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Thousands of civilians fleeing Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State terror group in Syria

The composition of the force to mount the final assault on the Sunni Arab city appears to be undecided, as does how the city will be governed without IS

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Syrian Democratic Forces, made up of U.S.-backed Kurdish and Ara fighters, advance in an area northeast of Raqqa, VOA

Syria, April 4, 2017: Thousands of civilians have been fleeing Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State terror group in Syria, in the past few days as airstrikes on the city intensify — a foretaste of when the battle to oust the militants from the besieged city starts in earnest.

But the composition of the force to mount the final assault on the Sunni Arab city appears to be undecided, as does how the city will be governed after IS militants have been expelled.

Will it be the U.S.-backed Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, or some of their aligned Sunni Arab and Turkmen militiamen who will retake Raqqa? Will the Turks play a role with their allied Syrian Arab rebel militias?

Will U.S. combat troops participate in significant numbers because of the tactical difficulties encountered by an indigenous, proxy ground force, much as they have in taking a more forward-leaning role in Mosul than planned?

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Last month, several hundred U.S. Marines were deployed with artillery to northern Syria, to be ready to assist local forces to retake the city, according to U.S. officials, who confirmed another 1,000 troops will be sent to Kuwait to be ready if needed.

At some point during the final assault, U.S. and Kurd forces might stand aside and allow forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to make the final push and seize the city. Some analysts suspect that’s being considered by war planners in the Pentagon and President Donald Trump’s advisers.

Might Trump “judge Assad the best of a sorry lot of choices, and take the plunge to join forces with Damascus?” queried analyst Thanassis Cambanis during a roundtable discussion organized last month on the future of the conflict on Syria by The Century Foundation, a U.S. policy research institute.

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Tillerson in Turkey

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ankara, the first senior administration official to visit Turkey, to try to seal a deal about the battle for Raqqa and to overcome President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strong objections to Washington’s backing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) militias.

Turkish forces have attacked SDF forces in the past around Manbij, west of Raqqa, forcing the United States to deploy dozens of soldiers on the outskirts of the town in a mission to prevent a repeat of clashes, which risk derailing an assault on Raqqa.

Tillerson appeared to indicate no agreement had been reached in Ankara about how Raqqa should be seized and by whom.

“They are difficult decisions, to be very frank,” he said. “They are not easy, they are very difficult choices that have to be made.”

On Monday, Erdogan increased pressure on Washington, saying his government is planning new offensives this spring against groups deemed terrorist organizations by Ankara, including IS, the outlawed Kurdish PKK, and the PYD’s militia.

There are no signs that Washington intends to end its alliance with the PYD’s militia. U.S. officials say they envisage the Raqqa battle will be similar to the fight in neighboring Iraq, where local indigenous forces have been waging the struggle to retake the northern city of Mosul, the last IS major urban stronghold in that country.

The Pentagon doubts the Turks and their Syrian rebel militias have sufficient capability or skill to wage the urban warfare they will encounter inside Raqqa, or that they will be able to minimize their own casualties or keep the civilian death toll to a minimum.

“The Kurds have been effective partners for us,” a senior Pentagon official told VOA. “Why would we change horses in midstream?”

But the Kurds and their allied Arab militias will also be hard-pressed to limit a bloodbath in a city Islamic State has had plenty of time to prepare to defend. The terror group’s defense tactics have been on vivid and gruesome display for months in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

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Post-IS Raqqa

Analysts and former U.S. diplomats also worry not enough thought is being given to what happens after the militants are expelled from the city, and how and who will administer Raqqa. If those questions are not answered before the assault takes place, the United States could be drawn deeper into Syrian conflict than the Trump administration wants, warn some former diplomats.

They worry Washington could be on the verge of repeating the Iraq War mistakes of 2003, when the Bush administration didn’t plan sufficiently for a post-invasion political order.

“Iraq 2003 and Libya 2011 teach a valuable lesson: Plan carefully for post-combat governance,” said former U.S. diplomat Fred Hof.

Kurdish officials have repeatedly said in recent months they have no interest in administering Raqqa after IS militants are ousted. A local Arab council could be formed to run the city, but it would be beholden to whoever wields post-IS military power in Raqqa.

“If ISIS is going to stay down, it needs to be replaced in these areas by a sufficiently inclusive, consensual political order to short-circuit the cycle of resentment and hate that ISIS feeds off,” analyst Sam Heller said at last month’s roundtable discussion, using an acronym for Islamic State.
-VOA

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US Backtracks on Iraqi, Kurd Cease-fire Claim

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An Iraqi soldier removes a Kurdish flag from Altun Kupri
An Iraqi soldier removes a Kurdish flag from Altun Kupri on the outskirts of Irbil, Iraq. VOA

Iraq, October 27: The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State announced Friday morning a cease-fire between Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Northern Iraq but quickly backtracked on the claim, saying it is not an “official” cease-fire.

Army spokesman Ryan Dillon posted a clarification on Twitter to say “both parties (are) talking with one another,” but that a “cease-fire” had not been reached.

The Iraqi military and the Kurdish minority have been clashing for several weeks after the Iraqi troops moved to secure areas in northern Iraq that had been seized from IS jihadists by Kurdish forces. The Kurdish forces abandoned the land largely without resistance, though low-level clashes have been reported.

Iraqi PM rejects Kurdish offer

The areas Iraqi forces are moving into were mostly under Baghdad’s control in 2014, when Islamic State militants swept into the region. Kurdish Peshmerga and coalition forces recaptured the lands, and the Kurdistan Region has since held them.

