Posts Tagged ‘SDF’

Mattis eyes moving away from arming Syrian Kurdish fighters

December 2, 2017

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FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo Reuters

By Idrees Ali

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that as offensive operations against Islamic State in Syria entered their final stages, he expected the focus to move towards holding territory instead of arming Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Speaking with reporters on a military plane en route to Cairo, Mattis did not say if there had already been a halt to weapons transfers.

U.S. President Donald Trump informed Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a call last week that Washington was adjusting military support to partners on the ground in Syria.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG spearheads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting Islamic State with the help of a U.S.-led coalition.

Turkey’s presidency had previously reported that the United States would not supply weapons to Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.

Until now, the Pentagon has only gone as far as saying it was reviewing “adjustments” in arms for the Syrian Kurdish forces, which Ankara views as a threat.

“The YPG is armed and as the coalition stops offensive (operations) then obviously you don’t need that, you need security, you need police forces, that is local forces, that is people who make certain that ISIS doesn’t come back,” Mattis said.

When asked if that would specifically mean the U.S. would stop arming the YPG, Mattis said: “Yeah, we are going to go exactly along the lines of what the President announced.”

Ankara has been infuriated by Washington’s support for the YPG militia, seen by Turkey as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and European Union.

The United States expects to recover heavy weapons and larger vehicles from the YPG, but lighter weapons are unlikely to be completely recovered, U.S. officials have said.

Earlier this week, the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said more than 400 U.S. Marines and their artillery would be leaving Syria after helping to capture the city of Raqqa from Islamic State.

Mattis said that was part of the United States changing the composition of its forces to support diplomats to bring an end to the war.

“The troops are changing their stance…that includes with our allies who are now changing their stance as they come to the limits of where they are going,” Mattis said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken)

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Syrian Kurdish official to US: Don’t turn your back on us

November 29, 2017

Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria, in this July 3, 2017 photo. (REUTERS)
BEIRUT: A senior Syrian Kurdish official said Washington would undermine the campaign against Daesh militants and Americans would lose their place in the region’s fight against terrorism if they “turn their back” on their only ally in Syria — the Kurds.
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The comments by Ilham Ahmed, a member of the political arm of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), were in response to the US administration’s suggestion that military aid to the Kurdish-led forces may be halted.
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Over the weekend, the White House and the Pentagon said there will be “pending adjustments to the military support” to the SDF, though there was no specific confirmation the arms flow would stop altogether.
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Ahmed said nothing in the statements specifically indicates the arms supply would stop, but she added that the “vague” phrasing appears aimed at appeasing Turkey. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as an extension of its own insurgent group it labels “terrorists.”
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Such vague statements can be a double-edged sword, Ahmed said. She spoke to The Associated Press (AP) in a series of text messages from northern Syria late on Monday.
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The US said it will maintain its “presence to fight Daesh and to reinforce stability in liberated areas.” This means, Ahmed said, the administration is “starting a new phase focused on stability and administration.”
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“We can’t judge what the Americans are thinking,” Ahmed said. “But one thing is obviously clear, and that is if the Americans turn their back on their only partners (in Syria), it means they will withdraw from the fight against Daesh in the Middle East.”
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“If they really decide to stop the support, this means they are giving a chance for Daesh to reappear and spread,” she added.
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The Trump administration announced in May it would start arming the Kurds in anticipation of the fight to retake the city of Raqqa, the de-facto capital of Daesh.
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The Kurdish-led SDF liberated the city last month. They have been pushing down the Euphrates River Valley, chasing Daesh militants along the border with Iraq and east of the river, capturing oil and gas fields and securing the Kurdish forces’ hold in northern and eastern Syria.
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U.S. To Keep Supporting SDF In Syria — Including Kurds

November 27, 2017

 

BY SETH J. FRANTZMAN
 NOVEMBER 26, 2017 21:25

 

Turkey’s foreign minister claimed US President Trump had said the United States would not further arm the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria.

