Defector says thousands of Islamic State fighters left Raqqa in secret deal

Defector says thousands of Islamic State fighters left Raqqa in secret deal

By Dominic Evans and Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – A high-level defector from Kurdish-led forces that captured the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State has recanted his account of the city’s fall, saying thousands of IS fighters – many more than first reported – left under a secret, U.S.-approved deal.

Talal Silo, a former commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the SDF arranged to bus all remaining Islamic State militants out of Raqqa even though it said at the time it was battling diehard foreign jihadists in the city.

U.S. officials described Silo’s comments as “false and contrived” but a security official in Turkey, where Silo defected three weeks ago, gave a similar account of Islamic State’s defeat in its Syrian stronghold. Turkey has been at odds with Washington over U.S. backing for the Kurdish forces who led the fight for Raqqa.

Silo was the SDF spokesman and one of the officials who told the media in mid-October – when the deal was reached – that fewer than 300 fighters left Raqqa with their families while others would fight on.

However, he told Reuters in an interview that the number of fighters who were allowed to go was far higher and the account of a last-ditch battle was a fiction designed to keep journalists away while the evacuation took place.

He said a U.S. official in the international coalition against Islamic State, whom he did not identify, approved the deal at a meeting with an SDF commander.

At the time there were conflicting accounts of whether or not foreign Islamic State fighters had been allowed to leave Raqqa. The BBC later reported that one of the drivers in the exodus described a convoy of up to 7 km (4 miles) long made up of 50 trucks, 13 buses and 100 Islamic State vehicles, packed with fighters and ammunition.

The Turkish government has expressed concern that some fighters who left Raqqa could have been smuggled across the border into Turkey and could try to launch attacks there or in the West.

“Agreement was reached for the terrorists to leave, about 4,000 people, them and their families,” Silo said, adding that all but about 500 were fighters.

He said they headed east to Islamic State-controlled areas around Deir al-Zor, where the Syrian army and forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad were gaining ground.

For three days the SDF banned people from going to Raqqa, saying fighting was in progress to deal with militants who had not given themselves up.

“It was all theater,” Silo said.

“The announcement was cover for those who left for Deir al-Zor”, he said, adding that the agreement was endorsed by the United States which wanted a swift end to the Raqqa battle so the SDF could move on towards Deir al-Zor.


It was not clear where the evacuees from Raqqa ended up.

The Syrian Democratic Forces deny that Islamic State fighters were able to leave Raqqa for Deir al-Zor, and the U.S.-led military coalition which backs the SDF said it “does not make deals with terrorists”.

“The coalition utterly refutes any false accusations from any source that suggests the coalition’s collusion with ISIS,” it said in a statement.

However, a Turkish security official said that many more Islamic State personnel left Raqqa than was acknowledged. “Statements that the U.S. or the coalition were engaged in big conflicts in Raqqa are not true,” the official added.

He told Reuters Turkey believed those accounts were aimed at diverting attention from the departure of Islamic State members, and complained that Turkey had been kept in the dark.

Ankara, a NATO ally of Washington’s and a member of the U.S.-led coalition, has disagreed sharply with the United States over its support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters who spearheaded the fight against Islamic State in Raqqa.

Turkey says the YPG is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

Silo spoke to Reuters in a secure location on the edge of Ankara in the presence of Turkish security officers. He said the security was for his own protection and he denied SDF assertions that he had been pressured into defecting by Turkey, where his children live.

A member of Syria’s Turkmen minority, Silo said his decision to speak out now was based on disillusionment with the structure of the SDF, which was dominated by Kurdish YPG fighters at the expense of Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian allies, as well as the outcome in Raqqa, where he said a city had been destroyed but not the enemy.

The Raqqa talks took place between a Kurdish SDF commander, Sahin Cilo, and an intermediary from Islamic State whose brother-in-law was the Islamic State “emir” in Raqqa, Silo said.

After they reached agreement Cilo headed to a U.S. military base near the village of Jalabiya. “He came back with the agreement of the U.S. administration for those terrorists to head to Deir al-Zor,” Silo said.

The coalition said two weeks ago that one of its leaders was present at the talks but not an active participant in the deal which it said was reached “despite explicit coalition disagreement with letting armed ISIS terrorists leave Raqqa”.

