Trump declares all Daesh-held territory eliminated in Syria but SDF continue fighting

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hold walkie-talkies in the village of Baghouz, Daesh's last holdout, which the US said has now been eliminated. (Reuters)
Updated 24 March 2019

Trump declares all Daesh-held territory eliminated in Syria but SDF continue fighting

BAGHOUZ, Syria: Daesh militants in eastern Syria still held out late on Friday, the US-backed militia besieging them said, after US President Donald Trump said the extremist group had lost its last scrap of territory.
“Heavy fighting continues around mount Baghouz right now to finish off whatever remains of Daesh,” said Mustafa Bali, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) media office on Twitter.
Trump showed a before-and-after map to reporters to demonstrate the extent of jihadist losses during his presidency. He has said several times in recent weeks that Daesh had lost all its land even though fierce battles persisted.
Two hours before Trump gave a statement declaring the group’s territorial rule over, a Reuters journalist heard two air strikes and saw smoke at Baghouz, where Daesh fighters have been waging a last stand.
Daesh’s loss of Baghouz ends its grip over populated territory in the third of Iraq and Syria it once ruled, but the group remains a threat with fighters operating in cities and remote areas elsewhere and able to mount insurgent attacks.
A US-led coalition has helped the SDF drive Daesh from swathes of northeastern Syria and down the Euphrates since 2015 with air strikes and special forces assistance.

An array of local and international forces — some of them sworn enemies of each other — have conducted different campaigns against Daesh during that period, inflicting major defeats on it in 2017 with the capture of Mosul and Raqqa.
The Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari told reporters that Daesh was not yet finished in Syria, but that it was the Damascus government backed by Russia and Iran that was genuinely battling it, not the United States.
Some Daesh fighters remain holed up in the central Syrian desert, an area entirely surrounded by the Syrian army.
“Here’s Daesh on Election Day. And here’s Daesh right now,” Trump said, using the acronym for the group, as he displayed the map with the ‘before’ portion full of red dots and the after map empty.
“You guys can have the map. Congratulations,” Trump said. “I think it’s about time.” The president has previously displayed a map illustrating the diminution of Daesh.
Although he said the “before” map showed Daesh’s presence at his election in 2016, the version given to reporters showed it was dated 2014, when the group’s territorial control was at its peak. US-backed forces in Syria and Iraq captured extensive stretches of that territory before Trump’s election.
The SDF has been battling for weeks to defeat Daesh in Baghouz on the Euphrates riverside at the Iraqi border. This week it announced it had captured a jihadist encampment that represented most of the remaining enclave.
The last small groups of jihadist fighters had been pushed onto a sliver of the riverbank and the cliffs nearby said the SDF, which holds the area at the top of the cliffs.
Bali told Reuters earlier on Friday that SDF fighters had clashed overnight with militants in more than two positions where they were refusing to surrender.
The jihadists were holed up in what appeared to be caves in a rocky shelf overlooking Baghouz and in trenches by the river, he said. “Our forces are trying to force them to surrender, but so far the clashes are continuing.”
Over the past two months, more than 60,000 people have flooded out of the dwindling pocket on the Euphrates around Baghouz, about half of them civilians including some Daesh captives, the SDF has said.
Of the rest, about 5,000 were surrendering jihadist fighters. The others were supporters or family members of the group. The fighters who refused to surrender to the end were mostly foreigners, the SDF has said.
The SDF transported most people who left Baghouz to displacement camps in northeast Syria where aid agencies have warned of dire humanitarian conditions.
The number of people inside the enclave when the assault on it began in January was unexpectedly large, adding to the difficulties at the displacement camps and repeatedly delaying a final offensive.


Will Turkey abide by provisions of Berlin Summit?

Updated 21 January 2020

Will Turkey abide by provisions of Berlin Summit?

  • Expert says sudden end to Ankara’s intervention in Libyan conflict unlikely

JEDDAH: With the conclusion of the Libya peace summit in Berlin on Sunday, it remains to be seen whether Turkey is willing to implement the provisions of the final communique and stay out of the conflict.

Ankara is accused of sending Syrian fighters to the Libyan battlefront in support of Fayez Al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) against military commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

During the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron voiced concerns over the arrival of Syrian and other foreign fighters in Tripoli, saying: “That must end.” 

Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst at Oxford University, speculates that Turkey will not deploy more troops.  

But he told Arab News that a sudden end to Ankara’s intervention in the Libyan conflict is unlikely for the moment as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country will remain present “until the GNA’s future is secured.”

Noting the difficulty of enforcing the Berlin agreement, Ramani said Turkey might not be the first mover in breaching a cease-fire in Libya.

But he added that Turkey will not hesitate to deploy forces and upend the agreement if Haftar makes any moves that it considers “provocative.”

The summit called for sanctions on those who violate the UN Security Council arms embargo on Libya.

Turkish opposition MPs recently criticized the expanded security pact between Ankara and the GNA, saying the dispatch of materials and equipment to Libya breaches the UN arms embargo.

Until we see what specific cease-fire monitoring and enforcement mechanisms will be implemented and by which foreign powers, we don’t know what arrangements, if any, have been agreed upon.

Micha’el Tanchum, Analyst

The summit does not seem to have resolved ongoing disputes regarding the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline, a planned natural gas pipeline connecting eastern Mediterranean energy resources to mainland Greece via Cyprus and Crete.

The Cypriot presidency accused Turkey of being a “pirate state,” citing Ankara’s recent drilling off its coasts just a day after Brussels warned Turkey that its plans were illegal.

Erdogan dismissed the warning and threatened to send to the EU some 4 million refugees that Turkey is hosting.

Turkey dispatched its Yavuz drillship to the south of Cyprus on Sunday, based on claims deriving from the maritime delimitation agreement with the GNA.

Turkey’s insistence on gas exploration in the region may be subject to sanctions as early as this week, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels on Monday.

Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based political analyst, drew attention to Article 25 of the Berlin final communique, which underlined the “Libyan Political Agreement as a viable framework for the political solution in Libya,” and called for the “establishment of a functioning presidency council and the formation of a single, unified, inclusive and effective Libyan government approved by the House of Representatives.”

Sezer told Arab News: “Getting approval from Libya’s Haftar-allied House of Representatives would be a serious challenge for Ankara because Haftar recently considered all agreements with Turkey as a betrayal. This peace conference once more showed that Turkey should keep away from Libya.”

Many experts remain skeptical about the possible outcome of the summit. 

Micha’el Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, said: “Until we see what specific cease-fire monitoring and enforcement mechanisms will be implemented and by which foreign powers, we don’t know what arrangements, if any, have been agreed upon.”