Renewed US-led airstrikes pound Daesh holdouts

Smoke rises from the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Syria, after US-led airstrikes pound the area. (File/Reuters)
Updated 23 March 2019

Renewed US-led airstrikes pound Daesh holdouts

  • According to SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel, hundreds of Daesh fighters, including some women, still remain on the outskirts of the encampment

SOUSA, SYRIA: US-led warplanes bombed the north bank of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria on Friday to flush out holdout militants from the last sliver of their crumbling “caliphate.”
Friday’s bombardment ended two days of relative calm on the front line in the remote village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had paused its advance while it combed a makeshift militant encampment, which it overran on Tuesday.
An SDF official said warplanes of the US-led coalition resumed strikes on suspected militant positions before dawn on Friday.
Top SDF commander Jia Furat said his forces were engaging with the Daesh fighters on several fronts while the coalition warplanes provided air support.
The coalition said the “operation to complete the liberation of Baghouz is ongoing.”
“It remains a hard fight, and Daesh is showing that they intend to keep fighting for as long as possible,” it said. The SDF launched what it called its “final assault” against the rebels’ last redoubt in the village of Baghouz on Feb. 9.
Finally on Tuesday, they cornered diehard fighters into a few acres of farmland along the Euphrates River, after forcing them out of their rag-tag encampment of tents and battered vehicles.
The six-month-old operation to wipe out the last vestige of Daesh’s once-sprawling proto-state is close to reaching its inevitable outcome, but the SDF has said a declaration of victory will be made only after they have completed flushing out the last tunnels and hideouts.
According to SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel, hundreds of Daesh fighters, including some women, still remain on the outskirts of the encampment. They are hiding along the bank of the Euphrates River as well as at the base of a hill overlooking Baghouz, he told AFP.
“In around one or two days, we will conclude military operations if there are no surprise developments,” he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Daesh holdouts were hiding in underground tunnels and caves in Baghouz.
SDF official Jiaker Amed said several militants want to surrender but are being prevented from doing so by other fighters.
“We are trying our best to wrap up the operation without fighting, but some of them are refusing to surrender,” he said.
More than 66,000 people, mostly civilians, have quit the last Daesh redoubt since Jan. 9, according to the SDF.
They comprise 5,000 militants and 24,000 of their relatives as well as 37,000 other civilians.
The thousands who have streamed out have been housed in cramped camps and prisons run by Kurdish forces further north.
On Wednesday night, around 2,000 women and children from Baghouz arrived at the largest camp, Al-Hol, which is struggling to cope with the influx of tens of thousands of people, many in poor health.
Since December, at least 138 people, mostly children, have died en route to Al-Hol or shortly after arrival, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Daesh declared a “caliphate” in June 2014 after seizing a vast swathe of territory larger than Britain straddling Iraq and Syria.
The loss of the Baghouz enclave would signal the demise of the “caliphate” in Syria, after its defeat in Iraq in 2017.
But Daesh has already begun its transformation into a guerilla organization, and still carries out deadly hit-and-run attacks from desert or mountain hideouts.
In a video released on Daesh’s social media channels on Thursday, militants vowed to continue to carry out attacks.
“To those who think our caliphate has ended, we say not only has it not ended, but it is here to stay,” said one fighter.
He urged Daesh supporters to conduct attacks in the West against the enemies of the “caliphate.”
The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted following the repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.


Can Damascus-Ankara face off in Syria flare up?

Updated 17 min 42 sec ago

Can Damascus-Ankara face off in Syria flare up?

  • An all-out conflict between Syrian regime forces and Turkey is unlikely

BEIRUT: A week-old Turkish invasion of northeast Syria combined with a US withdrawal have redrawn the lines and left Russian-backed Syrian regime troops and Ankara’s forces standing face-to-face.

Experts argue that an all-out conflict between Syrian regime forces and Turkey is unlikely but they do not rule out sporadic clashes.

On Oct. 9, the Turkish army and its Syrian proxies launched a broad offensive against Kurdish forces controlling swathes of northeastern Syria.

The move against the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia Ankara considers a terrorist group, came after US troops who were deployed along the border as a buffer between the two enemies pulled back.

Turkey and its proxies — mostly Arab and Turkmen former rebels defeated by regime forces earlier in Syria’s eight-year-old conflict — have already conquered territory along 120 km of the border.

In some areas, they have moved some 30 km deep into Syria territory, prompting the Kurds to turn for help to the regime in Damascus.

Government troops responded and rushed north as soon as US troops withdrew from some of their positions, including the strategic city of Manbij.

The Syrian regime’s main backer Russia swiftly sent its own forces to patrol the new contact line between regime forces and the former fighters.

“It is mostly rebel groups linked to Ankara who are on the front lines, Turkish troops are mostly deployed along the border,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The intense ballet of military deployments is redrawing the map of territorial control in a region previously held by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces.

“There’s a new map. And it’s the regime sweeping almost everything, Turkey is left with a few crumbs along the border,” said Thomas Pierret, from the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Turkey insists it will not stop the offensive until it meets its declared goals of creating a buffer zone all along the border, but it now has limited room for maneuver in the face of the regime surge.

Russia and Iran, both Damascus allies, “will act as intermediaries to ensure everybody stays on the patch they have been allocated,” said geographer and Syria expert Fabrice Balanche.

He said incidents should not be ruled out “due to the unclear nature of the territorial boundaries and the presence on the Turkish side of uncontrollable elements.”

Two Syrian soldiers were killed near Ain Issa in artillery fire from Turkish proxies Tuesday, the Observatory said.

“There could be limited clashes ... but no major battles,” Pierret said. “The Syrian army cannot take on Turkey ... The Turkish army is much better equipped.”

“It isn’t hard to imagine how areas retaken by the regime could be used as a staging ground for YPG guerrilla operations,” he said.

The Kurdish force could be “reinvented as an anti-Turkey force” at Damascus and Moscow’s orders. “It’s a very credible scenario and could give Russia new leverage against Turkey.”

Moscow is keen to avert any escalation, analysts say.

“Russia is working overtime to prevent any type of large scale conflict between Assad’s forces and Turkey and its proxies,” said Nick Heras from the Center for New American Security.

Turkey together with Russia and Iran launched the so-called Astana process which provides a framework for peace talks on Syria.

To win support for its invasion, Turkey will need to make concessions over the Idlib region in Syria’s northwest, Balanche predicted.

“The Russians finally agreed to this Turkish intervention in the north, in exchange for Idlib,” he said, referring to the last opposition bastion in Syria, a region where Ankara has some clout but which Damascus wants to retake.

The strategic relationship between Ankara and Moscow goes far beyond the Syrian conflict. NATO member Turkey has ignored US warnings and acquired Russia’s state-of-the-art S-400 missile defense system.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected in Moscow on Thursday for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s office said a prior phone call between the two leaders had emphasized “the need to prevent confrontations between units of the Turkish army and Syrian armed forces.”