Posts Tagged ‘Raqqa’

Symbol of Kurdish Nationalism Rises in Raqqa

October 20, 2017
Two days after leading the battle to oust Islamic State from Raqqa, U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters on Thursday made clear they have replaced the extremist group as the Syrian city’s new authority.
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Image result for Abdullah Ocalan banner in Raqqa, photos
Raqqa: Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces raised a giant banner of Abdullah Ocalan —the Kurdish nationalist leader jailed as a terrorist in Turkey. The divisive photo of the Turkish Marxist leader stood out amid a sea of mostly yellow and green flags representing the various Kurdish militias
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By Raja Abdulrahim
The Wall Street Journal

Two days after leading the battle to oust Islamic State from Raqqa, U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters on Thursday made clear they have replaced the extremist group as the Syrian city’s new authority.

Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces held a news conference in a symbolic public square, where they raised a giant banner of Abdullah Ocalan —the Kurdish nationalist leader jailed as a terrorist in Turkey. The divisive photo of the Turkish Marxist leader stood out amid a sea of mostly yellow and green flags representing the various Kurdish militias that make up the bulk of the fighters in the SDF.

There were no flags in sight representing the Arab groups that are part of the SDF and also took part in capturing the city.

The four-month campaign to reclaim what was once Islamic State’s de facto capital, backed by U.S. airstrikes and American special forces on the ground, was hailed as a victory in driving the extremists from a city that became synonymous with their reign of terror.

But for residents of the predominantly Arab city, this display of Kurdish nationalism has subdued their celebrations.

“The photo clearly represents who controls Raqqa now,” said Mohamad al-Mosari, an activist and one of the founding members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, the first anti-Islamic State group that formed in the city.

The banner reignited concerns among some residents and activists over the ground force chosen by the United States to lead the battle for Raqqa. The campaign was delayed for many months as the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Turkey debated what groups should steer the fight.

Turkey considers the YPG, the main Syrian Kurdish militia in the SDF, a terrorist group and one and the same with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, the separatist group headed by Mr. Ocalan that Ankara has been battling for years. Both the U.S. and Turkey have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

As Islamic State faces mounting defeats across Syria and Iraq, long-brewing tensions between rival parties once allied against the terror group are flaring. That scenario is playing out dramatically across northern Iraq, where the central government’s military forces—once allied with the Kurds against the extremist group—are now seizing back territory the Kurds captured from Islamic State.

Raqqa native Uday has been watching the battle in his hometown from southern Turkey and waiting for the day he can return.

“We all want to go back,” said Uday, adding that the photo of Mr. Ocalan was “disrespectful” to the people of Raqqa. “It’s a message that the character of the city has changed.”

Kurdish commanders defended the move and said it wasn’t meant to be divisive.

“Ocalan represents an idea. We look at him as a philosopher who spreads democracy,” Mirvan Rojava, a military commander of the YPG, said of the Marxist leader. “The issue is not connected with his political party or his military followers.”

Ankara has watched warily over the past few years as the Syrian Kurdish allies of the PKK have gained territory through fighting Islamic State, all with strong U.S. backing, worried it could embolden its own restive Kurdish population.

The Kurds have used Syria’s multi-sided conflict and the campaign against Islamic State to carve out their own semi-autonomous region across northern Syria, in the process exacerbating ethnic tensions. They have been accused by human-rights groups of at times forcibly displacing Arabs and ethnic Turkmen. YPG officials have said the displacements are necessary to prevent Islamic State sleeper cells.

From the first hours of the city’s takeover on Tuesday, the Kurdish militias made clear they were the new controlling power—spinning doughnuts atop an armored vehicle in the same roundabout that Islamic State had used to stage a mini-victory parade to celebrate its blitz through large parts of Syria and Iraq three years ago.

That roundabout later became the setting for much of the group’s brutal propaganda—public beheadings and headless corpses hung for days as a warning to residents to fall into line with their extremist interpretation of Islamic law.

A Kurdish fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces taking part in a celebration Thursday at the Al-Naim square in Raqqa.Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Despite the declaration of victory over Islamic State this week, the city remains dangerous, and most civilians are being prevented from returning to their homes, activists and residents said.

Independent monitoring group Airwars estimated Thursday that at least 1,300 civilians were killed as a result of U.S.-led coalition strikes on the city of Raqqa during the four-month campaign to take the city.

The coalition has denied most reports of civilian casualties as a result of its airstrikes and has released much lower estimates. Since the coalition began carrying out strikes against Islamic State in August 2014, at least 735 civilians have been killed in Syria and Iraq as a result of coalition military activities, according to estimates released in late September. It is still investigating 350 additional reports of civilian deaths.

The Syrian Democratic Forces are still combing through the city searching for Islamic State sleeper cells and defusing explosives planted by the terror group—a favored tactic.

The militants spent months preparing for the Raqqa battle by digging tunnels underneath homes and other buildings.

Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for U.S. forces, tweeted on Thursday that the SDF had cleared 98% of Raqqa and were checking buildings and tunnels for any holdouts.

—Nour Alakraa in Berlin and Nazih Osseiran in Beirut contributed to this article.

Write to Raja Abdulrahim at raja.abdulrahim@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/articles/symbol-of-kurdish-nationalism-rises-in-raqqa-1508446645

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After Raqqa, the U.S. sees Russia, Assad looming over remaining Syrian battlefield

October 20, 2017

Rapid gains by government forces may have cut off planned advances by U.S.-backed fighters.

