Losing in Iraq, militants seek to shore up Syria presence

A Syrian national flag flutters next to Daesh's slogan at a roundabout where executions were carried out by the militants in the city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, in this file photo. (Reuters)
Updated 21 January 2017
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Losing in Iraq, militants seek to shore up Syria presence

BEIRUT: Daesh is fighting hard to reinforce its presence in Syria as it loses ground in Iraq, deploying fighters to seize full control of a government-held city in the east while at the same time battling enemies on three other fronts.
It underlines the residual strength of Daesh even after its loss of a cluster of cities in Iraq and half of Mosul, and points up the challenges facing US President Donald Trump in the war he has vowed to wage against the group.
The militants have opened their most ferocious assault yet to capture the last Syrian government-controlled area in the eastern province of Deir Al-Zor, a pocket of Deir Al-Zor city that is surrounded by Daesh territory.
The assault has raised fears for tens of thousands of people living under government authority in the city. Their only supply route has been cut off since Daesh severed the road to the nearby air base earlier this week.
A military commander in the alliance of forces fighting in support of President Bashar Assad said Daesh was seeking to turn Deir Al-Zor city into a base of operations.
“They want to take it by force — and right now,” said the commander, a non-Syrian who declined to be identified because he is not an official spokesman for the alliance that includes a range of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Russian air force.
“The situation in Deir Al-Zor is very difficult.”
Daesh appears focused on strengthening its hold over a triangle of Syrian territory connecting its main base of operations — Raqqa city — with Palmyra to the southwest and Deir Al-Zor to the southeast.
Daesh fighters are also putting up stiff resistance against separate campaigns being waged against them in northern Syria, one by US-backed militias including Kurdish groups, and another by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups.
“They are able to fight on four fronts, if they were in a state of great weakness, they would not be able to do this,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organization reporting on the war.
A senior commander in the pro-Assad alliance, also a non-Syrian, said: “The strength of Daesh is that it is a cancerous tumor, and when you remove it from one place, it goes to another.”
The commander urged the US-led alliance and “every air force” to attack Daesh to stop it moving its convoys in the Deir Al-Zor area, an apparent sign of dissatisfaction with the current level of support from the Russian Air Force there.

‘Final battle’
Though Daesh has faced military pressure in Deir Al-Zor province, including raids by US special forces, the attacks against it there have been less intense than in other parts of its self-declared caliphate.
Deir Al-Zor has so far been a secondary priority for the Syrian Army and its allies, which are most concerned with their battle against rebel forces in western Syria.
The US-backed campaign led by Syrian Kurdish groups has meanwhile focused on encircling and taking Raqqa city.
Daesh has been asserting itself in Syria with trademark brutality, this week killing civilians execution-style in Palmyra’s Roman Theatre, the Observatory reported.
Daesh has also generated headlines by blowing up more of Palmyra’s ancient ruins, with satellite imagery emerging on Friday showing the destruction of one of its most famous monuments.
Russia seized on the capture of Palmyra from Daesh last year as evidence of its efforts against the group in Syria, after critics accused it of mostly targeting moderate rebels.
As yet there has been no sign of a major effort to take back Palmyra a second time, though the Syrian army and its allies are currently battling Daesh to the west of the city.
If Trump follows through on suggestions that he may cooperate with Russia in the fight against Daesh, eastern Syria would be an obvious target. This would however mark a major shift in US policy because it would help Assad.
US policy under President Barack Obama was built on the idea that Assad had lost legitimacy. Obama rejected any cooperation with Assad in the fight against Daesh, describing his rule as part of the problem.
A Syrian official said the US-led coalition was doing nothing to prevent Daesh from moving its forces into Syria. “This is what’s helping Daesh,” the official said.
“After losing Mosul, Daesh will think of reinforcing its capacity in Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor because at the end of the day, they don’t have any sanctuary. The final battle will certainly be there.”


Is a spate of terror incidents in Egypt a ‘last dance’ for militants or a failure in security operations

Updated 10 min 9 sec ago
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Is a spate of terror incidents in Egypt a ‘last dance’ for militants or a failure in security operations

  • Some have speculated that the sudden spate of incidents is the militants lashing out to spoil the image that Egypt is returning to stability

CAIRO: Three terrorist attacks in the space of as many days have raised questions over whether the Egyptian security forces have brought extremist militancy in the country under control.

The attacks between Friday and Monday came after a period of relative calm. The Egyptian military has been involved in an extensive operation against terrorist groups in their stronghold in the Sinai Peninsula for more than a year. Police forces have also been carrying out operations against cells in a large number of governorates.

The first of the three incidents was a failed attempt to plant a bomb near security forces in Cairo on Friday. On Saturday, however, a massive blast killed 14 members of the military on a security mission near El-Arish in Sinai.
The third bombing on Monday could have been just as deadly. A suicide bomber blew himself up after he was chased by police in the densely populated Al-Hussein district of Cairo near Al-Azhar Mosque. In the end three officers were killed.
The attacks came after months of relative calm in an insurgency that began after the Muslim Brotherhood president Muhammad Mursi was removed from power in 2012.
Since then, militants have targeted the Egyptian security forces, churches, coptic Christians, tourists and ordinary Egyptians, killing hundreds.
In November 2017, gunmen carried out the deadliest terror attack in Egyptian history — killing more than 300 people at a Sufi mosque in northern Sinai.

In response, the military launched a vast operation in February last year to “eliminate terrorism in Egypt.” The operation is ongoing.

Some have speculated that the sudden spate of incidents is the militants lashing out to spoil the image that Egypt is returning to stability.

“[Terrorists] want to give Egypt a bad image to foreigners living abroad, on order to make a point. They want to abort the democratic reform process that Egypt’s been implementing in the past period,” MP Mohamed Maher Hamed told Arab News.

Author and political analyst Walid Qutb said Egypt is keen to host more important regional and international events and forums, including the African Nations football tournament, and a drop in terror-related incidents is key to this.

He said the return of terrorist operations at this time is an attempt to send a clear message that Egypt is not a safe country. What the extremists have done recently is a final dance and lost, Qutb said.
But political analyst Nabil Omar told Arab News that the elimination of terrorism requires more than just maintaining security forces.
There needs to be improved education and the spreading of correct information to improve the mentality of Egyptians, he said.
“I don’t think that the return of terrorist operations happening currently is linked to changes in politics in Egypt,” Omar said. “It has nothing to do with how well security is either. “Terrorist attacks are happening because the terrorists in question have decided to do so.”
The recent incidents in Cairo are both strange, Omar said. They targeted police forces in locations packed with civilians.
This could mean that terrorists want their attacks to be even bigger and deadlier, even if that comes at the cost of the innocent or unarmed.
“The positive thing here is that these recent terrorist attacks came after a long period of silence. During that period of time, the Egyptian military had the upper hand in relation to the terrorists – who used to be more in control before,” Omar said.
The attacks came after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi described to the Munich Security Summit this week the Egyptian experience in regards to terrorism.