Cornered in Syria, IS lays groundwork for a new insurgency
By SARAH EL DEEB
Wednesday, February 6
BEIRUT (AP) — The Islamic State gunmen came out of hiding in the middle of the night and set up a checkpoint on a rural road in eastern Syria. For several hours, they stopped those passing and searched through their mobile phones to check their allegiances, until they vanished again into the desert.
One young man, an education worker, got through the checkpoint safely. But when he got to his destination in the next village, the threat was waiting for him. An IS loyalist told him: Don’t remove pro-IS graffiti from school walls or you will pay the price.
The incident, one of many similar ones in past weeks, sent a bigger message — the Islamic State group may have lost almost all its territory, but it hasn’t left.
The group’s once-sprawling caliphate has been reduced to a remote scrap of land in Syria’s eastern desert, where a few hundred battle-hardened fighters are making a final stand against U.S.-backed forces.
But in liberated areas across Syria and Iraq, sleeper cells are carrying out assassinations, setting up flying checkpoints and distributing fliers as they lay the groundwork for an insurgency that could gain strength as U.S. forces withdraw.
President Donald Trump has vowed to withdraw American forces from Syria, saying the militants are all but defeated. “As we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home,” he said in his State of the Union address Tuesday, referring to the group by another acronym.
But his own Defense Department has warned that IS could stage a comeback in Syria within six months to a year if the military and counter terrorism pressure on it is eased. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told a Senate committee Tuesday that battlefield gains can only be secured by “maintaining a vigilant offensive,” saying IS still has “leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts.”
He estimated there are between 1,000 and 1,500 IS fighters in the small area they still control, but said others have “dispersed” and “gone to ground.”
Activists who closely follow the conflict in Syria already point to signs of a growing insurgency.
Rami Abdurrahman, the head of Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says IS still has 4,000 to 5,000 fighters, many likely hiding out in desert caves and mountains.
The Observatory said the militants have assassinated more than 180 people since August, including commanders in the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led militia that drove the militants from much of northeastern Syria, and nearly 50 civilians working with them.
The campaign has unfolded across northern and eastern Syria, in areas where the militants were defeated months or even years ago. An IS bombing attack last month killed four U.S. soldiers and contractors in Manbij — a town in northern Syria that was liberated in 2016.
In other areas, the group has adopted tactics that are less lethal but just as chilling.
Fliers appeared in a village in Syria’s oil-rich Deir el-Zour province last summer, warning residents that IS still controlled nearby oil fields and that “anyone found to steal from them… should only blame themselves.” Other fliers sparked a mass desertion by local volunteers for the SDF.
“It was unclear what would happen to (IS) in the future, but I think the U.S. withdrawal in Syria increased the chances for an IS resurgence by manifold,” said Hassan Hassan, an expert on IS who is originally from eastern Syria and is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
IS could also stage a resurgence in neighboring Iraq, where the group originated and where it has operated in various forms going back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The Islamic State of Iraq, a precursor, had been largely dismantled and held no territory when President Barack Obama withdrew American forces in 2011. Three years later, IS seized vast swaths of northern and western Iraq in a matter of days.
Syria is less hospitable for IS. The group’s brutality and foreign roots alienated many Syrians, and it faces competition from other Sunni insurgent groups, like the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. But unlike Iraq, Syria has large, ungoverned areas opened up by the civil war. “Syria will remain in part a place where (IS) could retreat and hide because there is still space in Syria,” Hassan said.
The extremists have a long history of exploiting security vacuums, and may find another one in the coming months as U.S. troops leave Syria.
Turkey views the Kurdish forces in the SDF as an extension of the insurgency it is battling at home, and has vowed to launch a military offensive against them. President Bashar Assad, who also has forces in the area, has vowed to bring all of Syria’s territory back under state control. An outbreak of fighting would sap forces from the struggle against IS and generate the kind of chaos in which the group thrives.
“Imagine what (could) happen if one third of Syria changes hands from one security apparatus to another,” Hassan said.
The experience of the education worker who was warned not to remove graffiti was documented by Omar Abou Layla, a Europe-based activist who runs DeirEzzor24, a media collective that reports from eastern Syria.
He says IS loyalists have infiltrated the Kurdish-run administration, exploiting both local Arab resentment at Kurdish rule and the Kurds’ eagerness to recruit Arab allies. He says his group has documented nearly 20 cases in which former IS civil servants have returned to their jobs. It has also documented a number of recent assassinations by IS, including the killing of an Arab SDF commander and a man who works in money transfers.