The Iraqi leadership said it is retaking the areas to establish federal authority after a Kurdish referendum for independence in September threatened the nation’s unity. More than 92 percent of Kurds in Iraq voted “yes” in a vote Baghdad called illegal, and the international community leaders said was dangerous and ill-timed.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Thursday rejected an offer by Kurdish leaders to freeze the results of their independence referendum in favor of dialogue in order to avoid further conflict.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, in a statement, said the confrontations have hurt both sides and could lead to ongoing bloodshed and social unrest in Iraq.

“Certainly, continued fighting does not lead any side to victory, but it will drive the country towards disarray and chaos, affecting all aspects of life,” the KRG said.

‘Unified Iraq is the only way to go’

Abadi said in a statement his government will accept only the annulment of the referendum and respect for the constitution.

During a briefing Friday morning at the Pentagon, Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. told reporters the U.S. believes “a unified Iraq is the only way to go forward.”

He added, “We’re not helping anyone attack anyone else inside Iraq, either the Kurds or the Iraqis.”(VOA)

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Indians Missing in Mosul: V.K. Singh in Iraq to Co-ordinate Search Opertion

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V.K Singh will co-ordinate search operation for 39 Indian
V.K Singh will co-ordinate search operation for 39 Indians who went Missing in Mosul. IANS

New Delhi, October 27: After the government sought DNA samples from the next of kin of the 39 Indians Missing in Mosul, Iraq three years ago, Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh is again visiting the country to seek an update.

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveeh Kumar said on Friday that Singh’s visit “is to talk to people”.

“He has met a range of people in Iraq. And also to get an update on the 39 missing Indians in Iraq,” Kumar said in his weekly media briefing here.

He said that on Thursday Singh was in Mosul city where the Indians went missing.

Last week, the families of the 39 Indians were asked to provide their DNA samples but no reason was provided, the kin said.

It was in June 2014 that the 39 Indians, mostly from Punjab, went missing in Mosul town when it was overrun by the Islamic State. Their families continue to hope the men are alive but also fear the worst.

Singh had visited Iraq in July too in this connection.(IANS)

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Europe Braces for More Attacks From Islamic State

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Police stand next to terraced housing in Harlesden Road
Police stand next to terraced housing in Harlesden Road, north London, April 28, 2017. British counterterrorism police said they had thwarted an active plot in an armed raid, the second major security operation in the British capital in the space of a few hours. VOA

European counterterror officials say they are taking no solace in the liberation of Raqqa from Islamic State, with some warning that the terror group’s communication and planning units remain “very active.”

The fall of IS’s Syrian capital this month has been heralded as a crushing blow to the group’s aspirations, with U.S. President Donald Trump calling it a “critical breakthrough.”

But counterterrorism officials say there is broad consensus that IS still has a considerable reach, especially in the near term.

“We all share the same opinion. The military defeat, the so-called caliphate being scattered, does not mean that the terrorist organization ISIS is defeated,” Dick Schoof, the Dutch national counterterrorism coordinator, told reporters Wednesday, using an acronym for the group.

Ability to communicate

A key concern is that a loss of territory in Iraq and Syria has yet to have a considerable impact on the terror organization’s ability to communicate, both with its operatives in Europe and potential recruits.

IS has also been able to leverage relationships with organized crime syndicates, which officials describe as especially worrisome.

“We know that ISIS’s planning unit is still functioning. Also, its communications unit is still functioning,” said Schoof.

The European assessment mirrors that of counterterror officials in the United States, who have repeatedly warned that, at best, there would be a lag between the fall of the terror group’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria and any impact on its external operations.

“We do not think battlefield losses alone will be sufficient to degrade its terrorism capabilities,” Nick Rasmussen, head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, warned in written testimony to U.S. lawmakers in September. He called IS’s reach on social media “unprecedented.”

Also, one of the most anticipated consequences of the collapse of the so-called caliphate has failed to materialize: a substantial flow of foreign fighters to their home countries.

Schoof, the Dutch counterterror coordinator, said that of the Netherlands’ approximately 300 foreign fighters, slightly more than 50 have returned, with only a handful trying to make their way back as IS’s fortunes have waned.

French police and anti-crime brigade members
French police and anti-crime brigade members secure a street during a counterterrorism swoop at different locations in Argenteuil, a suburb north of Paris. VOA

Complex terror threat

Friedrich Grommes, head of the international terrorism and organized crime directorate for Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, has also said that “there is no hard evidence” for a rising tide of returning foreign fighters.

Instead, officials say, Europe is facing a more complex and variable threat picture, even as they have worked to take down, through multiple raids and a series of arrests, most of the IS network thought to be behind the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels.

At the same time, officials warn al-Qaida operatives have become more active, stepping up their planning for potential attacks on the West.

In particular, there has been growing concern about IS and al-Qaida activity in northern Africa.

“We are very cautious,” Schoof said. “ISIS and al-Qaida are still not very strong but do have footprints.”

Like the U.S., which has sent troops to Niger to track IS operatives and officials, European militaries have also been active in the region.

So far, at least, Western officials have yet to track any significant flow of foreign fighters or top officials from the Middle East to Africa.

But Islamic State, at least, is turning to a familiar strategy.

“What ISIS is absolutely trying to do is leverage local insurgencies now to rebrand themselves,” Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, said Tuesday following a meeting of the global coalition to defeat IS. “They’re trying to maintain relevance.”(VOA)