try, they were out to sea when water started rushing in. Hivrun saw a Turkish coast guard boat and shouted for help, not stopping even when other passengers, who preferred to risk it, angrily shushed her.

Hivrun’s husband and the older children wanted to try again. Hivrun refused. She took the children back to Istanbul, and her husband and nephew sailed off to Greece.

Soon afterward, Abdullah tried the voyage with his family. “We had decided to go to paradise,” Abdullah explained, a better life, whether in Europe — or the hereafter.

Hours after Alan’s drowning, Abdullah told the story in anguish: The small boat foundered and flipped a few minutes into the journey. He tried to hold on to Ghalib and Alan, calling to his wife, “Just keep his head above water!” But all three drowned, one by one.

Other survivors added new details: Alan cried as water sprayed his eyes; an older woman took him on her lap; the smuggler leapt out, and Abdullah took the tiller. Nervous and inexperienced, he swerved over the waves, telling his children, “I’m with you; don’t worry,” just before the boat capsized. One woman remembered Abdullah, in the water, kissing one of his boys.

In the news media blitz that followed, some reports, quoting an Iraqi couple who lost two children in the disaster, said Abdullah was a smuggler. But it is a standard smugglers’ practice to have an ordinary refugee steer, often in exchange for a discount, and in a later interview, the Iraqis said they believed Abdullah was merely the designated refugee pilot.

Abdullah says that he got no discount, and that he and others tried to take control of the boat because “someone had to.”

Regardless, one thing is clear: Abdullah lost his family.

Little Solace

Within hours, Alan’s aunt in Canada, Fatima, leapt into action.

From her home near Vancouver, she took calls from the news media, blaming Canada’s red tape and the world’s indifference. Soon she was touring Europe to advocate on behalf of refugees.

“Those kids were born when the war was on,” she recalled telling António Guterres, the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees. “And they die with the war still on.”

Her raw message helped spur Western countries — briefly, at least — to open their doors to Syrians.

But none of that changed the calculus for the Kurdis.

In the remote German town of Villingen, on the edge of the Black Forest, Ghousoun’s husband, Mohammad, worried for his family in Istanbul. He emerged one night from a barracks-like refugee shelter ringed with concertina wire and confided his dilemma: It could take a year or more to bring his family legally, so his decision to keep them off the dangerous boats meant indefinite separation.

“The most important thing,” he said, “is to be together.”

For the same reason, Hivrun broke her vow never to set sail again, determined to rendezvous with her husband. This time, she and her children made it.

In Meppen, Germany, a few weeks later, her children recounted the wet, terrifying moments on the boat — “a horror film!” one said — but now they were eating ice cream with a view of yellow autumn leaves.

Their father was stuck in a separate camp, three hours away. But after several weeks of haranguing the authorities, they got their wish: They could move, all together, to an apartment.

To the south, near Heidelberg, Yasser, the teenager who fled alone, was even more bullish on Germany, pinning the colors of its flag over a bed with a heart-shaped plush pillow. As an unaccompanied minor, he receives benefits like carpentry classes and excursions.

He misses his mother, but he already speaks passable German, knows the city and even has a German girlfriend. Wearing his hair in an Elvis-like pompadour, he plans to open a barbershop and study acting.

“I don’t want to lie to you and tell you that I am not happy,” he said. “I am!”

Ghousoun and Mohammad expect to be reunited in Canada on Monday, among 10,000 Syrians admitted by a new Liberal government. Fatima has a job for Mohammad in her new salon, where the sign over the door reads “Kurdi.”

“People always need a haircut,” she said.

A Father’s Heartache

A few weeks after the tragedy, Abdullah sat, angular and stiff and out of place, on a leather sofa in the piano bar of a gilt-trimmed hotel in Erbil, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. The sea had sheared him of all trappings of identity: his documents, his sisters’ phone numbers, even his dentures

I have become a shadow,” Abdullah said.

After he buried his family in Kobani, in three graves on a treeless plain, he was whisked to Erbil by the powerful Barzani clan. He had resolved to use the spotlight on his grief to aid other Syrians, and the Barzanis were promising help.

Barely understanding Kurdish, he went gamely to meetings with the rich and powerful, and delivered aid to refugee camps, happiest when playing with children.

But he often seemed dazed. He wore a single plain, khaki-colored outfit every day, refusing to let his benefactors buy more. He had never been in a place like this, with a $99 Sunday brunch, and could not stop thinking: “Where was all this when my children were alive?”

He called his Canadian sister, Fatima, who was collecting his family’s things in Istanbul. She was coming to see him, and the thought of it brightened him. He asked her for his sons’ favorite stuffed dog, the one with the tongue sticking out, or maybe the Teletubby doll with the missing eye that he had promised to fix.

“I want something,” he said, “with their smell.”




ISIS Promise of Statehood Falling Far Short,

Ex-Residents Say

SANLIURFA, Turkey — After the Syrian government stopped paying him, a technician who had spent two decades pumping the country’s oil received an enticing offer: do the same work for the jihadists of the Islamic State — starting at three times the salary.

He was soon helping to fill tanker trucks with crude oil to fund the Islamic State.

But frequent executions of those suspected of spying and deadly airstrikes by government jets made life hard, and he grew angry that the country’s resources were financing the jihadists while schools and hospitals were being shut down.