“Daesh will be there even if they vanish physically,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “There are cells everywhere.”
US commander: IS hold in Syria, Iraq on verge of collapse
By MATTHEW LEE
AP Diplomatic Writer
Tuesday, February 5
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is expected to declare near-total triumph over the Islamic State group in Syria in his State of the Union address Tuesday, but U.S. defense officials are increasingly fearful that the militants are simply biding their time until the Americans leave the battlefield as planned.
IS militants have lost territory since Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was pulling U.S. forces out, but military officials warn the fighters could regroup within six months to a year after the Americans leave.
A Defense Department watchdog report released Monday warned of just such a possibility.
The Islamic State group “remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that ‘could likely resurge in Syria’ absent continued counter terrorism pressure,” the report from the inspector general said.
The top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that of the 34,000 square miles of territory that IS once held, it now controls less than 20 square miles. That figure includes a large swath of desert around Syria villages IS controls.
“It is important to understand that even though this territory has been reclaimed, the fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed,” Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The coalition’s hard-won battlefield gains can only be secured by maintaining a vigilant offensive against the now largely dispersed and disaggregated ISIS that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts.”
Votel said there are now between 1,000 and 1,500 IS fighters in the small area they still control in the southern part of the Euphrates River Valley near the Iraqi border. The remainder, he said, have “dispersed” and “gone to ground,” suggesting they retain the potential to return.
Trump’s decision to leave Syria, which he initially said would be rapid but later slowed down, shocked U.S. allies led to the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the top envoy to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk.
Votel was asked at Tuesday’s hearing whether he was asked for his advice about a Syria withdrawal before Trump announced his decision.
“I was not consulted,” the general said.
The withdrawal will fulfill Trump’s goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that IS remains a threat and could regroup. U.S. policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.
Fears that IS fighters are making strategic maneuvers ahead of a U.S. pullout could also fuel criticism that Trump is telegraphing his military plans — the same thing he accused President Barack Obama of doing in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials in recent weeks say IS has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to fewer than 5 square kilometers of turf in Syria — less than 2 square miles — in the villages of the Middle Euphrates River Valley, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated. In late November and December that figure had been estimated at between 400 and 600 square kilometers, according to officials briefed on the matter.
But several defense officials said Monday that many fighters fled to ungoverned spaces and other pockets in the north and in the west and are likely hiding out until they can regroup.
Trump said in a weekend interview that the caliphate is “almost knocked out.”
“We’re at 99 percent right now, we’ll be at 100,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
U.S. officials say that overall, there are about 2,000 IS militants in Syria.
The Defense Department watchdog report warned that even with the IS forces on the run, the group “is still able to coordinate offensives and counter-offensives, as well as operate as a decentralized insurgency.”
The report, which covers October through December 2018, also includes a classified section that was provided to Congress and includes a more detailed Pentagon assessment on the impact of the troops withdrawal and the status of IS militants and other foreign fighters in Syria.
According to the report, U.S. Central Command believes that IS fighters will continue to conduct “opportunistic attacks” on U.S. troops as they withdraw. And it says, “If Sunni socio-economic, political, and sectarian grievances are not adequately addressed by the national and local governments of Iraq and Syria it is very likely that ISIS will have the opportunity to set conditions for future resurgence and territorial control.”
Central Command said that the Islamic State group is “regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria,” but unless there is sustained counter terrorism pressure, IS militants “could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory” in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
Despite Trump’s order to withdraw, American officials maintain that the goal remains the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State group and are moving ahead with a long-planned meeting of top diplomats from the 79-member U.S.-led anti-IS coalition this week. The aim of the conference is to recommit the coalition to that aim and ensure that the departure of U.S. troops does not overly complicate that mission.
Trump is expected to speak to the gathered foreign ministers at the State Department-hosted conference on Wednesday is widely expected to reiterate and expand on his anti-IS message from the State of the Union, officials said.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
OPINION: THE ULTIMATE HUMAN IDIOCY
By James A. Haught
What’s the ultimate form of human idiocy? I nominate religious suicide bombings, in which fanatics kill themselves to murder “infidels” of rival faiths or no faith.
