Syria, Iraq and IS


News & Views

Staff & Wire Reports



Children ride in the back of a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Children ride in the back of a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Humvee stands by as a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, passes in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


Children ride in the back of a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)


More than 150 IS militants handed over to Iraq from Syria

By SARAH EL DEEB and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA

Associated Press

Thursday, February 21

OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — U.S.-backed Syrian forces fighting the Islamic State group in Syria handed over more than 150 Iraqi members of the group to Iraq, the first batch of several to come, an Iraqi security official said Thursday.

The official said the IS militants were handed over to the Iraqi side late Wednesday, and that they were now in a “safe place” and being investigated.

The transfer marks the biggest repatriation from Syria of captured militants so far — an issue that poses a major conundrum for Europeans and other countries whose nationals have been imprisoned as foreign fighters in Syria. The SDF is holding more than 1,000 foreign fighters in prisons it runs in the country’s north, many of them Iraqis and Europeans.

The Kurdish-led Syrian force — and more recently President Donald Trump — have called on these countries to take back their nationals. SDF says it cannot afford to keep the captured foreigners in Syria, but few of their countries want them back.

Earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi said Iraq will take back all Iraqi IS militants in Syria, as well as thousands of their family members.

The Iraqi security official, who spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the SDF are holding more than 20,000 Iraqis suspected of IS membership as well as their families in prisons and camps in northern Syria.

An Iraqi intelligence official said among those were around 500 Iraqi IS fighters, adding that these will be transferred back home in batches. The intelligence official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the first group of 150 was transferred to Iraqi authorities aboard 16 pickup trucks Wednesday night and that they have been moved to the capital Baghdad for interrogation.

The handover came as the U.S.-backed Syrian force is involved in a standoff over the final sliver of land held by the Islamic State group in southeastern Syria, close to the Iraqi border.

A few hundred people — many of them women and terrified-looking children — were evacuated Wednesday from the group’s tiny tent camp on the banks of the Euphrates River, signaling an imminent end to the territorial rule of the militants self-declared “caliphate” that once stretched across a third of both Syria and Iraq.

Some 300 IS militants, along with hundreds of civilians believed to be mostly their families, have been under siege for more than a week in the tent camp in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria. It is not clear how many civilians remain holed up inside, along with the militants.

More trucks were sent in Thursday to the tip of a corridor leading to the camp to evacuate more people, but Associated Press journalists on the ground outside Baghouz said no civilians emerged.

“We thought more civilians will come out today and we sent 50 trucks over,” said an SDF commander who goes by his nom de guerre, Aram. “We don’t know why they are not coming out.”

It was not immediately clear whether the 150 Iraqis repatriated late Wednesday were among those recently evacuated from Baghouz or militants who had been captured earlier.

An Alabama woman who joined IS in Syria also made headlines after the U.S. said Wednesday she won’t be allowed to return with her toddler son because she is not an American citizen. Her lawyer is challenging that claim.

The 24-year-old Hoda Muthana, has said she made a mistake and regrets aligning herself with IS. She is now in a refugee camp in Syria along with others who fled the militants.

The Baghouz enclave’s recapture by U.S.-backed Syrian fighters would spell the territorial defeat of IS and allow Trump to begin withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, as he has pledged to do, opening a new chapter in Syria’s eight-year civil war.

Few believe, however, that ending the group’s territorial rule will end the threat posed by an organization that still stages and inspires attacks through sleeper cells in both Syria and Iraq.

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed reporting.

Civilian evacuation signals possible end to standoff with IS

By SARAH EL DEEB

Associated Press

Wednesday, February 20

BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) — A convoy of trucks carrying hundreds of civilians, including men, women and children, left the last enclave held by Islamic State militants in eastern Syria on Wednesday, signaling a possible end to a standoff that has lasted for more than a week.

The tiny enclave on the banks of the Euphrates River is the final scrap of territory left to the extremist group that only a few years ago controlled a vast stretch of territory across Syria and Iraq — at one point nearly from Aleppo to Baghdad — aspiring to create an enduring and expanding jihadi state. Its recapture by U.S.-backed Syrian fighters would spell the territorial defeat of IS and allow U.S. President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, as he has pledged to do, opening a new chapter in Syria’s eight-year civil war.

Few believe, however, that ending the group’s territorial rule will end the threat posed by an organization that still stages and inspires attacks through sleeper cells in both Syria and Iraq.

Some 300 IS militants — many of them foreign fighters — are believed to be holed up in the enclave in the remote village of Baghouz, along with several hundred civilians believed to be mostly their families. The presence of so many civilians intermingled with the militants in a crammed space halted the military offensive by the U.S.-backed militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces and led to a dayslong standoff with the militants who refuse to surrender and prevented the civilians from leaving.

It was not immediately clear what prompted the evacuation on Wednesday, although food supplies and ammunition for the besieged militants have been fast diminishing.

An Associated Press team in Baghouz counted at least 18 trucks that emerged through a humanitarian corridor used in past weeks to evacuate people from the militants’ last patch of territory along the river.

Women, children and men, some with checkered headscarves, or keffiyehs, could be seen through a flap opening on the flatbed trucks. One man carried a crutch; the women were engulfed in conservative black garments covering their faces known as niqabs.

There were reports of IS militants surrendering, but the U.S.-led coalition said those reports could not be independently verified. In a tweet, it said the SDF continue to receive civilians attempting to escape to safety and the most hardened IS fighters still remain in Baghouz.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed militia spearheading the fight against IS in Syria, confirmed the trucks were carrying civilians out of the enclave.

The number of those evacuated was not clear, nor whether IS militants were also on board the trucks.

On Tuesday, Bali said a military operation aimed at ousting the extremists from the area will begin if they don’t surrender, adding that such an operation would take place after separating or evacuating the civilians from the militants.

An SDF commander, Zana Amedi, said most of the militants remaining inside the enclave are seriously wounded or sick.

The Islamic State group has been reduced from its self-proclaimed “caliphate” that once spread across much of Syria and Iraq at its height in 2014 to a speck of land on the countries’ shared border.

The SDF has been encircling the remaining IS-held territory for days, waiting to declare the territorial defeat of the extremist group.

Nearly 20,000 civilians had left the shrinking area in recent weeks before the evacuation halted last week when the militants closed all the roads out of the tiny area.

The Conversation

Iraq’s brutal crackdown on suspected Islamic State supporters could trigger civil war

February 20, 2019

Authors

Eric Keels, Research Associate at One Earth Future Foundation & Research Fellow at the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee

Angela D. Nichols, Assistant Professor, Florida Atlantic University

Disclosure statement: Eric Keels receives funding from The National Science Foundation. Angela D. Nichols does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Large portions of the Islamic State in Iraq have been either killed, captured or forced underground over the past three years.

Eleven years after the U.S. invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, triggering a war between Islamic State militants and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, Iraq has finally achieved some measure of stability.

But the Iraqi government isn’t taking any chances that this terrorist organization, commonly known as “IS,” could regroup.

Over 19,000 Iraqis suspected of collaborating with IS have been detained in Iraq since the beginning of 2013, according to Human Rights Watch. Most of them are Sunni Muslims, according to reporting by Ben Taub of the New Yorker. Sunnis are members of the sect of Islam from which IS predominantly recruits.

Suspected terrorists are often tortured into offering confessions that justify death sentences at trial. According to Amnesty International, common forms of torture include “beatings on the head and body with metal rods and cables, suspension in stress positions by the arms or legs, electric shocks, and threats of rape of female relatives.”

The government’s crackdown on Sunnis – even those with no evidence of ties with Islamic militants – sends a troubling signal about Iraq’s prospects for peace.

Our research into conflict zones shows that when post-war governments use violence against citizens, it greatly increases the risk of renewed civil war.

Repression following civil wars

The period after an armed conflict is fragile. Citizens traumatized by violence wish fervently for peace. Defeated armed factions may have their sights set on revenge. The post-war government’s priority, meanwhile, is to consolidate its control over the country. Sometimes, leaders use violent repression to ensure their grip on power. It is a risky strategy.

We studied 63 countries where civil war occurred between 1976 and 2005, including El Salvador, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The results, which were published in the academic journal Conflict, Security and Development in January, show a 95 percent increase of another civil war in places where governments engaged in the kind of torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances that Iraq’s government is now undertaking.

Civil war is most likely to break out in former conflict zones if civilians believe they will be targeted by the state regardless of whether or not they actually support an insurgency.

Often, our results show, people respond to indiscriminate clampdowns by arming themselves. That is easy to do in conflict zones, which are home to many former rebels with extensive battlefield training and access to weapons, including both active militant groups and the remnants of vanquished insurgencies.

Assessing the risk of renewed war in Iraq

Sadly, Iraq has been down this road before.

In 2007, the U.S. military surge sent more than 20,000 additional American troops into combat in Iraq to help the government of Nuri al-Maliki – which came to power after Hussein’s demise – fight Al-Qaida and other Islamic militants.

The U.S. enlisted Sunni insurgents to help them find, capture or kill Al-Qaida operatives during this period of the Iraq war, which is often called “the surge.”

That decision inflamed the centuries-old sectarian divide between Iraq’s two dominant religious groups, Sunni and Shia Muslims.

During former Iraqi President Hussein’s rule, Sunni Muslims controlled the country, and his government actively repressed Shia citizens. Since Hussein’s ouster, however, Iraq’s government has been run by Shia Muslims.

After the U.S. withdrew its troops in 2011, the U.S.-backed al-Maliki government began a brutal campaign to consolidate its authority. From 2012 to 2013, he expelled all Sunni officials from Iraq’s government and silenced opponents using torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances.

At the time, our study of renewed fighting in conflict zones had just begun. The preliminary findings made us concerned that al-Maliki’s use of violence to assert control over Iraq could restart the civil war by pushing angry Sunnis into the arms of militant groups.

Unfortunately, we were right.

Starting in 2014, the Islamic State began moving swiftly from Syria – where it was based – to conquer major cities across neighboring western Iraq.

Iraqi Sunnis, who were excluded from politics after Hussein’s overthrow and fearful of government repression, did little to stop the incursion. Islamic militants increased their recruitment among Iraqi Sunnis by promising a return to Sunni dominance in Iraq.

Many Sunnis took up arms against their own government not because they supported IS’s goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East but because they hated al-Maliki’s administration.

By June 2014, the Islamic State had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, just 250 miles north of Baghdad. It took three years of fighting and the combined force of Iraqi, U.S. and Kurdish troops, as well as Iranian-backed militias, to rid the country of this terrorist organization.

In September 2017, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Abadi claimed victory over IS in Iraq. The international community turned its focus toward Syria, where Islamic militants were continuing their war on citizens and the government.

What’s next for Iraq

Still, the Islamic State remains a persistent and legitimate threat to both Syria and Iraq, with some 30,000 active fighters in the region. Its commanders have reportedly buried large stockpiles of munitions in Iraq in preparation for renewed war.

American intelligence officials have warned against President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying it will give IS more freedom to regroup there and in Iraq.

The Iraqi government’s crackdown on Sunnis is, in part, an effort to eliminate this threat, since IS could draw renewed support from disaffected Sunni Iraqis across the border.

But many observers think Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi is also exacting revenge on Sunnis for previously joining IS in armed warfare against Iraq’s government.

Rather than prevent more fighting, our research suggests, Iraq’s clampdown on Sunnis may spark another civil war.

The Conversation

What alchemy and astrology can teach artificial intelligence researchers

February 21, 2019

Author: Ben Shneiderman, Professor of Computer Science, University of Maryland

Disclosure statement: Ben Shneiderman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Artificial intelligence researchers and engineers have spent a lot of effort trying to build machines that look like humans and operate largely independently. Those tempting dreams have distracted many of them from where the real progress is already happening: in systems that enhance – rather than replace – human capabilities. To accelerate the shift to new ways of thinking, AI designers and developers could take some lessons from the missteps of past researchers.

For example, alchemists, like Isaac Newton, pursued ambitious goals such as converting lead to gold, creating a panacea to cure all diseases, and finding potions for immortality. While these goals are alluring, the charlatans pursuing them may have secured princely financial backing that would have been better used developing modern chemistry.

Equally optimistically, astrologers believed they could understand human personality based on birthdates and predict future events by studying the positions of the stars and planets. These promises over the past thousand years often received kingly endorsement, possibly slowing the work of those who were adopting scientific methods that eventually led to astronomy.

As alchemy and astrology evolved, the participants became more deliberate and organized – what might now be called more scientific – about their studies. That shift eventually led to important findings in chemistry, such as those by Lavoisier and Priestley in the 18th century. In astronomy, Kepler and Newton himself made significant findings in the 17th and 18th centuries. A similar turning point is coming for artificial intelligence. Bold innovators are putting aside tempting but impractical dreams of anthropomorphic designs and excessive autonomy. They focus on systems that restore, rely on, and expand human control and responsibility.

Updating early AI dreams

Back in the 1950s, artificial intelligence researchers pursued big goals, such as human-level computational intelligence and machine consciousness. Even during the past 20 years some researchers worked toward the “singularity” fantasy of machines that are superior to humans in every way. These dreams succeeded in attracting attention from sympathetic journalists and financial backing from government and industry. But to me, those aspirations still seem like counterproductive wishful thinking and B-level science fiction.

Even the dream of creating a human-shaped robot that acted like a person has lasted for more than 50 years. Honda’s near-life-size Asimo and the web-based news reader Ananova got a lot of media attention. Hanson Robotics’ Sophia even received Saudi Arabian citizenship and spoke at the United Nations. But they have little commercial future.

By contrast, down-to-earth user-centered designs for information search, e-commerce sites, social media and smartphone apps have been wild successes. There is good reason that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are some of the world’s biggest companies – they all use more functional, if less glamorous, types of AI.

Today’s cellphones feature speech recognition, face recognition and automated translation, which all use artificial intelligence technologies. These functions increase human control and give users more options, without the deception and theatrics of a humanoid robot.

Yielding control

Efforts that pursue advanced forms of computer autonomy are also dangerous. When developers assume their machines will function correctly, they often shortchange interfaces that would allow human users to quickly take control when something goes wrong.

These problems can be deadly. In the October 2018 crash of Lion Air’s Boeing 737 Max, a sensor failure caused the newly designed automatic pilot to steer the plane downwards. The pilots couldn’t figure out how to override those automatic controls to keep the plane in the air. Similar problems have been factors in stock market “flash crashes,” like the 2010 event in which US$1 trillion disappeared in 36 minutes. And poorly designed medical devices have delivered deadly doses of medications.

The National Transportation Safety Board report on the deadly May 2016 Tesla crash called for automated systems to keep detailed records that would allow investigators to analyze failures. Those insights would lead to safer and more effective designs.

Getting to human-centered solutions

Successful automation is all around: Navigation applications give drivers control by showing times for alternative routes. E-commerce websites show shoppers options, customer reviews and clear pricing so they can find and order the goods they need. Elevators, clothes-washing machines and airline check-in kiosks, too, have meaningful controls that enable users to get what they need done quickly and reliably. When modern cameras assist photographers in taking properly focused and exposed photos, users have a sense of mastery and accomplishment for composing the image, even as they get assistance with optimizing technical details.

Without being human-like or fully independent, these and thousands of other applications enable users to accomplish their tasks with self-confidence and sometimes even pride.

A new report from a leading engineering industry professional group urges technologists to ignore tempting fantasies. Rather, the report suggests, developers should focus on technologies that support human performance and are more immediately useful.

In a flourishing automation-enhanced world, clear, convenient interfaces could let humans control automation to make the most of people’s initiative, creativity and responsibility. The most successful machines could be powerful tools that let users carry out ever-richer tasks with confidence, such as helping architects find innovative ways to design energy-efficient buildings, and giving journalists tools to dig deeper into data to detect fraud and corruption. Other machines could detect – not contribute to – problems like unsafe medical conditions and bias in mortgage loan approvals. Perhaps they could even advise the people responsible on ways to fix things.

Humans are accomplished at building tools that expand their creativity – and then at using those tools in even more innovative ways than their designers intended. In my view, it’s time to let more people be more creative more of the time, by shifting away from the alchemy and astrology phase of AI research.

Technology designers who appreciate and amplify the key aspects of humanity are most likely to invent the next generation of powerful tools. These designers will shift from trying to replace or simulate human behavior in machines to building wildly successful applications that people love to use.

Children ride in the back of a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/02/web1_122367083-23e69ced10dd415b810a1d667e80a9f8.jpgChildren ride in the back of a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Humvee stands by as a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, passes in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/02/web1_122367083-9f4840faee5e4be2ba0730dbb9fcf4b5.jpgA U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Humvee stands by as a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, passes in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Children ride in the back of a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
https://www.sunburynews.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/02/web1_122367083-cdacd72f97814a1b8d1e14c2d22122e3.jpgChildren ride in the back of a truck that is part of a convoy evacuating hundreds out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in Baghouz, eastern Syria, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. The evacuation signals the end of a week long standoff and opens the way to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recapture the territory. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
News & Views

Staff & Wire Reports