“We thought they wanted to get rid of the regime, but they turned out to be thieves,” the technician said after fleeing to this city in southern Turkey.

The Islamic State claims to be more than a militant group, selling itself as a government for the world’s Muslims that provides a range of services in the territory it controls.

. DEC. 1, 2015 in NYT

But that statehood project is now in distress, perhaps more so than at any other time since the Islamic State began seizing territory in Iraq and Syria, according to a range of interviews with people who have recently fled.

Under pressure from airstrikes by several countries, and new ground offensives by Kurdish and Shiite militias, the jihadists are beginning to show the strain

Some fighters have taken pay cuts, while others have quit and slipped away.

Important services have been failing because of poor maintenance. And as its smuggling and oil businesses have faltered, the Islamic State has fallen back on ever-increasing taxes and tolls imposed on its squeezed citizens.

Those stresses could provide opportunities for the group’s many enemies, but they do not point to its imminent collapse.

Ground forces ready to fight the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — in its strongholds in Syria and Iraq are still lacking.

And the group is adapting, keeping its international profile high by launching foreign attacks like those that brought down a Russian airliner in Egypt and paralyzed Paris.

It is also investing in new affiliates in countries like Libya, where it faces little resistance.

(The city of the port of Sert in Libya, and 40 km from major oil fields, is the next Daesh stronghold close to the European borders. Already 5,000 fighters have flocked there, 800 of them were dispatched from Syria)

That call to join the Islamic State is still going out, and having an effect, on social media and within jihadist circles. But its promises ring increasingly hollow as residents living in ISIS-controlled areas flee deprivation, an intensifying barrage of airstrikes and an organization that many Sunni Muslims say has acted more like an organized-crime ring than their defender.

Even some residents who chose to stay when the jihadists took over are now paying smugglers to get them around checkpoints designed to keep them in.

“So many people are migrating,” said a teacher from the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour who fled to Turkey last month. “ISIS wants to build a new society, but they’ll end up all alone.”

When the schools run by the Syrian government closed, the teacher said she set up an informal one and kept it going when the jihadists arrived.

That meant buying the baggy black gowns they forced women to wear in public and finding ways to entertain her students without music or art, both of which were forbidden.

Sometimes, they sculpted with soap, she said.

But she gave up, she said, after some activists were rounded up and executed, worried that her turn would come next

Even as their cruelty has driven residents away, the jihadists have long recognized and acted on the need for skilled professionals to build statelike institutions.

The caliphate “is in more need than ever before for experts, professionals and specialists who can help contribute to strengthening its structure and tending to the needs of their Muslim brothers,” read an appeal last year in the group’s English-language magazine, Dabiq.

But that call has come up short, leaving the jihadists struggling to find people able to run oil equipment, fix electricity networks and provide medical care, former residents say.

“They don’t have professionals, so they have to pay people to do things,” said a pharmacist from eastern Syria.

Stories abound of the Islamic State putting loyal members in positions they are not qualified for.

The head of medical services in one town is a former construction worker, residents said. The boss at an oil field was a date merchant, according to a former employee.

In Raqqa, the National Hospital featured in a propaganda video about health services in the caliphate is all but closed because so many doctors have fled, according to an aid worker with relatives in the city.

And a ban on male doctors’ treating female patients left women in one town with no doctors at all, according to the pharmacist. The jihadists tried to fill the gap by employing midwives.

Also driving people out is an onerous tax system carried out in the name of zakat, or Islamic alms.

The jihadists collect, among other taxes, a yearly share of every harvest and herd of livestock, and make shopkeepers pay a share of their inventory.

Infractions like failing to wear proper clothing lead to fines equal to one gram of gold, payable in local currency.

Fleeing has become increasingly difficult, as the jihadists try to keep people in.

Unable to get permission to leave, Naef al-Asaad, 55, paid a smuggler $150 per person to get 10 members of his family from the ISIS-held town of Shadadi to the Turkish border. On the way, one person stepped on a land mine, causing a blast that killed Mr. Asaad’s daughter, her husband, two of their children and one other relative, he said.

“ISIS would not let us leave,” Mr. Asaad said. “They said, ‘You are going to the infidels.’ ”

The group still terrifies those who have lived under it, and many who have sought refuge in southern Turkey fear that ISIS agents there will target them for criticizing the group. They spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Even some who had much to gain from the jihadists’ rule had little interest in staying.

The former oil technician said he had earned $150 per month from the Syrian government before his salary was cut in March. The Islamic State then hired him to work in the same oil field, he said, first paying him $450 per month, then $675.

He said they paid him well because they had few others who could do his job. They even caught him smoking at work once — a punishable offense for the jihadists — but let him off with a warning.

But it bothered him that his children had no school to attend, and he worried that he could be forced to work in Iraq. So he paid a smuggler to get him, his wife and their three children to Turkey. They recently arrived in Greece by boat, hoping to continue to Germany.

Another technician who worked in a natural gas field said he and his colleagues kept working when the jihadists seized their plant, carrying out orders their boss received from the Islamic State.

“Our job was to open this and connect that,” he said. “Who is in charge? We don’t ask.”

But the plant had been damaged in the war, and instead of producing refined gas products like they used to, they sent a much smaller amount of unrefined gas to the Syrian government. He did not know what the jihadists received in return.

