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Isis terror attacks ‘could increase’ after group’s loss of last major stronghold in Syria

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Isis has lost its last major stronghold in Syria after the fall of Deir Ezzor to the Syrian army, but destroying the ideology inspiring terror attacks around the world will be much harder than crushing the physical “caliphate”.

Analysts told The Independent the rate of atrocities carried out in the West could continue to increase as the group struggles to remain relevant to jihadis.

Bashar al-Assad’s forces have re-taken Deir Ezzor with support from the Russian military, pushing Isis militants into the surrounding desert.

The Syrian army’s General Command hailed the restoration of “security and stability” to the city, which has been partly controlled by Isis since 2014.

State media hailed the strategic importance of the victory in a region connecting eastern, northern and central Syria to the Iraqi border, which is the centre of national oil production and contains lucrative agriculture and gas reserves. 

General Command described the recapture of Deir Ezzor as “the final stage in the complete elimination of Isis”, claiming it has “completely lost the ability to lead terrorist operations of groups that have become isolated and encircled in the eastern countryside of the city”.

Smoke billows from Deir Ezzor during fighting between Syrian government forces and Isis (AFP/Getty Images)

Militants had besieged districts held by the Syrian Army for more than three years, with the end of brutal fighting seeing frontlines pushed back and forth in once-populated streets until battles finally ended on Friday.

The long-running offensive also inflamed tensions between Russia, which is backing the Syrian regime, and the US-led coalition against Isis that opposes Assad, but de-confliction channels and peace talks have since calmed relations. 

Meanwhile across the Iraqi border, the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced that government forces had captured al-Qaim, the border town where the Euphrates spills from Syria into Iraq.

Jean-Marc Rickli, head of global risk at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and visiting fellow at King’s College London, said the loss of Deir Ezzor presented both a financial and territorial blow.

“Together with the loss of Mosul and Raqqa it represents the end of the physical caliphate of Daesh [Isis],” he told The Independent. 

“It has now become impossible for Isis to sell the image of the caliphate that attracted so many jihadis back in 2014. 

Isis kills 128 civilians in ‘revenge’ surprise counter attack on Syrian town

“Isis has lost this lever of propaganda and hence in order to remain relevant the organisation has to diversify by staging attacks elsewhere notably in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.”

Dr Rickli expects that only a “minority” of foreign fighters will return to their home countries – a prospect that has caused British and European security services to increase surveillance and controls for months.

“It is more probable that the bulk of fighters will stay in the region for some time by joining new groups in Syria or Iraq or find new sanctuaries such as in Yemen, Afghanistan or Libya,” he added.

“Although Isis’ physical caliphate is dead, its ideology remains and destroying it will be much more difficult and take longer than what has be done with its territorial control in Syria and Iraq.”

American commanders have said Isis has just a few thousand fighters left in border regions, where Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to be hiding in the desert.

“We do expect them now to try to flee, but we are cognisant of that and will do all we can to annihilate Isis leaders,” Colonel Ryan Dillon said.

“As Isis continues to be hunted into these smallest areas…we see them fleeing into the desert and hiding there in an attempt to devolve back into an insurgent terrorist group.” 

Analysts have forecast a new and violent phase for Isis, which continues to hold territory in Iraq and Syria, as well as in countries including Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Egypt and the Philippines. 

While losing territory, the group has intensified calls for global terror attacks and issued waves of detailed guidance used in attacks including the atrocity that killed eight people in New York.

Dr Rickli said Isis was trying to maintain its “cyber caliphate” disseminating propaganda and support among sympathisers, which has declined in recent months.

Haid Haid, a consulting research fellow at Chatham House, said huge territorial losses have forced Isis to change its recruiting policy.

He told The Independent: “Isis is asking its supporters in the West to carry out attacks in their countries. 

“Doing so will allow the group to stay relevant to the jihadi scene. As a result, there might be an increase in the terror attacks abroad, especially the attacks that use cars or knives, which are more difficult to prevent.”

