U.S.-backed forces fighting to recapture the last Islamic State group outpost in Syria admitted on Sunday they were facing "difficulties" defeating the extremists, saying they were being slowed by mines, tunnels and concerns over harming women and children among the militants.
The battle to capture the extremist group's last patch of territory in eastern Syria — a collection of tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels in the village of Baghouz — has dragged on for weeks amid an unexpected exodus of civilians from the area.
The sheer number of people who have emerged from Baghouz, nearly 30,000 since early January according to Kurdish officials, has taken the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise. Most have been women and children whose existence in a labyrinth of underground caves and tunnels was unknown to the fighters.
In the last two weeks, many fighters appeared to be among those evacuating. But an unknown number of militants and civilians remain inside, refusing to surrender.
"We are facing several difficulties regarding the operations," SDF commander Kino Gabriel told reporters outside Baghouz on Sunday.
He cited the large number of mines and explosive devices planted by ISIS and the existence of tunnels and hideouts beneath the ground that are being used by the militants to attack SDF forces or defend themselves.
The camp is all that remains of a self-declared Islamic "caliphate" that once sprawled across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq. But a declaration of victory and the group's territorial defeat has been delayed as the military campaign sputtered on in fits and starts.
A final push by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces started on Jan. 9 but has been paused on several occasions, mainly to allow for civilians to evacuate and fighters to surrender.
Underscoring the struggles faced by the SDF as they try to flush the out extremists, three ISIS fighters emerged from Baghouz on Friday acting as though they wanted to surrender only to blew themselves up, killing six people.
The campaign has also been hindered by bad weather. Intermittent storms have at times turned the battlefield to mud and ISIS militants have mounted counteroffensives on windy days, burning tires and oil to try to force the SDF back with smoke.
On Sunday, dozens of men and women were seen walking around the besieged ISIS encampment in Baghouz, as SDF fighters watched from a hilltop close by.
The camp, looking much like a junkyard, was littered with damaged vans and pickup trucks parked between tents where people appeared to be moving about.
On the hilltop lookout north of Baghouz, an SDF sentry, lying flat on his stomach with his rocket launcher trained on the camp, cautioned an approaching comrade not to get too close. "There are snipers," he said of the ISIS camp.
Gabriel said the camp was approximately 0.25 square kilometers in size — much the same area it was five weeks ago, when the SDF said it was finally going to conclude the battle.
In the middle of the camp stands a pair of two-story compounds, showing little sign of damage. Several houses that appeared habitable can be seen as well.
With operations now stretching into the spring, Gabriel faced pointed questions from the press over whether ISIS would be able to resupply itself with water and goods, despite the siege.
He said he was not aware of any smuggling tunnels still in operation, and that ISIS was cut off from the outside world.
"I don't think we will be seeing more IS terrorists appearing in this pocket, he said.
A commander participating in operations on the western side of the enclave said he did not believe ISIS was fleeing to the other side of the Euphrates River either, where Syrian government forces and their allies are holding positions.
Gabriel said 29,600 people have left Baghouz since Jan. 9, among them 5,000 fighters — far greater than the SDF had initially estimated remained inside.
He said the SDF no longer estimates how many people remained in Baghouz but added that recent evacuees told the fighting forces that another 5,000 were still inside.
The force and the Kurdish-led authorities that administer northeast Syria have banned in recent days journalists from interviewing evacuees from Baghouz.
The evacuees are now living in detention-like camps in the self-administered region that international humanitarian organizations say are vastly overcrowded and underserved. They say disease is rampant in the camps and medical care is desperately needed.
"The Daesh terrorists are starting to feel hunger and thirst and we are seeing this in the people who are coming out of the camp," said Gabriel, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
The caliphate has crumbled, and the final offensive is over. While the official announcement hasn’t yet been made – Fox News has been told that this village, the last
It’s the first time since we’ve been here in
Troops here are now bringing down the black flags of ISIS. The flags no longer fly over the town, instilling fear.