Like many, he said that the jihadists’ promises of statehood had failed to materialize.

“Public support is important, and they don’t have it,” he said. “People heard good words from them but didn’t see anything good come out of it.”

Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Sanliurfa, and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.

Faltered: Another U.S.-Backed Alliance to Counter ISIS in Syria.

They new fictitious created factions are all of the “Democratic” kinds in name

Financed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Gulf Emirates

And logistically relying on Turkey that is killing its own Kurdish citizens.

I just had the pleasure of spending 10 days cruising around northern Syria with Tyler Hicks Kamiran Sadoun Eziz Garis and some other trouble-makers. Here’s the first product.

After the high profile failure of a $500,000 million program to train rebels to fight the Islamic State, the US has thrown its support behind a newly announced alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces. Sounds promising, except that the alliance exists in name only.

EIN EISSA, Syria — Weeks after the Obama administration canceled a failed Pentagon program to train and arm Syrian rebels to combat the Islamic State, American officials announced a new effort to equip ground forces in Syria to fight the jihadists.

But 10 days of interviews and front-line visits across northern Syria with many of the forces in the alliance, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, made clear that so far it exists in name only, and that the political and logistical challenges it faces are daunting.

One Arab commander, sitting near the earthen wall that separates this deserted town in Syria from the Islamic State’s front line, bitterly recalled being chased from his Syrian hometown by the jihadists and said he would do anything to reclaim that territory. But then he detailed a list of things his forces needed: ammunition, radios, heavy weapons and more American airstrikes.

“This is the state of our fighters: trying to fight ISIS with simple means,” he said, pointing to a fighter in broken boots, tattered fatigues and a dirty sweatshirt that read “Skateboarding ruined my life

Ben Hubbard shared this link Nov. 5, 2015
Ten days of interviews and front-line visits made clear that an alliance entrusted with beating jihadists in northern Syria faces daunting political and logistical…|By BEN HUBBARD

Beyond the early logistical factors, the new alliance faces what is perhaps a more serious challenge in the long term: Though it is intended to begin clawing back territory from the Islamic State in mostly Arab areas, nearly all of the group’s fighting power comes from ethnic Kurdish militias.

That demographic reality is likely to further alarm Turkey, a vital American ally that considers Kurdish autonomy near its southern border a security threat.

It also limits the forces’ ability to strike the jihadists in predominantly Arab communities — Kurdish fighters have less motivation to fight for those areas, and could deeply anger residents by doing so.

“The backbone of these forces are the Kurdish groups because of their experience fighting ISIS and their numbers,” said Redur Xelil, a spokesman for Syria’s dominant Kurdish force, the Y.P.G.

But he talked about how that could be a limiting factor in fighting for cities like Raqqa, the Islamic State’s headquarters in Syria: “We have to be realistic that the Y.P.G. can’t go by itself into Raqqa, or people will say, ‘What are you doing there?’ ”

A newly appointed spokesman for the alliance briefed reporters in Syria beneath a yellow banner bearing its name in Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian. But the meeting took place inside a Kurdish militia facility because the alliance does not have its own bases yet, nor flags to put on its cars or a defined command structure, said the spokesman, Talal Sillu.

The combined force is to be commanded by a 6-person military council, Mr. Sillu said. But he acknowledged that only one member had been selected so far — Mr. Sillu himself.

Last week, President Obama announced plans to deploy dozens of Special Operations troops to support the new alliance. And before that, American officials said 50 tons of ammunition had been airdropped for Arab fighters with the new group.

But already, things have not always gone as planned.

Since the ammunition airdrop, American officials have privately acknowledged that the Arab units it was intended for did not have the logistical capability to move it. So, again, the Kurds were called to help.

An array of smaller groups have allied with the Kurds, including Arab and Turkmen rebels, Christian militias and Bedouin fighters loyal to a sheikh who considered the Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi a friend.

While these groups hate the Islamic State, most are small, and some have been repeatedly routed by the very jihadists the United States now hopes they will defeat.

While the Kurds have become used to securing territory, with uniformed forces and a clear chain of command, their Arab allies often leave teenagers with Kalashnikovs at checkpoints who stop and release cars at random, scaring drivers.

A commander of one Arab group lamented that while Kurdish commanders could simply order their fighters to move, he could only make suggestions and hope his men complied.

Some of the alliance’s forces have cooperated before, but relations are not always smooth. The Kurdish military strength in the area means that Kurds set the agenda, and many clearly look down on their Arab partners.

For their part, Arab rebel fighters (do you mean Syrians or a combination of other Arabic States?) say they worry about their partners’ close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which the United States, Turkey and others list as a terrorist organization.  (They are PKK)

They also distrust the motives of the thousands of Kurdish fighters who have come to Syria from Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

ISIS brings foreign fighters for an Islamic State, while they bring foreign fighters for a Kurdish project,” said one Arab commander with the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade who goes by the name Abu Hamza. “But if that is how they think, they’ll fail.”

At another position near Ein Eissa, a swaggering Kurdish commander listed his militia’s victories against the Islamic State before acknowledging that he — like many of his fighters — was not Syrian. He was from Iran, and unabashed about being another foreign fighter in Syria’s civil war.