Mr Haid said local sources reported that most Isis fighters have withdrawn to the border town of Abu Kamal but some are likely to be moving either to other areas inside Syria or neighbouring countries. 

Abu Kamal itself is surrounded from all directions pending another advance by the Syrian military, which does not expect fierce resistance amid reports of collapsing Isis morale and dried-up supply lies.

“The current proclaimed caliphate is most likely finished but the group is not defeated,” Mr Haid warned. “Other other types of future caliphate might re-emerge if the situation allows.”

Independent

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Middle East

Manbij becomes key as US looks to rein in Turkey’s Syrian offensive

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The US is trying to prevent the fighting in Afrin between Turkish forces and Syrian Kurds spreading east into the main Kurdish enclave in Syria where US troops are based. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters not just from Afrin, but from Manbij, a strategic town west of the Euphrates.

“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “If the US does not stop this, we will stop it.”

Some 6,000 Turkish troops backed by 10,000 Free Syrian Army fighters controlled by Turkey are seeking to fight their way into the isolated Kurdish canton of Afrin in northern Syria. Their progress has so far been slow, with thick cloud hindering air strikes in the hilly terrain. The YPG and Turkish-led forces have been fighting for the Bursaya Hill, with the summit, which overlooks the eastern side of Afrin town, changing hands several times.

The US has so far given muted support to its Kurdish allies in Syria, who provided the ground troops for the successful campaign against Isis. The US has supported the YPG during the war against Isis with massive air power, military equipment and some 2,000 specialised US troops.

The US is hoping to keep the present fighting confined to Afrin, which is separate from the bulk of Kurdish territory. There have never been any US military forces in this enclave, though there were Russian observers that have now been withdrawn. But if Turkey attacks Manbij then the US will have to decide if it is going to be seen as betraying its Kurdish ally or risk a military confrontation with its Nato partner Turkey.  

The Kurdish authorities in north-east Syria are calling for a mass mobilisation in defence of Afrin. But they already have large numbers of experienced combat troops previously fighting Isis that they can deploy if they wish. “The Turkish state has been trying to enter north Syria for days, but it will not be able to,” said Siyamund Walat, a YPG general. “We have forces in Afrin, thousands… they are protecting the border and the people. If necessary all the soldiers will go to Afrin.”

It may be in the interests of the Syrian Kurds to prolong the fighting in Afrin so international diplomatic pressure increases on Turkey to end Operation Olive Branch, as it calls its campaign. On the other hand, Afrin is cut off from the rest of the Kurdish-held area and the one supply road to the south is held by the Syrian Army. Syrian soldiers have been refusing to allow refugees from Afrin through their checkpoints to reach Kurdish areas in Aleppo city 25 miles away.

Explosions as Turkey confirms airstrikes on Afrin, Syria

The Turkish campaign only became possible when Russia agreed not to oppose it and, above all, allowed Turkish jets to operate in Syrian airspace. This is under Russian control west of the Euphrates. The long-contemplated Turkish assault was finally provoked by the US announcement last week that its forces would be staying in Syrian Kurdish territory for the foreseeable future. This de facto guarantee of the Kurdish statelet, directed against the Syrian government and Iran by the US, radically changed the strategic balance in Syria. The US had assured the Turks since the end of 2014 that its military cooperation with the YPG was purely tactical, directed against Isis and would end when Isis was defeated.

Mr Erdogan is taking advantage of a wave of patriotic support in Turkey for the Afrin operation to arrest dozens of politicians, journalists and activists who are accused of criticising the offensive. Many of those arrested, often for critical media posts, belong to the pro-Kurdish HDP party. “Journalists are having their doors rammed down without anybody knocking,” said HDP spokesman Ayhan Bilgen. “People are [becoming] afraid of keyboards, pens, words and writing”

Independent

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Middle East

Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks

- acdbaa5482f0c834200ff60cc8e9a0ad L - Syrian Kurds Refuse to Participate in Sochi Talks


ERBIL — Syrian Kurds will under no circumstances attend the Syrian National dialogue Congress in Sochi, said Aldar Khalil, the co-chairperson of the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM).

