US-backed forces expel Daesh from east Syria hub

In this file photo taken on September 11, 2018, members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather in the town of Shadadi, about 60 kilometres (37 miles) south of the northeastern Syrian city of Hassakeh, on September 11, 2018. (File/AFP)
Updated 14 December 2018
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US-backed forces expel Daesh from east Syria hub

  • The Syrian Democratic Forces secured Hajjin, the largest settlement in what is the last pocket of territory controlled by the Daesh
  • The last Daesh fighters were confined to a network of tunnels and the edges of Hajjin

BEIRUT: Kurdish-led forces seized Daesh’s main hub of Hajjin Friday, a milestone in a massive and costly US-backed operation to eradicate the militants from eastern Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces secured Hajjin, the largest settlement in what is the last pocket of territory controlled by Daesh, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“After a week of heavy fighting and air strikes, the SDF were able to kick IS out,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, said, referring to another acronym for Daesh.
The operation was completed at dawn, he said, a day after SDF forces fanned out across the large village in the Euphrates valley.
On Thursday, the last Daesh fighters were confined to a network of tunnels and the edges of Hajjin, which lies in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the border with Iraq.
The area held by Daesh is sometimes referred to as the “Hajjin pocket,” the last rump of a once-sprawling “caliphate” the group proclaimed in 2014 over swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Daesh fighters pulled back to positions east of Hajjin Friday and to Sousa and Al-Shaafa, the other two main villages in their shrinking Euphrates valley enclave.
As recently as Thursday, the group posted pictures of fighting in Hajjin on its social media accounts.
According to Abdel Rahman, a total of 17,000 fighters from the Kurdish-Arab SDF alliance are involved in the operation to flush Daesh out of its last bastion.
The operation was launched on September 10 and has taken a heavy toll, according to figures collected by the Observatory, which has a network of sources on the ground.
At least 900 militants and 500 SDF fighters were killed in the fighting, the Observatory said.
According to Abdel Rahman, more than 320 civilians were also killed, many of them in air strikes by the US-led coalition.
Thousands more civilians who had remained, voluntarily or not, in the Hajjin area have fled their homes since the start of the offensive three months ago.
US President Donald Trump this week predicted the militant group would be fully defeated within a month.
“We’ve done a very, very major job on Daesh,” he said on Tuesday, using another acronym for Daesh.
“There are very few of them left in that area of the world. And within another 30 days, there won’t be any of them left,” he vowed.
Western and other officials have repeatedly announced deadlines for a final victory over Daesh but the group is proving resilient.
The push to retake Hajjin was delayed by Turkish threats on the Kurdish heartland further north and deadly counter-attacks by die-hard militants making a bloody last stand.
The Turkish threats were renewed this week by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said the army would launch an offensive within the “next few days” to “bring peace and security to areas east of the Euphrates” controlled by the SDF.
Washington, which has set up observation posts along the border and launched joint patrols with the SDF, said any unilateral military action in northern Syria would be “unacceptable.”
On Friday, 13 political parties in Kurdish territory in northern Syria issued a joint statement denouncing Erdogan’s threat as a “declaration of war.”
Besides what is left of the pocket near Hajjin, Daesh has a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert, a front which is managed by Russian-backed government forces.
What is left of the militant group also has sleeper cells across Iraq and Syria that regularly carry out attacks.
“Daesh anticipated its battlefield defeat and the loss of the caliphate and prepared accordingly,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington.


Saudi crown prince, Pompeo send a message to Iran: End hostility or pay the price

Updated 39 min 34 sec ago
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Saudi crown prince, Pompeo send a message to Iran: End hostility or pay the price

  • The US secretary of state said the US was discussing a possible international response
  • MBS hoped the Iranian regime “would opt to become a normal state and cease its hostile policy”

JEDDAH: The US will take all actions necessary — “diplomatic and otherwise” — to deter Iran from disrupting Gulf energy supplies, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on Sunday.

Pompeo spoke hours after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the Kingdom would “not hesitate in dealing with any threat against our people, sovereignty and vital interests.”

The twin warnings to the regime in Tehran followed last week’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, widely assumed to have been carried out by Iran.

“We don’t want war. We’ve done what we can to deter it,” Pompeo said in a TV interview. “But the Iranians should understand very clearly that we will continue to take actions that deter Iran from engaging in this kind of behavior.

“What you should assume is we are going to guarantee freedom of navigation throughout the Strait of Hormuz. This is an international challenge, important to the entire globe. The US is going to make sure that we take all the actions necessary, diplomatic and otherwise, that achieve that outcome.”

Pompeo said the US was discussing a possible international response, and he had made a number of calls to foreign officials about the tanker attacks.

He said China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia relied heavily on freedom of navigation through the strait. “I’m confident that when they see the risk, the risk to their own economies and their own people, and outrageous behavior of Iran, they will join us in this.”

The Saudi crown prince, in an interview with the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, said the Kingdom had “supported the re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran out of our belief that the international community needed to take a decisive stance against Iran.”

He hoped the Iranian regime “would opt to become a normal state and cease its hostile policy.”

Crown Prince Mohammed said the Kingdom’s hand was always extended for peace, but the Iranian regime had disrespected the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to Tehran by attacking the two oil tankers in the Gulf, one of which was Japanese.

“It also employed its militias to carry out a shameful attack against Abha International Airport. This is clear evidence of the Iranian regime’s policy and intentions to target the security and stability of the region.”

The crown prince said the attacks “underscore the importance of our demand before the international community to take a decisive stance against an expansionist regime that has supported terrorism and spread death and destruction over the past decades, not only in the region, but the whole world.”

Prince Mohammed’s interview was “a message to Tehran, and beyond Tehran, to the international community,” the Saudi political analyst and international relations scholar Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“He sent out the message that we do not want a war in the region. He was offering peace, as is our nature, and that is what we are doing now. But if it is going to affect our vital interests, our vital resources and our people, we will defend ourselves and take action to handle any threat.  

“We are facing aggressive, barbaric and terrorist threats from Iran, and we must take rapid and decisive action against that. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is sending a message to the world that there must be a solution.”