“I came to bring democracy, while ISIS came to kill,” said the commander, Gali Cilo. “That is the difference.” (That’s a huge declaration, bringing democracy)

The roots of the Syrian Democratic Forces lie in Syria’s northeast corner, a long-neglected region where most of Syria’s Kurdish minority lives alongside other ethnic groups in impoverished towns scattered among wheat fields dotted with aging oil wells.

While world attention since the Syria conflict began has focused on fighting between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, Sunni rebels and the Islamic State, the Kurds have taken advantage of the chaos to carve out an autonomous zone.

Much of that has been done over the last year, as the Y.P.G. — the Kurdish abbreviation for the People’s Protection Units, the dominant Kurdish force in Syria — has closely coordinated with the United States and its allies to seize land from the Islamic State in a long strip along the Turkish border.

Evidence of the Kurdish group’s dominance is obvious. The militia runs ubiquitous checkpoints; photos of its “martyrs” adorn billboards; and its fighters hold most of the more than 280-mile-long front line with the Islamic State.

Parts of it have come to resemble an international border, with deep trenches and high berms running for miles, lined with bright lights to prevent jihadist infiltrators. The whole line is dotted with heavily sandbagged positions to protect against machine gun and mortar attacks by the jihadists.

A senior United States military official said the United States had encouraged the Kurdish militia to create an umbrella group that would make more sense to an international audience, and Kurdish leaders decided to call it the Syrian Democratic Forces.

But the name of a subgroup of Arab brigades called the Syrian Arab Coalition was “an American invention,” the senior official acknowledged. It had about 5,000 fighters, and roughly 20% of them said they would defend their land but would not go on the offensive against the Islamic State.

The dominant Kurdish force, the Y.P.G., meanwhile, is believed to have about 40,000 fighters — including thousands from neighboring countries and many linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

“The Y.P.G. is a very effective fighting force, and it can do a lot,” said Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New American Foundation, a policy group in Washington, who recently spent time with Kurdish units in Syria. “But these Arab groups are weak and just a fig leaf for the Y.P.G.”

The alliance sought to help the Kurds by dampening fear among Arabs of Kurdish domination, and the United States hoped it would play down its close relationship with the Kurds so as not to alarm Turkey, Mr. Barfi said.

But the alliance itself has internal tensions.

“There is no deep-rooted alliance between these groups; this is a shifting, tactical alliance,” Mr. Barfi said.

The motivations of the Kurds’ allies varied. Some lived in Kurdish majority areas, so attached themselves to the dominant power. Others had lost their communities to the Islamic State and hoped that Kurdish military might help them go home.

“What is important for us is to protect our area, and the security of our children, our homes and our women,” said Sheikh Hmeidi Daham al-Jarba, whose Arab tribal militia, the Sanadeed Forces, has joined the alliance. “We have the Kurds on one side and ISIS on the other, so who should we choose?” (How about the official Syrian army?)

Seated in the vast reception hall of his 5-story palace, Sheikh Hmeidi said his tribesmen, living in a collection of poor farming and herding villages, formed an armed group in 2011 when rebels attacked their area.

The sheikh’s son, Bandar, the force’s military commander, said they would consider fighting the Islamic State elsewhere but needed support. Many of his fighters had sold land to buy ammunition, he said.

At a front-line position on the road to Raqqa, Abu Hamza of the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade explained his group’s long path to its alliance with the Kurds.

It had formed in Raqqa Province in 2011 to fight Mr. Assad’s forces, sometimes alongside Islamist rebels including the Nusra Front, the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda. For awhile, they even fought against the Kurds.

But early last year, Islamic State militants kicked his men out of the city of Raqqa, and then out of a nearby village. So they sought refuge with the Kurds.

Four years of fighting had worn them down. Scores of their colleagues had been killed, and the group had to blow up two valuable tanks it had captured from the Syrian government so that Islamic State militants would not take them.

Now, Abu Hamza said, they hoped their alliance with the Kurdish forces would let them get back at the jihadists, and perhaps open a new line of support.

“We need uniforms, we need ammunition, we need everything,” he said.

 Saudis’ Checkbook Diplomacy: known this from ages and just Revealed by  WikiLeaks

Before becoming the president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi wanted visas to take his family on a religious pilgrimage.

A Lebanese politician begged for cash to pay his bodyguards. Even the state news agency of Guinea, in West Africa, asked for $2,000 “to solve many of the problems the agency is facing.”

They all had good reason to ask, as the kingdom has long wielded its oil wealth and religious influence to try to shape regional events and support figures sympathetic to its worldview.

These and other revelations appear in a trove of documents said to have come from inside the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and released on Friday by the group WikiLeaks.


Saudi leaders, whose portraits are displayed at the stock exchange in Riyadh, have not confirmed the leak’s authenticity. Credit Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

BEIRUT, Lebanon — It seems that everyone wants something from Saudi Arabia..

While the documents appear to contain no shocking revelations about Saudi Arabia, say, eavesdropping on the United States or shipping bags of cash to militant groups, they contain enough detail to shed light on the diplomacy of a deeply private country and to embarrass Saudi officials and those who lobby them for financial aid.

And they allow the curious to get a glimpse of the often complex interactions between a kingdom seen by many as the rich uncle of Middle East and its clients, from Africa to Australia.

In a statement carried by the Saudi state news agency on Saturday, a foreign ministry spokesman, Osama Nugali, acknowledged that the documents were related to a recent electronic attack on the ministry.