By Karen DeYoungLiz Sly

     The Washington Post

Female fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces celebrate Oct. 19, 2017, in Raqqa, Syria, beneath a banner of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been designated a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rapid advances by Russian- and Iranian-backed government forces in eastern Syria are thwarting the U.S. military’s hopes of pressing deeper into Islamic State territory after winning the battle for Raqqa.

An expansion of territory held by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad is also likely to provide Assad with additional leverage in political negotiations over Syria’s future, talks the United Nations hopes to reconvene next month.

In a statement this week, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said the “latest developments” in Syria pointed “to the urgent need to reinvigorate the political process.”

The recent government gains have cut off the approach of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to remaining militant strongholds in the southeastern part of the country, including the crucial town of Bukamal near the Syria-Iraq border.

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Russian airstrikes

Aided by Russian airstrikes, in apparent violation of a deconfliction line along the Euphrates River that U.S. officials said had been tentatively agreed on with Moscow, government forces have encircled and claimed control of another location that had been on the wish list of U.S. military planners — the town of Mayadeen, where many senior Islamic State leaders are thought to have been hiding. The militants put up little resistance, and most appear to have escaped.

The rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria VIEW GRAPHIC
[Graphic: The rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/after-raqqa-the-us-sees-russia-assad-looming-over-remaining-syrian-battlefield/2017/10/19/0281c7da-b41e-11e7-be94-fabb0f1e9ffb_story.html?utm_term=.3f2caa887145

The unexpected militant withdrawal has “thrown for a loop” U.S. military assumptions that it could beat overstretched government forces in a race to the key river strongholds, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Because ISIS has decided not to put up a tough fight against Assad’s forces,” Heras said, “it has forced a change of assumptions about what the situation will look like on the ground.”

The advance has also taken government forces, and supporting Russian strikes, east of the river and into Syria’s main oil-producing region of Deir al-Zour province, once a key source of Islamic State revenue.

“I’m not going to address whether or not an agreement or deconfliction line has been broken,” Army Col. Ryan S. Dillon, spokesman for counter-Islamic State military operations, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. “That’s why we maintain an open dialogue” with Russia.

In addition to daily contact between the two militaries on a hotline, U.S. and Russian generals have held two face-to-face meetings in recent weeks, at least one of them in Jordan, to discuss the increasing proximity of their air operations in the Euphrates River valley, and that of the separate ground forces they back.

Progress against the Islamic State in Syria has been measured since 2016 by towns and cities seized from militant control along the Euphrates by the SDF, a combination of Arab and Syrian Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. air power and advisers. Manbij, near the Turkish border in the north, was recaptured in 2016, followed by Tabqa and now Raqqa.

After Raqqa, the intention was to proceed downriver through Mayadeen to Bukamal, where SDF fighters would link up with Iraqi government forces trying to regain control over the Islamic State-controlled town of Qaim, just across the border inside Iraq. A major goal was to block Iran from securing a land corridor, through Iraq, between Tehran and Damascus.

Dillon declined to say whether the U.S. military’s plans had changed.

“There are always plans,” Dillon said. “You don’t fight the plan, you fight the enemy . . . where they are.” The military, he said, was not concerned with “greater policy decisions” over who fought the militants or who controlled Syria, as long as it was not the Islamic State.

“We’re not in a race, we’re not in the land-grab business. We’re here to defeat ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Others were less sanguine about the effect of government gains, predicting that Assad’s ability to remain in power would leave open the door for Islamic State militants, gone to ground in the vast desert that spans the Syria-Iraq border, to regroup.

“That’s what you get when you make a deal with the Russians,” said Jennifer Cafarella of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, which monitors the fighting in Syria. “What we see is a push by the regime and its backers to seize key infrastructure, such as oil and gas fields, and to position to disrupt U.S.-led anti-ISIS operations further down the Euphrates.”

With the remaining Islamic State strongholds in Syria increasingly likely to fall into ­Syrian government hands, the Trump administration will have to decide whether the U.S. military remains in Syria to protect areas that have been captured by the SDF — which is dominated by Syrian Kurds of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

On Thursday, female YPG fighters marked the victory in Raqqa by raising a giant banner of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan over the central square where the Islamic State carried out most of its grisly executions. Ocalan, who heads Turkey’s militant Kurdish movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is serving a prison sentence in Turkey for terrorism.

The public declaration of fealty to Ocalan by the Syrian Kurds who led the Raqqa offensive points to one of the many challenges confronting the Trump administration as it seeks to forge a coherent policy for the post-Islamic State era. Although the Syrian Kurds have admitted many Arabs into their ranks, they have retained overall control of the SDF coalition’s command and ideology.

Turkey, which shares a long border with the autonomous enclave the Kurds have established in northeastern Syria, is enraged at the U.S. military’s support for the SDF, which it considers an appendage of Ocalan’s terrorist movement. That leaves the SDF vulnerable to potential military action by Turkey to quell its aspirations for a ministate in Syria.

Many Syrian Arabs are also deeply uncomfortable about the prospect of being governed by Kurds. Raqqa is an almost wholly Arab city, and the photographs of the Ocalan banner that circulated on social media triggered widespread condemnation by Arabs on Thursday.

“For us Raqqans, we do not know whether the SDF taking over the city and expelling ISIS is a liberation or an occupation,” Tareq Sham, a former Raqqa resident living in Turkey, wrote on his Facebook page. “The vast majority of us consider what happened a switch between two occupiers.”

Remaining in Syria to protect its Kurdish allies risks embroiling the United States in possible future conflicts between Arabs and Kurds, and between Turkey and the Kurds.

