Turkish-backed Syrian fighters gather during a military training in the north of Aleppo province, in preparation to be deployed in the outskirts of Manbij area. – AFP

BEIRUT: Syria’s nearly eight-year-old conflict saw its lowest annual death toll in 2018 as the regime reasserted its authority over swathes of territory, a war monitor said yesterday. A total of 19,666 people were killed this year as a result of the conflict, which erupted in 2011, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported. “2018 was the lowest annual toll since the start of the conflict,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The Britain-based monitor relies on a vast network of sources across Syria to document the war that broke out after the brutal repression of nationwide anti-regime protests in 2011. The death toll for 2017 stood at more than 33,000 and the highest annual figure was reached in 2014 — the year the Islamic State jihadist group proclaimed a “caliphate” over large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq — when 76,000 people were killed. Among those killed in 2018 were 6,349 civilians, 1,437 of them children, Abdel Rahman said.

Eastern Ghouta

“Most of those killed during the first part of the year were killed in regime and Russian bombardment of opposition areas, including Eastern Ghouta,” Abdel Rahman said. “The majority of those killed in the second half of the year were killed in coalition air strikes,” he added. The first months of 2018 were marked by major Russian-backed government operations to retake rebel and jihadist bastions in and around the capital Damascus.

The bloodiest of them was an assault on Eastern Ghouta, a densely-populated area east of Damascus that remained besieged for years. The most active front of the past few months has been the battle against the remnants of the Islamic State group in eastern Syria. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by a US-led coalition carrying out air strikes, launched an offensive on September 10. Jihadist fighters defending the last rump of their once sprawling proto-state, near the Iraqi border along the Euphrates River, have put up fierce resistance but seem close to collapsing. While fighting has ended or is winding down in several parts of the country, 2019 could see its share of military flare-ups.

Threatened Turkish offensive

Besides the continued threat posed by IS sleeper cells even after it loses its last pocket in eastern Syria, two other areas remain of concern. Turkey has threatened a major offensive against the Kurdish militia that controls regions along its border in northeastern Syria. The announcement made by Donald Trump two weeks ago that he had ordered a full troop pullout from Syria left the US-led coalition’s Kurdish allies more exposed.

Thousands of rebel fighters and jihadists also remain in Idlib, a northern province where many of them were transferred as a result of deals to end government assaults on other areas across the country. Under an agreement reached in Russia, Turkey was tasked with disarming some of the groups active in Idlib but little progress has been achieved. President Bashar Al-Assad has consistently said that his forces would seek to re-conquer the entire Syrian territory. According to the Observatory, the government and its allies now controls 60.2 percent of Syrian territory, while the SDF hold 28.8 percent.

The Kurds last week asked for the regime’s help against the threat of a Turkish offensive, a move that will put pay to their ambitions of increased autonomy. By comparison, the US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project puts the number of conflict-related deaths in Afghanistan at more than 40,000 this year.

IS arrests

In related news, Iraq sentenced more than 600 foreigners including many women and dozens of minors in 2018 for belonging to the Islamic State group, the judiciary said yesterday. Iraq declared “victory” over IS at the end of 2017 after a three-year war against the jihadists, who once controlled nearly a third of the country as well as swathes of neighboring Syria.

Around 20,000 people suspected of links to IS have been arrested since 2014. Judicial spokesman Abdel Sattar Bayraqdar said yesterday that “616 men and women accused of belonging to IS have been put on trial” in 2018 and sentenced under Iraq’s anti-terrorism law. They comprised 466 women, 42 men and 108 minors, he said. Bayraqdar did not, however specify the punishments. Under Iraq’s anti-terrorism law courts can issue verdicts, including death sentences, against anyone found guilty of belonging to the jihadist group, including non-combatants.

In April, judicial sources said that more than 300 suspects linked to IS had received death sentences and more than 300 others were sentenced to life, which in Iraq is equivalent to 20 years. Most of the women sentenced for IS links were from Turkey and republics of the former Soviet Union. Three French citizens — two women and a man — have been sentenced to life imprisonment while a German woman, a Belgian man and a Russian man have been sentenced to death. Many women had travelled to Iraq with their children to join their husbands who fought in the ranks of IS. Some are still waiting to be repatriated to their home countries. – AFP