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How The U.S. ‘Train And Equip’ Program In Syria Collapsed

By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

REYHANLI, Turkey — When the first group of Syrians from a U.S.-trained force intended to combat Islamic State crossed into their country from Turkey in mid-July, they arrived in uniform carrying M16 rifles, mortars and flak vests. But they had no expense money, little food and no clear idea of how they, just 54 men, were to battle the extremists.

Most had been in near-total isolation during their two months of training in Turkey and Jordan, and they wanted to see their families, many of which had been under government bombardment. And it was Ramadan, a month of fasting, so they voted to take a two-week break, according to their elected commander, a former Syrian army lieutenant colonel, Amin Ibrahim.

Disaster struck when the break was over and they headed back to their base. On July 29, a day after U.S. aircraft had attacked an outpost of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, Nusra seized Col. Nedim Hassan — the commander of Division 30, the rebel unit in which the trainees were to be embedded — and seven of his men.

Then, on July 31, Nusra attacked the headquarters of the division in a battle that ended with U.S. airstrikes and ground intervention by Kurdish militias. As many as 50 Nusra members died in the fighting, according to some reports, but Nusra managed to seize 10 graduates of the so-called train-and-equip program.

Ten weeks later, the Pentagon announced that it halted the program, which until that moment had been the keystone of the Obama administration’s policy to combat Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in Syria.

The program’s demise has been attributed to a number of factors, including the participants, the Turkish intelligence agency MIT and a Syrian militia, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, better known as the YPG.

But the primary factor may well have been the United States itself, which conceived of a program that didn’t have the support of the people it was intended to train and was viewed with deep skepticism by its key training partner, Turkey.

Adding to the calamity was the ill-timed U.S. airstrike against Nusra, a force that could easily avenge its losses by targeting the train-and-equip units as they returned to their base from their unscheduled home leave.

Interviews with two Syrian rebel officers and two recruits who were involved in the training course depict a program that was chaotic from the beginning, with daily arguments over goals, low morale among the participants and clashes over resources, from food supplies to armed escorts.

Even Ibrahim, the trainees’ commander, said he contemplated quitting. He didn’t only because he knew it would doom the effort. “I’m the commander. If I quit, everyone will,” he said he’d often thought.

But Ibrahim said he never bought into the training mission’s goal of targeting Islamic State before turning to battle the government of President Bashar Assad.

“Every day I had a meeting with them,” Ibrahim said of the American trainers, who numbered one for every two trainees. “I told them the whole idea is wrong. I said: ‘We are Syrians. Our problem is with the regime. Help us to get rid of the regime.’ The response was: ‘You should not shoot a bullet against the regime,'” he said.

More than once, “we all got up and walked out.” Sometimes the Turkish trainers asked the Americans to leave the room. “Either follow what the Syrians say or just leave,” he quoted the Turkish trainers as saying. The Turks “were always on our side,” Ibrahim said.

Officials in the office of the Turkish prime minister and the Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. A Turkish security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak for publication did not comment specifically on the allegation of tension between Turkish and American trainers, but made it clear that

Turkish officials were skeptical of the program. “The Americans live in a fictive world,” he said.

U.S. officials responded to several questions about the program but were reluctant to discuss trainees’ alleged discontent.

“These are all good questions,” said a defense official who also wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “All I can say is that we work with thousands of Arabs” through a new Arab-Kurdish alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Syrian Arabs “are very supportive and fighting alongside the SDF daily.”

Asked about the Syrian fighters’ complaints, Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, spoke of the program’s accomplishments.

“We were able to train over 150 Syrian fighters in the program, many of whom remain active in the fight” against Islamic State, “but over time assessed the program was not working out as we had hoped. So we decided to end it,” he said in an email.

The tension hardly helped the morale of his men, Ibrahim said. “They hated the program. Every day we told them, ‘We want to go home.'”

None of those strains were evident in public testimony in Washington, where senators in September declared the $500 million program a failure, or on Oct. 9, when the Pentagon announced that it was ending the effort.

A 23-year-old recruit who was interviewed in Adana, Turkey, and who asked to be called only Mahmoud for security reasons, echoed Ibrahim’s comments on the mission. During his training in Jordan and in Turkey, “we told them that ISIS is bad, but the regime is worse. If you want to get rid of ISIS, get rid of the regime.”