The Kurds are also vulnerable to the Syrian government’s declared ambition to reclaim all of the territory it lost in the war that began as a political rebellion in 2011. Much of what happens in Raqqa will depend on the speed and success of reconstruction there. U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk is visiting the Raqqa area, accompanied by Saudi Arabian Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, whose government the Trump administration hopes will put up funds for the effort.

Sly reported from Beirut.

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Inside Islamic State’s Other Grisly War, a World Away From Syria

October 18, 2017

Islamists in the Philippines pledged allegiance to ISIS, devastated a city and built a model for jihadists after the fall of Raqqa

Image may contain: one or more people, house and outdoor

MARAWI, Philippines—On the third day of his captivity, during one of the most violent jihadist rebellions outside the Middle East and Africa, Ronnel Samiahan watched Islamist militants make an example of a fellow hostage who had tried to break free.

After dragging the conscious man onto the street and pulling his head up by the hair, the militants began sawing at his neck with a knife. Five minutes later, the executioner thrust the severed head toward the remaining hostages, warning, “If you try to escape, this is what is going to happen to you,” recalled Mr. Samiahan, a Christian local laborer.

Islamist militants took over this city of 200,000 people in late May, modeling themselves on Islamic State, or ISIS. Philippine soldiers, assisted by the U.S. military, struggled to reclaim it.

The Philippine military has struggled to defeat hundreds of well-armed militants who seized the southern city of Marawi in May. Photo: Linus Guardian Escandor II for The Wall Street Journal

Philippine authorities on Monday said two of the militants’ most senior leaders had been killed, including one on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists, and that it was a few days from securing the city. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday declared the city liberated.

The militants’ occupation—and the military’s siege—has left Marawi in ruins, with more than 1,000 soldiers, civilians and militants killed and many neighborhoods devastated by airstrikes. A few dozen militants remain in the city, the military said on Tuesday.

The Marawi battle shows how militant groups outside the Middle East and Africa are finding a template in Islamic State, not just as an exporter of terrorism, but also as a holder of territory. ISIS itself is looking for new beachheads having been pushed out of strongholds such as its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, which U.S.-backed forces said they captured this week.

“They look around the globe,” said Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism researcher at Rand Corp., a policy think tank. “They try to find a place where there is an ongoing insurgency, and they latch themselves onto that cause and exploit those local grievances.”

President Duterte has voiced concern that violence could spread from Marawi to other areas in the southern Philippines. Analysts say revenge or copycat attacks are likely to strike Manila or other Southeast Asian capitals.

In mid-2016, ISIS called on potential new recruits unable to join it in the Middle East to look to the Philippines. ISIS media agencies have promoted the Marawi conflict to their followers.

A Philippine soldier during clearing operations against Islamist militants in Marawi in September.
A Philippine soldier during clearing operations against Islamist militants in Marawi in September.

Behind the Battle

A brief history of the Marawi conflict and the Islamist groups that sparked it.

Isnilon Hapilon and his Abu Sayyaf Islamist militant group kidnap tourists, later beheading some.
Hapilon swears allegiance to Islamic State, which later endorses him as “emir” in Southeast Asia.
Fighters from a newly emerging Islamist group in Mindanao, led by Omar and Abdullah Maute, occupy a town, later bomb Davao City.
Maute fighters swear allegiance to Islamic State, raid Marawi jail.
Hapilon and his group begin joining Maute fighters.
Philippine military mobilizes against militants in Marawi, beginning long siege as Maute fighters dig in, using improvised explosives and snipers.
Maute fighters flying Islamic State flags occupy Marawi, burning buildings, taking hostages.
A misaimed airstrike kills 11 Philippine soldiers as troops push militants to city’s east.
The U.S. says it is providing special forces assistance to the Philippines.
Military takes back first of three key bridges, later retakes key buildings.
Military retakes remaining bridge. Earlier in the month, Philippine authorities say one Maute brother believed killed.
Philippine authorities say two remaining militant leaders killed; military declares battle nearly over.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declares Marawi liberated.

Sources: Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine Government, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict

“It will be difficult to replicate a similar urban assault like Marawi in the short term,” said Francisco J. Lara, Philippines country manager of peace-building agency International Alert. “But the threat of a similar attack in the future remains real.”

Marawi is on Mindanao island, long known as a haven for extremists, from communist guerrillas to separatist Muslims. The U.S. for years has kept a small special forces contingent on the island.

The militants in Marawi, known as the Maute after the brothers who led them, Omar and Abdullah Maute, received funds from ISIS and modeled many of their tactics on the group, Philippine officials say. Their goal was to create a caliphate, or Islamic kingdom, with fighters from abroad including Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, these officials say.

Marawi was once a relatively prosperous trading hub, surrounded by hills and a lake. It is predominantly Muslim, with the minarets and domes of mosques. There is a small Catholic minority.

The siege

The tale of the Marawi battle—told by the Philippine military and witnesses on the ground, including former hostages—shows how ISIS-inspired militants can quickly consume a city far from its base and supply lines in the Middle East.

