Fleeing offensives, where are the militants going?

This undated frame grab from video posted online on May 19, 2017 by supporters of the Daesh militant group, shows Daesh fighters who recently joined the group receiving military training in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. (Militant Photo via AP, File)
Updated 03 October 2017

Fleeing offensives, where are the militants going?

BEIRUT: Daesh is under attack across the remaining parts of its self-proclaimed caliphate, but what happens to its thousands of fighters as their group loses grip on territory?
Facing multiple offensives, the militant group has lost the Libyan city of Sirte, Iraq’s Mosul and Ramadi, and is now on the verge of being ousted from its former Syrian stronghold Raqqa.
At its peak Daesh counted tens of thousands of fighters among its ranks, with US officials estimating as many as 40,000 foreign fighters traveled to join the militants over the years.
Forces attacking Daesh has regularly reported the deaths and arrests of large numbers of militants, but their figures are often vague and cannot be independently verified.
“We can’t give an exact number of those arrested but we can say that there are a good number of them being detained by our forces,” said Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces currently battling Daesh in Syria.
In Iraq’s Mosul, journalists saw the bodies of militants killed in fighting on the streets, but they numbered no more than a few dozen at any time, far less than the hundreds authorities often said had died in combat.
Other Daesh fighters may have been arrested and then executed.
In July, the Human Rights Watch group accused a unit of Iraq’s army of carrying out summary executions of suspected rebel prisoners.
A persistent fear for forces attacking Daesh is that its fighters will try to blend into the civilian population, either fleeing along with the displaced or staying behind in homes.
“The problem of operatives hiding among civilians who flee is certainly a major issue,” said Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.
“Operatives might stay behind and melt into the wider civilian population to function as sleeper cells or recruit others to become part of sleeper cells as well,” he told AFP.
In Syria, Bali said, some Daesh fighters “have been discovered in camps for the displaced via our databases.”
Others have been turned in by civilians who recognized and reported them.
But some fighters slip through nonetheless, especially as “some civilians are afraid to report them, fearing revenge will be taken against them,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
Iraqi forces, like their counterparts in Syria, use a database to pick out suspected Daesh fighters from among civilians.
But a local Iraqi official said “a large number of Daesh elements are hiding among the population in Mosul, particularly in the Old City.” Their presence is evidenced by “the assassinations and bombings that continue daily,” said Hisham Al-Hashimi, a researcher who specializes in militant movements.
The many non-Arab foreign fighters among Daesh’s ranks may not be able to blend so easily into the fleeing civilian populations, with their features and language betraying them.
“There’s a lot of (Daesh) foreign fighters there that don’t want to give up and intend to fight very hard,” the top coalition commander assisting and advising the SDF told AFP.
Foreign fighters are often those carrying out suicide attacks, added Hashimi, and by the end of any given battle “the number of them left behind is very small.”
Their chances of returning home are slim, with intelligence services closely monitoring for returnees, and the Turkish border now tightly surveilled.
Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, said Daesh’s own propaganda suggested a loosening of its once-tight rules against leaving its territory for that of the “unbelievers.”
“The group has very indirectly — but also in my opinion unambiguously — essentially said that it is no longer impermissible to flee the IS (Daesh) territories,” he told AFP.
With its territory across Syria and Iraq rapidly shrinking, Daesh is now concentrating its resources in the Euphrates River valley that lies along the Syria-Iraq border, experts say.
For a long time now the center of gravity for Daesh has been shifting... toward places like Mayadeen and Albu Kamal, in the east of Syria’s Deir Ezzor province, said Winter.
Daesh “has very systematically been bulking up its infrastructure and its population in these places,” he added.
He said Daesh had likely ensured that large numbers of fighters moved to these areas well before they were surrounded in places like Raqqa and Mosul.
That means now that the fight for places like Mayadeen and Albu Kamal could be “surprisingly ferocious,” he said.


Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

Updated 17 September 2019

Iraqi PM tightens government grip on country’s armed factions

  • The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is putting increased pressure on the nation’s armed factions, including Shiite-dominated paramilitary troops and Kurdish guerrillas, in an attempt to tighten his control over them, Iraqi military commanders and analysts said on Monday.

Military commanders have been stripped of some of their most important powers as part of the efforts to prevent them from being drawn into local or regional conflicts.

The increasingly strained relations between the US and Iran in the region is casting a large shadow over Iraq. 

Each side has dozens of allied armed groups in the country, which has been one of the biggest battlegrounds for the two countries since 2003. 

Attempting to control these armed factions and military leaders is one of the biggest challenges facing the Iraqi government as it works to keep the country out of the conflict.

On Sunday, Abdul Mahdi dissolved the leadership of the joint military operations. 

They will be replaced by a new one, under his chairmanship, that includes representatives of the ministries of defense and interior, the military and security services, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Ministry of Peshmerga, which controls the military forces of the autonomous Kurdistan region.

According to the prime minister’s decree, the main tasks of the new command structure are to “lead and manage joint operations at the strategic and operational level,” “repel all internal and external threats and dangers as directed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces,” “manage and coordinate the intelligence work of all intelligence and security agencies,” and “coordinate with international bodies that support Iraq in the areas of training and logistical and air support.”

“This decree will significantly and effectively contribute to controlling the activities of all combat troops, not just the PMU,” said a senior military commander, who declined to be named. 

“This will block any troops associated with any local political party, regional or international” in an attempt to ensure troops serve only the government’s goals and the good of the country. 

“This is explicit and unequivocal,” he added.

Since 2003, the political process in Iraq has been based on political power-sharing system. This means that each parliamentary bloc gets a share of top government positions, including the military, proportionate to its number of seats in Parliament. Iran, the US and a number of regional countries secure their interests and ensure influence by supporting Iraqi political factions financially and morally.

This influence has been reflected in the loyalties and performance of the majority of Iraqi officials appointed by local, regional and international parties, including the commanders of combat troops.

To ensure more government control, the decree also stripped the ministers of defense and interior, and leaders of the counterterrorism, intelligence and national security authorities, and the PMU, from appointing, promoting or transferring commanders. This power is now held exclusively by Abdul Mahdi.

“The decree is theoretically positive as it will prevent local, regional and international parties from controlling the commanders,” said another military commander. 

“This means that Abdul Mahdi will be responsible to everyone inside and outside Iraq for the movement of these forces and their activities.

“The question now is whether Abdul Mahdi will actually be able to implement these instructions or will it be, like others, just ink on paper?”

The PMU is a government umbrella organization established by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in June 2014 to encompass the armed factions and volunteers who fought Daesh alongside the Iraqi government. Iranian-backed factions such as Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah represent the backbone of the forces.

The US, one of Iraq’s most important allies in the region and the world, believes Iran is using its influence within the PMU to destabilize and threaten Iraq and the region. Abdul Mahdi is under huge external and internal pressure to abolish the PMU and demobilize its fighters, who do not report or answer to the Iraqi government.

The prime minister aims to ease tensions between the playmakers in Iraq, especially the US and Iran, by preventing their allies from clashing on the ground or striking against each other’s interests.

“Abdul Mahdi seeks to satisfy Washington and reassure them that the (armed) factions of the PMU will not move against the will of the Iraqi government,” said Abdullwahid Tuama, an Iraqi analyst.

The prime minister is attempting a tricky balancing act by aiming to protect the PMU, satisfy the Iranians and prove to the Americans that no one is outside the authority of the state, he added.