What type of insanity makes some fervent believers think they’re serving God by slaughtering defenseless strangers who did them no harm? Are these killers totally devoid of human compassion? Can they look at surrounding people and families with no reaction except a desire to murder them? Do they really think that God wants massacres, and will reward them with virgins in paradise after they sacrifice their own lives?
It’s lunacy – yet it’s a daily reality of modern times, perhaps the single worst source of bloodshed since the Cold War ended. It’s so absurd that it couldn’t possibly happen – but it happens almost every day.
On Jan. 27, two explosions at a Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines killed 27 worshipers at Sunday mass and wounded more than 100 others. The Islamic State terror group claimed credit, saying “two knights of martyrdom” gave their lives to attack a “crusader temple.” President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the attack was committed by husband-and-wife suicide volunteers. The wife, disguised by wearing a large cross, detonated her concealed explosive vest among worshiping Catholics, then the husband triggered a second blast outside the cathedral door as survivors fled, he said.
(Some military sources gave conflicting reports, saying the killers used remote devices to explode planted bombs. Confusion is common after such carnage.)
Actually, the Philippine attack was smallish, compared to many that occur. The worst, of course, was the historic atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 al-Qaida suicide volunteers hijacked airliners and crashed them into U.S. landmarks, killing 3,000 Americans. It was the most horrifying day in the memory of most U.S. residents.
The 9/11 holy killers left behind a testament they had shared among themselves, saying they were doing it for God: “Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty,” they assured each other, “and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, ‘Come hither, friend of God.’ They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing.”
It’s sickening to realize that 3,000 unsuspecting Americans died because of this adolescent male fantasy.
A few years ago, researchers counted 17,000 Muslim terror attacks since the 9/11 horror, with a total body count beyond 60,000 victims. The phenomenon averaged five murder missions per day, so many that news media ignore smaller assaults.
The Islamic “cult of death” has diminished to about one suicide attack per day now. The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv gives these figures: 452 massacres in 2015 – 469 in 2016 –348 in 2017 –293 in 2018. Last year, 2,845 victims were killed and 5,160 wounded. Many attacks involved two or more “martyrs.” Surprisingly, the number of women suicide volunteers has grown until they now constitute about one-fifth of the killers.
For years, I wished that the available supply of suicide volunteers would kill themselves off and the phenomenon would cease. But there seems to be an endless parade of new zealots eager to become “martyrs.”
Various experts attribute the “cult of death” to political, sociological, economic or psychological causes. Maybe they’re partly correct – but the glaring fact remains that religion underlies the ghastly, incomprehensible, maddening mess.
Pundit Anthony Lewis wrote: “There is no way to reason with people who think they will go directly to heaven if they kill Americans.” Columnist William Safire said the volunteers do it because their “normal survival instinct is replaced with a pseudo-religious fantasy of a killer’s self-martyrdom leading to an eternity in paradise surrounded by adoring virgins.” Columnist David Brooks wrote that the bizarre phenomenon is “about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness.”
Normal people cannot understand why some fanatics kill themselves to commit atrocities. But, understandable or not, it’s a deadly daily reality.
James Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice,is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
OPINION: Understand the disease to cure it
by Tom H. Hastings
Two days ago, on February 4, 2019, the bodies of a handsome apparently successful husband and beautiful successful wife—Denise and Kenneth Bartone—were found in New Jersey, a possible murder-suicide. These tragedies are on the increase. Unlike the New Jersey case—a husband likely stabbed his wife and then leapt off a bridge—most of the murder-suicides are gun-related, with another high correlate to opioid addiction, but in the case of the apparent increase in elderly homicide-suicide, it is, according to one analyst, most often a controlling husband shoots his ill wife and then turns the gun on himself.
We might agree that another factor is simple mental health, often eroded into illness by a combination of factors, including various social structural conditions so far beyond our control that a person can snap.
I think this can be the case for all types of murder-suicides, from an old man with a gun seeing no hope for him and his suffering wife, to the megalomaniac who killed more than 900 in Jonestown to somehow take them with him as he faced his own cancer and chose suicide-mass murder instead, to an impoverished Syrian who chooses to take ISIS up on their offer to make a big payout to a family when a member becomes a “self-sacrificing” bomber, a “martyr.” The terrorists operating today do so in a special global environment.
Disclaimer: While I earned a doctorate (in education, specializing in conflict transformation), I’m not a medical doctor. I operate with words and heal with compassionate communication on my best days. I may not “bury my mistakes,” but when I make them I am haunted by them.
