Fleeing offensives, where are the militants going?

This undated frame grab from video posted online on May 19, 2017 by supporters of the Daesh militant group, shows Daesh fighters who recently joined the group receiving military training in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. (Militant Photo via AP, File)
Updated 03 October 2017
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Fleeing offensives, where are the militants going?

BEIRUT: Daesh is under attack across the remaining parts of its self-proclaimed caliphate, but what happens to its thousands of fighters as their group loses grip on territory?
Facing multiple offensives, the militant group has lost the Libyan city of Sirte, Iraq’s Mosul and Ramadi, and is now on the verge of being ousted from its former Syrian stronghold Raqqa.
At its peak Daesh counted tens of thousands of fighters among its ranks, with US officials estimating as many as 40,000 foreign fighters traveled to join the militants over the years.
Forces attacking Daesh has regularly reported the deaths and arrests of large numbers of militants, but their figures are often vague and cannot be independently verified.
“We can’t give an exact number of those arrested but we can say that there are a good number of them being detained by our forces,” said Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces currently battling Daesh in Syria.
In Iraq’s Mosul, journalists saw the bodies of militants killed in fighting on the streets, but they numbered no more than a few dozen at any time, far less than the hundreds authorities often said had died in combat.
Other Daesh fighters may have been arrested and then executed.
In July, the Human Rights Watch group accused a unit of Iraq’s army of carrying out summary executions of suspected rebel prisoners.
A persistent fear for forces attacking Daesh is that its fighters will try to blend into the civilian population, either fleeing along with the displaced or staying behind in homes.
“The problem of operatives hiding among civilians who flee is certainly a major issue,” said Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.
“Operatives might stay behind and melt into the wider civilian population to function as sleeper cells or recruit others to become part of sleeper cells as well,” he told AFP.
In Syria, Bali said, some Daesh fighters “have been discovered in camps for the displaced via our databases.”
Others have been turned in by civilians who recognized and reported them.
But some fighters slip through nonetheless, especially as “some civilians are afraid to report them, fearing revenge will be taken against them,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
Iraqi forces, like their counterparts in Syria, use a database to pick out suspected Daesh fighters from among civilians.
But a local Iraqi official said “a large number of Daesh elements are hiding among the population in Mosul, particularly in the Old City.” Their presence is evidenced by “the assassinations and bombings that continue daily,” said Hisham Al-Hashimi, a researcher who specializes in militant movements.
The many non-Arab foreign fighters among Daesh’s ranks may not be able to blend so easily into the fleeing civilian populations, with their features and language betraying them.
“There’s a lot of (Daesh) foreign fighters there that don’t want to give up and intend to fight very hard,” the top coalition commander assisting and advising the SDF told AFP.
Foreign fighters are often those carrying out suicide attacks, added Hashimi, and by the end of any given battle “the number of them left behind is very small.”
Their chances of returning home are slim, with intelligence services closely monitoring for returnees, and the Turkish border now tightly surveilled.
Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, said Daesh’s own propaganda suggested a loosening of its once-tight rules against leaving its territory for that of the “unbelievers.”
“The group has very indirectly — but also in my opinion unambiguously — essentially said that it is no longer impermissible to flee the IS (Daesh) territories,” he told AFP.
With its territory across Syria and Iraq rapidly shrinking, Daesh is now concentrating its resources in the Euphrates River valley that lies along the Syria-Iraq border, experts say.
For a long time now the center of gravity for Daesh has been shifting... toward places like Mayadeen and Albu Kamal, in the east of Syria’s Deir Ezzor province, said Winter.
Daesh “has very systematically been bulking up its infrastructure and its population in these places,” he added.
He said Daesh had likely ensured that large numbers of fighters moved to these areas well before they were surrounded in places like Raqqa and Mosul.
That means now that the fight for places like Mayadeen and Albu Kamal could be “surprisingly ferocious,” he said.


UN hopes for meeting on Syria constitution by late December

US Deputy United Nations Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, left, address the UN Security Council after a report from UN chief mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, shown center in a live video broadcast, on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018 at UN headquarters. (AP)
Updated 21 November 2018
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UN hopes for meeting on Syria constitution by late December

  • Staffan de Mistura said the UN welcomes “constructive and moderate suggestions” to change the list of the disputed 50 members

NEW YORK: The UN is still aiming to send invitations to 150 Syrians by mid-December to participate in a committee that would draft a new constitution for Syria, which is key to holding elections and ending the country’s civil war, a UN envoy said on Monday.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, told the Security Council that the UN also aims to hold the committee’s first meeting before Dec. 31.
But de Mistura said the Syrian regime is objecting to 50 members of the committee representing civil society, experts, independents, tribal leaders and women that he was authorized to put together at a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in Sochi on Jan. 30.
Under the Sochi agreement, the committee is to comprise 150 members. There is already agreement on the 50-member delegation from the regime and the 50-member delegation from the opposition.
But de Mistura warned that if there is no agreement on the remaining members, the UN may have to conclude that it is not possible to form a “credible and inclusive” constitutional committee at this stage.
He said the UN welcomes “constructive and moderate suggestions” to change the list of the disputed 50 members. But de Mistura said they must “maintain the same spirit of credibility, balance and international legitimacy,” and he stressed that the list cannot be filled with political leaders who are already represented.
The UN envoy said that at his last briefing to the Security Council in December “it will be my duty to explain where we are on the constitutional committee, and leave a clean and clear ground to my successor regarding it.”
De Mistura was supposed to step down at the end of December but UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Monday he will be staying on “for a bit longer” to make sure there is no gap “at an extremely critical time in the Syria talks.”