US-backed forces admit to ‘difficulties’ beating Daesh in Syria

Syrian Democratic Forces have made gains in the battle against the last pocket of Daesh. (AFP)
Updated 17 March 2019

US-backed forces admit to ‘difficulties’ beating Daesh in Syria

  • An SDF statement said the latest fighting broke out after the Kurd-led force attacked Daesh positions inside Baghouz

BAGHOUZ: US-backed forces fighting to recapture the last Daesh group outpost in Syria admitted on Sunday they were facing “difficulties” defeating the extremists, saying they were being slowed by mines, tunnels and concerns over harming women and children among the militants.
The battle to capture the extremist group’s last patch of territory in eastern Syria — a collection of tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels in the village of Baghouz — has dragged on for weeks amid an unexpected exodus of civilians from the area.
The sheer number of people who have emerged from Baghouz, nearly 30,000 since early January according to Kurdish officials, has taken the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise. Most have been women and children whose existence in a labyrinth of underground caves and tunnels was unknown to the fighters.
In the last two weeks, many fighters appeared to be among those evacuating. But an unknown number of militants and civilians remain inside, refusing to surrender.
“We are facing several difficulties regarding the operations,” SDF commander Kino Gabriel told reporters outside Baghouz on Sunday.
He cited the large number of mines and explosive devices planted by IS and the existence of tunnels and hideouts beneath the ground that are being used by the militants to attack SDF forces or defend themselves.
The camp is all that remains of a self-declared Islamic “caliphate” that once sprawled across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq. But a declaration of victory and the group’s territorial defeat has been delayed as the military campaign sputtered on in fits and starts.
A final push by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces started on Jan. 9 but has been paused on several occasions, mainly to allow for civilians to evacuate and fighters to surrender.
Underscoring the struggles faced by the SDF as they try to flush the out extremists, three Daesh fighters emerged from Baghouz on Friday acting as though they wanted to surrender only to blew themselves up, killing six people.
The campaign has also been hindered by bad weather. Intermittent storms have at times turned the battlefield to mud and Daesh militants have mounted counteroffensives on windy days, burning tires and oil to try to force the SDF back with smoke.
On Sunday, dozens of men and women were seen walking around the besieged Daesh encampment in Baghouz, as SDF fighters watched from a hilltop close by.
The camp, looking much like a junkyard, was littered with damaged vans and pickup trucks parked between tents where people appeared to be moving about.
On the hilltop lookout north of Baghouz, an SDF sentry, lying flat on his stomach with his rocket launcher trained on the camp, cautioned an approaching comrade not to get too close. “There are snipers,” he said of the IS camp.
Gabriel said the camp was approximately 0.25 square kilometers in size — much the same area it was five weeks ago, when the SDF said it was finally going to conclude the battle.
In the middle of the camp stands a pair of two-story compounds, showing little sign of damage. Several houses that appeared habitable can be seen as well.
With operations now stretching into the spring, Gabriel faced pointed questions from the press over whether Daesh would be able to resupply itself with water and goods, despite the siege.
He said he was not aware of any smuggling tunnels still in operation, and that Daesh was cut off from the outside world.
“I don’t think we will be seeing more IS terrorists appearing in this pocket," he said using an acronym for Daesh.
A commander participating in operations on the western side of the enclave said he did not believe Daesh was fleeing to the other side of the Euphrates River either, where Syrian government forces and their allies are holding positions.
Gabriel said 29,600 people have left Baghouz since Jan. 9, among them 5,000 fighters — far greater than the SDF had initially estimated remained inside.
He said the SDF no longer estimates how many people remained in Baghouz but added that recent evacuees told the fighting forces that another 5,000 were still inside.
The force and the Kurdish-led authorities that administer northeast Syria have banned in recent days journalists from interviewing evacuees from Baghouz.
The evacuees are now living in detention-like camps in the self-administered region that international humanitarian organizations say are vastly overcrowded and underserved. They say disease is rampant in the camps and medical care is desperately needed.
“The Daesh terrorists are starting to feel hunger and thirst and we are seeing this in the people who are coming out of the camp,” said Gabriel. 


Libya Speaker urges action on Turkish intervention

Updated 6 min 22 sec ago

Libya Speaker urges action on Turkish intervention

CAIRO: Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, Aguila Saleh, held talks on Monday with Egyptian officials and the US envoy on dealing with the Turkish intervention in Libya.


On the second day of his visit to Cairo, Saleh met with US envoy to Libya Richard Norland and agreed to meet with Western delegations in addition to the Egyptian leadership.


Saleh held talks with Norland on maintaining the cease-fire and reopening talks to end the crisis in the country.


He said that the parliament is adhering to the outcomes of the Berlin international conference and the Cairo initiative, and called for the withdrawal of reconciliation government militias from around the Sirte and Jufra oil crescent areas.


The Libyan parliament website said that Saleh and the US ambassador discussed developments in Libya and sought ways to reach a solution in the country according to the Cairo declaration and the outcome of the Berlin summit.


“The meeting discussed the steps taken to move forward with work on the initiative of Aguila Saleh, which culminated in the Cairo declaration according to the outcomes of the Berlin conference,” media adviser to the Speaker, Hamid Al-Safi, said, according to the Libyan News Agency in Benghazi. 


Al-Safi said the meeting reached an agreement to continue the cease-fire. 


The Libyan News Agency said that Norland explained his country’s view on the necessity of stopping the fighting in Libya and that there is no military solution to the crisis. 


Germany, France and Italy intend to push for European sanctions against Turkey, which violated the arms embargo on Libya.


EU sources said that the three countries have prepared a list of companies and individuals who harness ships, aircraft or other logistical services to transport weapons.

The list includes three companies from Turkey and Kazakhstan, as well as two Libyans.


Saleh arrived in Cairo on Sunday to resume a series of international and regional meetings as part of efforts aimed to resolve the Libyan crisis. He will also meet with Egyptian officials as well as the American ambassador in Cairo for talks on restructuring the Presidency Council.


US President Donald Trump’s administration is seeking a demilitarized solution in Sirte and Jufra, and to reopen the country’s oil sector with full transparency between the Libyan parties.


Parliamentary media adviser Fathi Al-Marimi said that Saleh also discussed the removal of armed forces in Sirte and Jufra with the US envoy.


In statements carried by Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath satellite channel, he added that Saleh highlighted the need for a fair distribution of wealth, while the US enjoy stressed the need for a peaceful solution in Libya.


Saleh visited Cairo in the beginning of June, where he met President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan Army, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, to announce a political initiative to solve the Libyan crisis, called the Cairo declaration.