The last five days, Fox News has witnessed the last major offensive up close -– with U.S.-backed SDF forces attacking ISIS from three sides, pushing the fighters back, house to house, then tent to tent, against the Euphrates River.
Inside Baghouz, it’s easy to see how they hid for so long – not just in tunnels but trenches and hundreds of cubby holes covered by tarpaulins, which blend in perfectly to the dirt.
In the end, the majority surrendered. In fact, since the start of the year about 60,000 have dripped into the desert, and most are now held in camps.
There is a major concern about what to do with the camps though. The SDF has asked for U.S. support in setting up a tribunal here to prosecute them.
This final corner of the caliphate was in the far eastern desert of Syria– it was where ISIS first captured territory, and it is where they finally lost.
A clearing operation is now underway in the town– and an announcement is expected soon.
None of the main surviving ISIS leaders have been caught inside Baghouz. Instead, they left their men to fight alone. It’s thought they prepared ahead for the insurgency.
The scale of the devastation here is incredible. And everyone acknowledges that without U.S. support, it would have taken far longer.
For four-and-a-half years, ISIS held this territory, ruling over it with an iron fist. It was the terrorist group’s heartland – and they were so dug in that the only way to push them back was to flatten whole villages. The devastation here goes on for miles – and craters like this are a reminder of the critical role played by U.S. airpower. Military jets still fly overhead.
SDF fighters are all so grateful to the U.S., not just for their help in the battle, but now for its decision to leave troops here when it’s done. Reports now suggest the figure may be around 1,000 staying.
U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces said American troops began pulling back Monday from positions along the border in northeast Syria ahead of an expected Turkish invasion that the Syrian Kurds say will overturn five years of achievements in the battle against the Islamic State group.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters also accused Washington of failing to abide by its commitments to its key allies in the fight against ISIS. It's a major shift in U.S. policy.
There was no immediate confirmation from the White House of U.S. troops clearing positions in areas in northern Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, also said American troops have started withdrawing from positions, and a video posted by a Kurdish news agency showed a convoy of American armored vehicles apparently heading away from the border area of Tal Abyad.
Erdogan spoke hours after the White House said U.S. forces in northeastern Syria will move aside and clear the way for an expected Turkish assault — essentially abandoning Kurdish fighters who fought alongside American forces in the yearslong battle to defeat the Islamic State group.
Erdogan didn't elaborate on the planned Turkish incursion but said Turkey was determined to halt what it perceives as threats from the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Erdogan has threatened for months to launch the military operation across the border. He views the Syria Kurdish forces as a threat to his country as Ankara has struggled with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
In the U.S., Republicans and Democrats have warned that allowing the Turkish attack could lead to a massacre of the Kurds and send a troubling message to American allies across the globe.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, as the Kurdish-led force is known, said the American pullout began first from areas along the Syria-Turkey border.
"The American forces did not abide by their commitments and withdrew their forces along the border with Turkey," the SDF said in its statement. "Turkey now is preparing to invade northern and eastern parts of Syria."
"The Turkish military operation in northern and eastern Syria will have a huge negative effect on our war against" IS, it added.
In an agreement between Ankara and Washington, joint patrols had been patrolling a security zone that covers over 125 kilometres (78 miles) along the border between the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. The SDF had removed fortification from the areas, considered by Turkey as a threat, and retreated heavy weapons. Meanwhile, U.S. and Turkish began joint aerial and ground patrols of the area.
But Turkey and the U.S. disagreed over the depth of the zone, with Ankara seeking to also have its troops monitor a stretch of territory between 30 and 40 kilometers deep (19 to 25 miles). Despite the agreement, Erdogan had continued to threaten an attack.
The Kurdish-led fighters have been the main U.S.-backed force in Syria in the fight against IS and in March, the group captured the last sliver of land held by the extremists, marking the end of the so-called caliphate that was declared by IS's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014.
