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.


Erdogan’s ‘vile’ comments on Christchurch mosques shootings dismissed as not representative of Muslims

Updated 21 March 2019
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Erdogan’s ‘vile’ comments on Christchurch mosques shootings dismissed as not representative of Muslims

  • Turkish president has threatened to "send home in coffins" visitors from Australia, New Zealand
  • Aussie and NZ leaders want Turkey to explain the "vile" and "offensive" remarks

JEDDAH: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was condemned on Wednesday for “vile, offensive and reckless” comments after last week’s Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks.

Australia summoned the Turkish ambassador in Canberra to explain the remarks, and New Zealand dispatched its foreign minister to Ankara to “set the record straight, face to face.”

Brenton Tarrant, 28, an Australian white supremacist, was charged with murder on Saturday after he shot dead 50 people during Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Erdogan, in election campaign rallies for his AK Party, urged New Zealand to restore the death penalty and said Turkey would make the killer pay if New Zealand did not.

He said anti-Muslim Australians who came to Turkey would be “sent back in coffins, like their grandfathers at Gallipoli,” and he accused Australian and New Zealand forces of invading Turkey during the First World War “because it is Muslim land.”

But an international affairs scholar in Riyadh said Erdogan’s comments should not be taken as representative of Muslims. 

"He is a propagandist and an unpredictable politician,” Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News. “He keeps saying these things and then he issues an apology. Right now, he is making these incendiary comments to win elections.”

It was inappropriate behavior for a head of state, Al-Shehri said. “Which president would use such language and issue these kind of comments?”

In his speech, Erdogan said that the Gallipoli peninsula campaign in 1915 was in fact an attempt by British colonial forces to relieve their Russian allies. The attack was a military disaster, and more than 11,000 Australian and New Zealand forces were killed. Thousands of people from both countries travel each year to Turkey for war memorial services, and the anniversary is marked on Anzac Day every April 25.

“Remarks have been made by the Turkish President Erdogan that I consider highly offensive to Australians and highly reckless in this very sensitive environment,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said after summoning the Turkish ambassador and dismissing the “excuses” offered.

“I am expecting, and I have asked, for these comments to be clarified, to be withdrawn.” Morrison described claims about Australia and New Zealand’s response to the white supremacist attack as “vile.” He accused Erdogan of betraying the promise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to forge peace between the two countries.

A memorial at Gallipoli carries Ataturk’s words: “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets ... after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

“Ataturk sought to transform his country into a modern nation and an embracing nation, and I think these comments are at odds with that spirit,” Morrison said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her deputy, Foreign Minister Winston Peters, would travel to Turkey to seek clarification of Erdogan’s comments. “He is going there to set the record straight, face-to-face,” she said.