US to keep supporting SDF, including Kurds, in Syria

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stand together in Raqqa, Syria, October 16, 2017. . (photo credit:REUTERSThe US-led coalition to defeat Islamic State will continue to provide assistance to groups comprising the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria “as long as they remain committed to the goal of fighting and defeating ISIS.” In response to an inquiry by The Jerusalem Post, the coalition said it “continues to provide material support, training, advice and assistance to the SDF in their ongoing effort to defeat ISIS in Syria.”

On Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu claimed US President Donald Trump had stated in a conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that weapons would not be given to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. Turkey alleges that the YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which it and other countries consider a terrorist organization.

Since 2016, the US has been providing arms to the SDF, which includes elements of the Kurdish YPG. The White House responded to the Turkish statement by noting that US policy remains consistent and that “President Trump also informed President Erdogan of pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria.”

The emailed statement by the Public Affairs Office of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, adds some details to US policy in Syria. “Our tactical partnership with the SDF is focused on defeating ISIS in Syria. Our attention is strongly focused on that fight, which recently liberated the ISIS self-declared capital of Raqqa,” the coalition says. “The SDF is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians and other ethnic groups who have fought valiantly against ISIS.”

The US says that their commitment and sacrifices have enabled local and representative governance. By describing the SDF as a multi-ethnic force, the US-led coalition of more than 70 nations is trying to differentiate between the SDF and the Kurdish YPG which is a part of the YPG. This is an important distinction because the US has attempted to stress since 2016 that weapons have often been supplied to Arab units within the SDF.

“The coalition continues to provide material support, training, advice and assistance to the SDF in their ongoing effort to defeat ISIS in Syria,” the coalition said. “While ISIS is on its way to military defeat in Syria and Iraq, there is still much work left to be done to ensure their lasting defeat in the region.”

The US estimates that there are less than 3,000 ISIS terrorists left to be defeated in the deserts of Syria and Iraq. “We will continue to provide assistance to the forces comprising the SDF as long as they remain committed to the goal of fighting and defeating ISIS.” The coalition says this support comes within the framework of the Geneva process that is aimed to end the Syrian conflict.

However, the coalition will not comment on the specifics of the Trump-Erdogan conversation or Foreign Minister Cavusoglu’s comments. The coalition clarified that “any divestiture of equipment to Kurdish elements of the SDF is shared with Turkey. We have been transparent on these divestitures with our NATO ally and fellow coalition partner. This has not changed.”

The statement indicates that the coalition continues to provide support for the SDF and that it is careful to monitor the nuances within the SDF and its components, including equipment that is provided to Kurdish units. The coalition doesn’t use the term YPG, which appears to be in line with showing Turkey that the coalition only works with the SDF. In this way Trump can say that the US is not arming the YPG, and support for the SDF can continue under the framework of defeating what remains of ISIS and stabilizing the liberated areas.

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‘Islamic State’ car bomb kills dozens of civilians in Syria

November 5, 2017

Scores of displaced people from the latest fighting in Syria’s Deir el-Zour province have been killed in a car bombing. The blast follows the Syrian army’s recapture of the last major city held by the jihadists.

Syrien Krieg - Kämpfe in Deir ez-Zor (Getty Images/AFP)

Saturday evening’s blast struck refugees who had fled the fighting in the oil and gas-rich Syrian province and who had gathered on the east bank of the Euphrates River, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Dozens of civilians were killed and many others were injured when IS fighters detonated a car bomb at close range, the monitor’s director Rami Abdel Rahman told news agencies.

Syria’s state news agency SANA later described the blast as a suicide car bombing.

Iraq and Syria take last major towns from ‘Islamic State’

The blast happened in an area between the Conoco and Jafra energy fields controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and close to the city of Deir el-Zour, which last week was captured by Syrian regime forces from the “Islamic State” (IS) armed group.

The largest city in eastern Syria, Deir el-Zour is a center for the country’s oil extracting industry.

Read more:US-backed SDF captures Syria’s largest oil field from ‘Islamic State’

Refugees still in danger

Save the Children estimates that 350,000 people have fled the recent fighting in Deir el-Zour.

