Extremists emerge from tunnels to surrender after ‘caliphate’ falls

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) checks a militants group’s tunnel in the village of Baghouz on Sunday. (AFP)
Updated 25 March 2019

Extremists emerge from tunnels to surrender after ‘caliphate’ falls

  • The coalition must remain firm in its determination to counter Daesh: Ghika

BAGHOUZ: Daesh group extremists emerged from tunnels to surrender to US-backed forces in eastern Syria on Sunday, a Kurdish spokesman said, a day after their “caliphate” was declared defeated.
An AFP reporter saw dozens of people — mostly men — file out of the battered Daesh encampment in the remote village of Baghouz to board pickup trucks.
“They are Daesh militants who came out of tunnels and surrendered today,” said Jiaker Amed, a spokesman for the Kurdish units spearheading the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Plodding out of their defeated bastion on the banks of the Euphrates near the Iraqi border, some sported thick beards.
Some wore long woollen kaftan tunics over their dark-colored robes, others a checkered scarf wrapped around their heads.
“Some others could still be hiding inside,” added Amed.
A months-long offensive by the SDF was declared victorious Saturday, after multiple pauses to allow out civilians and surrendering terrorists from the crumbling Daesh pocket.
Surrendering or suspected extremists are detained, while their relatives are trucked up north to camps for the displaced.
Daesh declared a cross-border “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in 2014, imposing its brutal rule on millions.
Also Sunday, US-supported Syrian fighters were clearing explosives in the last area retaken from the Daesh group a day after declaring military victory over the extremists.

A spokesman for the Kurdish-led SDF who goes by the nom de guerre Mervan the Brave said Baghouz, the village where the militants made their final stand, is “full of all kinds of explosives.” He said SDF forces were clearing the area and have detonated land mines and suicide belts the militants left behind.
A Syrian driver working with NBC News reporters was killed Saturday by an explosive device that went off in a house used as an SDF command post and a media center for journalists covering the fighting in Baghouz.
Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, said in a statement that network employees escaped unharmed. He expressed “deepest sympathies” to the driver’s family and loved ones.
“We are still gathering information from today’s events, and are in touch with the driver’s family to support them however we can,” he said. It was not immediately clear what caused the explosion.
The victory announced in Baghouz on Saturday marks the end of a devastating five-year campaign by an array of forces to retake territories held by Daesh in Syria and Iraq. At its height, Daesh controlled a sprawling self-declared caliphate the size of Britain that was home to some 8 million people. It is not known whether the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is still alive or where he might be hiding.
“This is a historic moment, but we cannot be complacent,” tweeted Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, the deputy commander of the US-led coalition against Daesh.
“Even without territory, Daesh will continue to pose a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, as well as to the wider world. The coalition must remain firm in its determination to counter Daesh,” he said.
Thousands of people, including Daesh fighters and their family members, left Baghouz in recent weeks and were taken to detention centers and camps for the displaced elsewhere in eastern Syria. The militants were holding hostages and had detained civilians, whose fate remains unknown.


Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.