He warned Saudis not to “help the enemies of the homeland” by sharing the documents, adding that many were “clearly fabricated.” Those who distribute the documents will be punished under the country’s cybercrimes law, he said.

Mr. Nugali also struck a defiant tone, saying the documents were essentially in line with the “state’s transparent policies” and its public statements on “numerous regional and international issues.”

More than 60,000 documents have been released so far, with WikiLeaks promising more to come.

They include identification cards, visa requests and summaries of news media coverage of the kingdom.

The most informative are diplomatic cables from Saudi embassies around the world to the foreign ministry, many of which are then passed along to the office of the king for final decisions

Many of the cables are incomplete, making it hard to determine their date and context, and very few indicate which requests were approved by the king and ultimately carried out. Most documents focus on a turbulent period in the Middle East, beginning after the popular uprisings that toppled Arab leaders in 2011 and continuing through early this year.

Clear in many of the documents are efforts by Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power, to combat the influence of Shiite Iran, its regional rival, as well as Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group and political party.

Cables about Iraq suggest efforts to support politicians who opposed Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, then the Shiite prime minister of Iraq, who was close to Iran. One said the kingdom had given 2,000 pilgrimage visas to Mr. Maliki’s chief rival, Ayad Allawi, to distribute as he saw fit.

Another cable from the Saudi Embassy in Beirut relayed a request by a Christian militia warlord politician, Samir Geagea, for cash to relieve his party’s financial problems. The cable noted that Mr. Geagea had stood up for the kingdom in news media interviews, opposed the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and had shown “his preparedness to do whatever the kingdom asks of him.”

A spokesman for Mr. Geagea did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

“Are there just more Lebanese begging Saudis for money or does my timeline skew toward Lebanon?” wrote one Twitter user, Laleh Khalili, noting the frequency of such requests from Beirut.

Other cables show Saudi Arabia working to maintain its regional influence.

One accused Qatar, another Persian Gulf state known for oil wealth and cash-based diplomacy, of stirring up trouble in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor, by backing a rich politician to the tune of $250 million.

And a few cables implied that Saudi leaders had negotiated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime Saudi ally. One document said a leader in the Brotherhood had said the group could ensure that Mr. Mubarak would not go to prison in exchange for $10 billion.

But a handwritten note on the document said paying “ransom” for Mr. Mubarak was “not a good idea” because the Brotherhood could not prevent his incarceration.

The documents also indicate concerted Saudi efforts to shape news media coverage, both inside and outside the kingdom.

One cable suggested that the government pressure an Arab satellite provider to take an Iranian television station off the air. In another cable, the foreign minister suggests that the provider use “technical means to lessen the Iranian broadcast strength.”

Other documents suggest intervention at the highest levels to shape domestic media coverage in a way that suits the rulers.

In an early 2012 cable marked “top secret and urgent,” King Abdullah told top ministers about new talks between the kingdom and Russia over the crisis in Syria and asked them to “direct the media not to expose Russian personalities and to avoid offending them so as not to harm the kingdom’s interests.”

Missing from the documents is any evidence of direct Saudi support for militant groups in Syria or elsewhere.

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer now at the Brookings Institution, said that while considerable evidence of such programs exists, they are handled by the kingdom’s intelligence services, and the foreign ministry is often “not in the loop.”

“That allows the Saudis to have plausible deniability and to liaison with other intelligence services aiding the rebels,” he said.

Some found the documents underwhelming, noting that similar activities are carried out by many countries, including the United States.

“There is not really something shocking that compromises Saudi security,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor in the United Arab Emirates, who had read about 100 cables.

Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia practices checkbook diplomacy, he said, adding that it now had to compete for clients with other rich states, like Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

One surprise in the documents, he said, is that the former Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, had to seek the permission of the king before proceeding with even minor matters.

“It seems that the king is the king in Saudi Arabia, no matter how princely you are,” Dr. Abdulla said.

Other surprising finds showed up in the WikiLeaks’ net.

The Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, known for shocking conservative Muslims with her sexy music videos, received a visa and visited a Saudi prince inside the kingdom despite instructions that all visas for artists and singers be preapproved by the Interior Ministry, according to the documents.

The foreign ministry branch in Mecca responded that Ms. Ajram had received the visa to travel with her husband and had come on a personal visit, not in her capacity as an artist.

Also in the cache was an email to a foreign ministry official from a technology company called StarLink, whose website says it is a “trusted security adviser.”

Reached by phone, the company’s business development manager, Mahmoud Odeh, confirmed that StarLink had provided computer security services to the Saudi government.

When asked what he thought of the leaks, Mr. Odeh hung up.


 Fertilizers shipped from Turkey to ISIS to prepare suicide car bombs

Red letters on the sacks identified their contents as ammonium nitrate

Mixed with fuel oil, the compound forms an explosive that can be 85 % as powerful as TNT

AKCAKALE, Turkey —

The laborers work all day, piling bags of fertilizer onto carts and wheeling them through the crossing that connects this southern border town AKCAKALE, to Syria.

The Syrian town next door is firmly controlled by the extremists of the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh), as is clear from the black flag flying over downtown.

And while the fertilizer, ammonium nitrate, is widely used for agriculture, it has also been used by terrorists around the world — including the Islamic State — to build powerful explosives.