ABDULLAH AND OMAR MAUTE

PHOTO: INTERPOL
  • Brothers based in and around Butig, a town near Marawi
  • From a wealthy elite family with Middle East connections. Omar studied in Egypt and Abdullah, in Jordan
  • In 2016, led a brief occupation of Butig and bombed a market in Davao City, southern Philippines
  • Swore allegiance to Islamic State in April 2016
  • Abdullah believed killed in August and Omar killed Oct. 16, Philippine authorities say

ISNILON HAPILON

PHOTO: INTERPOL
  • A faction leader of the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group, which allied with other pro-Islamic State groups including the Maute
  • U.S. State Department has $5 million bounty on his capture
  • Known for kidnappings, including of Americans in 2001
  • Stronghold in Basilan island, southwest Philippines
  • Swore allegiance to Islamic State in 2014
  • Islamic State in 2016 declared Hapilon its “emir,” or ruler, in Southeast Asia
  • Killed Oct. 16, Philippine authorities say

Sources: Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine Government, Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict

It began May 23. Soldiers and police moved in on a house after receiving intelligence showing the Maute brothers and another militant leader, Isnilon Hapilon, were hiding there.

The military, which inadvertently interrupted a plan to occupy Marawi, found itself laying a siege that would last roughly five months.

Known for kidnapping and beheading foreigners from tourist resorts even before his ISIS affiliation, Mr. Hapilon is on the U.S. State Department’s most-wanted-terrorists list. In 2014, he swore allegiance to ISIS, which two years later endorsed him on its central media channel as its “emir,” or ruler, in Southeast Asia.

The Maute brothers were a lesser-understood threat. They were educated in Egypt and Jordan and from an elite local family, according to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a terror-research group in Jakarta. In 2016, they briefly occupied a town about a two-hour drive from Marawi. Their group later attacked a Marawi prison, releasing some of their captured fighters, and bombed a night market in Davao City, President Duterte’s hometown.

Before government troops could get close on May 23, they came under fire from several buildings and retreated. Soon, hundreds of heavily armed fighters who had infiltrated Marawi began flooding the streets, planting the black ISIS flag in public areas and taking hostages, primarily Christians and the Muslims who sought to protect them.

The militants torched a cathedral and a school. Photographs by residents show Maute fighters in dark clothing and hats or balaclavas patrolling streets and mounting ISIS flags on vehicles. Civilians fled to surrounding towns and to government-run refugee camps. President Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao.

A hostage’s tale

Mr. Samiahan, who witnessed the hostage’s execution, had lived in Marawi for five years. His family of seven slipped out the back of their house after darkness and hid in the tall grass of an adjacent field as Maute fighters, yelling in triumph, set fire to the next-door Dansalan College, a Christian school.

The family spent the night huddled in the rain as Maute fighters shined flashlights across the grassy field. They were so close, Mr. Samiahan’s wife, Yolanda, said, “you could almost shake their hands.”

Ronnel Samiahan, 34, here with his son Greg, witnessed a beheading during his captivity by the Islamist militants.
Ronnel Samiahan, 34, here with his son Greg, witnessed a beheading during his captivity by the Islamist militants.

In following days, they hid in a hospital and other buildings before deciding no rescue was coming. Attempting to leave the militant-controlled part of the city, they were stopped at a Maute checkpoint. There, militants tested residents to see if they were Muslim or Christian: Only those who could reply to a Muslim greeting in Arabic were allowed to leave.

Mr. Samiahan, unlike most of his relatives, failed the test and was locked in a warehouse. On his second night, one captive tried to loosen his bonds while the Maute were sleeping. When fighters discovered the ruse, they performed the beheading and forced the remaining hostages to bury the head, Mr. Samiahan said.

It took the military several days to mobilize and push Maute fighters back from western portions of the city and liberate the city hall and hydroelectric dams that provide most of Marawi’s power. The Maute fought back fiercely, killing several troops.

By May 28, bodies of at least 16 civilians had been recovered, according to military officials, including those of eight men who were dumped in a ravine—the number had climbed to at least 47 late last week. Several were shot in the head with hands bound, accompanied by a sign in a local language reading “traitor,” according to local media reports.

The Agus river separated the battle zone, left, and the safe zone in Marawi.
The Agus river separated the battle zone, left, and the safe zone in Marawi.

The Agus River bisects Marawi, with the central business district and Marawi’s largest mosque and church in the Maute-controlled east. Maute fighters fortified three bridges, presenting a formidable obstacle to the military’s counteroffensive, and soldiers who tried crossing were met with sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

The military, unused to urban warfare, called in airstrikes. Lacking guided munitions, the Philippine military divebombed the city with FA-50 jets and OV-10 Bronco propeller aircraft. On May 31, a badly aimed airstrike killed 11 soldiers. Government officials called it a tragic incident and launched a review.

In early June, the U.S. disclosed it was providing special forces assistance to Philippine troops but didn’t elaborate.

The constant aerial bombardment devastated Marawi’s center. Businessman Solaiman Mangorsi, 58, said he lost nearly $600,000 in damaged property after bombs struck areas that included a bookstore and other properties he owned. He said he wasn’t insured.

By mid-June, the battle had become a grind, with both sides digging in. Militants avoided airstrikes by boring holes in walls so they could move from house to house undetected.

Lt. Kim Adrian R. Martial of the Philippine Marine Corps led his platoon across this bridge in June before being forced to retreat.
Lt. Kim Adrian R. Martial of the Philippine Marine Corps led his platoon across this bridge in June before being forced to retreat.

A Christian hostage, Lordvin Acopio, a 29-year-old teacher, said militants forced him and other captives to make improvised explosives from firecrackers and shrapnel. They sent other hostages to search houses for guns, food and ammunition.

As the weeks passed, more hostages escaped. Mr. Samiahan, who witnessed the execution, broke free after discovering a padlock wasn’t properly closed. He made a mad dash for the military-held portion of the city, leaping over concrete barriers and plunging into the river and to safety.

Mr. Acopio escaped at night after a mosque he was held in was bombarded with tear gas. He and a priest scrambled through a hole blasted in the building, he said, and “just ran and ran and ran.”

