A nationwide seven-day ceasefire began in Syria on Monday 12 September after a weekend of air strikes, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that it was mostly holding across the country at the start of its second day on Tuesday.
The monitoring body has reported that some air attacks and shelling were reported in the first hours of the truce on Monday evening, adding that incidents were reported in areas including the north Hama countryside, East Ghouta and north of Aleppo. This however appeared to die down, with the Observatory reporting that it had not recorded a single civilian death from fighting in the fifteen hours since the ceasefire came into effect at 7 PM (1600 GMT) on Monday.
The deal was rached late on Friday (9 September) in Geneva, after months of talks between Russia and the United States. It is the second attempt this year to halt Syria’s five-year-old civil war. Russia is a major backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the US supports some of the rebel groups that are fighting to topple him. Syrian state media has reported that President Bashar al-Assad has welcomed the deal. Under the plan, Syrian government forces will end combat missions in specified opposition-held areas. Russia and the US will then establish a joint centre to combat jihadist groups, including the so-called Islamic State (IS) group and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (known until recently as the Nusra Front). The 10-day truce is due to be followed by co-ordinated US-Russian air strikes against jihadist militants.
Ahead of the ceasefire, the Syrian government carried out heavy airstrikes in several rebel areas over the weekend, killing about 100 people. Syrian activists have reported that Russian warplanes have also been in action in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. On Monday, the first day of the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday, fighting had raged on several key fronts before the ceasefire, including in Aleppo and the southern provinces of Quneitra. The Observatory has disclosed that at least 31 people were killed by airstrikes on rebel-held Idlib province and eastern Damascus, and by bombardement of villages in the northern Homs countryside and rocket attacks in the city of Aleppo on Monday, before the truce began.
While the ceasefire appears to be holding on its second day, it currently remains unclear whether rebel factions will abide by it to the end. The Free Syrian Army group has written to the United States administration stating that while it would “co-operate positively” with the ceasefire, it was concerned that it would benefit the government. Another rebel group, the influential hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, has rejected the deal. In a video statement, the group’s second-in-command, Ali al-Omar, stated, “a rebellious people who have fought and suffered for six years cannot accept half-solutions.” However the group’s commander stopped short of explicitly stating that it would not abide by its terms. If the truce does prove to hold, jihadist groups like IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will face directly face the power of Russian and US air forces; moderate rebels and civilians in the areas that they hold will no longer face the threat of indiscriminate air strikes, such as barrel-bombing, however the Syrian air force will not be grounded completely; aid deliveries will be allowed to areas that are currently under siege; and President Assad will be in a stronger position as the US and Russia engage two of his most effective military opponents while moderate rebels observe the truce with his forces.
The conflict in Syria, which began with an uprising against President Assad, has now been going on for five years and has claimed the lives of more than a quarter of a million people. Millions have fled abroad, many of them seeking asylum in the European Union, but nearly 18 million people remain in Syria, which ahs been carved up by fighting between government and rebel forces.
Syria’s History of Failed Agreements
- February 2012 – Syrian government “categorically rejects” an Arab League plan, which calls for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission.
- June 2012/January 2014/January 2016 – Three failed UN-sponsored peace conferences in Geneva.
- September 2013 – Kerry and Lavrov negotiate a deal to strip the Syrian government of its chemical weapons in return for the US backing away from air strikes. Since then, the government has again and repeatedly been accused of using toxic chemicals against rebel-held areas.
- February 2016 – World powers agree in Munich on a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” in Syria excluding jihadist groups. There is no agreement on any joint US-Russian operations. The “pause” quickly unravels as President Assad promises to regain control of the whole country.
- March 2016 – Russian President Vladimir Putin declared “mission accomplished” in Syria and orders the removal of “main part” of Russia’s air army in Syria. Russian air strikes however have continued ever since.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group confirmed on 30 August that one of its most prominent and longest-serving leaders, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, was killed in what appears to be an American air strike in Syria, effectively depriving the militant group of the man in charge of directing attacks overseas.
