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.”


British-Iranian aid worker moved back to jail from hospital ward — husband

In this undated photo provided by the Free Nazanin Campaign, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe hugs her daughter Gabriella, in Iran. (AP)
Updated 7 min 59 sec ago
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British-Iranian aid worker moved back to jail from hospital ward — husband

  • British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament the fact she had been moved back to prison was “a positive sign”

LONDON: British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been transferred back to an Iranian prison from a hospital psychiatric ward, her husband said on Monday.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was moved to the psychiatric ward of Imam Khomeini hospital in the capital on July 15, the “Free Nazanin” campaign group run by her husband said last week.
“Nazanin has been returned from psychiatric hospital, and is now back in Evin prison,” her husband, Richard, said in a statement. She was discharged at her request and the request of the hospital doctor, the campaign group said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was told she had been admitted to hospital for a 10-day period of assessment. She received psychotherapy sessions, had physical checks and was prescribed some medicines, the campaign group seeking her release said.
In its release, the group quoted Zaghari-Ratcliffe saying that she was kept in a private room measuring 2 meters by 3 meters (6.5 feet by 9.8 feet) and was handcuffed and chained to the bed day and night.
The Iranian embassy in London declined immediate comment on the case.
“They did all they could to me – handcuffs, ankle cuffs, in a private room 2x3m, with thick curtains, and the door closed all the time,” she was quoted as saying. “I wasn’t allowed to leave the room, as I was chained to the bed.”
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told parliament the fact she had been moved back to prison was “a positive sign.”
“The way that she was detained for a week without being able to have any access to her family was totally unacceptable and I am afraid all too predictable from the Iranian regime,” he said.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in April 2016 at a Tehran airport as she headed back to Britain with her daughter after a family visit, and was sentenced to five years in jail after being convicted of plotting to overthrow Iran’s clerical establishment.
Her family and the Foundation, a charity organization that operates independently of Thomson Reuters and Reuters News, deny the charge.