In Syria, IS in last stand to defend dying ‘caliphate’

DEIR EZ-ZOR: Arab fighters of the US-backed Kurdish-Arab coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take part in a training exercise near the Omar oil field in the eastern Syrian Deir Ezzor province. —AFP

WASHINGTON: European nations must take back hundreds of Islamic State group fighters captured in Syria, President Donald Trump said late Saturday, after a delay in announcing what he said would be the end of the “caliphate.” Trump shocked allies in December by declaring the pullout of roughly 2,000 US troops who had been assisting local forces in Syria against IS, whose sole remaining territory is half a square kilometer in eastern Syria. The pending US pullout set off a countdown for governments whose citizens, having joined IS, were captured by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” Trump said in a tweet, using another acronym for IS. “The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them. The US does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go.” Once the US-led coalition declares it has taken all IS territories, the White House is expected to withdraw American troops. When that happens, the risk is high that “foreign terrorist fighters” will escape SDF control, posing a new threat.

For about two weeks, the Trump administration has been pushing its allies to take their citizens home, and the US said it was ready to help in the repatriation, but time has been running out. Several countries, including France, that have chosen to leave the jihadists in SDF detention now confront a diplomatic, legal, political and logistical puzzle. “We do so much, and spend so much – Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!” Trump said in his late-Saturday tweets. On Friday he said announcements on the fall of the caliphate would be made “over the next 24 hours,” but that deadline came and went.

Deep transatlantic rift
An SDF commander said his US-backed forces slowed their advance to protect civilians. The jihadists declared a “caliphate” in large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, but have since lost all but a tiny patch of territory near the Iraqi border. Trump’s Syria pullout has highlighted the deep trans-Atlantic rift that emerged under his presidency, and the differing views of the two sides were on display Saturday at a security conference in Munich. A French government source criticized the Trump administration’s approach as “we’re leaving, you’re staying” and added: “They’re trying to manage the consequences of a hasty decision and making us carry the responsibility.”

In Syria, IS in last stand to defend dying ‘caliphate’
Diehard jihadists have blocked roads out of the last scrap of their Islamic State group “caliphate” in Syria, US-backed forces fighting them said yesterday, preventing hundreds of civilians from fleeing. Ahead of a victory declaration expected within days and a subsequent US military pullout, US President Donald Trump called on his European allies to take back hundreds of alleged jihadists captured in Syria. The jihadists declared a “caliphate” across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, implementing their brutal interpretation of Islam on millions.

But several offensives have expelled them from all of it, except a tiny patch of less than half a kilometer square on the banks of the Euphrates river near the Iraqi border. Thousands of people have streamed out of the so-called “Baghouz pocket” in recent weeks, but hundreds of civilians-including IS family members-are believed to still be inside. At a collection point for new arrivals outside Baghouz yesterday, dozens of tents and a few trucks sat empty.

Earlier in the week, the area had been thronging with people-women and children, but also suspected jihadists led to one side. “It’s been two days since anyone came out,” an SDF fighter said. SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali said IS had blocked roads out of its holdout, preventing those remaining from escaping to safety. “Daesh has sealed off all the streets” but up to 2,000 civilians could still be inside, he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. The jihadists are confined to “a few hundred meters square in… Baghouz with a number of civilians they hold hostage and refuse to release”, he said on Twitter Saturday.

‘Human shields’
A spokesman for the US-led coalition, which has been backing the SDF with its air power and some troops, said IS was using these women and children as “human shields”. “Civilians who have escaped are reporting ISIS is using them as human shields and killing innocent civilians in order to intimidate others from trying to leave,” Sean Ryan said. The Kurdish-led SDF launched the offensive to expel IS from the eastern banks of the Euphrates in September. Trump on Friday promised announcements linked to “the eradication of the caliphate” within 24 hours, but a top SDF commander then warned the battle would take a few more days. The US president in December shocked allies when he announced he would withdraw all 2,000 US troops from Syria because IS had been “beaten”. That plan is set to be accelerated after a victory announcement.
Since 2015, the SDF have been battling IS with backing from the international coalition, retaking one major town after another until reaching Baghouz. They have detained hundreds of foreigners accused of fighting for IS and repeatedly called on their countries to repatriate them, but Western nations have been reluctant. Trump yesterday called on his European allies to bring their nationals home. “The Caliphate is ready to fall,” he said on Twitter. “The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” he said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

‘Sleeper cells’
“The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” Trump said. “The US does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go.” Beyond Baghouz, IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries. In Syria, it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and has claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory. The US Department of Defense has warned that without sustained counterterrorism pressure, IS could resurge within months. “IS is still using sleeper cells,” spokesman Bali said yesterday. “Over the past month, more than one foreign sleeper cell was arrested in multiple areas in Syria.”

Acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan has struggled to convince sceptical allies in the international coalition to help secure Syria once US soldiers pull out. Any withdrawal would leave Syria’s Kurds exposed to a long-threatened attack by neighboring Turkey, which views Kurdish fighters as “terrorists”. They have scrambled to seek a new ally in the Damascus government after spending most of Syria’s civil war working towards self-rule. Eight years into the conflict that has killed more than 360,000 people, President Bashar al-Assad’s government controls nearly two-thirds of the country. But the SDF hold around a third of the country still beyond its control.- Agencies