Teacher Lordvin Acopio, 29, was held hostage by militants he says forced him to make improvised explosives.
Teacher Lordvin Acopio, 29, was held hostage by militants he says forced him to make improvised explosives.

By early September, the military had achieved several key victories, taking back landmarks including Marawi’s largest mosque. And it concluded, based on intercepted terrorist chatter, that Abdullah Maute had been killed in late August. By September’s end they had retaken the remaining bridges and pushed the militants into a few blocks bordering the lake.

The final battles were fought in close quarters. In one mission, Sgt. Roderick Peruandos of the Philippine Marine Corps, led a team to clear houses on the approach to what is known as the “White Mosque,” where senior militants including Mr. Hapilon were believed to be holding out. Moving room to room, they spotted a hole in the floor, when suddenly a homemade grenade was tossed out.

One corporal, who celebrated his 27th birthday with his squad just a few weeks earlier, was killed almost instantly, said Sgt. Peruandos. The grenade was made, he said, out of scrounged shrapnel and explosives from firecrackers and unexploded bombs dropped during airstrikes.

The other marines fled, leaving Sgt. Peruandos alone to fend off insurgents with rifle fire as he wrapped a tourniquet around his wounded leg. After an hour of bombardment, he crawled to safety, a bone in his leg snapped in two. The insurgents, though weakened, were left secure in their redoubt.

The government on Monday said Omar Maute and Mr. Hapilon had been killed, and the military said its offensive had boxed the remaining militant-controlled area to one or two hectares. The bodies of the two leaders were recovered and the remaining 30-odd fighters “were seen scampering in disarray,” the military said.

Displaced people from Marawi at an evacuation camp in Pantar district, southern Philippines. PHOTOS: LINUS GUARDIAN ESCANDOR II FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL(3)

If Marawi is declared militant-free, the Philippine government will then face painstaking work clearing improvised explosive devices and rebuilding the city. Tens of thousands of displaced people whose homes were destroyed remain in government-run camps.

Sgt. Peruandos, who has fought communist rebels and gangs in Mindanao for nearly all his 15-year military career, said he had never encountered an enemy like those who nearly killed him in Marawi. “It’s like they don’t care for their lives,” he said. “They just want to kill or be killed.”

After authorities declared the militant leaders dead, a pro-ISIS messenger channel said the group would train new recruits with combat knowledge learned from the battle, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist activity online. The channel declared: “Marawi is just the beginning!”

A government soldier took up position in the battle area of Marawi in September.
A government soldier took up position in the battle area of Marawi in September.

Write to Jake Maxwell Watts at jake.watts@wsj.com

 https://www.wsj.com/articles/inside-islamic-states-other-grisly-war-a-world-away-from-syria-1508337872

U.S.-Backed Forces Say They Have Taken Raqqa, Islamic State’s Last Urban Stronghold

October 18, 2017
U.S.-backed forces said they have captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, wrenching away the terror group’s last major urban stronghold in the Middle East.

By Maria Abi-Habib
The Wall Street Journal

Updated Oct. 17, 2017 6:46 p.m. ET

BEIRUT—U.S.-backed forces said they have captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, driving the extremists from a Syrian city that became synonymous with their reign of terror and was used as a nerve center to stage attacks on the West.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes and American special forces on the ground, on Tuesday said they had captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa.Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes and American special forces on the ground, on Tuesday said they had secured a sports stadium in the city the group had converted into a fortified compound for its final stand.

“The military operations within the city are completely over,” said Talal Silo, a spokesman for the SDF, which led the monthslong battle against Islamic State in Raqqa. “We are combing through the city to make sure there are no sleeper cells and to defuse the mines.”

Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said the extremist group is “on the verge of a devastating defeat,” adding that 90% of Raqqa has been cleared.

Islamic State hasn’t commented.

With the fall of Raqqa—Islamic State’s last major urban stronghold in the Middle East—the self-declared caliphate is meeting an inglorious end.

The first significant city to come under Islamic State’s control, in 2014, Raqqa became a template for the group’s brutality. Militants in the city carried out public beheadings for blasphemy and crucifixions for murder. Child soldiers were radicalized and taught to kill. The city also held some of the most important assets and institutions for the group’s statelike operations in Syria, such as its highest courts.

Raqqa became a funnel for thousands of people from places as disparate as the U.K., China and Saudi Arabia to join the group. The recruits were processed and given their marching orders in the city, and some were given explosives training before being shuttled back to Europe to plan attacks there, Western officials said.

But Islamic State’s empire is now largely destroyed. At the height of its power in 2014, the group ruled a contiguous territory in Iraq and Syria the size of Belgium, while affiliates have sprung up from Nigeria to the Philippines. Now many of the cities it occupied have been reduced to rubble.

At the same time, Islamic State leaves in its wake radicalized youth and an extensive internet network still actively recruiting new jihadists and proselytizing an extremist ideology. The group’s initial rise showcased its strategy of preying on weak nations.

For months, U.S. war planners have warned the insurgency is seeking to exploit a power vacuum in Libya. Islamic State in the Sahara, a new affiliate, killed four U.S. Green Berets in an ambush in Niger this month.

Even if Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed in the near term, U.S. officials say the group will continue, much as al Qaeda did after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011. The U.S. and its allies, as well as other countries that have fought Islamic State and other militant groups in recent decades, have been unable to kill off the extremist ideology that feeds the groups.

“The communist party didn’t die with the death of Stalin. Our ideology will persist,” one Islamic State supporter said recently in an online forum.