(Reporting by Dominic Evans; editing by Giles Elgood)

Fresh losses in Syria and Iraq push Islamic State ‘caliphate’ to the brink

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) fighters fire a cannon against Islamic State militants in Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017.

By Angus McDowall and Raya Jalabi

BEIRUT/ERBIL (Reuters) – Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate was all but reduced on Friday to a pair of border towns at the Iraq-Syria frontier, where thousands of fighters were believed to be holding out after losing nearly all other territory in both countries.

Forces in Syria and Iraq backed by regional states and global powers now appear on the cusp of victory over the group, which proclaimed its authority over all Muslims in 2014 when it held about a third of both countries and ruled over millions.

On the Syrian side, government forces declared victory in Deir al-Zor, the last major city in the country’s eastern desert where the militants still had a presence. On the Iraqi side, pro-government forces said they had captured the last border post with Syria in the Euphrates valley and entered the nearby town of al-Qaim, the group’s last Iraqi bastion.

A U.S.-led international coalition which has been bombing Islamic State and supporting ground allies on both sides of the frontier said the militant group now has a few thousand fighters left, mainly holed up at the border in Iraq’s al-Qaim and its sister town of Albu Kamal on the Syrian side.

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

He estimated there were 1,500-2,500 fighters left in al-Qaim and 2,000-3,000 in Albu Kamal.

But both the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their international backers say they worry that the fighters will still be able to mount guerrilla attacks once they no longer have territory to defend.

“As IS 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,” said Dillon. “The idea of IS and the virtual caliphate, that will not be defeated in the near term. There is still going to be an IS threat.”

Driven this year from its two de facto capitals — Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa — Islamic State is pressed into an ever-shrinking pocket of desert straddling the frontier.

In Iraq, it faces the army and Shi’ite armed groups, backed both by the U.S.-led international coalition and by Iran. In Syria, the coalition supports an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias in areas north and east of the Euphrates, while Iran and Russia support the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

On the Syrian side, the government victory at Deir al-Zor, on the west bank of the Euphrates, ends a two month battle for control over the city, the center of Syria’s oil production. Islamic State had for years besieged a government enclave there until an army advance relieved it in early September, starting a battle for jihadist-held parts of the city.

“The armed forces, in cooperation with allied forces, liberated the city of Deir al-Zor completely from the clutches of the Daesh terrorist organization,” state media reported, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Engineering units were searching streets and buildings in Deir al-Zor for mines and booby traps left behind by Islamic State fighters, a Syrian military source told Reuters.

Government forces are still about 40km from the border at Albu Kamal, where they are preparing for a final showdown.

“The defeat of Albu Kamal practically means Daesh will be an organization that will cease to exist as a leadership structure,” the military source said. “It will be tantamount to a group of scattered individuals, it will no longer be an organization with headquarters, with leadership places, with areas it controls.”



The source added that he did not believe the final battle at Albu Kamal would involve “fierce resistance”, as many fighters had been surrendering elsewhere.

“Some of them will fight until death, but they will not be able to do anything,” he said. “It is besieged from all directions, there are no supplies, a collapse in morale, and therefore all the organization’s elements of strength are finished.”

In Iraq, the military’s Joint Operations Command said on Friday the army, along with Sunni tribal fighters and Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitaries known as Popular Mobilisation, had captured the main border crossing on the highway between al-Qaim and Albu Kamal.

They had also entered the town of al-Qaim itself, which is located just inside the border on the south side of the Euphrates. The offensive is aimed at capturing al Qaim and another smaller town further down the Euphrates on the north bank, Rawa.

Iraq has been carrying out its final campaign to crush the Islamic State caliphate while also mounting a military offensive in the north against Kurds who held an independence referendum in September.


(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry in Beirut and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graf)


Islamic State defeated in its Syrian capital Raqqa

Islamic State defeated in its Syrian capital Raqqa

By John Davison and Rodi Said

RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed militias said they had defeated Islamic State in its former capital Raqqa on Tuesday, raising their flags over the jihadist group’s last footholds in the city after a four-month battle.

The fighting was over but the alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias was clearing the stadium of mines and any remaining militants, said Rojda Felat, commander of the Raqqa campaign for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

A formal declaration of victory in Raqqa will soon be made, once the city has been cleared of mines and any possible Islamic State sleeper cells, said Talal Silo, the SDF spokesman.