IS’ Amaq News Agency has reported that Adnani was killed “while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns against Aleppo.” While IS holds territory in the province of Aleppo, it does not control the city, where rebels are fighting Syrian government forces. Amaq did not say how Adnani, born Taha Subhi Falaha in Syria’s Idlib Province in 1977, was killed, however it did publish a eulogy dated 29 August. A US defense official has also disclosed that the United States targeted Adnani in a Tuesday strike on a vehicle that was travelling in the Syrian town of al-Bab. The official however stopped short of confirming Adnani’s death. Such US assessments usually take several days to confirm and often lag behind official announcements made by militant groups.
Adnani was one of the last living senior members of IS, along with self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who founded the group, which would later go on to seize huge parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. He was a Syrian from Binish in Idlib, southwest of Aleppo, who pledged allegiance to IS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda, more than a decade ago. He was once imprisoned by US forces in Iraq. He was from a well-to-do background however he left Syria to travel to Iraq in order to fight US forces there after the 2003 invasion. He returned to his homeland after the start of its own civil war in 2011. According to the Brookings Institution, he once taught theology and law in jihadi training camps. He had been the chief propagandist for IS since he declared in a June 2014 statement that it was establishing a modern-day caliphate spanning swaths of territory that it had seized in Iraq and neighbouring Syria. As IS’ spokesman, Adnani was its most visible member, often being the face of the militant group, such as when he issued a message in May urging attacks on the US and Europe during the holy month of Ramadan and as in September 2014, when he called on supporters to kill Westerners throughout the world. As the group’s head of external operations, he was in charge of attacks overseas, including in Europe, which this year have become an increasingly important tactic for the group as its core Iraqi and Syrian territory has ben eroded by military losses. Under Adnani’s auspices, IS launched large-scale attacks, bombings and shootings on civilians in countries outside its core area of operations, including France, Belgium and Turkey. According to one US official, Adnani’s roles as propaganda chief and director of external operations had become “indistinguishable” because the group uses its online messages in order to recruit fighters and to provide instruction and inspiration for attacks.
According to SITE Intelligence monitoring group, which monitors jihadist activity online, a statement in the group’s al-Naba newspaper has indicated that the group reacted by stated that his death would not harm it and that his killers would face “torment,” adding “today, they rejoice for the killing…and then they will cry much when Allah will overpower them, with His permission, with affliction of the worst torment by the soldiers of Abu Muhammad and his brothers.” A US counter-terrorism official, who monitors IS, has disclosed that Adnani’s death will hurt the militants “in the area that increasingly concerns us as the group loses more and more of its caliphate and its financial base…and turns to mounting and inspiring more attacks in Europe, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.”
On the ground, advances by Iraq’s army and allied milita towards IS’ most important possession in the country, Mosul, have put the group under new pressure at a time when a US-backed coalition has cut its Syrian holdings off from the Turkish border. These setbacks have also been due to air strikes, which have killed a number of the group’s leaders and which have undermined its organizational ability and dampened its morale.
Amongst senior IS officials killed in air strikes this year are Abu Ali al-Anbari, Baghdadis’ formal deputy, and the group’s “minister of war,” Abu Omar al-Shishani.
Ukraine’s security service reported this month that it had blocked channels that were being used by jihadists travelling to fight with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, adding that they detained an ‘IS recruiter’ from one of the former Soviet republics.
In a statement, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) disclosed that “the Ukrainian security service, prosecutor’s office, police and migration service have blocked several channels for the transit of foreign fighters to the IS international terrorist group throughout state’s territory,” adding that the discovery was made in a wave of security sweeps that were carried out across several major cities in the country. The SBU further reported that an apartment in the government-held northeastern city of Kharkiv was being used as a temporary shelter by alleged IS members who intended to travel to both Syria and Iraq. The statement says that “this ‘transit point’ had four nationals from Asian states,” adding, “two of them had been earlier deported from Turkey in connection with their involvement in terrorist activity.” The SBU also disclosed that they held several fake passports from various countries and that two of them had been waiting to receive forged Ukrainian documents so that they could enter Syria through Turkey. The Ukrainian service indicated that the four were being financed and assisted by foreign countries, however they did not reveal which ones, adding, “two of the foreigners have already been expelled from the territory of our state…Investigations into the other two are continuing.”
The SBU also disclosed that it had also detained an “IS recruiter from one of the former Soviet republics that was being sought by Interpol” pan-European police organization. It reported that security agents had detained another “IS supporter” in the Kiev region who had undergone training in “Syrian terrorist camps.” The individual, who has not been named, is facing a court hearing and has not yet been charged.
