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

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.


Syrian Kurds say will help implement US-Turkey ‘safe zone’

Updated 25 August 2019

Syrian Kurds say will help implement US-Turkey ‘safe zone’

  • Buffer area sought to ‘limit any uncoordinated military operations,’ coalition says

HASAKAH/SYRIA, BEIRUT: Syria’s Kurds would support the implementation of a US-Turkey deal to set up a buffer zone in their areas along the Turkish border, they said on Saturday.

The “safe zone” agreed by Ankara and Washington earlier this month aims to create a buffer between the Turkish border and Syrian areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG have played a key role in the US-backed battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views them as “terrorists.”

On Saturday, Mazloum Kobani, the head of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said his alliance would back the deal.

“We will strive to ensure the success of (US) efforts toward implementing the understanding ... with the Turkish state,” he said.

“The SDF will be a positive party toward the success of this operation,” he told journalists in the northeastern town of Hasakah.

US Central Command said late on Friday that the SDF — which expelled Daesh from their last patch of territory in eastern Syria in March — had destroyed outposts in the border area.

“The SDF destroyed military fortifications” on Thursday, it said in a statement on Twitter.

“This demonstrates (the) SDF’s commitment to support implementation of the security mechanism framework.”

On Wednesday, the US and Turkish defense ministers “confirmed their intent to take immediate, coordinated steps to implement the framework,” said a statement by the US Department of Defense.

Also on Saturday, a representative of the US-led coalition fighting Daesh said the buffer area sought to “limit any uncoordinated military operations.”

“We believe that this dialogue is the only way to secure the border area in a sustainable manner,” Brig. Gen. Nicholas Pond said.

On Aug. 7, Turkish and US officials agreed to establish a joint operations center to oversee the creation of the “safe zone.”

Little is known about its size or how it will work, but Ankara has said there would be observation posts and joint patrols.

Damascus has rejected the agreement as serving “Turkey’s expansionist ambitions.”

Syrian Kurds have established an autonomous region in northeast Syria amid the country’s eight-year war. But as the fight against Daesh winds down, the prospect of a US military withdrawal had stoked Kurdish fears of a long-threatened Turkish attack.

Turkey has already carried out two offensives into Syria in 2016 and 2018, the second of which saw it and allied Syrian rebels overrun the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the northwest.

Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded in the Syrian city of Idlib on Saturday, a war monitor said, as regime airstrikes hit its outskirts in a government offensive on the last major opposition bastion.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and opposition-run Orient News said a car blew up in the Al-Qusoor neighborhood. 

The Observatory said the blast killed two and wounded at least 11.

The city and the surrounding Idlib province in northwest Syria form part of the last big rebel stronghold in Syria.

A new push by Syrian government and Russian forces to take the area has seen heavy strikes and advances this week in the south of Idlib province and nearby Hama, prompting a new civilian exodus. Hundreds of people have been killed in the campaign since late April, the United Nations says.

On Friday Russia-backed Syrian troops reclaimed a cluster of towns they had lost early in the eight-year-old war, driving out the last rebel fighters from the Hama countryside.

Idlib city itself has largely been spared air strikes since a major bombing campaign on the territory began in late April, but on Saturday its outskirts were hit from the air, the Observatory and opposition media said.

Heavy strikes continued to hit the south of Idlib province, including around Maarat al-Numan, a city that has been a sanctuary for families fleeing former rebel areas around the country. This week tens of thousands fled to Syria’s border with Turkey as the fighting advanced.