The fall of Raqqa, where Islamic State staged euphoric parades after its string of lightning victories in 2014, is a potent symbol of the jihadist movement’s collapsing fortunes.

Islamic State has lost most of its territory in Syria and Iraq this year, including its most prized possession, Mosul. In Syria, it has been forced back into a strip of the Euphrates valley and surrounding desert.

The SDF, backed by a U.S.-led international alliance, has been fighting since June to take the city Islamic State used to plan attacks abroad.

Another Reuters witness said militia fighters celebrated in the streets, chanting slogans from their vehicles.

The fighters and commanders clasped their arms round each other, smiling, in a battle-scarred landscape of rubble and ruined buildings at a public square.

The flags in the stadium and others waved in the city streets were of the SDF, its strongest militia the Kurdish YPG, and the YPG’s female counterpart, the YPJ.

Fighters hauled down the black flag of Islamic State, the last still flying over the city, from the National Hospital near the stadium.

“We do still know there are still IEDs and booby traps in and amongst the areas that ISIS once held, so the SDF will continue to clear deliberately through areas,” said Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition.

In a sign that the four-month battle for Raqqa had been in its last stages, Dillon said there were no coalition air strikes there on Monday.


Fatima Hussein, a 58-year-old woman, sitting on a pavement smoking a cigarette said she had emerged from her house after being trapped for months by the fighting. Islamic State had killed her son for helping civilians leave the city, she said.

The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, took the National Hospital in fierce fighting overnight and early on Tuesday, said spokesman Mostafa Bali in a statement.

“During these clashes, the National Hospital was liberated and cleared from the Daesh mercenaries, and 22 of these foreign mercenaries were killed there,” said Bali, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

An SDF field commander who gave his name as Ager Ozalp said three militiamen had been killed on Monday by mines that have become an Islamic State trademark in its urban battles.

Another field commander, who gave his name as Abjal al-Syriani, said SDF fighters had found burned weapons and documents in the stadium.

The stadium and hospital became the last major positions held by Islamic State after the departure of some of its fighters on Sunday, leaving only foreign jihadists to mount a last stand.

The SDF has been supported by a U.S.-led international coalition with air strikes and special forces on the ground since it started the battle for Raqqa city in early June.

The final SDF assault began on Sunday after a group of Syrian jihadists quit the city under a deal with tribal elders, leaving only a hardcore of up to 300 fighters to defend the last positions.


Raqqa was the first big city Islamic State captured in early 2014, before its rapid series of victories in Iraq and Syria brought millions of people under the rule of its self-declared caliphate, which passed laws and issued passports and money.

It used the city as a planning and operations centre for its warfare in the Middle East and its string of attacks overseas, and for a time imprisoned Western hostages there before killing them in slickly produced films distributed online.

The SDF advance since Sunday also brought it control over a central city roundabout, where Islamic State once displayed the severed heads of its enemies, and which became one of its last lines of defence as the battle progressed.

The offensive has pushed Islamic State from most of northern Syria, while a rival offensive by the Syrian army, backed by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias, has driven the jihadists from the central desert.

On Tuesday, a military media unit run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah group said the Syrian army on whose side Hezbollah fights had pushed into the last Islamic State districts in Deir al-Zor.

The only populated areas still controlled by the jihadist group in Syria are the towns and villages downstream of Deir al-Zor along the Euphrates valley. They are areas that for the past three years Islamic State ran from Raqqa.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Islamic State faces imminent Raqqa defeat, Syrian YPG says

By John Davison and Tom Perry

AIN ISSA, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Raqqa, once its de facto Syrian capital, and the city may finally be cleared of the jihadists on Saturday or Sunday, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia told Reuters.

A local official said tribal elders were seeking to broker a deal where remaining Islamic State fighters, including foreigners, would leave the city, taking civilians with them as human shields.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by air strikes and special forces from a U.S.-led international coalition, have been battling since June to oust Islamic State from Raqqa, a base that it had used to plan attacks against the West.

The retaking of Raqqa will be a major milestone in efforts to roll back the theocratic “caliphate” that Islamic State declared in Syria and Iraq, where earlier this year it was driven from the city of Mosul.

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud, whose group dominates the SDF, told Reuters by telephone. “Daesh (Islamic State) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow, the city may be liberated.”