Few here think the fertilizer is meant to help Syrian farmers.

“It is not for farming. It is for bombs,” said Mehmet Ayhan, an opposition politician from Akcakale who is running for Parliament. But he did not oppose the deliveries, saying they created jobs in his impoverished town.

“As long as the Turkish people benefit from this — regardless of where it goes on the other side — it is a good thing,” Mr. Ayhan said.

The rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in Iraq and Syria has terrified the world.

Europe is struggling to stop its Muslims from slipping off to war; the United States is leading Arab countries in a bombing campaign; and Turkey has vowed to close its southern border to foreign fighters seeking to join the jihad.

But the open transport of ammonium nitrate into Islamic State territory points to lingering questions about Turkey’s commitment to isolating its jihadist neighbors.

Yet for the people here, the cross-border trade offers some relief in an economy that has been battered by the war in Syria.

Analysts said Turkey had recently made efforts to secure its border and to halt the flow of foreign fighters. But the country still allows cross-border trade that gives the Islamic State access to goods from energy drinks to fertilizer.

“Trade continues to go into the north, not just to ISIS, but ISIS is a tangential beneficiary of the trade policy,” said Aaron Stein, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who studies Turkey.

Cross-border connections have long defined Akcakale, which is home to 90,000 Turks and directly across the border from the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. The towns share so many family and trade ties that residents said they used to be like one town.

But the war has split them. Fleeing Syrians now outnumber the Turks in Akcakale; they have opened restaurants, and they work for lower wages. Smugglers who once moved sugar, tea and cement now move items like foreign jihadists.

One Turkish smuggler used to help Syrian rebels transfer goods and people across the border. Then the Islamic State offered him $35 a head to get its fighters into Syria, he said.

He moved 25 in, nearly all of them foreigners, before quitting because he worried that the Islamic State would threaten Turkey.

“I worked for them for two months, and I still regret that I let all those people in,” he said, withholding his name for fear of the jihadists.

Outside the border gate on a recent day, scores of Syrians lined up to return home. Nearby, traders sold sandwiches, drinks and cigarettes, an indulgence banned under the Islamic State.

Also for sale were black gowns for women needing to meet the jihadists’ dress code.

In line, Nasser al-Ali, 30, lifted a cigarette to his mouth with a tattooed arm. The jihadists also oppose tattoos.

“I can throw this away and cover this,” he said with a shrug, pointing to his cigarette and his tattoo.

There was little work in the city of  Raqqa, he said, but life under the jihadists was not bad.

“No one bothers you if you don’t bother anyone,” he said. When asked if the Islamic State would last, he smiled and said, “God willing.”

Four times on two recent days, reporters for The New York Times saw large wooden carts loaded with fertilizer enter the crossing and come back empty a short time later.

The workers then refilled their carts from a pile of sacks as large as a semi-truck in a nearby lot.

Red letters on the sacks identified their contents as ammonium nitrate.

When the reporters arrived at the crossing, the carts stopped moving. When asked what they contained, a City Hall employee who was escorting the reporters replied, “Flour.”

Residents said the shipments began a few months earlier between traders on each side. Some residents said the fertilizer was for agriculture, noting that it is sold legally in Turkey and widely used for farming.

But ammonium nitrate has also been a vital ingredient in some of the world’s most notorious terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and the bombings of the United States Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.

It has also been widely used by militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the Islamic State.

Turkey, too, has been a victim; bombs made with ammonium nitrate struck Istanbul in 2003, killing scores of people.

Shown pictures of the sacks, John Goodpaster, a forensic chemist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said they were clearly marked as ammonium nitrate.

Mixed with fuel oil, the compound forms an explosive that can be 85 % as powerful as TNT, he said. Twenty pounds of the mix can fill a suicide vest, while 200 pounds can make a car bomb.

A bomb filled with about 45,000 pounds could damage 16 city blocks, Dr. Goodpaster said, adding that there appeared to be at least 55,000 pounds in the pile of sacks waiting to enter the crossing.

“That is a definite concern,” he said.

Turkish officials failed to explain why the substance was allowed to cross.

A spokesman for the Akcakale’s mayor’s office, Mustafa Guçlu, first denied that any fertilizer was crossing, then said that if there was any, it would be for agriculture.

An official in the governor’s office for Sanliurfa Province, which includes Akcakale, said fertilizer was not allowed to cross.

Another official, reached by phone at the crossing, said that about 500 Syrians returned home every few days and that each was allowed 30 or 40 bags of low-nitrate fertilizer, which is less explosive.

“There is no way high-ration nitrate fertilizer can go through, because we have ISIS on the other side,” the official said. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the news media.

Around town, the fertilizer shipments were common knowledge.

“Of course they use it to make bombs,” said Mustafa Kurt, a cafe owner.

Like many, he said he suspected that Islamic State fighters regularly passed through town, facing little interference from the authorities. “How can we tell the difference if they dress normal and aren’t carrying guns?” he said.

But he did not worry that they would launch attacks in Turkey, because that could hurt them in Syria. “They need us,” Mr. Kurt said. “Because if they hurt us, we can close the gate.”

Sabine Choucair  shared this link

Karam Shoumali and I were visiting the Turkish border town of Akcakale when we made a strange discovery: large shipments of fertilizer commonly used to make explosives crossing the border to territory controlled by the Islamic State. Raises questions about Turkey’s commitment to isolating its jihadist neighbors. With Ceylan Yeginsu and Christopher Chivers.