In a defiant speech in September, Mr. Baghdadi said that although his fighters were being uprooted across the Middle East, his organization’s ideology and appeal will live on.

“We will remain steadfast, patient,” he vowed, and laid out the group’s strategy for defeating the U.S. and its allies by drawing them into costly, asymmetrical warfare to wear them down.

U.S. and European officials predict that Islamic State will prioritize attacking Western capitals to stay in the headlines and remain relevant as the group is pushed out of the last patches of territory it holds in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Related

  • Iraqis Push Deeper Into Kurdish Areas
  • Middle East Crossroads: Simmering Conflicts Flare Up as Islamic State Fades
  • Europe Doesn’t Expect Influx of Returning ISIS Fighters

In Washington, Pentagon officials have long expected a defeated Islamic State to evolve into an general insurgency, potentially aligning with al Qaeda in Syria and fueling sectarian tensions by presenting itself as a Sunni vanguard against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers.

Newly uprooted fighters also are likely to pose a persisting threat by moving about the region, hovering in border areas or even trying to exploit the territorial struggle in Iraq between Iraqi forces and Kurdish units, experts said on Tuesday. The departure of Kurdish fighters from areas such as Kirkuk, Sinjar and Khanaqin in the east could create security gaps, said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

“ISIS has the intent and likely the capability to penetrate behind defensive lines of anti-ISIS forces and could choose to exploit the disruption caused by recent massive troop movements in Iraq,” Ms. Cafarella said. “How does the Iraqi government intend to govern all the territory it jus t took?”

The U.S. military estimates there are roughly 100 Islamic State fighters remaining in Raqqa, from a peak of 2,500. Some of those fighters have resettled in other parts of Syria and Iraq where about 6,500 militants remain, said Col. Dillon, the coalition spokesman. About 400 have surrendered over the past month, he added. By comparison, a Defense Intelligence analysis concluded there are as many as 1,500 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, 1,000 in Egypt and 500 in Libya.

On Tuesday, Col. Dillon stressed that the fight against the extremists isn’t over and there are still swaths of territory on the Iraqi-Syrian border still under militant control.

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter gestures the “V” sign at the frontline in Raqqa on Oct. 16.Photo: rodi said/Reuters

“Yes, ISIS will be defeated militarily, but we know that there still is going to be the ideology and the continued insurgent activity as they devolve into that,” he said.

The U.S. military trained roughly 1,000 local residents to conduct security in Raqqa after Islamic State’s demise. But the challenges before such a force already have emerged. Col. Dillon said the head of that force was killed on Monday by an explosive.

The head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5 chief Andrew Parker, said on Tuesday in a rare public speech that there has been a dramatic uptick in the threat of Islamist extremism to the U.K. He said the types of threats are changing rapidly and sometimes accelerate from inception to action in days, leaving authorities with a smaller window to intervene.

A U.S. official specializing in European security said that while intelligence experts had predicted a flow of foreign fighters returning to Europe, so far it hasn’t happened. The U.S. official cautioned the trend could reverse, but for now European officials have told their counterparts they don’t expect the fall of Raqqa to trigger a migration of militants to Europe to launch attacks.

Western counterterrorism officials say they worry Islamic State will try to take advantage of the crisis facing Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

A Syrian Democratic Forces commander walks with her group’s flag at Al-Naim square in Raqqa on Tuesday.Photo: BULENT KILIC/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

“They’re already messaging that the Rohingya are the new Palestinians, using it to recruit,” one U.S. counterterrorism official said. “Southeast Asia is the new concern.”

Islamic State’s rise and fall has divided and reshaped Syria.

Many Syrians and top American officials blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the rise of Islamic State. In the first years of the Syrian uprising, which began in 2011, Mr. Assad emptied Syrian prisons of those convicted of terrorism, filling the cells with more-liberal activists—many of whom had peacefully demonstrated to demand political change.

The regime’s military focused on attacking rebel groups while allowing Islamic State to grow, launching its first major assault against the extremist group in 2015, four years after the uprising began.

“Assad wanted Islamic State to rise so the world would have to choose between terrorism and him,” said one Arab diplomat, echoing a sentiment expressed by Western counterparts.

Now, nearly seven years into Syria’s civil war, the U.S. and its allies, from the U.K. to Saudi Arabia, have largely stopped funding the Syrian rebels and have begun preparing for Mr. Assad to remain in power.

The rebels are deeply fractured, with many living in exile, while Mr. Assad has slowly regained control over the country with the help of Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Syrian Kurds, who have made up the bulk of the U.S.-backed forces fighting Islamic State, have, meanwhile, used the conflict to carve out their own autonomous region across northern Syria. But with the long-term presence of the U.S. in Syria in serious doubt, the Kurds fear they will become the regime’s next target as Mr. Assad tries to consolidate control over the entire country.

Raqqa residents have borne much of the consequences of Islamic State’s rise. As foreign fighters flocked to the city to join Islamic State, some residents sought to defy the terror group and expose the atrocities they committed against fellow Muslims to dissuade potential recruits from joining. An underground resistance emerged, including the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

They secretly filmed Islamic State brutality against ordinary Syrians and posted it online, countering the extremists’ narrative of a glorious caliphate ruling over millions of adoring and loyal Syrian Muslims.

Mohamad al-Mosari, an activist with Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said recently, “One thousand four hundred years of this city’s history is wiped out.”