With all those caveats, I need to ask you to dig as deeply as you can to peer into the psychological, emotional miasma that envelops the phenomenon of suicide attacks. They are always the acts of indescribably desperate people, even when they are done in war, most honorably directed against combatants, and they are never done by people who believe the world is just or fair. They are always framed on their side as works of altruism, self-sacrifice for the greater good.
Understanding the practice and philosophy of suicide attacks is the baby first step toward mitigating and eventually eliminating these atrocious episodes.
How could a young Japanese pilot decide to load his small plane with a dual synergistic payload of fuel and explosives and launch toward an American warship? Right down the smokestack—an early smart weapon.
Well, it wasn’t in his biological or mental imperative—he didn’t do it before October 1944 and not after July 1945. That’s because in mid-fall, in 1944, the Japanese war machine was losing, was exhausted, was out of fuel, was out of expensive fighter planes, was out of highly trained pilots, was out of sophisticated ordnance, and was in the Hail Mary phase of utter last hope desperation. Indeed, since the US had cracked all Japanese codes and knew that, by December 1944 it could have obtained a conditional surrender, it was only the obdurate fanaticism of a handful of irrational warlords who resorted to the kamikaze attacks.
When US President Truman learned from his intelligence that Japan was informing its diplomats worldwide that “the Japs” were ready to negotiate terms of surrender, he ignored it. Why? Because the Manhattan Project scientists were telling him this new bomb would work, this atomic bomb. So he held out, claiming to his confidantes that the American people deserved an unconditional surrender.
Holding this up to the harsh light of history, we can reasonably conclude that every single American life lost in the Pacific from December 1944 until nine months later, when the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic attacks led to unconditional surrender, was lost in order to serve Truman’s folly of the unconditional surrender. Folly? Yes, because when General McArthur accepted the surrender on the USS Missouri, he allowed the Japanese to keep their figurehead emperor, a condition that only kept the Japanese feeling less than utterly humiliated and a condition that could have been enough to initiate a ceasefire nine months previous.
Do I seem to be taking this personally? Maybe, since my father was in the US Navy in the Philippines at that time. His survival was my good luck, no thanks to Truman, and the deaths of other American service people killed in that period I will lay at his feet of Truman’s memory.
So it was this period of back-against-the-wall existential threat that produced the kamikaze and the related shinpu, the little submarines with analogous capacities and intentions. They were loaded up with explosives and enough fuel for that one-way trip to extinguish an American warship, as many combat troops as possible, and, by the way, the lone Japanese submariner.
Some 3,800 of these suicide troops were used up to death, and left more than 7,000 American troops dead. Even so, only 19 percent of the attacks were successful, probably primarily because they were a part of actual battle, not the later sort of suicide attacks on civilians.
Of course, like the new wave of post 9-11-01 Muslim suicide bombers, a fake culture of honor and reward needed to be created in order to convince the gullible and the desperat to undertake these odious and hopeless attacks. The poetic glorification of the young Japanese pilots seems to have given them the psychological shielding so necessary to such a perverted, unnatural act as intentionally crashing into an object 100 percent certain to kill you. I mean, the very term kamikaze means “divine wind,” revealing such sacralization.
Of course we see that with the Islamic virgins beckoning from paradise. Pure hooey for the willfully, blissfully, fatally ignorant and a justification to next of kin. In the name of religion, they commit blasphemy.
Are we so very sure nothing will trigger us to do these sorts of low, evil acts? War seems to bring it out, leading hopeless charges, parachuting in behind the lines, and generally acting in profoundly unnatural ways. In Vietnam, children strapped with explosive belts would wander up to groups of American GIs detonate, little sappers.
The Vietnamese did not do such things before we got there and haven’t done such things since. Could it be that when the mightiest army invades and occupies, the littlest ones, the most vulnerable, become literally cannon fodder? While the Japanese emphatically started World War II in the Pacific, they were ultimately up against the mightiest military in human history and reduced themselves to valorizing suicide attacks.
Some days, it feels like a portion of the Muslim world believes that is right where they are. Can we fix this? Can we in fact withdraw from their lands and lives and hope for the peace of the generations from them? Murder-suicide should prompt us to examine the conditions, here and abroad, that tend to drive up the rates of such travesties and engage in public discourse about solutions that can help.
Dr. Tom H. Hastings is PeaceVoice Director and on occasion an expert witness for the defense in court.