US-led airstrikes pounded positions of the self-styled Islamic State in and around the Syrian city of Raqqa, which the group considers its capital, today.
The group cemented its control over the city and the northern Syrian province of the same name in August, and it has since served as a model - or a horrifying warning, depending on your point of view - of the kind of government they'd like to bring to the whole region.
The area has been for the group and its self-declared caliph for all Muslims, Ibrahim al-Sammarai (often referred to by his nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), a symbol of success and defiance against both the troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and, more lately, the US. His followers have implemented their harsh version of Islamic law in the city, with public lashings, beheadings, and occasional crucifixions used to keep the citizenry in line.
The UK's Observer reports today, quoting activists from Raqqa, that the rhythm of daily life is now driven by Syrian government airstrikes in the morning, US attacks in the evening, and IS brutality in between.
Raqqawi portrays a dysfunctional economy presided over by an untouchable elite with extremists able to live handsomely as thousands of civilians struggle to afford basic food. The price of bread has risen 150%, from 37p to 94p or 250 Syrian pounds since September. Meanwhile, Isis fighters boast about drinking Red Bull, also costing 250 Syrian pounds a can, and getting paid a stipend equivalent to more than 30,000 pounds of local currency a month, around twice as much as the average wage of Syrians in that part of the country.
Despite the growing disparity in living standards between Raqqa’s residents and Isis – which reportedly earns more than $3m (£2m) a day in black market oil sales – the extremists do not appear interested in distributing their wealth to win favour with the local population.
US officials have repeatedly insisted that they will not coordinate offensives with the Syrian government, which the Obama administration continues to insist it would like to see replaced, but they are now wittingly or not now fighting on the same side in the town.
As for the US-led coalition fighting against IS in Syria and Iraq, American planes are doing most of the work. Fox News reports, citing a Pentagon report it has "obtained," that about 85 percent of coalition strikes against IS targets in a campaign that began in early August have been carried out by the US. The US has carried out 819 attacks, against 157 attacks spread between the forces of ten other countries.
US warplanes were also in action in the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane, along the Turkish border, AFP reports. A UK-based organization, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, claimed that IS fighters in the town had lost 50 of their members on Saturday - due both to their own suicide bombings, combat with the towns Kurdish defenders, and US bombs.
The deaths in Kobane came on Saturday after IS jihadists launched an unprecedented attack against the border crossing separating the Syrian Kurdish town from Turkey. Kurdish officials and the Observatory alleged the attack was launched from Turkish soil, a claim dismissed by the Turkish army as "lies."
... "ISIL (an acronym for IS popular with US officials) has in so many ways impaled itself on Kobane," said retired US general John Allen, using a variant of the name for IS.
But Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, speaking from Russia after meeting key regime ally President Vladimir Putin, said the air strikes were having little effect.
"Is Daesh (an Arabic acronym for IS) weaker today after two months of coalition strikes? All the indicators show that it is not," he told the pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen news channel. He said unless Turkey closed its border to jihadists, the group would be unharmed by the air strikes.
The Obama administration says its long term goal for Syria is regime change, but that IS is the most important problem. The US has said it's going to construct a system to vet and train a reliably US-friendly rebel army outside of the country, that will eventually return to the country and hopefully win the war. The Washington Post reported new details of the plan, which is far from finalized, on Friday.
The U.S. military will subject Syrian rebels taking part in a new training program to psychological evaluations, biometrics checks and stress tests under a screening plan that goes well beyond the steps the United States normally takes to vet foreign soldiers, a sign of the risks the Obama administration faces as it expands support for armed groups in Syria.
Officials said the screening program, developed chiefly by the U.S. Central Command, will rely on what was described as a “common core” of screening protocols, including running trainees’ names through U.S. and foreign intelligence databases, collecting biometric data and, when possible, seeking information from fighters’ home communities. Rebel commanders will be subject to additional screening.
“In the special operations community, we have a pretty long history of vetting and screening surrogate forces that we’ve worked with,” said an official at CENTCOM, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe planning. But the new plan “is unique to Syria, because we’re going to work with folks that we won’t accompany once we employ them,” he said. “So vetting and screening becomes even more important.”
Whether a vetting process, that will ultimately hinge on prospective rebels telling the truth rather than saying whatever they think will get them the weapons and training they desire, will work is an enormous open question. During Syria's civil war, now in its third year, rebel formations have splintered and merged based on battlefield success, and many fighters the US once chose to describe as "moderate" have ended up fighting with IS or its jihadi rival Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.