The trainers were unbendable in following the dictates of the congressional act that funded the $500 million program: “No, let’s focus on the Islamic State and then you will fight the regime,” Mahmoud quoted the Americans as saying.

Another source of tension was the growing relationship between the United States and the Kurdish YPG militia, which in the first six months of the year had, with U.S. air support, forced Islamic State from dozens of villages in northern Syria. Syrian Arab fighters distrust the YPG, in part because of longtime ethnic rivalries and in part because they’re convinced it still has ties to the Syrian government. Assad police and government offices still function in key parts of Kurdish-controlled areas.

When Division 30 was being set up at the end of April and early May, Col. Mohammad Daher, the new unit’s chief of staff, had several meetings with Kurdish officials in Afrin, a Kurdish area northwest of Aleppo, Syria. He noted then that the YPG seemed to be flourishing, despite the presence of government police and intelligence.

“They have an army, and an army needs a state for support,” Daher said, hinting that the backing came from the Syrian government, something Assad confirmed in an interview this month with The Sunday Times of London, according to a transcript of the interview.

From his contacts, Daher said, he became convinced that the Kurdish militia would prefer to let Islamic State seize the entire northern countryside. “Then it’s our chance to attack” the religious extremists and take control of the territory, he said the Kurds had in mind. When the YPG invited Daher to merge his fighters with theirs, he was immediately suspicious that the Kurds’ real hope was “to neutralize as many people as they can” in the Arab rebel ranks.

But it was Daher’s belief that the U.S. wanted the YPG to play a leading role that doomed his support. He felt that the site the U.S. had picked for Division 30 headquarters merely confirmed American favoritism toward the Kurdish forces — Maryameen, west of the border town of Azaz, and just 5 miles from the Kurd-controlled Afrin area. Turkey, and Daher, had wanted it in the front-line town of Mar’e, which is threatened by Islamic State. “But the Americans wanted it close to where the Kurds are,” he said.

The U.S. defense official dismissed Daher’s concern as a “conspiracy theory.”

At Col. Nedim Hassan’s request, Daher submitted 70 names for admission to the U.S. training program. The Americans accepted 30 and Daher, who was concerned about taking too many fighters from the front lines in Aleppo — where they were confronting not just government forces but also Islamic State — sent 15 to be trained, he said. Others came from Hama province, Ibrahim’s home area.

The training was high quality, particularly in Turkey, according to recruit Mahmoud, who also had trained in Jordan. The day began at 5 a.m. and after an hour of sports and breakfast, there were six hours of classroom instruction or training with weapons.

But although their task was to fight Islamic State, which relies on suicide car and truck bombs as its weapon of choice, there was no training on TOW anti-tank missiles, the only effective defense against suchattacks. Only two of the 54 were trained as spotters to call in airstrikes.

The U.S. trainers tried to boost morale with promises.

“‘You are the first group. We will not give up on you, whatever happens,'” Mahmoud recalled the U.S. officers saying. They even promised more air protection than what was being given to Kurds. “‘We will give you more support than in Kobani. You will be protected,'” he said he was told.

But the group had a rocky re-entry. First, Daher’s request that 1,000 armed men from Division 30 accompany the 54 trainees back to Syria was not fulfilled. The 200 men who arrived to provide an escort ended up leaving the trainees on their own, miffed that the Americans hadn’t provided them with ammunition, food or money.

And operational security was lax. They crossed at the much-trafficked Bab al Salaam entry, though Daher had asked the Americans to pick a more isolated point. Worse, the fighters were photographed — apparently by another group — as they crossed.

The last straw was the amount of food the Americans provided — 200 pounds of rice and 200 pounds of kidney beans, enough for each of the course graduates for a week or two, but not for their families, who are in dire financial straits. That’s when the group voted to take two weeks off and go home.

“That was a mistake,” Daher said. Ibrahim concurred. “It was not a good idea. But they’d been disconnected from the world. They asked, and we agreed. We are in a revolution, not standard military life. If you say no, they’ll just go anyway.”

