From Syria, Daesh slips into Iraq to fight another day

The Iraqi army has deployed more than 20,000 troops to guard the frontier, but militants are slipping across. (File/AP)
Updated 22 February 2019
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From Syria, Daesh slips into Iraq to fight another day

  • Hundreds Daesh fighters have crossed the open, desert border in the past six months, defying a massive operation by US, Kurdish, and allied forces
  • “IS is trying to assert itself in Iraq, because of the pressure it is under in Syria,” said the Iraqi army spokesman

BAGHDAD: Daesh fighters facing defeat in Syria are slipping across the border into Iraq, where they are destabilizing the country’s fragile security, US and Iraqi officials say.
Hundreds — likely more than 1,000 — Daesh fighters have crossed the open, desert border in the past six months, defying a massive operation by US, Kurdish, and allied forces to stamp out the remnants of the militant group in eastern Syria, according to three Iraqi intelligence officials and a US military official.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on intelligence matters. But indications of the extremist group’s widening reach in Iraq are clear.
Cells operating in four northern provinces are carrying out kidnappings, assassinations, and roadside ambushes aimed at intimidating locals and restoring the extortion rackets that financed the group’s rise to power six years ago.
“IS is trying to assert itself in Iraq, because of the pressure it is under in Syria,” said Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, the Iraqi army spokesman.
The militants can count between 5,000 and 7,000 among their ranks in Iraq, where they are hiding out in the rugged terrain of remote areas, according to one intelligence official.
In Syria, Kurdish-led forces backed by the US-led coalition have cornered the militants in a pocket less than one square kilometer in Baghouz, a Euphrates River village near the 600-kilometer (370-mile) border.
The Iraqi army has deployed more than 20,000 troops to guard the frontier, but militants are slipping across, mostly to the north of the conflict zone, in tunnels or under the cover of night. Others are entering Iraq disguised as cattle herders.
They are bringing with them currency and light weapons, according to intelligence reports, and digging up money and arms from caches they stashed away when they controlled a vast swath of northern Iraq.
“If we deployed the greatest militaries in the world, they would not be able to control this territory,” Rasoul said. “Our operations require intelligence gathering and airstrikes.”
At its height in 2014 and 2015, the Daesh group ruled over a self-proclaimed “caliphate” that spanned one-third of Iraqi and Syrian territory. The extremist offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq threatened to exterminate religious minorities.
Iraqi forces, with US, Iranian, and other international help, were able to turn the war around and Baghdad declared victory over the group in December 2017, after the last urban battle had been won.
But precursors to Daesh have recovered from major setbacks in the past, and many fear the militants could stage a comeback. The group is already waging a low-level insurgency in rural areas.
The Associated Press verified nine Daesh attacks in Iraq in January alone, based on information gathered from intelligence officials, provincial leaders, and social media. Daesh often boasts of its activities through group messaging apps such as Telegram.
In one instance, a band of militants broke into the home of a man they accused of being an informant for the army, in the village of Tal Al-Asfour in the northern Badush region. They shot him and his two brothers against the wall, and posted photos of the killing on social media.
Sheikh Mohamed Nouri, a local tribal leader, said it was meant to intimidate locals in order to keep them from sharing intelligence with security officials.
“I have members of our tribal militia receiving threatening messages warning them to abandon their work,” said Nouri.
In other instances, Daesh cells have killed mukhtars — village leaders and municipal officials. They have attacked rural checkpoints with car bombs and mortar fire, and burned down militia members’ homes. In the Shurgat area in central Iraq, militants stopped a police vehicle last month and killed all four officers inside.
Other activities have aimed at restoring the group’s financial footing.
On Sunday, militants kidnapped a group of 12 truffle hunters in the western Anbar province, marking a return to a strategy of intimidating and extorting farmers and traders for financial gain.
Naim Kaoud, the head of provincial security, urged locals to suspend truffle gathering, which has just one season a year and is an important source of income for rural families.
Other truffle hunters have disappeared in the countryside, according to former lawmaker and Anbar tribal figure Jaber Al-Jaberi. He said the militants are taking cuts from truffle hunters in exchange for access to the land, and kidnapping or killing those who refuse to cooperate.
“This is one of the sources of their funding,” said Al-Jaberi.
Al-Jaberi cautioned against exaggerating the Daesh threat, saying the militants have been less successful at infiltrating communities than they were earlier this decade.
“These are different times,” he said.
Others are not so sure. Hans-Jakob Schindler, a former adviser to the UN Security Council on Daesh and other extremist groups, said the same grievances that gave rise to Daesh in 2013 remain today, including a large Sunni minority that feels politically and economically marginalized by the Shiite-led central government.
“I’m very worried that we are just repeating history,” said Schindler, who is now at the Counter Extremism Project.
He said he has seen Daesh “revert to the old type” of “classical terror attacks” and kidnapping for ransom, tactics that were once widely employed by Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The militants staged a dramatic resurgence after 2011, when US forces withdrew from Iraq and civil war broke out in neighboring Syria. Today some 5,200 American forces are based in Iraq, after they were invited back to help stem the IS rampage in 2014.
After President Donald Trump promised in December to pull American forces out of Syria, Iraqi lawmakers began clamoring for the US to leave, arguing that the mission against Daesh was approaching its end.
But with no letdown to Daesh militancy, those calls have petered out.


