The New York Times reports Dec. 19 that President Trump has ordered a "rapid withdrawal of all 2,000 United States ground troops from Syria within 30 days." Trump tweeted the announcement: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency." Hardly coincidentally, this comes just as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Pentagon's main partner on the ground, are on the brink of capturing the last town in Syria still under ISIS—Hajin, on the banks of the Euphrates River in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate. The Independent reports that SDF fighters have now entered the town aft6er a three-month siege. Also not coincidentally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan just days earlier warned of an imminent offensive against the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that makes up the core of the SDF. Erdogan said Dec. 12 that Turkey will launch an operation against the YPG "in a few days," adding that it is "time to realize our decision to wipe out terror groups east of the Euphrates." The Euphrates River has until now served as a border between Turkey's "buffer zone" in northern Syria and areas still under Kurdish control. Turkey is now preparing to cross it—with evident US connivance.
The export of oil from northern Iraq's contested enclave of Kirkuk is to resume under a deal struck between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Iraq's Ministry of Oil announced Nov. 16. With Baghdad's Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline disabled during fighting with ISIS, the so-called KRG pipeline is currently the only method of delivering Kirkuk oil to foreign markets other than through Iran. That route has now also been cut off by the resumption of US sanctions against the Islamic Republic. But Baghdad and the KRG have long been at odds over terms, and the situation was worsened with the central government's seizure last year of Kirkuk and its oil-fields, which had been in Kurdish hands since the KRG routed ISIS from the enclave in 2014. US National Security Advisor John Bolton welcomed the agreement between Baghdad and the KRG as a "promising first step to return to 2017 levels." The KRG pipeline is jointly owned by the Erbil-based KRG, BP and, as of a deal struck one year ago, Russia's Rosneft. (Rudaw, S&P Global, Nov. 16; Reuters, April 19; Rudaw, April 3)
The Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), al-Qaeda's branch in West Africa and the Sahel, claimed its forces were responsible for a suicide bombing in the northern Malian city of Gao Nov. 12. The suicide truck-bomb detonated in a residential area of Gao, killing three (not counting the attacker) and wounding another 30. The JNIM statement claimed the target was a base of "Crusader invaders" from the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada. However, all of those killed were civilians and local Malians. Four of the wounded were foreign employees of the United Nations' Mine Action Service, working to remove landmines in the area. They included two Cambodians, a South African, and a Zimbabwean. A video later released by JNIM confirmed that the mine-dismantling headquarters in Gao was the intended target. The video stated that "this operation demonstrates that the mujahideen are continuing upon their covenant, which they had made to their lord, until they achieve one of the two good ends, victory or martyrdom." The statement said the group will continue to target international forces until "the ummah [Musilm community] enjoys the rule of shariah."
In a joint report released on Nov. 6 (PDF), the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlighted the challenges that are faced in providing justice for the families of victims found in mass graves in the territory formerly controlled by the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL). The final number of mass graves found was 202, with an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 victims buried at these sites. However, the final number of victims will not be available until all the sites are exhumed. The victims range from women and children to the elderly and those with disabilities, as well as members of the armed forces and police, and some foreign workers. It is anticipated that more mass grave sites will be found in the coming months and years.
In its latest quarterly report to Congress (PDF), the official US watchdog for Afghan reconstruction finds that the security situation is at an all-time low since monitoring began. Since the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) began tracking district control in 2015 Afghan government-controlled or "influenced" districts have declined 16% to 55.5%. In the same period, areas of insurgent control or influence rose 5.5% while "contested" districts increased 11%. As of late July, the US military assessed that the Kabul government controls or influences 226 of Afghanistan's 407 districts, while the Taliban controls/influences 49. The remaining 132 districts are identified as "contested." Since the prior quarterly report, Operation Resolute Support downgraded eight districts from "government influenced" to "contested." SIGAR said that Afghanistan's security forces "made minimal or no progress in pressuring the Taliban" from July 1 to Sept. 30 , the period covered in the report. (Long War Journal, Stars & Stripes, Nov. 1)
The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Oct. 31 that they have temporarily halted their campaign against ISIS after they were bombarded for the second time in four days by Turkish forces. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledging to "wipe out" the Kurdish YPG militia, calling them "terrorists," his forces in northern Syria attacked YPG positions east of the Euphrates River Oct. 28 and then again two days later. The YPG, or People's Protection Units, constitute the central pillar of the US-backed SDF, which Washington continues to support with some 2,000 embedded troops. At least 10 YPG fighters were reported killed in the Turkish shelling of territory in the Kurdish autonomous canton of Kobani. The SDF said in a statement: "Turkish attacks in the north and ISIS attacks in the south against our troops had forced us to stop our current operation temporarily against ISIS in [its] last pocket... We call [upon] the international community to condemn the Turkish provocations in the safe areas in Syria, and we demand our partners in the International Coalition to show a clear attitude and stop Turkey from launching attacks on the region." The statement claimed the YPG responded to the shelling with artillery fire, destroying a Turkish military vehicle and border post. (EA Worldview, Haaretz)
The US-led Coalition's ongoing failure to admit to—let alone adequately investigate—the shocking scale of civilian deaths and destruction it caused in Raqqa is a "slap in the face" for survivors trying to rebuild their lives and their city, said Amnesty International a year after the offensive to oust ISIS. On Oct. 17, 2017, following a fierce four-month battle, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the Coalition's Kurdish-led partners on the ground—announced victory over ISIS, which had used civilians as human shields and committed other war crimes in besieged Raqqa. Winning the battle came at a terrible price—almost 80% of the city was destroyed and many hundreds of civilians lay dead, the majority killed by Coalition bombardment. In a letter to Amnesty on Sept. 10, 2018, the US Department of Defense made clear it accepts no liability for the civilian casualties it caused. The Coalition does not plan to compensate survivors and relatives of those killed in Raqqa, and refuses to provide further information about the circumstances behind strikes that killed and maimed civilians.
The "buffer zone" through Syria's northern Idlib province, negotiated by Russia and Turkey to forestall an Assad regime offensive on the opposition-held portion of the province, officially takes effect this week. Rebels began withdrawing heavy weapons from the zone at the start of the month, but said that fighters are remaining. Fighters from designated "radical terrorist groups"—primarily Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—are supposed to withdraw entirely from the zone. HTS initially said it would comply on a "de facto" basis, but the zone is being implemented despite the fact that a deadline has been missed for withdrawal of all its fighters. The zone, some 20 kilometers wide, stretches from Latakia to Aleppo, through Idlib and portions of Hama province. (See map.) (Qantara, Oct. 17; AFP, Oct. 10; BBC News, Oct. 8; EA Worldview, Oct. 7) But Bashar Assad insisted that the so-called "demilitarized zone" is temporary. Addressing the central committee of his Baath Party, Assad reiterated his pledge to retake "every inch" of Syrian territory: "This province and other Syrian territory remaining under the control of terrorists will return to the Syrian state." (EA Worldview, Oct. 8)