The U.S.-led coalition said a convoy was set to depart Raqqa on Saturday under an arrangement brokered by local officials.

Its statement said the coalition was not involved in the discussions, and described the arrangement as “a civilian evacuation”.

Its spokesman, Col. Ryan Dillon, said the coalition’s stance was that IS fighters must surrender unconditionally, but added that he could not comment on who would be in the convoy. He said difficult fighting was expected in the days ahead.


The coalition statement said the arrangement brokered by the Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders on Oct. 12 was “designed to minimize civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign Daesh terrorists”.

The coalition believed the arrangement would “save innocent lives and allow Syrian Democratic Forces and the coalition to focus on defeating Daesh terrorists in Raqqa with less risk of civilian casualties”, it said.

Omar Alloush, a member of the Raqqa Civil Council, set up to run Raqqa after it is freed from IS, said the 100 Islamic State fighters who had already surrendered had been convinced to do so during talks with the tribal elders.

“Others didn’t surrender, so now they’re looking for a plan where they (IS) leave and take civilian hostages with them to another place far from the city, and then release the civilians,” he told Reuters in an interview in Ain Issa, north of Raqqa. The IS fighters would go to remaining territory held by the group in Syria, he said.

The deal could happen as soon as Saturday, he said.

A tribal leader said he expected the evacuation to take place on Saturday or Sunday.


An activist group that reports on Raqqa, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Facebook page that dozens of buses had entered Raqqa city overnight from the countryside to the north.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organization that reports on the war, said Syrian Islamic State fighters and their families had already left the city, and buses had arrived to evacuate remaining foreign fighters and their families.

The Syrian army, which is supported by Iran-backed militias and the Russian air force, declared another significant victory over Islamic State on Saturday, saying it had captured the town of al-Mayadin in Deir al-Zor province.

The eastern province is Islamic State’s last major foothold in Syria, and it is under attack there from the SDF on one side and Syrian government forces supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air strikes on the other.

Islamic State fighters had previously agreed to an evacuation last August, from an area on the Syrian-Lebanese border.

But as their convoy moved towards Islamic State-held territory in eastern Syria, coalition planes blocked its route by cratering roads, destroying bridges and attacking nearby Islamic State vehicles.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry in Beirut; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Debris and dust: Raqqa ‘sacrificed’ to defeat Islamic State

A view of Raqqa's National Hospital, last stronghold of the Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria September 30, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By John Davison

RAQQA, Syria (Reuters) – The ancient mud brick walls circling Raqqa’s deserted old city are almost the only structure still intact. Inside, shops and homes spill crumbling concrete onto either side of the narrow roads, block after block.

Fighting between U.S.-backed militias and Islamic State in the jihadist group’s former Syria stronghold has peppered mosques and minarets with machine-gun fire while air strikes flattened houses. No building is untouched.

“The old clock tower could be heard from outside the walls once. It’s damaged now. It’s silent,” Mohammed Hawi, an Arab fighter from Raqqa, said at a nearby home occupied by the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance (SDF).

Raqqa, where Islamic State plotted attacks abroad during its three-year rule, is almost captured in a months-old offensive backed by U.S. air cover and special forces. But driving militants out has caused destruction that officials say will take years and cost millions of dollars to repair.

The nascent Raqqa Civil Council, set up to rebuild and govern Raqqa, faces a huge task. It says aid from countries in the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS is so far insufficient.

Raqqa’s uncertain political future, as it comes under the sway of Kurdish-led forces which neighbor Turkey opposes, and is still coveted by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is partly what has made coalition countries hesitate, diplomats say.

But failure to quickly return services to the city that was once home to more than 200,000 people, mostly now displaced, risks unrest, they warn.

“Infrastructure is completely destroyed, water, electricity networks, bridges. There’s not a single service functioning,” said Ibrahim Hassan, who oversees reconstruction for the Raqqa council at its headquarters in nearby Ain Issa.

“We gave our city as a sacrifice for the sake of defeating terrorism. It’s the world’s duty to help us,” he said.

A major bridge leading into eastern Raqqa lies collapsed after a coalition air strike. Beyond it, damaged water towers and the skeletons of teetering residential blocks dot the skyline.

Awnings hung by militants to hide their movements flap in the wind.


