Daesh fights to hang on a year after defeat in Iraq

The Daesh group is fighting to hang on to its last enclave in Syria, engaging in deadly battles with US-backed forces in the country’s east near the Iraqi border. (File/AP)
Updated 08 December 2018
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Daesh fights to hang on a year after defeat in Iraq

  • “There is still major danger for Iraq and Syria especially in areas close to the border when it comes to Daesh,” a senior Iraqi intelligence official said
  • Huge parts of Iraq and Syria are still in ruins, with little cash and — in Syria’s case — little international political will to rebuild

BAGHDAD: A year after it was routed from Iraq in a devastating war that left entire neighborhoods and towns in ruins, the Daesh group is fighting to hang on to its last enclave in eastern Syria, engaging in deadly battles with US-backed forces.
Cornered in the desert near the Iraqi border with nowhere to run, the militants are putting up a fierce fight, inflicting hundreds of casualties among their opponents and releasing a stream of beheading videos reminiscent of the extremist group’s terrifying propaganda at the height of its power.
The battle for Hajjin has dragged on for three months, highlighting the difficulty of eradicating an extremist group determined to survive. In Iraq, there is rising concern that the group may stage a comeback. Daesh sleeper cells have recently launched deadly attacks against security forces and kidnapped and killed civilians, mostly in four northern and central provinces that were once part of the group’s self-declared caliphate.
“There is still major danger for Iraq and Syria especially in areas close to the border when it comes to Daesh,” a senior Iraqi intelligence official said, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the extremists. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media about security matters.
He said Daesh lost most of the income it once made from oil and taxes imposed in areas it controlled. The group now relies on selling gold and other reserves that they had accumulated after declaring their caliphate in June 2014. He said the money is being used to buy weapons and finance attacks in Iraq and Syria.
Another Iraqi intelligence official said Daesh has begun restructuring its command, relying more on non-Iraqi commanders after most of its leaders were killed in coalition strikes.
The Daesh group once held an area the size of Britain across vast territories straddling parts of Iraq and Syria, running a so-called caliphate and planning international attacks from its headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa. Tens of thousands were killed in both countries as an array of local forces, some backed by a US-led coalition, eventually drove the extremists out of virtually all the lands they once held.
Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared final victory over the group on Dec. 9, 2017. Two months earlier, the coalition, working with Kurdish-dominated fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, liberated Raqqa after a bombing campaign that decimated much of the city.
The area that Daesh still holds in Syria represents less than 1 percent of the territory it controlled at its height. The pocket is home to some 15,000 people, including Daesh fighters and their families. The US military estimates there are about 2,000 remaining Daesh fighters there.
The SDF launched their offensive to retake Hajjin on Sept. 10. It has been a grueling campaign, with sand storms and fog at times grounding coalition aircraft, allowing the militants to launch counteroffensives that have killed hundreds of SDF fighters. IS has also taken scores of prisoners and hundreds of civilians hostage.
“It is very difficult because we are in the last stages, where almost every Daesh fighter is a suicide belt,” Brett McGurk, the White House envoy for the war against IS, said at a security conference held recently in the Gulf nation of Bahrain.
The extremists, besieged near the border, have no place to go. They are surrounded from the east and north by SDF fighters while from the south and west, Syrian government forces and their allies have closed roads to the surrounding desert.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says since the fighting began nearly three months ago, 1,616 people have been killed, mostly fighters from both sides. It said the dead include 827 Daesh gunmen, 481 SDF fighters and 308 civilians.
The fighting is now believed to be in its final stages, with SDF fighters said to have broken IS defenses and taken the fight inside the town.
The fall of Hajjin will end the group’s hold over any significant territory in Iraq or Syria, but sleeper cells in both countries will continue to stage attacks amid attempts to regroup. Daesh affiliates in Libya, Afghanistan and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula continue to stage regular attacks.
The group’s savage legacy, meanwhile, will stay for years to come.
Huge parts of Iraq and Syria are still in ruins, with little cash and — in Syria’s case — little international political will to rebuild.
Emerging from the more than three years of war, Iraq estimates that $88.2 billion is needed to rebuild the country. An international donors’ summit held early this year in Kuwait gathered pledges of $30 billion that mainly came in the form of loans, but no progress has been made to fulfil the pledges.
“The biggest problem we have is the lack of funds,” said Mustafa Al-Hiti, the head of a government-run reconstruction fund.
“What we spent till now is about 1.5 percent of what we need and that came as loans and donations,” Al-Hiti added.
Another challenge is the unexploded ordnance, mainly in the northern city of Mosul, where the climactic battle occurred. He estimated that 4 million unexploded bombs are still littered around Mosul, the largest city Daesh once held, with only 6 percent cleared so far.
Nuri Mehmud, an SDF spokesman speaking by telephone from Syria, said all of Daesh’s experienced fighters are now in the besieged area of Hajjin.
“It is a difficult battle but in the end we will wipe out Daesh,” he said.