At that point, the question was who would pay for the transport. Although each recruit had earned $225 a month for the two months of training, none had money for expenses.
So Ibrahim paid for 13 of his men to go to Hama. It cost $175, “two-thirds of my salary,” he said. The Americans wouldn’t reimburse him. “They said they didn’t ask me to send the men to Hama,” he said.

On July 28, according to the U.S. Central Command, the U.S. military conducted an airstrike “against a network of veteran al-Qaida operatives,” a part of the Nusra Front the U.S. has called the Khorasan Group. The attack struck a tactical unit and destroyed a vehicle, according to U.S. Central Command.

Nusra retaliated the next day, detaining Hassan minutes after he crossed into Syria from Turkey.

The conflict with Nusra was just beginning. On July 31, Nusra attacked the Division 30 base at 4 a.m. Daher, claiming advance word of the attack, said he informed the U.S. military at midnight that an assault was coming. Lacking secure communications, he sent the SOS via cellphone using WhatsApp, an encrypted smartphone application.

What happened next is disputed. Daher said the U.S. didn’t counterattack until 6 a.m., and then used airstrikes only against the Nusra base in nearby Azaz as YPG troops joined the battle at the Division 30 base. A Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Roger Cabiness, said that according to Central Command reports, less than an hour elapsed between notification of the attack and the first airstrike. And he said the coalition strikes hit Nusra forces, not their headquarters.

Division 30 counted six dead and 17 wounded, but Nusra’s losses were said to be much greater. That same afternoon, Nusra detained 10 graduates of train-and-equip as they crossed its checkpoints, later releasing five.

That battle was not enough to kill the program. That didn’t happen for another month, after a second group of trainees was found to have handed over weapons to the Nusra Front.

When the Pentagon announced that the program was ending it said the balance of the $500 million would go to equip Syrian Kurdish fighters and others who over the preceding months had become the most important U.S. anti-Islamic State ally in northern Syria.

But most of it had already been spent. The program cost just $30,000 per recruit and had graduated only 180 trainees when it was ended, Cabiness said. Yet the program spent $384 million, Warren said.

Of that amount, $325 million was used to buy equipment that included 4,000 weapons, 1,000 vehicles, communications gear and ammunition, Warren said. The rest covered infrastructure improvements, airlifts and other costs. Less than $160,000 was spent on the monthly stipend for the trained forces, he said.

Of the 180 trainees, 145 remain active, Cabiness said, about 95 of whom are operating in Syria. Thirty-five graduates “are no longer considered active,” he said. He didn’t say whether they’d been killed or had merely faded away.

(James Rosen in Washington and special correspondent Zakaria Zakaria in Reyhanli and Adana contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: In this photo provided by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on his Twitter site, McCain visits troops at a Patriot missile site in southern Turkey, Monday, May 27, 2013. McCain quietly slipped into Syria for a meeting with Syrian rebels on Monday, confirms spokeswoman Rachael Dean. She declined further comment about the trip. (AP Photo/John McCain via Twitter)

In A Tehran Without Nightlife, A Bridge Becomes A Gathering Place

By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

TEHRAN, Iran – In a city ruled by the automobile, where crossing the street entails risking your life and a real downtown doesn’t exist, there could hardly be a more unusual weekend destination than the newly built Tabiat Bridge – perched over a busy expressway.

Not quite a year after opening to the public, this undulating, multilevel pedestrian bridge, with its curving walkways and sloping ramps, benches and cafes, has become the go-to place for young people on Friday or Saturday evenings. They stroll about with their friends, listening to music and showing the sort the intimacy between the sexes that the Islamic Republic frowns on in public places.

With well-tended parks at either end, the city lights twinkling to the south and traffic moving slowly on the Modarres highway below, the 890-foot-long bridge has become a gathering point for people from all over the city of 8.3 million.

It’s a new symbol for the Iranian capital, its popularity due in no small part to the fact that, in Tehran, there’s nowhere else to go.

“If I had a choice, I’d rather be at a rock concert,” said Soheil, a 20-year-old basketball coach who is getting a bachelor’s degree in physical education and asked to be identified only by his first name. “But the government always bans them.”

Soheil was among the crowd of people who packed the bridge on a Friday evening. In Aab-o-Atash Park, at the bridge’s eastern end, children frolicked in dancing water fountains as families played no-net badminton. In hilly, wooded Taleghani Park at the bridge’s western end, strollers walked along well-landscaped paths.

Gholamhassein Karbaschi, the former Tehran mayor renowned as the master builder of the city’s burgeoning park system, had Iran’s social constraints in mind when he launched the growth of the system, as did the young architect who designed the bridge at age 21.

“We don’t have dance clubs and nightclubs,” said Karabaschi, a reformist who served as mayor from 1991 to 1999 and might have been a candidate for national president until he was jailed on corruption charges in what appeared to be a political frame-up. Parks are “the only place people can go.”

With support from Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the centrist president who recruited him, and from his successor, reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Karabaschi built on a comprehensive urban plan designed before the Islamic revolution. He insisted on the best experts and architects available and rode herd during construction.

“I supervised all the details,” he told McClatchy.

It was thanks to a contest that Leila Araghian, then 26, was able to design the Tabiat Bridge. “They wanted something complex, to give an identity to those areas and become a symbol of Tehran,” she said. But Araghian wanted “something modest, but that has character and is interesting enough to have an identity.”

The result is not a utilitarian passage from one point to another, but a path full of unexpected turns, features and vistas. The bridge curves, blurring the destination, “so you won’t know where it is taking you.”

Having won the competition in 2008, Araghian then went to the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, where she wrote her thesis analyzing her own project. Her theme was “Modesty, Serendipity and Silence.”

It’s a very Iranian approach to design, she said. In Kashan, a city in central Iran, houses all have mud walls and a simple door as the entrance, and the way into the house is through a corridor, which then opens onto a huge garden. But there may also be a hidden private garden, where strangers are not welcome.

“It’s a labyrinthine style of building. You discover it through a continuous journey.” And she discovered that that is what drove her design. “I was not aware that that is how I think,” she said.

“The bridge is a serendipitous space,” she said. “When you hide things, there is a chance of discovering. And the excitement you have when you discover it by yourself is a better feeling than when you are expecting it.”

Photo: Blondinrikard Fröberg via Flickr 

Obama’s Decision To Aid Kobani Puts Him Squarely At Odds With Turkey’s Erdogan

By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Washington Bureau

ISTANBUL — In air-dropping weapons and ammunition to Kurdish defenders of a Syrian town, President Barack Obama has embroiled the United States all the more deeply in two very different confrontations — one with the Islamic State extremists and the other with NATO ally Turkey.
That combination complicates Obama’s prospect for success at Kobani, even with a coalition of more than 60 countries behind him.
The main clash is with the Islamic State, which has been pouring reinforcements into the Kobani area and shows no sign of letting up. The U.S. response, 135 airstrikes through Sunday, hasn’t secured the nearly-empty town, and indeed on Sunday, the Islamic extremists stepped up their battle, raining rockets and mortars on the Kurdish defenders.
Kobani desperately needs troop reinforcements, but because the Islamic State controls the Syrian territory between Iraqi Kurdistan, which might be willing to provide them, and Kobani, there’s almost no way to send in additional forces except via Turkey.
And this is where Obama’s second confrontation comes in–with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two now are in flat disagreement over the fate of the enclave, which lies directly on the Syrian-Turkish border. Ankara is willing to let it fall, and Washington clearly isn’t.
The rulers of Kobani, the Democratic Union Party or PYD, are affiliated with the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party or PKK, which has waged a 30-year guerrilla war against the Turkish state. Turkey, the United States and the European Union all have labeled the PKK as a terrorist organization.
So Erdogan has strong domestic political reasons for not coming to Kobani’s rescue.
“As far as we are concerned the PKK is the equivalent of ISIS. Therefore it is wrong to consider them separately,” Erdogan said early this month, referring to the Islamic State by one of its alternative names. His remarks made clear that so long as the PKK affiliate controls Kobani, Turkey would provide no military assistance.
Ten days ago, Erdogan said it was likely to fall, a statement that enraged Turkey’s Kurdish population and may have given the signal to the Islamic State to go for the kill by sending more fighters and heavy weaponry. U.S.-led airstrikes stepped up dramatically, turning Kobani into the single biggest battle of the U.S.-led war with the Islamic State.
Shortly before the U.S. began its weapons drops from C-130 cargo aircraft, Erdogan said he would have no part of it.
“At the moment, the PYD is equal with the PKK for us. It is also a terrorist organization. It would be very wrong for America — with whom we are allies and who we are together with in NATO–to expect us to say ‘yes’ after openly announcing such support for a terrorist organization,” Erdogan told reporters on board his plane returning from a visit to Afghanistan.
The United States, he said, “cannot expect such a thing from us and we cannot say ‘yes’ to such a thing either.”
Erdogan, a self-confident leader, is unlikely to back down, and now that Obama has doubled his bets by air-dropping weapons to Kobani, seems equally unlikely to retreat.
Erdogan has been a reluctant partner in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, charging that the U.S. has no strategy in Syria for removing President Bashar Assad, whom it views as the major reason for the rise of the Islamic State.
Bordering Iraq and Syria and with a major U.S. air base at Incirlik, Turkey is ideally located to provide military facilities and every other sort of assistance in the battle against the Islamic State.
But on Sunday, Erdogan made it clear that he still is holding out on the use of Incirlik in the air war against the Islamic State — the Obama administration’s foremost request.
“The Incirlik issue is a separate issue,” he told reporters on his plane. “What are they asking for with regard to Incirlik? That’s not clear yet. If there is something we deem appropriate, we would discuss it with our security forces, and we would say ‘yes.’ But if it is not appropriate, then saying ‘yes’ is not possible for us either.”
Erdogan’s defiance of his U.S. ally may have a limit. Obama’s move to save Kobani is bound to be welcomed by Kurds, who comprise at least 12 million of Turkey’s 78 million population.
Erdogan has to be careful not to touch off another round of demonstrations that could turn into riots as they did two weeks ago, when at least 35 people died in protests against his failure to help save Kobani.

AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic

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Kerry: U.S. Troops Might Deploy To Iraq If There Are ‘Very Dramatic Changes’

By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Foreign Staff

BAGHDAD — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the possibility Wednesday that U.S. troops might be committed to ground operations in Iraq in extreme circumstances, the first hedging by an administration official on President Barack Obama’s pledge that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground to battle the Islamic State.

Kerry made the comment during a news conference after a day of meeting with Iraqi officials, who he said hadn’t requested or shown any desire to have U.S. troops or forces from any nation in Iraq to confront the Islamic State, the extremist organization that’s now in control of more than a third of the country’s territory.

Kerry reiterated that Obama has said no U.S. combat troops would be deployed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, before adding, “Unless, obviously, something very, very dramatic changes.”

That formulation hasn’t been used previously by administration officials in discussing the growing U.S. confrontation with the Islamic State, and it’s sure to feed concerns that the United States may be making a greater commitment to a new conflict in the Middle East than it first intended.

In announcing the authorization for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq in August, Obama said they’d be limited to preventing Islamic State attacks on the Yazidi religious minority and to stopping any Islamic State advance on the Kurdish capital of Irbil. Since then, the United States has provided close air support for Kurdish troops fighting to recapture the Mosul Dam, Iranian-trained Shiite Muslim militias breaking the Islamic State siege of Amerli, and Sunni Muslim tribesmen battling to push Islamic State forces from towns near Haditha.

Kerry didn’t elaborate on what dramatic change might prompt the United States to commit ground forces, and it wasn’t clear whether his statement reflected administration policy. There was no immediate reaction from the White House.

Kerry said Iraqi leaders had promised him that they’d move swiftly to resolve the grievances of the Sunni and Kurdish communities, both of which are unhappy with the way the new Iraqi government was assembled.

Kerry praised the newly elected government, headed by veteran Shiite politician Haider al-Abadi, and said he’d received assurances that addressing the grievances of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and Kurds was a top priority of the government.

He said Obama had sent him on the unannounced visit “to underscore to the people of Iraq that we will stand by them in this effort … and overcome the threat they face today.”

AFP Photo/Lucas Jackson

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‘Chocolate King’ Is Landslide Winner In Ukraine, Rejects Annexation Of Crimea

By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Foreign Staff

DONETSK, Ukraine — Ukrainians on Sunday appeared to have chosen Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire “Chocolate King,” as their first president since a pro-European revolution ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Exit polls showed Poroshenko winning at least of 55.9 per cent of the vote, a result that if confirmed by the official count would be landslide over Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, in a field of 19 candidates. With Poroshencko winning an absolute majority of the votes, there will be no need for a second round.

Tymoshenko, who the exit polls gave at most 12.8 per cent of the vote, conceded defeat. She declared the outcome “democratic,” indicating that she will not contest it.

Poroschenko said in Kiev that his first action as president will be to visit the embattled eastern Ukrainian area know as Donbas, where armed separatists, with the backing of neighboring Russia, have seized police stations, staged a referendum and declared “people’s republics.”

Central authorities in Kiev called off the vote in Donbas’ main centers of Donetsk and Luhansk, angering voters who went to polling stations to register their support for a united Ukraine. But they allowed it to go forward in Mariupol, a major Donbas city, and smaller towns and villages.

Poroshenko also promised talks with Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, recently referred to eastern and southern Ukraine as “Novorossiya” or “New Russia,” implying designs on the region after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. (The two people’s republics announced Saturday they were uniting under the name “Novorossiya.”)

“Russia is our neighbor. Relations with the Russian Federation have assumed the greatest importance over the past 200 years,” Poroschenko said. “I am convinced that we can hold talks” with Russia, he said, stipulating that the U.S. and European Union must also take part in talks. “We have much to discuss,” he added.

But he stressed that Ukraine will never recognize the “illegitimate referendum” in Crimea and what he termed Russia’s “occupation.”

President Barack Obama called the election “another important step” in Kiev’s efforts “to unify the country and reach out to all of its citizens.” He noted that in parts of eastern Ukraine, “some courageous Ukrainians still were able to cast their ballots. ”

But the polls never opened in Donetsk and Lugansk, where armed separatists stalk the streets in balaclavas.

“Kiev decided that we would not open the polls in Donetsk because of threats against voters,” said Maxim Rodinsky, press secretary of the city administration, which the “Donetsk People’s Republic” hopes to supplant.

Would-be voters traveled from throughout the city of 950,000 to Donetsk’s airport after media reports Friday that a polling station would be set up there for those who couldn’t vote in their home districts. But the airport authority, fearing violence, asked that the plan to be canceled. A flag of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” hangs over the outside entrance to the departure hall.

Like many others, Klavdia Matveevna Stovbchotaya, 80, went from one school to another, hoping to vote. “I went to School Number 45 in Lenin Street, also to School 34,” she said. “Everything is closed. The directors of our schools are afraid of everything.”

“I am very angry I cannot vote,” said Max Smaga, a computer programmer who’s had to quit work because of clashes on the highway to work. “We are Ukrainians. We want to live in this country. It is our motherland.”

“I want to vote, because I want to live in a united Ukraine,” said Natalia Urievna Sedova, 56. “To vote is your duty.”

The decision by the central government led major monitoring bodies to pull out, starting with the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “What are we going to observe?” Gisella Matthei of the OSCE said. “We decided to withdraw Friday night. It’s too dangerous.”

The last monitoring group to leave was the nongovernmental Committee for Open Democracy, based in Bradenton, Fla. “We were being followed,” said John Mraz, its spokesman. “And we listened to intelligence services, who said we were being watched.”

Hooded “people’s republic” gunmen ordered him repeatedly to put away his camera, and threatened him with a switchblade knife and a gun. He recalled walking down a side street with members of his group and running into around 30 men in balaclavas, carrying bats and other weapons.

In Odessa in the country’s west, where violence in early May claimed the lives of 48 people, elections proceeded without any serious problems.

That was also true in some parts of eastern Ukraine, though voter turnout reportedly was low.

The big surprise was Mariupol, a city of a half million south of here where “people republic” gunmen seized a building and brought in mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles just a few blocks from the regional election headquarters and a polling station.

“There were no incidents, not only at our polling station but also in the whole city,” said Igor Anatolievich Shevchenko, chairman of Polling Station 14. But he said the turnout was just 10 per cent — well be the 50 per cent or more for the whole of Ukraine.

He also worried that they were not yet out of the woods.

“We still have all night to get (the results) ready — and to be scared.”

In Tel’manovo, a village visited by McClatchy on Saturday, a local administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the election had gone smoothly. “We had no cases of attack, provocation, threats, etcetera.,” he said. “Everything is all right. Only one thing is bad — the very low level of participation.”