— Nazih Osseiran and Raja Abdulrahim in Beirut, Nour Alakraa in Berlin, Julian E. Barnes in Brussels, Jenny Gross in London and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Maria Abi-Habib at maria.habib@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications Four U.S. Green Berets were killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated three Green Berets were killed. Oct. 17, 2017

https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-backed-forces-say-they-have-captured-de-facto-islamic-state-capital-1508242244

U.S.-allied forces begin final assault on Islamic State in Syria’s Raqqa

October 16, 2017
By Bassem Mroue
Associated Press
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U.S.-backed Syrian fighters launched an operation to retake the last Islamic State-held pocket of the northern city of Raqqa on Sunday after some 275 militants and their family members surrendered.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the operation will continue “until all the city is cleansed from terrorists who refused to surrender.”

The SDF has been on the offensive in Raqqa since early June and now controls about 90 percent of the city that was once the extremist group’s self-styled capital. Most of the fighters who remain in the pocket are foreigners, according to the SDF and opposition activists.

The operation was named after Adnan Abu Amjad, an Arab commander with the SDF who was killed in August while fighting against IS in central Raqqa.

The loss of Raqqa would hand another major blow to IS, which has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. Iraqi forces captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul — the largest ever held by the extremist group — in July, and Syrian government forces retook the eastern Syrian city of Mayadeen, near the border with Iraq, on Saturday.

IS still holds parts of Syria’s Deir el-Zour province and Iraq’s Anbar province, as well as small, scattered pockets elsewhere.

On Saturday, the U.S.-led coalition and local officials said Syrian IS fighters and civilians would be allowed to leave Raqqa, but not foreign fighters. The evacuation appeared aimed at sparing the lives of civilians being used as human shields. As of last week, around 4,000 civilians were believed to still be in the city.

The SDF said the initiative by local tribesmen and members of the Raqqa Civil Council “succeed in evacuating civilians who were still in the city and the surrender of 275 local mercenaries and their families.” It added that the ongoing offensive aims to “end the presence of mercenaries of the terrorist organization inside the city.”

US-backed fighters begin final attack in Syria’s Raqqa

October 15, 2017

The Associated Press

OCTOBER 15, 2017 2:31 AM

© AFP/File | The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say they have begun the battle to capture the last 10 percent of Raqa under jihadist control

‘Islamic State’ facing imminent collapse in Syria’s Raqqa

October 15, 2017

US-backed coalition forces claim they are about to drive the “Islamic State” completely out of Raqqa. Local officials and tribal leaders have reportedly struck a deal to allow IS fighters and civilians to evacuate.

SDF forces fight Islamic State in Raqqa in 2017

US-backed forces were on the brink of defeating the last remnants of the “Islamic State” (IS) group in the jihadists’ de-facto Syrian capital of Raqqa on Saturday, according to officials close to the operation to retake the city.

A spokesman for the US-led coalition, Colonel Ryan Dillon, said that around 100 IS militants had already surrendered and been “removed” from the city since Friday.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think Islamic State will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said.

But the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG told Reuters that coalition forces could have the city clear of IS forces within days.

Read more: Syrian Christians advance against IS in de-facto capital Raqqa

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (IS) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said.

Kurdish YPG in Syrian SDF alliance

The YPG is one of the most influential militant in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of groups that also includes Arabs and Christian units.

The SDF offensive to retake Raqqa started in June with the help of US-led airstrikes and several hundred US special forces.

Syrian IS fighters leaving Raqqa

Hundreds of people are trapped in IS-held pockets in the city, raising concerns over civilian casualties and IS using human shields.

Local officials from the Raqqa Civil Council and tribal leaders announced Saturday they had struck a deal to evacuate civilians and local fighters. The SDF will search and screen all people departing Raqqa.

The US-led coalition confirmed the deal in a statement.

“The arrangement is designed to minimize civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign terrorists,” the US-led coalition said in a statement, adding that it does not condone a deal that allows IS fighters “to escape Raqqa without facing justice, only to resurface somewhere else.”

 Civil Council/local Arab tribal elders work to minimize civilian casualties as SDF & @CJTFOIR prepare for major defeat in Raqqa

UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group said that the issue of foreign fighters was of particular concern.

“The obstacle to their departure is that the mastermind of attacks in Paris in November 2015 is believed to be among them and he has refused to surrender,” SOHR head Rami Abdel-Rahman said. IS supporters killed 130 people in multiple terrorist attacks across Paris in November 2015.

Separately, the Syrian government and allied Shiite militia retook the town of Mayadeen from IS after intense fighting and Russian airstrikes, the Syrian military said Saturday.

Located along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, Mayadeen has been strategic IS stronghold as the group lost territory in Syria and Iraq.

Pro-Syrian regime forces have been trying to secure the Iraqi border and push IS out of a small pocket in the provincial capital Deir al-Zor

IS stronghold since 2014

IS had seized Raqqa as part of a broad offensive in Syria and Iraq in early 2014 and the city has since served as the jihadists’ primary Syrian stronghold.

But IS has lost much of its territory after US and Russian-backed forces began separate offensives against the militant group. In July, US-backed Iraqi forces retook Mosul, the jihadists’ de-facto capital in Iraq.

cw/amp/jm (Reuters, AP, dpa)

U.S. Commander: Final Assault on Islamic State Stronghold at Raqqa To Begin Sunday

October 8, 2017

The Jerusalem Post

By Reuters

OCTOBER 8, 2017 15:56

 

The Islamic State has been pushed out of Mosul and other major cities in the last several months, and Raqqa remains its last real stronghold.

A MEMBER of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa recently

A MEMBER of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa. (photo credit:REUTERS)

A final assault on Islamic State’s last line of defense in its former Syrian capital Raqqa should begin on Sunday night, a field commander for the US-backed forces operating there said.