The fertilizer ammonium nitrate, which was used in explosives at the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, has been moving into an extremist-controlled Syrian town…|By BEN HUBBARD


Shiite Ritual Draws Historic Parallels: Bloody. And belittled

The blood oozing from the cuts in the top of Ali Rassoul’s head on Tuesday had crusted in streaks around his eyes and ears and soaked the front of his long, white gown.

But his wounds had nothing to do with the car bombs and urban battles that have torn Iraq apart:  they were his way of commemorating a much older battle: that of Karbala, where in the year 680, the army of  Omayyad Caliph Yazid slaughtered Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and cut off his head.

Baghdad- For many Iraqi Shiites who commemorated the death of Hussein on Tuesday in an event called Ashura, the current threat against their community from the extremists of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has profound historical parallels.

“This year Ashura is more important because of the threat against us from ISIS,” said Mr. Rassoul, who runs a woman’s shoe store and had a long dagger in a shiny scabbard hanging from his shoulder. “They have come to kill us, just like Yazid came to kill Hussein.”


Shiites in Baghdad bled Tuesday to commemorate the slaying of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in 680. Credit Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Mr. Rassoul spoke from a street in the Kadhimiya district of northwest Baghdad, in front of an ornate mosque that houses the tomb of a martyred Shiite leader.

While millions of Shiites across the world observe Ashura, Kadhimiya is one place where a minority pays homage to Hussein through the contentious practice of self-cutting called tatbir.

As the sun rose, hundreds of mostly young men gathered in a street here dressed in white robes.

While a few beat drums, the crowd chanted, “Haidar! Haidar!” invoking Hussein’s father, Ali. Some waved colored flags. Others carried long knives brought specifically for tatbir.

When the time came for the procession to start, Amer Matrouk, the leader of one group, drew his blade and the men, some of whom had shaved their heads, knelt before him so he could give them swift blows to their scalps, just enough to open the skin and start the bleeding.

“Not everyone knows how to do it,” said Mr. Matrouk, 63, who said he has been practicing tatbir since he was a child and had a row of straight scars on his scalp to show for it.

He rejected the idea that it could seriously hurt anyone.

“We have never had any accidents,” he said. “Sometimes there are those who are not very strong and they get dizzy from all the blood, but they are fine in the end.”

The practice of tatbir is debated among Shiites and many respected clerics have spoken against it.

Some argue that it is a form of self-harm, which is religiously forbidden.

Others have written it off as a folk practice, that may have seeped into Islam from Christian Passion plays about the crucifixion or from indigenous mourning rites that communities brought with them when they became Shiites.

Still others have argued that it makes Shiites look bad, which is reason enough to avoid it in a region where they are a minority and often looked on with suspicion by Sunnis.

These practices used to be limited and no one paid attention to them, but they have started to spread and defame the image of the event in a huge way,” said Abbas Shams al-Din, a Shiite cleric and writer during an interview in his book-lined Baghdad home. “If you search for pictures on Google and type ‘Ashura’ or ‘Shia Muslim,’ you won’t see anything but blood. It’s terrible!”

Ayatollah Khomeini went on record against tatbir, and it has become punishable by law in Iran, although some still do it in secret.

Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, too, has criticized it, and his movement has sought to channel the fervor in a more productive direction by holding Ashura blood drives. But other Shiite groups in Lebanon still do it.

And it persists in Iraq, where clerics who have spoken against it have faced popular criticism, Mr. Shams al-Din said.

“There are some who do not want to issue a fatwa because they know that people will do it anyway,” said Abbas Kadhim, a senior foreign policy fellow at Johns Hopkins University who has studied Shiite theology. “If you do this, you set them up to be sinners.”

But those arguments meant little to the hundreds of men marching in Kadhimiya, blood dripping from their heads, soaking their white robes and pooling in the street.

A woman who gave her name as Um Salah sat with two friends on the sidewalk, thumping her hand rhythmically on her chest as the procession passed.

“Yesterday, there were attacks and explosions, but we are still here,” she said, saying that the event showed the steadfastness of the community.

Two of her sons were serving in the Iraqi Army, she said. They never told her much about what they saw, other than calling to say they were fine and making progress “in the fight against the terrorists,” she said.

A short drive away at the Kadhimiya Blood Donation Center, an employee said that many people had come to donate.

“It can help the wounded person or the soldier,” the employee said, giving only his first name, Jassim.

But when a visitor observed that the clinic was deserted, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “People come.”

Others wish tatbir would go away.

“Why do they do it?” said Haidar Abu Yassir, a taxi driver, screwing up his face in disgust. “Did Hussein do that? No! He was cut into pieces!”

Mr. Abu Yasser said that he felt that donating was better than “letting all that blood drip off your head for nothing.”

But when asked if he knew anyone who had donated, he paused to consider the question.

“Nope,” he said. “They all want to do tatbir.”


ISIS Wave of Might Is Turning Into Ripple


A destroyed school in Qirnas, a village that Iraqi forces took back from the Islamic State. Credit Ali Mohammed/European Pressphoto Agency


The international airstrike campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has clearly played a role in slowing the Sunni Muslim group’s advance.

