Hundreds flee US-backed Syria battle for last Daesh holdout

Syrian fighters backed by artillery fire from a US-led coalition battled a fierce militant counteroffensive as they pushed to retake a last morsel of territory from the Daesh group in an assault lasting days. (File/AFP)
Updated 12 February 2019

Hundreds flee US-backed Syria battle for last Daesh holdout

  • The extremist group declared a cross-border “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in 2014, but various military campaigns have chipped it down to a fragment
  • Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests

OMAR OIL FIELD, Syria: US-backed forces pressed the battle to expel diehard militants from the last pocket of land under their control in eastern Syria on Tuesday after hundreds fled the holdout overnight.
The extremist group declared a cross-border “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in 2014, but various military campaigns have chipped it down to a fragment on the Iraqi border.
After a pause of more than a week to allow out civilians, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared a last push to retake the “Baghouz pocket” from the extremists on Saturday.
Aided by the warplanes and artillery of a US-led coalition, the Kurdish-led alliance has made way into a patch of four square kilometers (one square mile).
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said heavy clashes were ongoing on Tuesday, after hundreds fled the battle zone overnight.
“A group of 600 civilians escaped from Baghouz at one in the morning and they are being searched now,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the new arrivals included women and children from France and Germany.
“Most of those who got out are foreigners,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Coalition spokesperson Sean Ryan said US-backed forces were facing a fierce fightback.
“The progress is slow and methodical as the enemy is fully entrenched and IS fighters continue to conduct counter attacks,” he said.
“The coalition continues to strike at IS targets whenever available.”
The SDF launched the battle to expel Daesh from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September, slowly tightening the noose around the militants and their families since December.
In the past two months, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of militant fighters, have fled into SDF-held areas, the Observatory says.
That figure includes some 3,400 suspected jihadists detained by the SDF, according to the Britain-based monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.
On Monday, AFP saw dozens of new arrivals at an SDF-held screening location.
Dozens of coalition and SDF fighters were stationed at a screening point for new arrivals from Daesh areas.
Coalition forces stood over about 20 men who were crouching on the ground.
Two French women told AFP they paid smugglers to take them out of the battered Daesh-held holdout, but Iraqi militants had prevented other foreigners from leaving.
“They said only the Syrians and Iraqis can be smuggled out,” said one of the women, who gave her first name as Christelle, from the city of Bordeaux.
Bali, the SDF spokesman, said on Saturday that up to 600 militants could remain inside the pocket.
But the group’s elusive leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi who proclaimed the “caliphate” in 2014 was likely not there, he said.
At the height of their proto-state, Baghdadi’s followers implemented their brutal implementation of Islamic law in an area the size of the United Kingdom.
But various offensives, including by the US-backed SDF and Russia-backed regime forces, have taken back all but a morsel of that territory near the village of Baghouz.
Once the “caliphate” is declared over, the fight will continue to eliminate Daesh sleeper cells, the SDF and their allies have said.
“After Baghouz, clearing operations will have to take place as well,” Ryan said.
“IS has purposely left IEDs (improvised explosive devices) behind to intentionally kill innocent civilians.”
The militant group retains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and has continued to claim deadly attacks in SDF-held areas.
US President Donald Trump on Monday said that the coalition may declare victory over Daesh in the region in the coming days.
“Our brave warriors have liberated virtually 100 percent of Daesh (territory) in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
“Soon it will be announced, soon, maybe over the next week, maybe less,” he told a rally in the US city of El Paso.
Trump shocked Washington’s allies in December by announcing a pullout of all 2,000 US troops from war-torn Syria.
The decision has left Syria’s Kurds scrambling for protection from Damascus against a long threatened attack by neighboring Turkey.
After decades of marginalization, the Kurds have largely stayed out of the eight-year civil war, instead setting up their own semi-autonomous institutions in northeast Syria.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.


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.