The loss of Islamic State’s remaining streets and buildings in Raqqa following its defeat in Iraq’s Mosul this year and its retreat from swathes of territory in both countries, would mark a major milestone in the battle to destroy the jihadist group.

The assault on militants in the center of the northern city will focus on surrounding the sports stadium there, said a field commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in western Raqqa, who gave his name as Ardal Raqqa.

“Daesh is massing there because this is the last stage. They will resist, or they will surrender or die,” he said. “This their last stand to the death.”

Islamic State declared a caliphate in 2014 and at the height of its power ruled over millions of people, from northern Syria to the outskirts of Iraq’s capital Baghdad, but it has since endured a series of losses under attack from many sides.

Raqqa was the group’s de facto Syrian capital, a center of operations where it oversaw the management of much of eastern, central and northern Syria and planned attacks abroad.

Now it is hemmed into a small area in the city center that includes the stadium, the National Hospital and a roundabout where Islamic State once displayed the heads of its enemies.

In the hours before the expected launch of the final assault, which the commander said could take up to a week, the sound of gunfire sporadically rattled around the area near the hospital.

The district had been flattened, with buildings completely gone. Coalition jets soared overhead and air strikes pounded at a higher rate than in recent days.

Islamic State has lost most of its territory to the SDF, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, and to a rival offensive by Syria’s army and allied forces this year, and has fallen back on the fertile Euphrates valley area downstream of Raqqa.

The army and its allies reached the city of Deir al-Zor in September after a months-long offensive across the Syrian desert, and have since then pushed down the Euphrates towards the border with Iraq.

On Sunday a Syrian military source said they had encircled Islamic State fighters in the city of al-Mayadin, one of the jihadists’ last strongholds in the area.

“Units of our armed forces with the allied forces continue their advance on a number of fronts and axes in Deir al-Zor and its countryside… and encircle Daesh terrorists in the city of al-Mayadin,” the military source said.

However, the group has still been able to launch a series of effective counter attacks against the Syrian army in the central desert region over the past week, putting pressure on the main supply road to Deir al-Zor from the west.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is backed in the war by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and its campaign against Islamic State has mostly been on the west bank of the river.

The US-backed SDF campaign has mostly been on the east bank, where Raqqa is located, and has also advanced downstream to hold areas opposite Deir al-Zor. The United States and Russia have put in place channels to lessen the risk of fighting between the rival offensives they back.

US officials have previously said that Islamic State had relocated some of its diminished command and propaganda structures to al-Mayadin as it was forced from territory elsewhere.

The spokeswoman for the SDF campaign in Raqqa, Jihan Sheikh Ahmad, said in a statement on a website for the campaign that it would announce the liberation of Raqqa “in the coming few days” after having captured 85 percent of the city.

Commanders directing the battle in Raqqa have said that Islamic State fighters have taken civilian hostages and are using sniper fire, booby traps and tunnels to slow the SDF advance.

The SDF began its campaign to isolate Raqqa early this year, pushing along several fronts to enclose the city against the Euphrates backed by coalition air strikes and special forces.Its attack on the city itself started in June and the fighting left much of Raqqa in ruins, as intense air strikes and street-to-street battles devastated buildings.

IS counterattack kills 34 Syria regime forces in Raqa province

August 25, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | Smoke rises from building in Raqa’s eastern al-Sanaa neighbourhood, on the edge of the old city, on August 13, 2017
BEIRUT (AFP) – At least 34 Syrian soldiers and allied fighters have been killed in an Islamic State counterattack in the east of Raqa province, rolling back regime gains, a monitor said on Friday.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the jihadist group had recaptured large swathes of territory from government forces in the fighting on Thursday.

Syria’s army is seeking to advance through Raqa province to reach neighbouring Deir Ezzor, where jihadists have besieged government forces and civilians in the provincial capital since 2015.

Earlier this month, government troops and allied fighters arrived at the outskirts of Madan, the last IS-held town in the eastern Raqa province countryside before Deir Ezzor.

But in Thursday’s counterattack, IS “made major progress and… expanded the area under its control along the southern bank of the Euphrates,” the Observatory said.

“IS has managed to push regime forces back 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the western outskirts of Madan,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The Syria army operation in the area, backed by air support from ally Russia, is separate from the battle for provincial capital Raqa city.

The effort to oust IS from the city, once the jihadist group’s Syrian stronghold, is being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

The SDF has captured just under 60 percent of Raqa city since it entered in June after months of fighting to encircle it.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

U.N. Calls for Humanitarian Pause, Sparing Civilians in Syria’s Raqqa

August 24, 2017

GENEVA — The United Nations called on Thursday for a humanitarian pause to allow an estimated 20,000 trapped civilians to escape the Syrian city of Raqqa, and urged the U.S.-led coalition to rein in air strikes that have caused casualties.

“Boats on the Euphrates must not be attacked, people who come out cannot risk air raids when they come out,” Jan Egeland, humanitarian adviser on Syria, told reporters in Geneva.

“So now is the time to think of possibilities, pauses or otherwise that might facilitate the escape of civilians, knowing that Islamic State fighters are doing their absolute best to keep them in place,” he said.

The United Nations is still assessing the outcome of talks held this week in Riyadh between the three Syrian opposition groups – who failed to unite – Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, the U.N. deputy special envoy for Syria, said.

Asked whether Syria peace talks would be held in Geneva in September, he said: “Based on our assessment of what happened in Riyadh we will decide how to move ahead in the future.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams)