Daesh tries to stage comeback amid rising US-Iran tensions

People sift through the debris of destroyed houses near the village of Barisha in Idlib after an operation by the US military on Oct. 27, 2019. (AP)
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Updated 29 January 2020

Daesh tries to stage comeback amid rising US-Iran tensions

  • American troops in Iraq had to pause their operations against Daesh for nearly two weeks amid the tensions

BEIRUT: The Daesh group’s self-styled “caliphate” across parts of Iraq and Syria seemed largely defeated last year, with the loss of its territory, the killing of its founder in a US raid and an unprecedented crackdown on its social media propaganda machine.

But tensions between the US and Iran and the resulting clash over the US military presence in the region provide a comeback opportunity for the extremist group, whose remnants have been gradually building up a guerrilla campaign over the past year, experts say.

American troops in Iraq had to pause their operations against Daesh for nearly two weeks amid the tensions. From the other side, Iranian-backed Iraqi militiamen who once focused on fighting the militants have turned their attention to evicting US troops from the Middle East.

In the meantime, Daesh group sleeper cells intensified ambushes in Iraq and Syria in the past few weeks, killing and wounding dozens of their opponents in both countries. Activists and residents say the attacks have intensified since the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a Jan. 3 drone strike at Baghdad’s airport.

It is not clear whether the uptick is related to the repercussions that followed from the strike, and it is possible some of the attacks had been planned before Soleimani’s killing. US officials deny seeing any particular increase in Daesh activities. “They haven’t taken advantage of it, as far as we can see,” said James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy to the international coalition fighting Daesh.

HIGHLIGHTS

• On Jan. 14, Daesh launched a cross border attack from Syria into Iraq, killing an Iraqi officer.

• A day later, Daesh attacked Iraqi force in Salaheddine, killing two soldiers and wounding five.

• Two days later, an Iraqi intelligence major was killed in a car bomb north of Baghdad.

Mervan Qamishlo, a spokesman for Syria’s US-backed Kurdish-led force, said the intensification of Daesh attacks began even earlier, since October, when Turkey began a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

Still, the militants clearly gained at least temporary breathing room as the killing of Soleimani, along with a senior Iraqi militia leader, brought Iran and the US to the brink of all-out war and outraged Iraqis, who considered the strike a flagrant breach of sovereignty.

On Jan. 5, Iraq’s Parliament called for the expulsion of the 5,200 US troops from the country who have been there since 2014 on a mission to train Iraqi forces and assist in the fight against Daesh. The US-led coalition then put the fight against Daesh on hold to focus on protecting its troops and bases. It said last week that it had resumed those operations after a 10-day halt.

“This tension will for sure help Daesh, as all forces fighting it become busy with other matters,” warned Abdullah Suleiman Ali, a Syrian researcher who focuses on terror groups.

Among other things, he said Iran-US tensions help give Daesh the opportunity to restructure as its new leader, Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi, strengthens his grip. Al-Qurayshi was announced in the post after longtime leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was killed by a US raid in Syria in October.

“The day the American-Iranian clash began, Daesh started intensifying its attacks,” said Rami Aburrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor.

On Jan. 14, Daesh launched a cross-border attack from Syria into Iraq, killing an Iraqi officer. A day later, Daesh fighters attacked an Iraqi force in the central Salaheddine region, killing two soldiers and wounding five. Two days later, an Iraqi intelligence major was killed in a car bomb north of Baghdad.

One of the deadliest attacks occurred in Syria on Jan. 14, when Daesh fighters stole some 2,000 cattle from a village near the eastern town of Mayadeen. One of the four shepherds that own the cattle informed authorities, and a Syrian regime force was sent to the area, where they were met by Daesh fire.

As the forces returned to their base, Daesh gunmen laid an ambush, killing 11 troops and pro-regime fighters as well as two shepherds.

Daesh published photos showing bodies of soldiers said to have been killed in the attack, along with a destroyed armored vehicle and an overturned truck.

On the same day, seven shepherds were found shot dead west of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. On Jan. 4, 21 shepherds were found shot in the back of their heads, their hands were tied behind their backs.

Dozens of members of the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian democratic Forces have been killed over the past months in attacks claimed by Daesh as well.

With the painful strikes, Daesh is “taking advantage to boost its influence” and send a message to their supporters that they are still strong, said Omar Abu Laila, an activist from Deir Ezzor now based in Europe.

“Some civilians don’t dare leave their homes after sunset because of fear of Daesh,” Abu Laila said.

The group is also trying to restore its presence on social media and the Internet — a key component to its ability to raise financial support from abroad and recruit new fighters.

Daesh members and supporters have for years sown fear and projected power with the grisly videos they released on social media showing beheadings, amputations and victims burned to death or thrown from buildings.

In recent weeks, European authorities, coordinated by Europol, have shut down thousands of Daesh propaganda platforms and communication channels in an unprecedented crackdown. In particular, the crackdown forced Daesh’s news agency and other channels off the Telegram text messaging system, the group’s primary outlet since 2015.

“The Europol campaign of November had a massive impact on Daesh support networks on Telegram,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism researcher at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.

Since then, the extremists have shifted to other messaging platforms including the Russia-based TamTam, Canada-based Hoop Messenger and BCM Messenger. They also tried to get back on Twitter using hacked accounts, Amarasingam said.

So far, those efforts have not been very successful as international authorities work to chase them down on those outlets as well.

“None of this is really matching the presence they had on Telegram from 2015 onwards,” Amarasingam said.


Turkish shelling kills 9 regime personnel in NW Syria: monitor

Updated 25 February 2020

Turkish shelling kills 9 regime personnel in NW Syria: monitor

  • UN says it was trying to double aid deliveries across a border crossing from Turkey from 50 to 100 trucks a day.
  • Idlib has seen hundreds of thousands of people flee the violence

BEIRUT: Turkish shelling Monday killed nine regime fighters in northwest Syria, where Ankara-backed rebels are fighting off advancing regime forces, a monitor said.
Syrian regime forces have since December clawed back parts of the last major opposition bastion of Idlib in violence that has displaced almost a million people.
Fighting raged on Monday, killing almost 100 fighters on both sides around the jihadist-dominated bastion, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
Those included 41 pro-regime fighters, as well as 53 jihadists and allied rebels.
Overall on Monday, the regime advanced rapidly in the south of the bastion, but lost the town of Nayrab along the M4 highway to Turkish-backed rebels in the southeast.
Turkish shelling in that area killed four regime fighters near Nayrab and another five near the town of Saraqeb to its east, the Britain-based Observatory said.
Opposition fighters had already broken back into Nayrab last week after the regime seized it at the start of the month, but then lost it again several hours later.
Saraqeb, which lies at the intersection of the M4 and another important highway the M5, has been under regime control since February 8.
Earlier Monday, Russian air strikes killed five civilians in the Jabal Al-Zawiya area in the south of the bastion, the Observatory said.
In fighting on the ground, regime forces seized 10 towns and villages south of the M4, which links the coastal regime stronghold of Latakia to government-held second city Aleppo, it said.
State news agency SANA, for its part, said “units of the Syrian army continued to progress in the south of Idlib” province.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the regime’s aim was to wrest back control of stretches of the M4 still under the control of jihadists and allied rebels.
That would require operations against the towns of Ariha and Jisr Al-Shughur, both along the M4.
Analysts expect a tough battle for Jisr Al-Shughur, held by the jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party whose fighters mainly hail from China’s Uighur Muslim minority.
They are allied to Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, a group led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate which dominates the Idlib region.
Loyalist forces have already taken back control of the M5, which connects the capital with Aleppo.
They have also secured the region around the northern city, a major pre-war industrial hub.
Fighting in northwest Syria since December has forced some 900,000 people to flee their homes and shelters amid bitter cold.
The United Nations said Monday that the latest fighting was coming “dangerously close” to encampments of the displaced, risking an imminent “bloodbath.”
Mark Cutts, a UN humanitarian coordinator, also told reporters in Geneva that the world body was trying to double aid deliveries across a border crossing with Turkey from 50 to 100 trucks a day.
Syria’s war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.