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Islamic State Fighters fleeing Iraq leave Carnage behind causing major damage to local economies

Qayyarah's airbase was a key installation for the Iraqi air force before it was captured by IS in June 2014

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ISIS group members with their flag. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

– by Kawa Omar

As Islamic State fighters are being routed from cities and towns across Syria and Iraq, they increasingly leave behind carnage, which is causing major damage to local economies and devastating people they already have traumatized.

This week a VOA reporter visited a town that was held by IS until last week, when Iraqi forces pushed the fighters out. The oil-rich town of Qayyarah, 60 kilometers south of Mosul, was under IS rule for more than two years. IS militants made certain that Qayyarah’s infrastructure was damaged before they were defeated. Houses were partially or fully destroyed. Oil wells were set ablaze, causing major damage to the economy and the environment. At least 10 oil fields were burned down, local sources said.

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“IS targeted oil fields knowing it was people’s money,” said Hussein Jasim, a resident of Qayyarah, referring to the Iraqi economy.

The city’s military base also was wiped out, according to Iraqi military officials.

“The base is not usable now,” said Colonel Karim Radwan, an Iraqi military officer who led the offensive against IS there. “IS bombed the infrastructure of the base.”

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Qayyarah’s airbase was a key installation for the Iraqi air force before it was captured by IS in June 2014. The base also was used for several years by U.S. forces after the U.S. intervention in 2003.

Radwan said it will take a long time and a large investment to repair the airfield.

Residents said they lived under IS extortion and suffer psychologically from IS occupation.

“We paid them a lot of money,” said resident Jasim. “We either had to pay them or get slaughtered.”

Many residents say widespread destruction in the town means they will not return home anytime soon, despite IS fighters having been cleared out. Many of the residents have fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq or nearby areas under the control of the Iraqi government.

“I fled with my family as the [Iraqi] forces were liberating [Qayyarah],” said Wahid Khalaf, another resident.

He and his children walked for seven hours to reach safety, “taking many dangerous routes,” Khalaf told VOA.

Another resident who refused to be identified said thousands of families were devastated due to IS terror activities in the town. “These families have no homes or anything. They have nowhere to go,” he said, pointing to fleeing residents crammed in the back of a truck.

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IS’s intention is to inflict lasting suffering after it is pushed from towns, analysts say.

“This is exactly what IS wants,” said Hamid Majeed, an Iraqi political analyst. “They want to show people that their lives would be even more miserable after they [IS] no longer control their territories.” (VOA)

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Here’s Everything you Need to Know About the Increasing Islamic State Terror Activity in Syria

Surge of IS Violence and Terrorism Seen in Syria

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Smoke Syria
Smoke rises while people gather at a damaged site after two bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State hit the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, Syria. VOA

By Sirwan Kajjo

Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.

Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.

Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.

Islamic State Syria
Islamic State militants clean their weapons in Deir el-Zour city, Syria. VOA

‘Threat to our forces’ 

IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.

“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”

In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.

While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.

The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.

Baghdadi’s death

Islamic State Syria
The Islamic State group’s leader extolled militants in Sri Lanka for “striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” a reference to IS’ last bastion in eastern Syria, which was captured by U.S.-backed fighters. VOA

Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.

“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.

Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.

“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.

Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”

US withdrawal 

U.S. vehicles Syria
A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.

Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.

“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.

IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

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“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.

But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)