Senior council member Omar Alloush estimated at least half the city is completely destroyed.

“There are also bodies under rubble, of civilians and terrorists. These need reburying to avoid disease outbreaks,” he said.

Amnesty International has said the U.S.-led campaign, including air strikes, has killed hundreds of civilians trapped in Raqqa. Residents have reported civilian deaths, but it is difficult to establish how many people have died.

The coalition says it does all it can to avoid civilian casualties. But the city is densely built up and militants firing from homes are often targeted by air raids.

Council officials said with the battle still raging in a small, encircled area of the city center and countless explosives rigged by militants in areas they abandoned, reconstruction has not yet begun.

“The focus is on emergency aid, food and water, de-mining,” Hassan said.

The council wants to get services up and running as soon as possible, but has limited capacity and is staffed by volunteers. At its headquarters the offices of several departments consist of a single desk in a shared room.

“Support from the international community has improved and we feel less isolated, but it’s been modest,” Hassan said.

The United States delivered several bulldozers and other vehicles to the council to clear debris recently, the Raqqa council said, out of a total of 56 due to arrive.

“Even 700 wouldn’t be enough,” Alloush said.


Raqqa council volunteers have said they told the coalition it will take 5.3 billion Syrian lira (about $10 million) a year to restore power and water supplies, roads and schools.

It is feared delays could reignite unrest.

“Groups that took over Raqqa in 2013 didn’t run it well,” a Western diplomat in the region said, referring to Syrian insurgents who seized the city from Assad’s forces earlier in the six-year-old civil war, before IS arrived.

“That’s partly what allowed Daesh (IS) to take over. If there’s a gap in humanitarian assistance and no effective local governance structure, the risk of future violence increases.”

The council said coalition countries were reluctant to aid the Raqqa council, made up of local engineers, teachers and doctors.

“We’ve suffered from bureaucracy in the decision making process for foreign aid,” Hassan said.

Some coalition countries were concerned about relations with NATO member Turkey over support for a governing body perceived to be allied to Kurdish militia, the diplomat said.

The SDF, which for now controls much of Raqqa, is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, a foe of Ankara which is fighting its own Kurdish insurgency. Turkey opposes the YPG’s role in capturing Raqqa.

Council officials say Raqqa will be governed independently of a self-run administration for northeast Syria that is dominated by Kurds, but is expected to have close relations with it. The extent of those relations is to be decided by elected officials once elections can be held.

A second diplomat in the region said reluctance to aid the council was partly over concerns whether it properly represented the ethnic make-up of mostly Arab Raqqa, seeing tension if local Arabs were sidelined. Several prominent council members are Kurdish.

There is also uncertainty over whether Raqqa will remain allied to the self-run parts of northern Syria, or if it would fall back to Assad in future upheaval. Assad has sworn to retake the entire country.

For now, with Turkey’s borders closed to SDF-controlled areas, aid to Raqqa comes a longer route through Iraq’s Kurdish region.

Raqqa council says it may have to be self-sufficient.

“We’re waiting for help to repair the east bridge,” co-president Leila Mustafa, a civil engineer, said.

“If it doesn’t arrive soon, we’ll begin ourselves, using any means we have.”

(Reporting by John Davison, additional reporting by Issam Abdallah; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Heavy civilian casualties in Raqqa from air strikes: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria, August 20, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

GENEVA (Reuters) – Civilians caught up in the battle for the Syrian city of Raqqa are paying an “unacceptable price” and attacking forces may be contravening international law with their intense air strikes, the top United Nations human rights official said on Thursday.

A U.S.-led coalition is seeking to oust Islamic State from Raqqa, while Syrian government forces, backed by the Russian air force and Iran-backed militias are also advancing on the city.

Some 20,000 civilians are trapped in Raqqa where the jihadist fighters are holding some of them as human shields, the world body says.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said that his office had documented 151 civilian deaths in six incidents alone in August, due to air strikes and ground-based attacks.

“Given the extremely high number of reports of civilian casualties this month and the intensity of the air strikes on Raqqa, coupled with ISIL’s use of civilians as human shields, I am deeply concerned that civilians – who should be protected at all times – are paying an unacceptable price and that forces involved in battling ISIL are losing sight of the ultimate goal of this battle,” Zeid said in a statement.