"We will not hesitate for a moment in defending our people" against Turkish troops, the Syrian Kurdish force said, adding that it has lost 11,000 fighters in the war against IS in Syria.
A Turkish attack would lead to a resurgence of IS, it said. IS sleeper cells are already plotting to break free some 12,000 militants detained by Syrian Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria in a "threat to local & international security."
The Kurdish fighters also control the al-Hol camp, home to more than 70,000 including at least 9,000 foreigners, mostly wives and children of IS fighters.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted that since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, "we have supported the territorial integrity of this country, and we will continue to support it."
He added that Ankara is determined to ensure the survival and security of Turkey "by clearing the region from terrorists. We will contribute to peace, peace and stability in Syria."
The Syrian Kurdish Hawar news agency and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also say American troops were evacuating positions near the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad on Monday.
I admit I later didn't follow Iraq at all (there's impeachment, Hong Kong, ...), only now readI'm late to this (even the thread is technically probably incorrect) anyway
Iraq protests: All the latest updates
Adel Abdul Mahdi's cabinet issues series of reforms in response to anti-government protests claiming over 100 lives.
37 minutes ago
Iraq has been plunged into a new cycle of instability that potentially could be the most dangerous this conflict-scarred nation has faced, barely two years after declaring victory over the Islamic State group in a war that left much of the country in ruins and displaced tens of thousands.
The latest bloody confrontations have killed more than 100 people in less than seven days. But this time, the clashes do not pit security forces against Islamic extremists, the country's Sunnis against Shiites, or insurgents against occupation forces.
Instead, Iraqi security forces have been shooting at young Iraqis demanding jobs, electricity and clean water — and an end to corruption.
It's still unclear why the government chose to exercise such a heavy-handed response to a few hundred unarmed demonstrators who first congregated last week on social media to hold a protest. But analysts say the violence has pushed Iraq toward a dangerous trajectory from which it might be difficult to pull back.
As the spontaneous protests — with no apparent political leadership emerging — continued to clash with security forces in Iraq cities and towns, the government appeared unapologetic and failed to offer solutions to entrenched problems, raising fears that yet another Arab nation will be mired in a long-term crisis without a path forward.
"The use of force coupled with cosmetic concessions will work to temporarily ease pressure but will not end the crisis," wrote Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa head at Eurasia Group. "This cycle of protests could be contained, but the political system will continue to lose legitimacy."
In their demands for better services and an end to corruption, the protesters are no different from those who rioted in the southern city of Basra over chronic power cuts and water pollution last summer. Or in 2016, when angry demonstrators scaled the walls in Baghdad's highly secured Green Zone and stormed Iraq's parliament, shouting "thieves!"
But unlike in 2016 when the protests were led by populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, today's protests have not been co-opted by any political party. Most are young men in their twenties. They do not have a clear list of demands or a program, nor do they have a spokesman to speak on their behalf. Some are teenagers or fresh university graduates unable to find jobs in a corruption-plagued country that sits on some of the world's biggest oil reserves.
Their movement — if it can be called that — has no clear contours, nor any quick solutions. The protesters say they are fed up with the entire post-2003 political class which profiteers on kickbacks, nepotism and corruption while ordinary Iraqis drink polluted water and endure massive unemployment.
And most strikingly, the protests are predominantly Shiite demonstrations against a Shiite-led government.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has promised to address protesters' demands. But the 77-year-old premier began his tenure last year facing a raft of accumulated challenges, including high unemployment, widespread corruption, dilapidated public services and poor security, and he has told protesters there is no "magic solution for all that."
The crisis erupted on Oct. 1 after protesters who had organized on social media staged a demonstration calling for their rights. They were met with water cannons, tear gas and bullets. The demonstrations were partially triggered by anger over the abrupt removal of a top Shiite military who led battles against Islamic State militants and was largely seen as a non-corrupt, respected general. But the protesters carried a long list of grievances.