In Syria’s Idlib, education a casualty of war

A displaced Syrian girl carries books on her head near a bus converted into a classroom in the village of Hazano in northwestern Syria. (AFP)
Updated 21 September 2019

In Syria’s Idlib, education a casualty of war

  • The conditions are dire however, with camp manager Hammud Al-Sayah explaining initial planning was done for 50 children, yet attendees now top 375

HAZANO, SYRIA: Near the village of Hazano in northwestern Syria, children come running through the olive groves every morning to meet the bus that brings school to their improvised tented camp.
Years of fighting and displacement in Idlib province have wrought chaos for the education of children, destroying schools and scattering families into homelessness across the countryside.
More than 400,000 people have been displaced since April alone, when the Russian-backed regime upped its deadly bombardment of the opposition-dominated enclave.
“These children can’t go to school, it’s too far from where they are,” said Farid Bakir, a local program manager with Syria Relief, the charity that launched the bus project.
In Hazano camp, the children get in line and hope to be among those who squeeze into the bus for a few hours.
A whiteboard is installed in the back, a thick carpet laid on the floor and a few dozen small desks, also used as chairs, are rearranged depending on the activity.
The ceiling is too low for the teacher to stand fully upright but Hussein Ali Azkour, a young boy wearing a yellow T-shirt, is enthusiastic about his classroom-on-wheels.
“The difference between a normal school and the bus, is that the bus is air-conditioned. It’s better than a thousand schools,” he said.
“When we fled here, there was no school and they started bringing the buses. If these buses were to stop coming, we would have no education and learn nothing.”
The buses cater only for ages ranging from five to 12 and include classes in Arabic, mathematics, science and sometimes English, as well as singing and drawing.
Since the project was launched in May, around 1,000 children have benefitted from the bus program, Bakir said.
That is a drop in the ocean of problems children, who represent more than half of the Idlib region’s 3 million inhabitants, are facing. According to Save the Children, the heavy bombardment since late April has damaged or otherwise impacted 87 educational facilities, while a further 200 are being used as shelters for those the violence displaced.
The UK-based NGO says some parents have been pleading with them to shut down schools for fear they would be targeted in regime air strikes.
“As the new school year starts, the remaining functional schools can only accommodate up to 300,000 of the 650,000 school-age children,” it said.
Ragheb Hassoun’s children are among the few who have been fortunate enough to receive a few hours a week of lessons through the bus project, but he says the situation is not tenable.
“We want something permanent — a school on the land where we live,” the 28-year-old said.
He and his family have been displaced several times since the start of the conflict in Syria eight years ago.

NUMBER 300K

schoolchildren out of the 650,000 can be accommodated in the remaining functional schools as the new school year starts, according to Save the Children.

Hassoun said he would be happy if his children could at least go to school during normal hours in a tent at the camp.
This is what children have in a larger camp near Dana, north of the city of Idlib, where the local school is housed under two large UN tents.
The conditions are dire however, with camp manager Hammud Al-Sayah explaining initial planning was done for 50 children, yet attendees now top 375.
Books underarm — or with bags strapped to backs — pupils are squeezed around black desks, while those unable to find a seat perch cross-legged on the floor.
Children who are four or five years apart attend the same classes.
“The pressure is huge,” Sayah said, admitting that the schooling conditions have a serious impact on the quality of education.
At 10 years of age, Abdel Razaq knows that his education is being compromised.
Standing in front of the white tent he has come to call his school, he said he dreams of a big building “where the number of children in each class is lower.”
“And where we could sit comfortably and hear what the teachers are saying.”