Analysts say other factors are having a major effect, including unfavorable sectarian and political demographics, pushback from overrun communities, damage to the group’s financial base in Syria and slight improvements by ground forces in Iraq.

Across the territories the Islamic State holds, the group has overhauled its operations. Bases and hospitals have been evacuated and moved to civilian homes that are harder to identify and bomb, Iraqi officials said.

Fighters who used to cross the desert in convoys now move in small groups or by motorcycle.

Fallout From the Battle With ISIS for Kobani

A visual guide to the crisis in Iraq and Syria.


OPEN Graphic

“The airstrikes from the coalition have been very helpful, and now the ISIS fighters are confused and don’t know where to go,” said Maj. Gen. Hamad Namis al-Jibouri, the police chief of Salahuddin Province in Iraq, where a combination of government security forces and Shiite militias have been fighting the jihadists near the town of Baiji. “They have also raised the spirits of the groups on the ground that are fighting ISIS.”

Still, airstrikes alone cannot achieve President Obama’s goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, analysts say. And they have not been the only reason the group’s advance has seemed to slow.

One main factor in the shift has been demographics.

ISIS thrives in poor, Sunni Arab areas that have lost their connection to the central state. The Sunni-led uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria opened up such areas there. And the neglect of such areas in Iraq during the tenure of former Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki made them an opportunity for the jihadists.

But after months of steady expansion, the Islamic State has taken most of these areas in Iraq while failing to seize areas with non-Sunni populations. And although it could still expand in Syria, the group also faces resistance from rival rebel groups there.

ISIS can only expand in areas where it can enter into partnerships with the local population, and that largely limits the scope of the expansion of ISIS to Sunni, disenfranchised areas,” said Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

It is in Iraq, where coalition forces began bombing in August, that the Islamic State has lost the most ground.

In recent weeks, combinations of Iraqi government units, Kurdish pesh merga forces, Shiite militias and armed Sunni tribesmen have seized the Rabia crossing with Syria; taken back the area of Zumar in the north and Jurf al-Sakr south of Baghdad; opened crucial roads in the country’s center; and held off Islamic State advances elsewhere.

For the first time since the jihadists seized Mosul and much of north-western Iraq in June, an Iraqi military vehicle can drive from Baghdad to the northern city of Erbil on a main highway.

Hisham Alhashimi, an Iraqi researcher and an expert on the Islamic State, said those changes had broken up the group’s territory, making it harder for it to move its forces and for its couriers to relay messages among the leadership and the field commanders.

And indications have emerged that Sunni populations in some areas it controls are trying to undermine it.

In Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, ground forces have cut the group’s supply lines and killed a number of its local leaders with the help of tips from angry residents, security officials there said, speaking on condition of anonymity under government protocols.

Others say the group’s own rhetoric has left it vulnerable.

What differentiates the Islamic State from Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups is that it claims to have re-established the Islamic Caliphate, making its commander the spiritual leader of Muslims everywhere.

Very few Muslims abroad agree, and the group’s argument would further fall apart if its fighters went underground.

“So central to this group’s appeal is its ability to keep expanding,” said Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group. “But as soon as that stops, the whole narrative is less convincing.”

While the group appears to have lost no ground in Syria, the air campaign has forced it to leave its headquarters in former government buildings and lighten its patrols in the city of Raqqa. And strikes on oil wells and small refineries run by the Islamic State have undermined its economic base, making fuel prices rise.

Over the last week, Islamic State fighters have been struggling with government forces for control of natural gas fields in Homs Province, facilities that are unlikely to be bombed because they fuel electricity plants.

While airstrikes have weakened the Islamic State, its adaptations will make it even harder to fight without effective ground troops, Mr. Alhashimi said.

Its fighters now move in small groups, making them less vulnerable to air power. And instead of storming into towns with overwhelming force, the group has begun establishing sleeper cells in areas it wants to seize.

“It used to be that a force would come from the outside and attack a city,” Mr. Alhashimi said. “Now the forces rise up from inside the city and make it fall.”

It has certainly not been all setbacks for ISIS.

While the various Iraqi ground forces have generally grown more effective, they are still lacking in many parts of the country, including Anbar Province, a vast and predominantly Sunni Arab region that abuts the capital.

Last month, Islamic State seized the Anbar town of Hit and has since been killing members of the Albu Nimr tribe, which resisted its advance. The Iraqi human rights ministry said this week that more than 300 tribe members had been killed.

Because of Iraqi’s sectarian dynamics, most agree that the government cannot send Shiite forces to fight in Anbar. The result has been a delayed, anemic attempt to push back ISIS there.

“The executions continue, and the support is weak,” said Naim al-Gaood, an Albu Nimr leader who has spent recent weeks asking Iraqi officials for arms support while receiving nearly daily reports of new killings from home. “All we are asking for is supplies to protect people from getting killed and food to keep them from starving.”

The Islamic State faces even less resistance in Syria, where government forces and the rebels are exhausted from three and a half years of civil war. A covert program by the United States to arm select rebel groups has made little difference, and a Pentagon program to train 5,000 fighters a year is still in the planning stages.

In many areas dominated by the Islamic State, residents still cannot imagine a force that can push it out.

“There are a few guys who try to launch attacks on them or shoot at them, but there is no force that can really challenge their control,” said an activist reached through Skype in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour.




September 2021

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