Khalil said in an interview with Reuters that on one hand Russia consented Turkey’s attack on Afrin and on the other hand also invited the Syrian Kurds to participate in Sochi. 

“It is  contradictory,” he said, arguing that in such a situation, taking part in a Russian-brokered talk is of no significance.

He pointed out that the Kurdish participation in the congress is a weak possibility.

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Middle East

Israeli pilots say they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers back to Africa: ‘I will not be a partner to this barbarity’

- 1514968731 israel african migrants - Israeli pilots say they would refuse to fly deported asylum seekers back to Africa: ‘I will not be a partner to this barbarity’


Three Israeli pilots have spoken out against the forced deportations of asylum seekers back to Africa, saying they would refuse to take control of planes involved the practice.

“There is no way that I, as an air crew member, will take part in flying refugees/asylum seekers on their way to a destination whose chances of survival after reaching it… are close to zero,” wrote pilot Shaul Betzer in a Facebook post and later on Twitter.

“Not much courage is required for such a mission, but I will not be able to do what is required of me in such a mission. As a pilot and as a human being.”

Pilot Iddo Elad posted a statement on his Facebook page a few hours later, declaring: “I will not be a partner to this barbarity.”

Both Facebook posts have been shared hundreds of times and attracted many comments, most of which support the men’s stance.

The public refusals come three weeks after the Israeli government ordered thousands of African refugees and migrants to leave the country within three months or face prison.

Thousands of Africans – many from Eritrea and Sudan – crossed from Egypt into Israel before it erected a fence along the border in 2013.

Many have fled conflict and persecution, but Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu has called them “infiltrators” and said they are mostly economic migrants whose numbers threaten the nation’s Jewish character.

According to Israeli charity Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an average of just 0.15 per cent of people who file asylum claims in Israel are ultimately recognised as refugees.

Under the new proposals, “infiltrators” will be offered $3,500 (£2,500) and a plane ticket to their home country or “a third country” – likely to be Rwanda or Uganda.

Israeli media has reported that some asylum seekers have faced torture or human trafficking after being sent to Rwanda and Uganda by the Israeli government.

Yoel Piterbarg, a former combat helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, was the first of the three men to speak out.

“The state of Israel is populated mainly by Jews who, in the near and distant past, were refugees in countries around the world,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Most went through the Holocaust, many were forcefully expelled from their countries, and many others emigrated out of a desire to improve their lives in better countries that agreed to accept them.”

He continued: “Out of all people we, the Jews, must be attentive, empathetic, moral, and leaders of public opinion in the world in how we treat the migration of refugees, who have suffered and continue to suffer in their countries of origin.”

Mr Piterbarg has spoken out on human rights issues before in his role as a pilot.

In 2003, he was one of 27 Israeli air force pilots who refused to take part in further operations inside the Palestinian territories, describing the military’s actions in the occupied areas as “illegal and immoral”.

The statements published by the three men regarding the deportation of migrants are largely symbolic as El Al – the airline all three men are understood to work for – does not currently operate any routes to the countries in question.

“El Al does not fly any immigrants to Africa,” a spokesperson for El Al told The Independent.

“El Al has absolutely nothing at all to do with these flights. El Al pilots won’t be flying these immigrants.”

The airline does however have a code share agreement with Ethiopian Airlines, allowing passengers to book flights via El Al’s website from Tel Aviv to destinations across sub-Saharan Africa with a stop-off in Addis Ababa.

According to the spokesperson, no El Al crew are involved on any of those flights.

A petition calling on the Israel Airline Pilots Association and ground services staff at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to refuse to participate in the deportation of migrants and refugees has gathered more than 8,000 signatures.

The petition was partly inspired by news from Germany, where pilots stopped 222 deportations of asylum seekers between January and September last year.



Independent

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