Frugal fare for Ramadan in Damascus as war saps spending

Updated 34 min 39 sec ago
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Frugal fare for Ramadan in Damascus as war saps spending

  • For many in Syria sumptuous Ramadan feasts are no longer an option
  • Eight years of war have devastated the economy and unemployment is rife

DAMASCUS: Abu Anas Al-Hijazi scanned the stalls in the Syrian capital’s Bab Srija market but bought nothing. For the cash-strapped 45-year-old wedding singer, this Ramadan is a frugal one.
“We used to lay out a large spread and invite relatives and friends for a feast around six or seven times at least” during the Muslim holy month, he told AFP.
“But now, I invite them once or twice at most.”
Throughout Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours and sit down to a feast — known as iftar — once the sun goes down.
But for many in Syria, where eight years of war have devastated the economy and unemployment is rife, sumptuous Ramadan feasts are no longer an option.
“We have swapped meat for chicken this year, and we have started to offer small meals, rather than large spreads,” said the performer who earns less during Ramadan — an unpopular month for weddings.
“Nothing is the same.”
Abu Anas is among the many Syrians whose standard of living has plummeted since the conflict started in 2011.
“Almost 80 percent of the households across the country are struggling to cope with the lack of food or money to buy it,” according to the World Food Programme.
For Rabbah Ammar, the economic slowdown means she must take measures to rein in the family’s Ramadan’s expenses.
The 52-year-old said she set aside some savings months ago to spend on food during the fasting month.
She said she buys most of her produce from the Bab Srija market because “prices here are lower than in others.”
She also chooses which dishes to prepare based on the price of the ingredients.
“When the price of green peas spiked, we replaced it with fava beans, which were cheaper,” said the resident of the Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood outside Damascus.
“Today, since meat is expensive, we stuff courgettes with rice instead,” she clutching a bag of fruits and vegetables under arm.
Nearby, Abu Imad sprayed water on the plump tomatoes he had put on display, hoping to attract customers.
He said vegetable prices had dropped sharply this year. “The price of one kilo of cucumbers last year was 700 Syria pounds... and today it is about 200.”
Sitting near boxes of fresh vegetables, Talal Shawkal’s eyes flit back and forth, as potential customers walk past.

The produce is available and some is cheaper than in recent years but the price is still beyond the reach of many Syrians impoverished by the long years of war. (AFP)

He said prices had fallen because of an increase in supply, with produce now available from the farms of Eastern Ghouta, just oustide Damascus, after the government took the area from rebels last year.
Demand had not kept up, he said. “People don’t have enough money to buy.”
Mohammad Imad Kobeissi, a frail 60-year-old man, has for years earned a living carrying people’s shopping from the market to the taxi rank on the main road.
But “today, I have to wait for a long time before a customer requests my help,” he said.
With fewer sales, most people now only “fill one or two bags at most, which they can easily carry without my help.”
Arranging cucumbers and courgettes on a large wooden cart, Abu Ammar places the smaller pieces at the front, and the larger ones at the back.
He says demand is higher for the former, mainly because they are cheaper.
The 60-year-old, who has been working in the market for half a century, says the financial slowdown has altered people’s purchasing habits.
“This year is the first time I have customers asking to buy a single vegetable,” he said.
“This is not something we were used to in Syria,” he added.
The man, whose home in Eastern Ghouta was destroyed in the war, said he understands that times are difficult.
“I had to sell my car so I could afford everyday expenses.
“When I have customers who ask for three courgettes, I give it to them and ask for their prayers instead of money.”