In January and June the SBU disclosed that it detained four alleged IS fighters headed for Europe from Central Asia and Russia.
Ukraine has been riven by a 27-month pro-Moscow insurgency in its industrial east that has claimed the lives of more than 9,500 people and left around 400 kilometres (250 miles) of its southeastern border with Russia under rebel control. Ukraine’s security service has been under increasing pressure to show its strength as the pro-Western government in Kiev ties to meet President Petro Poroshenko’s pledge to apply for EU membership by 2020. Some EU nations and leaders however have called the bid far too optimistic as Ukraine not only lacks control of its separatist east and the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula, but it also remains riddled with other security threats. This includes what appears to be the increasing use of Ukraine and its porous borders to ship IS fighters to stage attacks in Europe or to joint he group in Syria and Iraq.
A United States Congressional report issued this month has found that the US Central Command’s analysis of the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) militants was too positive in 2014 and 2015, compared with events on the ground and other intelligence analysis. 2014 represented the height of IS’ rapid expansion as the militant group grabbed a swath of territory, effectively spreading from Iraq into central Syria.
The report was released by a task force that was established by the Republican chairmen of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Intelligence Committee and Defense Appropriations subcommittee. It found “widespread dissatisfaction” amongst analysts at US Central Command who felt that their superiors wee distorting their products. In a statement, Republican Representative Ken Calvert, a member of the task force, discloses that “what happened at CENTCOM is unacceptable – our war fighters suffer when bad analysis is presented to senior policymakers. We must continue our efforts until we fix it.”
According to Patrick Evans, a Pentagon spokesman, the Department of Defense had initiated a separate investigation into the issue and would take no action or make any comment that could influence the inspector general’s work. As a general comment however, he stated that the intelligence community routinely provides a wide range of assessments, noting that “experts sometimes disagree on the interpretation of complex data, and the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense welcome healthy dialogue on these vital national security topics.”
The top United States commander for the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) group reported this month that military campaigns in Iraq and Syria have taken 45,000 enemy combatants off the battlefield and reduced the total number of IS fighters to as few as 15,000.
Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland disclosed that both the quality and number of IS fighters is declining, warning however that it is difficult to determine accurate estimates. Earlier estimates put the number of IS fighters between 19,000 and 25,000 however US officials have stated that the range is now roughly 15,000 to 20,000.
Stating that “the enemy is in retreat on all fronts,” MacFarland disclosed that US-backed local forces in both Iraq and in neighbouring Syria have been gaining ground, adding that the flow of foreign fighters into these two countries has decreased and that many people pressed into fighting for IS are unwilling or untrained. Speaking to Pentagon reporters during a video conference, MacFarland stated, “all I know is when we go someplace, its easier to go there now than it was a year ago. And the enemy doesn’t put up as much of a fight.”
MacFarland went on to state that Syrian democratic forces are on the brink of defeating IS in Manbij, Syria, in a matter of weeks. According to MacFarland, the city is largely in the hands of the Syrian democratic forces and the pockets of enemy resistance are shrinking daily, adding, “I don’t give it very long before that operation is concluded, and that will deal a decisive blow to the enemy.” Asked how long it will take, he stated possibly a week or two, however he noted that there was still a lot of enemy foreign fighters there battling hard to keep control of the city.
Meanwhile in neighbouring Iraq, MacFarland disclosed that Iraqi forces are in a position to begin to retake the northern city of Mosul, adding that the US still has quite a bit of work to do at the Qayyarah Air Base in northern Iraq before it can be used as a hub for the battle to retake Mosul. President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of 560 more US troops to Iraq in a bid to help transform the air base into a staging area for the eventual battle to oust IS from Mosul. The group has held the city since June 2014, using it as its headquarters. The US troops will include engineers, logistics personnel, security and communications forces. Some teams of US forces have been in and out of the base to evaluate it and the work that must be done, with officials stating that large numbers of troops have not yet arrived.
Despite successes in both countries against the militant group, MacFarland cautioned that Is will continue to be a threat, stating, “military success in Iraq and Syria will not necessarily mean the end of Daesh,” using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic state group.” H e went on to state that “we can expect the enemy to adapt, to morph into a true insurgent force and terrorist organization capable of horrific attacks like the one here on July 3 in Baghdad and those others we’ve seen around the world.”