“The situation in the city, and surrounding countryside, has been especially bleak with civilians trapped between the fighting and all too often caught in the crossfire,” explained Sonia Khush, the charity’s Syria director.

Karte Syrien Deir ez-Zor Englisch (DW)

The Observatory, which gets its information from a network of Syria-based activists, said civilians were stranded on an island on the Euphrates directly facing Deir el-Zour and where some jihadist pockets remained.

IS is facing an onslaught by both Syrian government troops and the SDF alliance for the few remaining areas it controls in eastern Syria.

Read more:‘Islamic State’ suffers major losses in Syria and Iraq

Having been driven from about 96 percent of territory they once captured in Syria and Iraq, the jihadists still control a small stretch inside the war-ravaged country and some desert regions along the Iraq-Syria border.

Last IS areas remain

After taking full charge of Deir el-Zour city, the Syrian army said IS militants were now isolated and encircled in the countryside east of the city.

Meanwhile, Kurdish-led SDF forces were reported to be making fresh gains further north in Deir el-Zour province.

Syrian regime forces, backed by intensive Russian air strikes, are now attempting to retake Abu Kamal, the last urban center controlled by the jihadi group in Syria, and close to the Iraqi border.

Last month, Syrian Kurd-led forces, allied with the US, captured Raqqa, once the de-facto capital of IS’ self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria.

Also on Saturday, reports suggested that US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart may discuss a settlement to the 6-year Syrian civil war in the next few days.

Russia’s RIA news agency said the talks could take place on the sidelines of the Asian economic summit in Vietnam.

Washington and Moscow remain on opposing sides in the conflict and ties remain frosty over allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election.

http://www.dw.com/en/islamic-state-car-bomb-kills-dozens-of-civilians-in-syria-monitor/a-41241496

Israel’s Air Power Engaged Over Syria as Hezbollah, Russia, Iran Make Moves

November 3, 2017
BY SETH J. FRANTZMAN
 NOVEMBER 3, 2017 03:34

The full details of what happened this week are clouded in secrecy, like many other alleged and acknowledged Israeli air strikes in Syria.

Protection from above: Air-power diplomacy in Syrian skies

An Israeli Air Force F-35 fighter jet flies during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli airforce pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel December 29, 2016.. (photo credit:REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

South of Homs on the road to Damascus there is a small town called Hassia. Beyond the village is a large industrial zone that occupies several square kilometers. On the other side of the road are a series of clusters of buildings laid out behind checkpoints and unmistakably governmental in appearance, with straight roads and gray warehouses.

According to various reports, including Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, it was near here that witnesses claim an Israeli air strike took place on Wednesday.

The full details of what happened are clouded in secrecy, like many other alleged and acknowledged Israeli air strikes in Syria. In August, Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel said Israel had carried out at least 100 strikes in the last five years attempting to interdict weapons transfers to Hezbollah via Syria.

After the strike Wednesday night, the familiar dance began whereby Syria boasts that it has fired missiles and hit an Israeli aircraft, and an Israeli official makes some general statement about how Israel will continue to protect its interests. In this case it was Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz.

“Israel has previously operated and will continue to operate to prevent weapons smuggling,” he told Army Radio. There are reports about Iranian weapons factories and Hezbollah weapons storage depots in Syria.

The alleged air strikes in Syria appear to have grown in intensity in recent months, as well as in precision and in the wide area they affect. On September 7, a site near Masyaf of the Scientific Studies and Research Center was struck, igniting a large fire. This was supposedly a chemical weapons site. Syria warned of “dangerous repercussions.” On October 16, the same week that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was in Israel for a visit, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile was fired at Israeli jets that were conducting routine reconnaissance over Lebanon near the Syrian border. Israel Air Force craft struck the Syrian antiaircraft battery, 50 km. from Damascus, an IDF spokesman said.

The ongoing tensions in Syria come as Russia is making major moves to facilitate dialogue in Syria and what it describes as “de-escalation.”

This was clear from a joint statement by Iran, Russia and Turkey after the Astana international meeting on Syria on Wednesday.

The statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website emphasized the reduction of violence, the “progress in the fight against terrorism,” underlining that the conflict in Syria “has no military solution” and that there should be humanitarian aid and “confidence-building measures.”

Another Astana meeting is scheduled for December.

Russia wants to host a “Congress of the National Dialogue” in Sochi on November 18. This would include 33 parties from groups involved in the Syrian conflict. According to the TASS Russian news agency, the PYD and other Kurdish groups have been invited.

The air strike also comes as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was visiting Iran on Thursday. Along with Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Putin met with President Hassan Rouhani.

According to Reuters, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told Putin that “our cooperation can isolate America. The failure of US-backed terrorists in Syria cannot be denied, but Americans continue their plots.”

Meanwhile, the US is still not clear on its long-term goals in eastern Syria, where the Syrian Democratic Forces it backs have crushed ISIS in Raqqa and are moving toward the Iraqi border, capturing oil fields. It has been three years since the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which formed the basis for the SDF, stopped ISIS in Kobane with the help of US air power.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has said the Assad family has no future in Syria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that the efforts of the US-led coalition were designed to defeat ISIS, “The US does not seek to fight the Syrian government or pro-Syrian government forces.”

However, he said the US would use proportionate force to defend the US, coalition and partner forces in Syria. Lt.-Gen. Paul E. Funk, commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told USA Today, “We need to structure ourselves to be prepared for a long-term commitment to building partner capacity in this area.” It is unclear if that includes only Iraq or also eastern Syria.

Confusing US policy, and Russia’s efforts to de-escalate tensions, leave Israel in a bind. It has worked its way out of that bind through a Clausewitz-style “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” In this case it means striking weapons destined for Hezbollah and continually emphasizing that there are red lines to these transfers.

Syria has reportedly used its antiquated SA-5 surface-to-air missiles to demonstrate the “repercussions” to Israel’s actions. According to the October 16 Reuters report, Syria also fired its anti-aircraft missiles over Lebanon, whose airspace has been reportedly violated by both sides. For now, the quiet understanding about Israel’s actions, Syria’s response, Russia and America’s policy, and Hezbollah’s grasping continue.

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http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Analysis-Air-power-diplomacy-in-Syria-513225
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“Victory in Kirkuk is a victory over the US and Israel and an answer to Trump’s threats to Iran” — Hezbollah, Syria, Iran Increasing Pressure on Israel — Kirkuk a victory by the resistance over the United States and Israel

October 23, 2017
BY ANNA AHRONHEIM
 OCTOBER 22, 2017 16:57

 

Kurdish expert to ‘The Post’ Iranian-backed victory in Kirkuk has allowed Iran to create a new route to northern Syria and Mediterranean, increasing pressure on Israel.

Hezbollah official: Kurdish defeat is a victory over US and Israel

A Hezbollah fighter stands at a watch tower at Juroud Arsal, the Syria-Lebanon border. (photo credit:REUTERS)

Hezbollah’s executive council deputy head Sheikh Nabil Qaouk has called the routing of Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk by Iranian-backed Iraqi troops a victory by the resistance over the United States and Israel.

“Our victory in Kirkuk is a victory over the US and Israel and an answer to Trump’s threats to Iran,” Qaouk said on Sunday, during a religious ceremony in the southern Lebanese town of Bazouriyeh.

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File photo from a Hezbollah event.

Qaouk, Hezbollah’s top official in South Lebanon, said the region has entered a new phase that favors Hezbollah.

“The qualitative and strategic gains achieved by Iraq in Kirkuk is a new achievement for the resistance axis and a new defeat for Trump, America, Israel and others in the region,” he said, adding that America will not be able to change Hezbollah’s positions by their sanctions, “not today, tomorrow or in the future. Hezbollah will complete its path to victory.”

Iraqi forces backed by Iran’s Popular Mobilization Units and other Iranian-backed militias, easily routed the Peshmerga forces from the oil-rich province of Kirkuk last week. This comes after Kurds voted in favor of an independence referendum in late September. As the Iranian-backed forces took over Kirkuk and other Kurdish-held territory in the neighboring provinces of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah, the US – a staunch ally of the Kurds – did not intervene politically or militarily, saying only it was “monitoring the situation.”

