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US Backed Forces Fight to Seize Remaining IS Enclave in Syria

IS online communication and propaganda over the years has declined as the group lost territory in Iraq and Syria

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US, syria, islamic state
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter stands guard as trucks carrying Islamic State militants and families who surrendered in Baghuz, Syria, move to a camp, March 19, 2019. VOA

As U.S.-backed forces fight to seize the last bit of territory held by the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Syria, the battle against jihadist influence is far from over. Counterterror experts warn that extremist groups may still try to recruit a rising generation of hundreds of millions of millennials to their ranks.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday announced full control over the remaining IS enclave of Baghuz in eastern Syria after hundreds of IS militants surrendered overnight. The capture was a significant step in the fight against IS, but not a complete victory over the terror group as fighting continued with some jihadists along the Euphrates River.

Some experts said the final push in Baghuz was the end of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, but IS and other radical Islamist organizations will continue to attract new members because the West has made little progress on the ideological battlefield.

 “In terms of what comes next, I think these movements adapt very quickly operationally,” said Juan Zarate, a senior national security analyst who served as deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism in the George W. Bush administration.
islamic state, US, syria
U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters celebrate their territorial gains over Islamic State militants in Baghuz, Syria, March 19, 2019. VOA

“We will see this with ISIS going underground. We have seen this with al-Qaida adapting and going underground. They will rationalize the loss … in part because they have very long-term visions of their own movements in history. So they will see this as just one chapter, whereas we in Washington who are thinking in two-year cycles, maybe at most in four-year cycles, see this as the end of [IS], or the killing of [Osama] bin Laden as the ending of al-Qaida,” Zarate said, speaking Tuesday at the Washington Institute.

Zarate said the defeat will most likely encourage IS to revisit its actions and implement an al-Qaida-style strategy of insurgency while hiding among more vulnerable Muslim communities.

“Part of the ideological clash between al-Qaida and Islamic State was al-Qaida saying, ‘Look, we’ve learned lessons of how to go about doing these terrorist movements. We’ve learned some very hard lessons that if you pop your head up too much, if you expose yourself too much, you’re going to get whacked by the American and the counterterrorism forces aligned with them,’ ” he said.

Virtual caliphate

Experts say the loss of IS territory or caliphate is likely to prompt the terror group to step up efforts to spread its ideology and recruit followers on the internet. That is because the lost caliphate was an effective tool for inspiring prospective recruits and spreading ideas, and the IS leadership will have to replace that if it is to survive. IS has shown considerable skill in online recruiting, and Western powers have been ineffective in countering IS propaganda, they say.

IS online communication and propaganda over the years has declined as the group lost territory in Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, the jihadists have continued to recycle old propaganda messages and even create new ones.

IS on Monday released a 44-minute audio recording of its spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, calling followers to take revenge for the two attacks targeting mosques in New Zealand that left 50 people dead last Friday.

“The scenes of the massacres in the two mosques should wake up those who were fooled, and should incite the supporters of the caliphate to avenge their religion,” he said.

Al-Muhajir mocked the U.S. assertion that IS was defeated, claiming its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was still alive and urging the supporters of the caliphate to retaliate against the U.S.-led campaign in Baghuz.

 

US, syria, islamic state
A U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter prays after returning from the front line in their fight against Islamic State militants in Baghuz, Syria, March 19, 2019. VOA

New Zealand attack

Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism expert at the Washington Institute, said al-Muhajir’s audio message after nearly six months of silence shows IS wanted to exploit the New Zealand attacks to incite hate and inflame its anti-Western propaganda.

“They see the opportunity to affect people when they are feeling angry, vulnerable and emotional. And that presence in the virtual world is very, very real,” Levitt said during a discussion on The Battle Against Extremism: Assessment and Prescriptions at the Washington Institute.

Levitt said IS most likely would try to restore its image among the vulnerable Muslim communities.

“As we get farther and farther away from what that [IS] caliphate really was in terms of the barbarism, et cetera, they will continue and will have a greater effect at presenting it as, ‘Maybe we weren’t perfect, but it was a caliphate. Therefore, you need to come and join us again and get back in line to be like the original followers of the Prophet Muhammad,’ ” he said.

According to Farah Pandith, a former U.S. envoy to Muslim communities, the U.S. and other Western powers need to make sure they step up their efforts to fight back against IS and other extremist groups ideologically.

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Pandith said the counterterror strategy after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks on the U.S. underestimated the importance of battling extremism on the ideological front, leading in part to the emergence of groups like IS.

