US-backed forces comb Raqqa after Daesh ouster
US-backed forces comb Raqqa after Daesh ouster
A lightning final assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Tuesday saw Daesh defenses collapse faster than expected and the SDF claim a landmark victory in the three-year fight against the terrorist organization.
SDF fighters flushed militant holdouts from Raqqa’s main hospital and municipal stadium, wrapping up a more than four-month offensive against what used to be the inner sanctum of Daesh’s self-proclaimed “caliphate.”
Waving their yellow flags, the Kurdish-led SDF forces celebrated their victory on an infamous traffic circle where Daesh used to carry out public executions and that had become known as the “Roundabout of Hell.”
On Wednesday, teams of SDF fighters deployed across the rubble-strewn streets of Raqqa to look for unexploded ordnance and booby traps left behind by the terrorists. “They are making sure there are no more sleeper cells” in Raqqa, SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali told AFP.
“Mine-clearing operations and the re-opening of the city are underway,” Bali said, adding that his organization would only formally announce the liberation of the city once they are completed.
The SDF and the Kurdish intelligence services issued clear instructions forbidding the tens of thousands of displaced families from attempting to return to their homes.
“We urge our people in Raqqa who fled Daesh rule not to return to the city for their own security until it is rid of terrorist explosives,” the Kurdish internal security services said in a statement.
The loss of Raqqa left Daesh ruling over a small “rump caliphate” straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border and covering a fraction of the territory it held when it declared its “state” in July 2014.
The US-led coalition supporting anti-Daesh forces in Iraq and Syria said on Tuesday that Daesh had lost 87 percent of the territory they had three years ago.
Brett McGurk, the White House’s envoy to the multinational coalition, said on social media that Daesh had lost 6,000 fighters in Raqqa and described the organization as “pathetic and a lost cause.”
Raqqa was one of the most emblematic Daesh bastions, at the heart of both its military operations and its propaganda.
Several of the most high-profile attacks Daesh claimed in the West — such as the 2015 massacres in Paris — are believed to have been at least partly masterminded from Raqqa, earning the city the nickname of “terror central.”
Raqqa also featured heavily in the propaganda videos — from public beheadings to training — which Daesh used to instill fear among the caliphate’s residents and appeal to new recruits globally.
The breakthrough in the months-old operation to retake Raqqa came last week when a local deal was struck for the safe exit of several thousand civilians who had been used as human shields by Daesh and for the surrender of Syrian militants.
It had been believed that up to 400 mostly foreign Daesh fighters remained in the city, prepared for a bloody last stand in their final redoubts. Yet the sequence that followed the announcement on Sunday of the operation’s final phase gives few clues as to their fate.
“Some surrendered, others died,” Talal Sello, another SDF spokesman said, without elaborating further or providing figures.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor relying on an extensive network of sources across Syria, said most of the foreign fighters surrendered and were being held by Western intelligence services.
“They are not visible because intelligence services are detaining them,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. It was not immediately possible to corroborate his claim.
Col. Ryan Dillon, the US-led coalition’s spokesman, only spoke of four confirmed cases of foreign Daesh fighters surrendering and stressed that they were in SDF custody.
“We, as the coalition, do not hold or control any of these detainees,” he said, adding that the SDF may make separate arrangements with the detained militants’ countries of origin for some of them to be handed over and prosecuted.
Prince William on first official royal visit to Occupied Territories and Israel
- The second-in-line to the British throne is due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
- There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade
LONDON: Prince William will embark on the first official visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories by a member of the British royal family on Sunday.
But even with more than 120 Palestinians killed in protests in Gaza during recent weeks and controversy still surrounding the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, the second-in-line to the throne is not expected to talk politics.
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), told Arab News that the four-day tour is likely to focus on making trade deals in preparation for Britain’s departure from the EU next year, rather than on addressing the moribund Middle East peace process.
“There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade,” he said.
The visit risks “normalizing” the abusive regime under which Palestinians live, he added.
“Of course Prince William has to go to both the Israeli and Palestinian sectors or there would have been outrage. But there is a risk of his visit making it appear more acceptable and normal to carry out abuses of international law like the blockade of Gaza,” Doyle said.
William begins his Middle Eastern tour on Sunday in Jordan, a long-time ally of Britain. On Tuesday he will move on to Jerusalem, where he will visit Yad Vashem, the official memorial to Holocaust victims, meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later attend a football event with a mixed Arab and Jewish team.
On Wednesday he will meet young activists, both Arab and Jewish, who are involved in education and social programs, and also cross into the Occupied Palestinian Territories to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah before attending an event focusing on Palestinian refugees.
He is due to deliver a speech at a reception hosted by the American consul in Jerusalem. However, protocol prevents him from making any remarks that might be deemed partisan. Doyle told Arab News this was a pity in view of how William’s mother, the late Princess Diana, championed justice for the oppressed.
“It is a pity that someone of his status, who clearly cares about his mother’s legacy, cannot give voice to real major concerns about the treatment of the Palestinians and the human rights abuses that are daily issues for them under Israeli control but which will be airbrushed out,” he said.
“Yes, he will see co-operative programs and Arabs and Jews playing football together, but the reality is that the Palestinian footballers can only travel to matches with Israeli permission.”
William was a surprise choice for the visit. Many expected the task to fall to his father, Prince Charles, who has more experience of countries which are politically extremely sensitive. But it is thought he was chosen because his youth chimes better with young Israelis working in hi-tech fields who he is scheduled to meet. Among Palestinians, his presence will barely register, said Doyle.
“I hope the language can be found for him to say something to his Israeli hosts, that his visit will be more than window-dressing, but the reality is it’s very unlikely. So the visit won’t register as important with Palestinians. They don’t want to be part of some tourist show or box-ticking exercise,” he said.