Al-Qaeda-linked fighters launch new attack in central Syria

Smoke rises from buildings following an airstrike on an opposition-held area of the Jobar district, east of Damascus on Friday. (AFP)
Updated 07 October 2017
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Al-Qaeda-linked fighters launch new attack in central Syria

BEIRUT: Al-Qaeda-linked fighters on Friday attacked a key central Syrian village at the crossroads between areas under regime control and those controlled by insurgents, activists said. In eastern Syria, meanwhile, regime forces reportedly entered a town that is one of Daesh’s biggest strongholds.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Syrian regime forces and allied militiamen entered western parts of Mayadeen, including the town’s wheat silos compound and the sheep market.
The regime-controlled Syrian Central Military Media earlier said that troops were marching south from Deir Ezzor toward Mayadeen, under the cover of airstrikes.
If the report proves true and Syrian troops indeed entered Mayadeen, it would mark another blow for the extremist group, which has lost wide areas of Iraq and Syria in its self-declared caliphate over the past year.
Omar Abou Leila, from the monitoring group DeirEzzor 24, said he could not confirm or deny the report, though he added that it was possible, given the regime forces’ days-long advance.
Airstrikes on Mayadeen and nearby areas over the past days have killed and wounded scores of people, including 15 civilians — women and children among them — who were killed when a missile slammed into a regime-held neighborhood in the city of Deir Ezzor on Thursday evening.
The attack on the village of Abu Dali in central Hama province was led by Al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee and also known as HTS. It came two weeks after insurgents attacked a nearby area where three Russian soldiers were wounded.
Earlier this week, Russia’s military claimed the leader of the group was wounded in a Russian airstrike and had fallen into a coma. The military offered no evidence on the purported condition of Abu Mohammed Al-Golani.
The group subsequently denied Al-Golani was hurt, insisting he is in excellent health and going about his duties as usual. The group’s fighters have been gaining more influence in the northwestern province of Idlib and northern parts of Hama, where they have launched attacks on rival militant groups, as well as areas controlled by the government.
Abu Dali had been spared much of the violence and had functioned as a local business hub between opposition-run areas and those under President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The observatory said Al-Qaeda fighters captured several areas in the village on Friday. The HTS-linked Ibaa news agency did not mention the attack but said Russian warplanes were bombing areas the group controls in northern Syria.
Violence in eastern Syria has escalated significantly in recent weeks as Syrian troops with the help of Russian air cover have been closing in on Mayadeen.
The DeirEzzor24 monitoring group said the missile in the Thursday evening airstrike that killed 15 hit near a school in the Qusour neighborhood. Three children and three women were among those killed, the group said Friday, blaming Daesh for the attack. The school and a nearby residential building were destroyed.
The Russian military has accused the US of turning a blind eye and effectively providing cover to Daesh operations in an area in Syria that is under US control.
The Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said that Daesh militants have used the area around the town of Tanf near Syria’s border with Jordan — where US military instructors are also stationed — to launch attacks against the Syrian Army.
He said the area has become a “black hole,” posing a threat to the Syrian regime army’s offensive against Daesh in eastern Deir Ezzor province.
Separately, the Russian military said one of its helicopters had made an emergency landing in Syria but that its crew was unhurt.
According to the Defense Ministry, the Mi-28 helicopter gunship landed in Hama province on Friday due to a technical malfunction. The two crewmen were not injured and were flown back to base. The ministry said the helicopter was not fired upon.
The ministry’s statement followed a claim by Daesh-linked Aamaq news agency, which said the group had downed a Russian helicopter south of Shiekh Hilal village in Hama.


A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

Updated 10 December 2018
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A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

  • Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition
  • The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government

BAGHDAD: A year since Iraq announced “victory” over the Daesh group, the country finds itself in the throes of political and economic crises left unresolved during the long battle against militants.
Unified against the common menace of Daesh, Iraq’s political elites are now at loggerheads over the drawn-out formation of a cabinet as the threat of renewed popular protests looms.
Iraq is no stranger to instability. It fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, then a conflict over Kuwait followed by a crippling international embargo and the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A sectarian war ensued, capped in 2014 by Daesh’s devastating sweep across a third of the country.
Backed by a US-led international coalition, Iraqi troops and paramilitary forces battled the militants for three years, until Baghdad finally declared it had won in December 2017.
After decades of nearly back-to-back wars, Iraq’s decision-makers are now forced to face deep-rooted dilemmas left festering for years.
“In Iraq you’ve seen many ‘missions accomplished’,” said Renad Mansour, senior fellow at Chatham House in London.
“But as usual, the much more challenging victory is the political victory — which has always been left for another day.”
Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition.
Then-prime minister Haider Al-Abadi failed to hold on to his position despite claiming credit for victory, as people turned to populist parties who tapped anger over corruption.
The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government.

In October, Abdel Mahdi managed to fill 14 of the cabinet’s 22 posts, but repeated efforts to hold a parliamentary vote on the remaining eight, including the key interior and defense ministries, have failed.
“The distribution of power, the race to acquire as many government positions as possible under the guise of real competition between parties — that is at the root of the problem,” Iraqi political analyst Jassem Hanoun told AFP.
“Iraq is still living in a transition period, without political stability or a clear administrative vision for the country.”
As the process drags on, observers have wondered whether Abdel Mahdi could step down, further destabilising a country just getting back on its feet.
“Withdrawal is an option,” a source close to the government said, adding that Abdel Mahdi “has his resignation letter in his back pocket.”
“Only if the political situation gets significantly worse can I see him taking it out of his pocket and using it,” the source said.
But the thorny issues facing Iraq extend beyond the capital.
Much of the country remains in ruins after three years of ferocious fighting, including large swathes of one-time Daesh capital Mosul and the northern Sinjar region.
An international summit in Kuwait in February gathered around $30 billion in pledges for Iraq’s reconstruction — less than a third of what Baghdad hoped to receive.
More than 1.8 million Iraqis are still displaced, many languishing in camps, and 8 million require humanitarian aid, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“If this is what ‘victory’ looks like, then there is little to celebrate for millions of Iraqis still haunted by the crimes of the IS and the long war to eliminate it,” said NRC’s head Jan Egeland.

Violence has dropped across Iraq, according to the United Nations, which recorded the lowest casualty figures in six years in November with 41 civilians killed.
But the threat of hit-and-run attacks lingers.
A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that while the total number of Daesh attacks in Iraq had dropped in 2018, those against government targets had increased compared to 2017.
Observers are also worried that the bitter squabbles among Iraqi’s political forces could turn violent.
“Because of the divisions among the parties, anything is possible,” Hanoun said.
One scenario would be a conflict among the country’s competing Shiite Muslim factions, which he said would be a “disaster.”
But another major fault line divides Iraq’s entrenched politicians and an increasingly frustrated public.
Deadly protests in the summer of 2017 saw tens of thousands turn out over unemployment, a lack of public services, and accusations of corruption.
Rampant power cuts mean millions of Iraqis have just a few hours of state-provided electricity per day. The country is ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Protest leaders have threatened a return to the streets if these issues, as well as the political stalemate, are not resolved.
“There’s certainly a conflict within the Shiite camp, but the biggest conflict will be between the people and the whole system,” said Mansour.
“Summertime will be a test for Abdel Mahdi.”