“We failed in large part because we didn’t imagine what could happen. We thought we understood and we had things in a box. We need to reimagine the worst-case scenario ideologically and apply ourselves for that problem, not the problem that we are dealing with today,” she said. (VOA)

Next Story

India Assists Syria By Rebuilding Brain Power

India silently extends support to Syria by rebuilding brain power

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India helps Syria
India is helping Syria by providing them medicinal and educational support. Wikimedia Commons

BY RANJANA NARAYAN

In the midst of the global focus on Syria with Turkeys latest offensive putting a big question mark on when the war will end, India has been quietly doing its bit to help the Syrian people cope, and also laying the foundation for its bright future.

It’s not just with medicines and food supplies that India has been helping the war-wracked country, but now with education too.

India is providing scholarships to 1,000 Syrian students to study in Indian universities, in undergraduate, post-graduate courses and even PhD.

Behind the move to provide scholarships to students from Syria is a hope that it would in the near future replicate the success stories from the African continent — where several current or former Presidents, Prime Ministers and Vice Presidents have attended educational or training institutions in India.

Syrian Ambassador to India Riad Abbas thinks so too, and is happy at the move by India.

“India supports Syria in many ways. They support Syrian people with medicine, with food, and this initiative has come from Modiji (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) for our students,” Abbas told IANS in an interview.

“Around 1,000 students have come to India to study in different universities and different courses – from Bachelors to Masters to PhD”

“Through this means India is assisting Syria by rebuilding the brain” – here he taps his head with a meaningful smile, “the brain of our people to plant education, science, and peace”.

According to Abbas, it is “the best thing to rebuild humanity and the people”.

Could these students one day become leaders in Syria too?

“Definitely they could become… They will come back to our homeland to rebuild Syria. And maybe they will be in the government in future. They will be like ambassadors of India to Syria and Arab countries,” he said.

Abbas said that all the Syrian students currently studying in India as part of the initiative “are satisfied by the nature of Indian people and the hospitality. They are happy in their universities, and are fully supported by the universities”.

India-Syria
India is providing scholarships to 1,000 Syrian students to study in Indian universities. Wikimedia Commons

The students are in 11 government and private universities across the country.

Abbas hopes the initiative will become a yearly feature. “I hope we make it every year, if it is possible.

“Because we look forward to enhancing our relationship with India, and we want all our students to get their certificates from India, because Indian education is of a higher level, compared to other countries — similar to the UK and US,” he added.

Another important factor is the students “feel at home” in India due to the cultural affinities.

“There are similar traditions between the two countries and because of this they feel at home.

“Most of our students will come back to our homeland to help their families, their people and to rebuild Syria,” he said.

Though the Western world sees Syria as badly battered and bruised, India sees Damascus as a strong country with a powerful military that has been able to determinedly push back the Islamic State militia, which a few years ago had threatened to overrun the country.

While a few years ago the West was loudly calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, today those voices have accepted his rule.

The Syrian envoy agrees. “Since a long time we have been fighting terrorism on behalf of the world. All terror groups came to Syria by Turkey’s support, they (Ankara) opened the border and facilitated their smuggling into Syria to kill our people and destroy our country.

“But now the last bit is left. We will defeat the terror groups on the ground, which get support from America. It is America which leads the army of mercenaries to fight against our army, and our army has defeated them. So now we are faced with the American army on the ground of Syria. This means that America’s project in the Middle East has failed, because of Syria,” the envoy told IANS.

India
Syria has cordial relations with India, since the independence of both countries. Both have similar views in many cases in the international arena. Pixabay

“They (the West and the US in particular) declared in the past, ‘We will change the government of Syria, we will change the president, we will do like this and that’… It was only talking for talking’s sake. Only they destroyed the country, but they couldn’t achieve their aims to change the Syrian government, and Syrian policy.

“And we are proud of our relation with BRICS countries, and especially with India. We highly appreciate India’s position and the Indian people, and we pray for God to save this country and its people.”

On Syria-India relations, he said: “We have cordial relations with India, since the independence of both countries. Both have similar views in many cases in the international arena.”

He praised India’s stand on the Syrian issue – on support for a political solution in Syria put forward by the people themselves, help realise the aspirations of the Syrian people and stand against any external intervention in Syria.

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“Because India has a strong voice in the international arena and many countries follow India’s position. And if all countries are like India, there would be no problem,” he added. (IANS)