Long battle against ISIS lies ahead in eastern Syria

The ousting of the jihadists from Hajin has been a longstanding objective of the US-led coalition.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces attend the funeral of one of their commanders in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishly, on October 29. (AFP)
Back into the breach. Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces attend the funeral of one of their commanders in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishly, on October 29. (AFP)

TUNIS - The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) renewed fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria to eject the jihadist group from its stronghold in Hajin.

The SDF operation, coordinated by the group’s Deir ez-Zor Military Council, paused October 31 because of Turkish shelling on Kurdish settlements in northern Syria.

Following US diplomatic activity seeking to quell Turkish military operations along the countries’ borders, as well as reassure the SDF of continued support, the SDF renewed its offensive against ISIS on November 11.

The ousting of the jihadists from Hajin has been a longstanding objective of the US-led coalition. The jihadists have been embedded among the local population and established a substantial tunnel network, making the fight to oust them from the stronghold on the banks of the Euphrates long and desperate.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the SDF took as many as 68 casualties in a single day in October when the SDF was dogged by sandstorms, booby traps and a hostile population.

Though US air strikes continued during the pause and the SDF repelled assaults on its defensive positions, the campaign in Hajin remains perilous. Rather than having battle-hardened fighters who were instrumental in turning the tide against ISIS in Syria at its disposal, the Deir ez-Zor Military Council’s resources appear more limited.

“This is one of the dirty little secrets of the tail end of the coalition campaign against ISIS in Syria,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.

“First of all, their numbers were deliberately exaggerated as part of a psyops campaign against the local populace. “Second, the majority of their fighters only have real experience as part of the armed opposition against [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s (militarily weaker) forces. These are the guys who would take part in the general push back against the regime, then hold and man checkpoints.”

Underscoring the importance of the battle in Hajin is the shifting of ISIS from a traditional army to an insurgent force. It has been able to rally and channel disgruntled local populations, such as those at Hajin, and marshal their discontent to its own ends.

“In Hajin, for instance, we’ve got a local population opposed to both Assad and the Kurds,” Heras said, describing a community ready to cover for and provision jihadist fighters.

An SDF fighter told CNN during combat operations in October: “The biggest battle is going to be freeing the people from the ISIS way of thinking.”

“They’ve been dragged here by ISIS from their former capital, Raqqa, but they still think ISIS will come back one day and give them a caliphate again.”

Despite ISIS’s dramatic loss of territory to less than 1% of the ground it held across Syria and Iraq in 2014, its numbers are formidable. A UN report in August stated that ISIS can draw on as many as 30,000 fighters. Moreover, its financial resources, gained from oil revenues, looting and the extensive taxation of the territories it previously held, are substantial.

“We’ve expected that as the physical caliphate went away, the remnants of this would attempt to revive themselves and revive their networks, and take on these insurgent, guerrilla-like tactics,” US Army General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, told the New York Times.

“We’re well prepared for that,” Votel, who oversees the US military in the Middle East and South-west Asia, said. “These organisations never go away in one fell swoop.”

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