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

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.


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 15 October 2019

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues
  • Trump's fresh sanctions fail to halt Turkish advance

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.