“…the attacking forces may be failing to abide by the international humanitarian law principles of precautions, distinction, and proportionality,” he said.

The U.S.-led coalition has said it conducted nearly 1,100 air strikes on and near Raqqa this month, up from 645 in July, the U.N. statement said. Russia’s air force has reported carrying out 2,518 air strikes across Syria in the first three weeks of August, it added.

“Meanwhile ISIL fighters continue to prevent civilians from fleeing the area, although some manage to leave after paying large amounts of money to smugglers,” Zeid said. We have reports of smugglers also being publicly executed by ISIL.”

U.S.-led warplanes on Wednesday blocked a convoy of Islamic State fighters and their families from reaching territory the group holds in eastern Syria and struck some of their comrades traveling to meet them, a coalition spokesman said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; writing by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Exclusive: Islamic State leader Baghdadi almost certainly alive – Kurdish security official

A top Kurdish counter-terrorism official Lahur Talabany speaks during an interview with Reuters in Sulaimania, Iraq

Sulaimania, IRAQ (Reuters) – A top Kurdish counter-terrorism official said on Monday he was 99 percent sure that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was alive and located south of the Syrian city of Raqqa, after reports that he had been killed.

“Baghdadi is definitely alive. He is not dead. We have information that he is alive. We believe 99 percent he is alive,” Lahur Talabany told Reuters in an interview.

FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been his first public appearance, at a mosque in the centre of Iraq's second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video

FILE PHOTO: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been his first public appearance, at a mosque in the centre of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV/File Photo

“Don’t forget his roots go back to al Qaeda days in Iraq. He was hiding from security services. He knows what he is doing.”

Iraqi security forces have ended three years of Islamic State rule in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and the group is under growing pressure in Raqqa – both strongholds in the militants’ crumbling self-proclaimed caliphate.

Still, Talabany said Islamic State was shifting tactics despite low morale and it would take three or four years to eliminate the group.

After defeat, Islamic State would wage an insurgency and resemble al-Qaeda on “steroids”, he said.

The future leaders of Islamic State were expected to be intelligence officers who served under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the men credited with devising the group’s strategy.


(Reporting by Michael Georgy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)


Traumatized civilians fleeing Syria’s Raqqa in droves: U.N. official

FILE PHOTO: Children walk at a camp for people displaced from fighting in the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, in Ain Issa, Syria June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Scores of civilians are fleeing Syria’s Raqqa traumatized, with families torn apart and conditions worsening as the battle to oust Islamic State intensifies, a senior U.N. official said on Thursday.

The number of people escaping has risen rapidly in recent weeks, Sajjad Malik, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Syria, told Reuters.

“They’re coming out really weak, thirsty, and frightened,” he said, after visiting several camps for the displaced in northeast Syria.

Under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias is fighting to seize Islamic State’s base in Syria.

With air strikes and special forces from the U.S.-led coalition, the SDF pushed into Raqqa in June after advancing on the city for months.

Fighting since late last year has displaced more than 240,000 people in the wider Raqqa province, most of them only in the last few weeks, Malik said.

“They’re traumatized (by) what they’ve seen,” he said.

“Dead bodies all over the place. In some more destroyed neighborhoods, bodies still in that heat rotting on the street and in debris.”

Recent advances along the Euphrates river, which borders the city from the south, have allowed the Kurdish-led SDF to completely encircle Islamic State inside Raqqa.

“Some places do not even have enough drinking water anymore,” Malik said, after residents lost access to the river.

An estimated 30,000-50,000 people remain trapped in the city with Islamic State holding people there against their will, Malik said. Witnesses say the militants have shot at those trying to escape.

“Those who are coming out now are paying enormous amounts of money, basically their lifelong savings, to smugglers to get them out,” he said. “They’ve left family members behind.”

Many do not have enough money or could not bring elderly parents and sick relatives with them.

“There is a conflict going on to eradicate ISIS but in the process we should try to protect (civilians),” Malik said, stressing the importance of getting them safe passage out.

Even after the “military endgame” in Raqqa, he added, people will have to grapple with a humanitarian crisis and severe trauma. Many children now fear the sound of aircraft.

“This will take much longer … to bring them back to some kind of normalcy,” Malik said.

The U.S.-led coalition says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

Ahead of the attack on the city, the U.N. human rights office raised concerns about increasing reports of civilian deaths. In a May report, it said there had been “massive civilian casualties … and serious infrastructure destruction.”