The protests come at a critical moment for Iraq, which had been caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the United States and the regional Shiite power Iran — both allies of the Baghdad government. Iraq's weak prime minister has struggled to remain neutral amid those tensions.
Adding to the nervousness, mysterious airstrikes blamed on Israel had for weeks targeted military bases and ammunitions depot in Iraq belonging to Iran-backed militias, which vowed revenge against Americans troops stationed here.
The protests, when they started, quickly spread from Baghdad to the Shiite heartland in the south, including the flashpoint city of Basra. The government imposed a round-the-clock curfew and shut down the internet for days, in a desperate attempt to quell the protests.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Saad Maan said Sunday that at least 104 people have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded in the unrest. He said eight members of the security forces were among those killed and 51 public buildings and eight political party headquarters had been torched by protesters.
The massive crackdown appears to have succeeded in whittling down the number of protesters for now, although sporadic clashes between demonstrators and security forces continue on a smaller scale, including an hours-long gunbattle Monday night near the volatile Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.
But among Iraqis and country observers, there is consensus that a dam has been broken and that with so many killed, the protest movement is likely to return, and become better organized next time — whenever that may be.
In a country awash with weapons, there are concerns the violence would lead some protesters to arm themselves, similar to what happened in Syria. There is also worry that some of the hard-line militias loyal to Iran could enter the fray and exploit the chaos.
Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's influential cleric who has a popular Shiite support base and the largest number of seats in parliament, has called on the government to resign because of the large number of people killed. He also suspended his bloc's participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.
If al-Sadr joins the protest movement, it will give it much more momentum and potentially lead to even more violence.
Ali Al-Ghoraifi, an Iraqi blogger, said the government may have succeeded in putting a lid on the situation for the time being.
"But it will be like a coal ready to ignite at any time and place," he wrote in a post. "And when it does, it will burn everyone."
Turkey will not leave to FSA for the moment because FSA was unable to stay in the game long ago. Without Turkey's cover they may not be able to face SDF. Turkey will try to replicate what it has been doing at the border west of Euphrates, a buffer zone.Time to give this thread a bump, given the incredible changes on the ground of the last week.
The Kurds have reconciled with Damascus and SAA forces are now deploying north and East to hold the line against the invading Turkish forces.
The SAA are in full control of Manbij and are trying to enter Kobani. They are also in other major towns die north of Raqqa.
Obviously a very fluid and very foggy situation all round.
The big question now, is that with the arrival of the SAA and the apparent agreement of the SDF to integrate as part of the SAA, will Turkish forces remain active in the invasion, or will they now withdraw and leave all the fighting to their FSA militia's
This is a very brief outline summary, written in the hope that it will encourage others to make more detailed and considered contributions.
So many sides in this conflict, it's difficult to keep track of the acronyms!Turkey will not leave to FSA for the moment because FSA was unable to stay in the game long ago. Without Turkey's cover they may not be able to face SDF. Turkey will try to replicate what it has been doing at the border west of Euphrates, a buffer zone.
Before this invasion, Turkey and SAA have buffers between them, SDF and the deep green idlib. Now after US pulling out, they face directly in the East. From now on, SAA and Turkey's moves will affect one another. Syria may choose to limit direct confrontation with Turkey before finishing off the idlib enclave, this may give Turkey the will to stay for a while, so long as it keeps its announced objective of 30 km buffer zone.
The bottom line is that, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran all share a common ground "no Kurdish state", so they would accommodate each other to some extent (no territorial annexation). There were two events reflecting this:
SDF siding with Damascus actually serves part of (if not all) of Turkey's objective "preventing a Kurdish state at its border", it also serves Syria's objective.
- Initially, Syria said that it will not protect an organisation (SDF) who collaborate with US. That is to say, Syria would rather Turkey to defeat SDF if they don't submit to Damascus' authority to some extent (Territory integrity)
- SDF leader said the choice of siding with Damascus was difficult but necessary to counter Turkish invasion. That is to say, if given a chance they want stay away from Damascus or even breakaway.