Daesh faces final territorial defeat in eastern Syria battle

Thousands of Daesh militants and their supporters withdrew to Baghouz as the group’s influence was diminishing. Above, an SDF soldier searches a suspected Daesh militant in Baghouz. (AFP/File)
Updated 02 March 2019

Daesh faces final territorial defeat in eastern Syria battle

  • Syrian Democratic Forces said most of the militants remaining in Baghouz are foreigners
  • The number of people leaving the village was higher than expected

DEIR EZZOR: Daesh faced final territorial defeat on Saturday as the US-backed Syrian force battling the extremists said it was closing in on their last bastion near the Iraqi border, capping four years of efforts to roll back the group.

While the fall of Baghouz, an eastern Syrian village on the bank of the Euphrates River, would mark a milestone in the campaign against Daesh, they remain a threat, using guerrilla tactics and holding some desolate land further west.

An array of enemies, both local and international, confronted Daesh after it declared a modern-day “caliphate” in 2014 across large swathes of territory it had seized in lightning offensives in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Thousands of Daesh fighters and followers, who had retreated to Baghouz as the group was gradually driven out of those lands, have poured out of the tiny cluster of hamlets and farmlands in Deir Ezzor province over the last few weeks.

Their evacuation held up the final assault until Friday evening when the SDF said it had advanced and would not stop until the extremists were defeated.

“We expect it to be over soon,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told Reuters.

He said the SDF were advancing on two fronts using medium and heavy weaponry, and three of its fighters had been wounded so far. The SDF has previously said that many of the militants left in Baghouz were foreigners.

The SDF commander-in-chief said on Thursday that his force would declare victory within a week. He was later contradicted by US President Donald Trump, who said the SDF had retaken 100 percent of the territory once held by Daesh.

Washington has about 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly to support the SDF in fighting Daesh. Trump announced in December he would withdraw all of them, but the White House partially reversed itself last month, saying some 400 troops would stay.

Some 40,000 people bearing various nationalities have left the extremists’ diminishing territory in the last three months as the SDF sought to oust the militants from remaining pockets.

The number of evacuees streaming out of Baghouz surpassed initial estimates of how many were inside. An SDF commander told Reuters on Thursday that many of the people leaving the enclave had been sheltering underground in caves and tunnels.

An 27-year-old Indonesian widow who emerged on Friday said she would have liked to stay in Daesh territory but conceded that conditions had become untenable.

“I have no money, I have no food for my baby, no medicine, nothing for my baby, so I must go out,” she told Reuters.


Outsider, jailed tycoon top Tunisian presidential vote

Updated 1 min 25 sec ago

Outsider, jailed tycoon top Tunisian presidential vote

  • The premier’s popularity has been tarnished by a sluggish economy and a high cost of living
  • The election follows an intense campaign beset by personality clashes

TUNIS, Tunisia: A jailed media magnate and an independent outsider appeared likely to face off in Tunisia’s presidential runoff, after a roller coaster first-round race in the country that unleashed the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings.

Official preliminary results are expected in the next couple of days from Sunday’s voting, in which corruption, unemployment and Islamic extremism were among key campaign issues. A second-round vote is expected by Oct. 13, the electoral commission chief said.

An exit poll by agency Sigma Conseil forecast what would be a surprising result: A top showing of 19.5% for independent Rais Saied, a constitutional law professor without a party.

Tycoon Nabil Karoui, jailed since last month on money laundering and tax evasion charges, was predicted to come in second with 15.5%, according to the poll.

Karoui’s supporters quickly declared victory, and his wife Salwa said his legal team is pushing for his release as soon as Monday. She read a letter he wrote from jail in which he said the apparent results reflected “the Tunisian people’s wish to see change, to say no to injustice, no to poverty, no to marginalization and yes to a fair state.”

The polling agency projected the candidate of moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, Abdelfattah Mourou, would come in third, followed by Defense Minister Abdeldrim Zbidi and then Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who had been considered a top contender.

Sigma Conseil said it questioned 38,900 people at 778 of Tunisia’s 4,554 polling stations, spread out over 27 of the country’s 33 regions. It claimed the poll had a margin of error of 1%.

The electoral commission announced that overall turnout was a relatively low 45%. If no candidate wins more than 50% of Sunday’s vote, the election goes to a second round. The exact date of the runoff will be announced once the final first-round results are declared.

Both Saied and Karoui promised to fight unemployment, a key problem in Tunisia that also helped drive its 2011 revolution.

Saied has no political background but notably picked up support among young voters with his straightforward, anti-system image and constitutional law background. Corruption frustrates many voters, which might have increased the appeal of an outsider candidate.

Karoui meanwhile positioned himself as the candidate of the poor, notably using his TV network to raise money for charity. His arrest appears to have mobilized voters in the struggling provinces or those who feel sidelined in the Tunisian economy. Karoui was allowed to remain in the race because he has not been convicted.

The voting followed a noisy but brief campaign — 12 days — marked by backbiting and charges of corruption among the contenders. All vowed to boost the country’s flagging economy and protect it from further deadly attacks by Islamist extremists.

Tunisia is in many ways an exception in the Arab world, with its budding democracy lurching forward despite challenges. Some 6,000 Tunisian and international observers, including from the European Union and the United States, monitored the vote.

More than 100,000 security forces were on guard Sunday as 7 million registered voters were called to the polls. Military surveillance was especially tight in border regions near Algeria and Libya where Islamist extremists are active.

Sunday’s election follows the death in office in July of the nation’s first democratically elected leader, Beji Caid Essebsi. His widow, Chadlia Saida Farhat, died Sunday at age 83, as Tunisians were voting.

This is only the second democratic presidential election that Tunisia has seen since the 2011 popular uprising brought down autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered uprisings across the Arab world.

“The most important thing is that the vote be transparent ... and reflect the choice of voters,” said retired journalist Radhia Ziadi, alluding to the days when Ben Ali won election after election with well over 90% of the votes.

Tunis voter Sonia Juini summed up the overall sentiment as she cast her ballot, expressing hope the new president would make Tunisia more secure and “improve living conditions and take care of marginalized areas.”

Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on Oct. 6, another challenge since the new president’s success will depend on having support in parliament.