According to Ceng Sagnic, coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv, Iran has created a new route from Iran to northern Syria, increasing pressure on Israel, which is concerned about the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria.

“Iran is in need of secure access routes extending from the Iran-Iraq border to the Lebanon-Israel-Syria triangle in southwestern Syria, in order to increase pressure on Israel, while creating alternative routes to supply Hezbollah both in Syria and Lebanon,” Sagnic told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

“Shi’ite militias were able to control most of the Iraq-Syria borderline adjacent to the US-influenced zone in Syria, creating a safe passage from Iran to northern Syria, while encircling the US and coalition bases in both countries,” Sagnic said. He added, “By doing so, Iranian-backed groups did not only circumvent the Sunni-majority areas of central Iraq to reach Syria, and thus, to the Mediterranean.”

According to Sagnic, these developments brought with them “an added value of harassing US allies in Syria with a dramatically expanded Iranian role in the country, by paving parallel paths to the south and north of the US-influenced zone in Syria, which will eventually force US allies like SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] to foster relations with Iran, if not fully abandon the Western camp.”

Sagnic told the Post that developments in Iraq reflect remarks made last May by Qais Al-Khazali, leader of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, one of the strongest Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. In those comments, Al-Khazali said Iran’s goal in the region was to create a “Shi’ite full moon,” not a “Shi’ite crescent,” as many experts and officials have said.

After more than six years, as the war in Syria seems to be winding down in Assad’s favor, Israel fears Iran will help Hezbollah produce accurate precision-guided missiles, helping it and other Shi’ite militias strengthen their foothold in the Golan Heights.

Also on Sunday, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem stated, “The Zionist occupation was and will remain Lebanon’s enemy… All those who justify collaboration with this enemy can be described as Israeli collaborators themselves.”

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Iran’s route to northern Syria and Mediterranean is a critical part of China’s One Belt One Road strategy.
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© AFP/File | Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) during a welcoming ceremony on January 23, 2016 in the capital Tehran

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US-allied force takes Syria’s largest oil field from IS

October 22, 2017
This July 30, 2017 photo, shows an oil field controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in Rmeilan, Hassakeh province, northeast Syria. The SDF, with air support from the U.S.-led coalition, said Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 that they had captured the Al-Omar field, Syria’s largest oil field, from the Islamic State group, marking a major advance against the extremists and for now keeping the area out of the hands of pro-government forces. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT — The US-led coalition said allied fighters captured Syria’s largest oil field from the Islamic State group on yesterday, marking a major advance against the extremists in an area coveted by pro-government forces.

With IS in retreat, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government have been in a race to secure parts of the oil-rich Deir el-Zour province along the border with Iraq.

The SDF, with air support from the US-led coalition, said yesterday it captured the Al-Omar field in a “swift and wide military operation.” It said some militants have taken cover in oil company houses nearby, where clashes are underway. The US-led coalition confirmed the SDF had retaken the oil field.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said pro-government forces retreated from the area around Al-Omar field after coming under heavy fire from IS. The SDF said government forces are three kilometers (two miles) away from the fields.

Syrian troops, backed by Russian warplanes and Iranian-sponsored militias, have retaken nearly all of the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour, as well as the town of Mayadeen, which is across the Euphrates River from the Al-Omar field.

The SDF have focused their operations in rural Deir el-Zour on the eastern side of the river, and have already seized a major natural gas field and other smaller oil fields.

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Omar Abu Layla, a Europe-based activist from Deir el-Zour who monitors the fighting through contacts there, said SDF forces have seized control of the oil field but are still clashing with militants in the adjacent housing complex.

IS captured Al-Omar in 2014, when the group swept across large areas in Syria and neighboring Iraq. The field was estimated to produce around 9,000 barrels a day, making it a key source of revenue for the extremists. Its current potential is unknown, following a series of strikes on IS-held oil facilities by the US-led coalition.

The government lost the al-Omar field to other insurgents in 2013.

