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Russia believes the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria is violating Damascus’s sovereignty by acting without the permission of Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A special representative of Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria and Iraq poses a serious security threat to the Middle East and beyond.

Special presidential representative Aleksandr Zmeevsky told Russia’s TASS news agency on December 30 that the recent siege in Sydney, Australia, in which a lone gunman held a number of people hostage and in which two people were killed, showed that “even in a place like Australia, at such a geographical distance from the Middle East, Islamic State’s radical ideas can be claimed by extremists in order to commit criminal acts.”

In a lengthy interview that set out Moscow’s official position on a wide range of issues in the fight against terrorism, Zmeevksy said that Russia strongly condemned the fact that militants from many different countries -- including Russia -- were fighting in the ranks of Islamic State, a phenomenon for which he blamed the group’s “propaganda machine.”

Reiterating Moscow’s line that the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria is violating Damascus’s sovereignty by acting without the permission of Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Zmeevsky accused the United States and its allies of “playing into the hands” of Islamic State propaganda and said that its air strikes were harming Syrian civilians by causing damage to infrastructure.

Asked by TASS whether the United States had “intentionally or unintentionally promoted the revitalization of IS,” Zmeevsky said that while Russia advocated a “comprehensive approach to the issue of combating international terrorism,” other countries -- the presidential representative did not name the United States specifically in his answer -- had promoted “self-serving geopolitical goals under the guise of fighting terror.”

Zmeevsky said that the threat of terrorism did not arise with the emergence of the IS group and that the phenomenon of IS developed against a background of “perennial unresolved conflicts” in the Middle East.

Again avoiding naming the United States specifically, Zmeevsky referred to another of Moscow’s criticisms -- that the United States and some of its allies had assisted Syrian rebel groups against Assad. Moscow does not make any distinction between moderate rebel groups, such as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, and Islamist or jihadi factions like Jabhat al-Nusra.

Referring to the West’s backing of the Free Syrian Army, Zmeevsky blamed the United States and its allies for exacerbating the Syrian crisis, saying that Syrian “radicals were significantly aided and had direct external sponsorship, one could say, blatant pandering to the growth of their influence and help in promoting their brands as fighters against unwanted regimes.”

Hinting once again at Russia’s argument that the U.S.-led coalition had violated Syrian sovereignty by acting without the permission of the Assad government, Zmeevsky said that Moscow “continued to insist that in no case can one consolidate the practice of using force to combat terrorism by circumventing international law on the basis of securing someone else’s one-sided geopolitical interests.”

In a likely reference to Moscow’s attempts to rekindle the failed Syrian peace talks, which would involve the Assad government and as yet unspecified opposition groups, Zmeevsky said that it was necessary to “unite all stakeholders in combating terrorism.”

Zmeevsky added that, in Russia’s view, the fight against Islamic State must be waged by “strengthening the central coordinating role of the UN on the antiterrorism track,” including via implementing UN Security Council resolutions regarding counterterrorism.

The presidential aide warned of the threat of blowback from citizens who returned to their home countries after fighting with IS in Syria, and said that Moscow is “promoting this perspective” via various international bodies such as the UN.

Zmeevsky’s comments came after the Russian Supreme Court ruled on December 29 that the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra were terrorist groups, banning them in Russia.

Following the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision, Russia’s Foreign Ministry tweeted that the move was a “step toward Russia’s fulfillment of UN Security Council resolutions 2170 and 2178.”

Security Council Resolution 2170, adopted in August, condemns the “gross, systematic, and widespread abuse” of human rights by IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and calls on member states to take measures to prevent fighters from traveling from their soil to join the groups in Syria.

Resolution 2178, adopted in September, calls on member states to prevent the “recruiting, organizing, transporting, or equipping of individuals who travel to a State other than their States of residence or nationality for the purpose of the perpetration, planning of, or participation in terrorist acts.”

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

Destruction in Aleppo following barrel bombing by Syrian government forces (file photo)

A journalist who survived detention in an Islamic State (IS) prison in Syria has told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq about the horrific torture and psychological abuse to which he was an eyewitness.

Louay Abdul-Jood, a Syrian activist and journalist, was held by Islamic State gunmen for six months before being released earlier this year in a prisoner exchange deal between the Free Syrian Army and Islamic State in Aleppo.

He told Radio Free Iraq correspondent Manar Abdul-Razzaq that he and a cameraman for the French news agency AFP were abducted by Islamic State gunmen on November 28, 2013, in an Islamic State-controlled area of Aleppo.

“On November 28, 2013, the first explosive-filled drum was dropped on Aleppo, in an Islamic State-controlled district. I made my way to the site along with an AFP cameraman. It seems that someone recognized me as soon as we got there. They placed their silencer-equipped guns to our heads, bound us, and transferred us to the children's hospital,” Abdul-Jood said.

After a fellow journalist recognized Abdul-Jood and vouched for him, he and the AFP cameraman were bundled back into an Islamic State vehicle and driven to a prison about four or five hours away.

In the prison, Abdul-Jood says he recognized a number of other journalists. Thirteen of them were foreigners, including James Foley, he recalls.

Foley was executed by Islamic State in August.

Abdul-Jood says that the prison officials were foreign fighters from France, Tunisia, and Morocco, while a “Russian named Khaled” was responsible for torturing detainees.

“Most of the prisoners were not treated with beatings, but were mostly subjected to psychological methods: putting a knife close to your neck saying that you will be slaughtered. This treatment was long-term and had a greater effect than physical abuse,” Abdul-Jood told Radio Free Iraq.

Abdul-Jood’s Islamic State captors accused him of “being secular” and of belonging to the Free Syrian Army.

“They accused me of belonging to the Journalists Union and of being in a sinful relationship with a female activist whom I will not name,” he added.

While Islamic State militants subjected the captured journalists to psychological abuse, when Abdul-Jood and others were transferred to another prison they saw that nonjournalist inmates were subjected to extreme physical torture.

“For example, one man [was] hanging upside down and having his feet sliced with razors before putting alcohol on the cuts. They then put electric contacts into his wounds and then plugged them into an outlet,” Abdul-Jood recalled.

The prison used by Islamic State was originally a potato warehouse in an industrial area, Abu-Jood said. Prisoners were held there in isolation cells in total darkness.

“A man then enters and opens a window and says, ‘You will be killed, but not today. Tomorrow, God willing,’” said Abdul-Jood.

Abdul-Jood says that he was sentenced to death by a judge named Abu Ammar al-Massri, but the Syrian Free Army demanded he be returned as part of a prisoner exchange.

The Islamic State group has abducted a number of Syrian and foreign journalists in Syria and Iraq.

The militant group has executed two Western journalists -- Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff -- as well as two aid workers, Briton David Haines and an American, Abdul-Rahman Kassig.

Another British journalist, John Cantlie, remains a hostage and has been apparently forced to make a number of video addresses for the extremist group.

Local Syrian journalists are reportedly the majority of the estimated 22 journalists being held hostage by the Islamic State group, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Earlier this month, two Kurdish journalists were also reportedly captured by Islamic State militants on the Syria-Iraq border.

In Iraq, Islamic State militants have also targeted local journalists. The group beheaded four journalists in Iraq in November, according to reports. The four are thought to be among the 12 journalists abducted by Islamic State earlier that month.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

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About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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