US anti-Daesh office gets reprieve as Syria pullout accelerates

Government forces head toward militant positions in the Hajjar Al-Aswad district on the southern outskirts of Damascus. Since mid-April, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have pounded Daesh in its last Damascus bastion. Retaking the area, which includes Hajjar Al-Aswad and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, would place the regime in full control of the capital and its surroundings for the first time since 2012. (AFP Photo / HO / SANA)
Updated 21 May 2018
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US anti-Daesh office gets reprieve as Syria pullout accelerates

  • Daesh fighters begin evacuating their final stronghold in southern Damascus
  • US State Department says anti-Daesh office in Syria will stay in business for at least six more months

LONDON: Daesh fighters began evacuating their final stronghold in southern Damascus on Sunday, a monitor said, bringing Syria’s government closer than ever to flushing out the last threat to the capital.
After weeks of combat and heavy casualties, an apparent deal was reached for remaining Daesh fighters to leave Yarmuk and the adjacent district of Tadamun, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Daesh militants burned their headquarters in Yarmuk before boarding buses with their relatives to leave the area, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
“The six buses left at dawn, heading east for the Syrian desert,” he added.
Abdel Rahman could not specify how many had left, but said a majority were relatives of militants and not armed. More than two dozen buses remained in Yarmuk for additional evacuations, he said.
Syrian state media and a Palestinian official have denied a deal was reached or that evacuations were taking place.
Yarmuk in particular has been devastated by Syria’s conflict, suffering a crippling government siege since 2012 and ruined by years of fighting.
It was once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, as well as Syrians, but just a few hundred remain.
Meanwhile, the State Department unit overseeing the fight against the Daesh will stay in business for at least six more months, reserving an administration plan for the unit’s imminent downgrade even as President Donald Trump presses ahead with a speedy US exit from Syria.
A plan initiated by Rex Tillerson before he was fired as secretary of state in March would have folded the office of the special envoy to the global coalition into the department’s counterterrorism bureau as early as spring, officials said. Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, canceled the plan this month, and the office will stay an independent entity until at least December, when there will be a new review, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss the plan publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The office reports directly to the secretary of state and the president, and the planned shift would have undercut its status and the priority of its mission. It could have led to staffing and budget cuts as well as the departure of the special envoy, Brett McGurk. He is now expected to remain in his job at least through the end of the year.
Still, the officials said Trump’s intent to reduce the US military and civilian stabilization presence in Syria has not changed and is, in fact, accelerating. The State Department has ended all funding for stabilization programs in Syria’s northwest. Daesh militants have been almost entirely eliminated from the region, which is controlled by a hodgepodge of other extremist groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government forces.
At least some of the US money for those projects is expected to be redirected Syria’s northeast where Daesh fighters remain, the officials said.
The conflicting moves of retaining McGurk’s office while pulling out of the northwest illustrate how the administration is being pulled in different directions by Trump’s two competing interests: extricating the US from messy Mideast conflicts and delivering a permanent defeat to Daesh.
Trump has said the United States will be withdrawing from Syria “like very soon.” In late March, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies tried to dissuade him from pulling troops out immediately, warning there was a risk Daesh would manage to regroup. Trump relented slightly, but told aides they could have only five months or six months to finish off Daesh and get out.
The US announced in September 2014 that it was forming a coalition of nations to defeat the nascent extremist group that had taken over vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. Days later, President Barack Obama named retired Marine Gen. John Allen the first special presidential envoy for the coalition. McGurk, his deputy, replaced him in 2015.
Almost four years later, Daesh no longer controls territory in Iraq, though US officials say its ideology remains a threat there. The final vestiges of the self-proclaimed caliphate are in Syria, where civil war has made it far trickier to wrest the militants from the few pockets of territory they still control.
Yet, as Trump’s administration eyes an exit as soon as Daesh is vanquished, the broader situation in Syria is not getting any better as far as American interests are concerned.
Assad’s forces are making inroads against the opposition and now control roads between Syria’s three main cities for the first time since the war broke out in 2011. Moscow is solidifying its influence, even hosting Assad for a surprise visit Thursday to Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. And an outbreak of direct fighting between Israel and Iranian forces based in Syria has catalyzed concerns about Tehran’s involvement in Syria and the potential for a broader regional conflict.
“Hopefully, Syria will start to stabilize,” Trump said last week as he met with NATO’s secretary-general at the White House. “You see what’s been happening. It’s been a horror show.”
Nevertheless, there are no signs that Trump is backing away from his determination to limit US involvement to the narrow task of defeating Daesh, leaving to others the longer-term challenges of stabilizing the country, restoring basic services and resolving the civil war.
A $200-million pledge that Tillerson made in February for stabilization programs in Syria remains on hold on Trump’s orders and is under review. Tillerson, who had advocated for maintaining the US presence, was fired shortly after he made the pledge at a conference in Kuwait.
Then the administration this month decided to halt funding US military and reconstruction programs in the Syrian northwest, the officials said. Pending the results of the overall review, the canceled money is expected to be shifted to programs in northeast Syria, where US troops are still battling Daesh, and civilian teams from the State Department and US Agency for International Development are working in newly liberated areas.


Child among three killed in Baghdad blast

Updated 14 August 2018
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Child among three killed in Baghdad blast

  • A source from the security services said that a woman and a child were among those killed
  • Authorities did not detail the cause of the blast and said an investigation would be launched

BAGHDAD: Three people were killed Tuesday in an explosion at a market in Baghdad, including a woman and child according to a security source.
The blast struck in the Shiite bastion of Sadr City, a sprawling district where authorities regularly carry out raids close to the busy market to seize illegal weapons.
“Three people were killed and four others injured in an explosion in a covered market near the Mreydi souk in Sadr City,” Baghdad’s military operations command said in a statement.
A source from the security services told AFP that a woman and a child were among those killed.
Authorities did not detail the cause of the blast and said an investigation would be launched.
The Mreydi souk is an important hub for illegal weapons sales and the area has seen years of violence since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In June, at least 16 people were killed and some 30 injured in an explosion at a house in the area where weapons were stored.
Sadr City is the former bastion of the Mahdi Army, which before being dissolved was blamed by Washington for killing US soldiers and thousands of Sunni Muslims.
The militia was led by Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose political alliance triumphed in this year’s parliamentary elections.
Violence has fallen in Iraq and particularly Baghdad, which suffered numerous extremist attacks, since the government declared victory over Daesh in December.
But despite government forces retaking all of Iraq’s towns and cities from Daesh, clandestine extremist cells remain present, analysts say.