Al-Manar TV, operated by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, said the fight for Al-Omar was still underway and denied the SDF’s claim to have captured it. The militant group is fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

The official Syrian news agency said troops have regained full control of Khosham, a town on the eastern side of the Euphrates River that they lost a day earlier to IS. The Observatory said parts of the town remain contested.

It’s not clear how Syrian troops will respond to the SDF’s seizure of Al-Omar. Assad has vowed to eventually bring all of Syria back under government control.

The two sides have accused each other of firing on their forces in Deir el-Zour province, but a rare face-to-face meeting of senior US and Russian military officers last month appeared to have calmed tensions.

IS has suffered a series of major setbacks in recent months, including the loss of the Syrian city of Raqqa, once the extremists’ self-styled capital, and the Iraqi city of Mosul. Most of the territory the group once held has been seized by an array of Syrian and Iraqi forces.

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

G7 to focus on foreign fighter fallout from rout of IS

October 19, 2017

AFP

© AFP / by Ella IDE | A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walks through a heavily damaged a street in Raqa, Syria on October 18, 2017

ISCHIA (ITALY) (AFP) – The threat of fresh attacks on the West by foreign fighters fleeing the fallen Islamic State stronghold of Raqa is set to dominate a G7 meeting of interior ministers in Italy.The two-day gathering, which kicks off Thursday on the Italian island of Ischia, comes just days after US-backed forces took full control of the jihadists’ de facto Syrian capital.

Most foreign fighters are believed to have fled over the past few months. Experts say those who stayed are now likely to head for Turkey in the hope of travelling on to Europe to seek revenge for the destruction of the “caliphate”.

Tens of thousands of citizens from Western countries travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the group between 2014 and 2016, including extremists who then returned home and staged attacks that claimed dozens of lives.

France, whose some 1,000 nationals were among the biggest contingent of overseas recruits to join IS, stated frankly this weekend that it would be “for the best” if jihadists die fighting.

While border crossings have since tightened making it more difficult for fighters to return, security experts have warned of renewed possibilities of strikes as the pressure on IS intensifies.

“With an Islamic military defeat in Iraq and Syria we could find ourselves facing a return diaspora of foreign fighters,” Italy’s Interior Minister Marco Minniti told a parliamentary committee last week.

“There are an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries. Some of them have been killed of course, but… it’s possible some of the others will try to return home, to northern Africa and Europe,” he said.

– Catching boats to Europe –

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said a group of 130-150 foreign fighters, including Europeans, had turned themselves in before the end of the battle in Raqa.

Other reports suggested a convoy of foreign fighters had been able to escape the city towards IS-held territory, a claim denied categorically by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officials.

The SDF is expected to contact the home countries of any foreign fighters it holds, to discuss the possibility of turning them over to face prosecution.

But captured fighters could prove a legal headache, with questions raised over what evidence, collected by whom, would be used in a domestic court. Jihadists also become security risks in jails for their potential to radicalise.

French European lawmaker Arnaud Danjean said Wednesday there would be “negotiations with the countries concerned” over what to do with returners.

Minniti warned fighters could take advantage of the confusion and “use the human trafficking routes” to return home — raising the spectre of extremists embarking on the migrant boats which regularly head to Italy.

It meant controversial efforts currently spearheaded by Italy to close the land and sea trafficking routes which cross Africa into Libya and on across the central Mediterranean sea to Europe were “essential”, he added.

– Intelligence war –

The Seven, from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, will also tackle the hot issue of terrorism online, with analysts warning IS’s loss of territory will turn street-to-street fighting into an intelligence war.

The ministers are due to arrive Thursday afternoon at a medieval castle on the volcanic island off Naples, before retiring for an informal dinner and knuckling down to working sessions on Friday.

They are set to be joined by the EU commissioner for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, European safety commissioner Julian King, and Juergen Stock, secretary general of the international police body Interpol.

In a G7 first, representatives from Internet giants Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter will also be taking part.

by Ella IDE
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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

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  • Middle East Crossroads: Simmering Conflicts Flare Up as Islamic State Fades
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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