But in Novoazovsk, a town of 30,000 where the “People’s Republic” flag hangs just below the flag of Ukraine, elections could not be conducted, because no one delivered the ballots, officials said.

Poroshenko has been a minister of trade and foreign affairs in past governments, speaks English, and has a low-key manner. The big question when he takes office is how he will manage to hold Ukraine together and cut corruption that has impoverished the countryside, particularly the Donbas region.

He must also rebuild a police force that in the east has been an enabler for the pro-Russian forces and reconstruct a military force that has proven to be ill-trained, ill-equipped and lacking the leadership to defend the country.

The “people’s republics” meanwhile are expanding their grasp of the east. On Saturday, several thousand marched on the home of Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, threatening to burn it down. Akhmetov, who employs 300,000 people in his factories and mines, has denounced the uprising and called on his employees to rally against them.

But in pollution-plagued Mariupol, where he has major holdings, employees, complaining about poor pay and working conditions, have declined to participate in the midday protests — a sign that the region’s population remains divided.

AFP Photo/Sergei Supinsky

Turkish Soldiers Inside Syria Abducted By Islamist Rebels, News Reports Say

By Roy Gutman, McClatchy Washington Bureau

ISTANBUL — Turkish troops conducting a resupply mission to a small Turkish military post inside Syrian territory were ambushed and detained Wednesday by Islamic extremists affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, according to Turkish media reports.

The troops were later returned to Turkey, news outlets in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa said. But it wasn’t clear what happened to the four armored personnel carriers they’d been traveling in. One report said ISIS had kept the vehicles, which had been seen flying ISIS flags.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday confirmed that a convoy had been sent to the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The tomb lies about 15 miles inside Syria, but Turkey claims sovereignty over the area under a 1921 territory. Erdogan said the convoy had been sent to deliver supplies to the Turkish military contingent assigned to guard the tomb.

He did not, however, mention the ISIS ambush or the abduction of the Turkish troops, an incident that could put Turkey’s military, widely regarded as the region’s best equipped, on a collision course with ISIS, whose militants are fighting both Syrian government forces and other anti-government rebel groups for control of eastern Syria.

“Right now, the issue is not about ISIS,” he told reporters in Ankara. “The job of our convoy is to transfer aid to the Suleyman Shah tomb.”

The Turkish military said the dispatch of the convoy was a planned activity, and nothing out of the ordinary.

Local news reports said the vehicles crossed into Syria from the Sursitpinar border gate and were ambushed near the town of Manbij. The troops — the exact number was not reported — were then taken to Manbij and later repatriated to Turkey, Sanliurfa.com reported, citing local Syrian sources and another unidentified source.

The news portal, without naming its source, said that the vehicles, after their capture, were being driven about with ISIS flags on them.

In mid-March, ISIS demanded that Turkey abandon its military outpost at the tomb and threatened to attack and destroy it. This apparently gave rise to a secret conversation among top Turkish officials about whether Turkey should seize the opportunity to take on ISIS, an Iraq-based offshoot of al-Qaida that is also fighting the Iraqi government for control of western Iraq and is considered a serious menace to regional stability. Al-Qaida leaders denounced the group earlier this year for disobeying orders to withdraw from Syria, where another rebel group, the Nusra Front, is al-Qaida’s recognized affiliate.

A recording of the secret conversation about a possible incursion into Syria was posted on YouTube and proved deeply embarrassing to the Erdogan government, which launched a major investigation to find the source of the security breach. The government also blocked access to YouTube and Twitter in an effort to halt dissemination of the recording.

According to news accounts, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu can be heard on the recording saying that “without a strong pretext,” Turkey would not receive support for an intervention into Syria from the United States or other allies. The chief of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, reportedly responded that “if needed, I would dispatch four men to Syria” and “have them fire eight mortar shells at the Turkish side and create an excuse for war.” He added: “We can also have them attack the tomb of Suleyman Shah as well.”

If the government was seriously considering doing anything at the time, it was put on hold following the publication of the discussion.

Based on the scanty details available Wednesday, it wasn’t possible to determine whether the resupply convoy was a genuinely routine operation or a probe to test ISIS’ intentions.

Adem Altan AFP