The U.N. refugee agency is expanding its work in northeast Syria as people begin to flee the province of Deir al-Zor. A camp south of the Kurdish-controlled city of Hasakah has already taken in 2,000 displaced people, Malik said.

“Already, hundreds of them are coming out in trucks and buses,” Malik said.

Islamic State militants still control swathes of Syria’s eastern desert bordering Iraq and most of Deir al-Zor, which would be its last major foothold in Syria after losing Raqqa.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

U.N. lauds U.S.-Russian truce in Syria, but warns on partition risk

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attends a news conference during the Intra Syria talks at the U.N. offices in Geneva, Switzerland

By Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Agreements to de-escalate the fighting in Syria could simplify the conflict and help to stabilise the country, but such accords must be an interim measure and avoid partition, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura told a news conference on Monday.

Speaking at the start of five days of peace talks in Geneva, de Mistura said discussions were being held in Amman to monitor implementation of a ceasefire for southwest Syria brokered by the United States and Russia, the first peacemaking effort of the war by the U.S. government under President Donald Trump.

“When two superpowers … agree fundamentally at that level in trying to make that ceasefire work, there is a strong chance that that will take place,” he said. So far, the agreement that went into force mid-day on Sunday was broadly holding, he added.

He also struck a positive note on ceasefire talks in the Kazakh capital Astana last week, which failed to agree on a monitoring mechanism for a Russian-Iranian-Turkish de-escalation deal but produced a lot of work “in the right direction”.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Turkey discussing a particular problem area on Monday, the rebel-held town of Idlib in Syria, de Mistura said, adding that it was a deal that “could almost have been announced”.

The world was perhaps witnessing the simplifying phase of the most complex conflict of our time, the veteran mediator said, adding that de-escalation of the war must be an interim phase and not undermine Syria’s territorial integrity. It should lead rapidly to a stabilisation phase, he said.

“This could become very much a priority anyway just after the liberation of Raqqa,” de Mistura said, referring to the Islamic State stronghold in northeastern Syria.

Asked if the war was ending after almost six and a half years and hundreds of thousands of deaths, de Mistura said several stars were aligning – on the ground, regionally and internationally.

“In that sense … there is a higher potential than we are seeing in the past for progress.”

De Mistura said he was not expecting breakthroughs in this week’s talks, but he had had a working lunch with the heads of the three rival opposition delegations, and he hoped that they could work together more.

In six rounds of talks since early 2016, the fractured opposition has never united in one delegation, meaning that de Mistura cannot hold face-to-face talks between the Syrian government and a single, united opposition delegation.


(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)


U.S.-backed Syrian force battles Islamic State in Raqqa’s Old City

Syrian Democratic Forces fighters inspect a tunnel dug by Islamic State militants inside a house in Raqqa's al-Sanaa industrial neighborhood. REUTERS/Rodi Said

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said its fighters were waging fierce battles with Islamic State militants in the Old City of Raqqa on Tuesday after the U.S.-led coalition opened two small openings in its historic walls.

The SDF’s media office said four of its fighters were killed in fighting in the Old City. The coalition said on Monday the SDF fighters had breached the Old City after the coalition targeted two 25-meter sections of the 2,500-meter wall.

SDF fighters had seized an ancient palace, Qasr al-Banat, in the eastern part of the Old City, the SDF said in a statement.

An official in the SDF media office said Islamic State had heavily mined the old quarters of Raqqa with devices set off by motion sensor. Islamic State fighters were doing most of their fighting at night and not moving much in the daytime.

The coalition said Islamic State fighters were using the wall as a firing position and had planted “mines and improvised explosive devices at several of the breaks in the wall”, forcing it to open the new breaches in the wall.

“SDF fighters would have been channeled through these locations and were extremely vulnerable as they were targeted with vehicle-borne IEDs (car bombs) and indirect fire as well as direct fire from heavy machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and snipers as they tried to breach the Old City,” it said.

The SDF launched its assault to capture Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, last month after gradually closing in on the city.

The official in the SDF media office, speaking to Reuters by phone, said the Raqqa assault was going to plan though Islamic State tactics including use of the new type of mine and drones that drop bombs had slowed down operations a little.

(Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet Lawrence)