US-backed forces cut off Raqqa escape route
BEIRUT, June 29, (Agencies): The Islamic State group has lost more than 60 percent of its territory and 80 percent of its revenue, an analysis firm said Thursday, as the jihadist “caliphate” turns three. The group declared its selfstyled “caliphate” across swathes of Iraq and Syria on June 29, 2014, prompting the formation of a USled coalition in a bid to halt its advance.
In January 2015, IS jihadists controlled about 90,800 square kilometres, but by June 2017, that number dropped to 36,200, said IHS Markit. The biggest fall was in the first six months of 2017, when IS lost around 24,000 square kilometres of territory. “The Islamic State’s rise and fall has been characterised by rapid inflation, followed by steady decline,” said Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit. “Three years after the ‘caliphate’ was declared, it is evident that the group’s governance project has failed,” Strack said. IS is facing swelling pressure from coalition-backed assaults on its twin capitals: Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in neighbouring Iraq.
On Thursday, Iraqi forces said they had retaken control of the iconic mosque in Mosul where IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance. With forces also bearing down on Raqqa in Syria, the remaining parts of IS’s so-called “caliphate” are unlikely to survive the end of the year, IHS said. The sharp decline in territory has also damaged IS’s ability to collect revenue from oil production and smuggling, taxation, confiscation, and other similar activities.
IHS Markit said IS’s average monthly revenue has plummeted by 80 percent, from $81 million in the second quarter of 2015 to just $16 million in the second quarter of 2017. “Losing control of the heavily populated Iraqi city of Mosul, and oil rich areas in the Syrian provinces of Raqqa and Homs, has had a particularly significant impact on the group’s ability to generate revenue,” said senior analyst Ludovico Carlino. As a result, IS was likely to shift its funding structure towards “a future insurgency through a real-war economy”.
US-backed forces cut off the last escape route for the Islamic State group from Raqqa on Thursday, a monitor said, trapping the besieged jihadists inside their de facto Syrian capital. Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces captured two villages on the southern bank of the Euphrates River the jihadists had been passing through to withdraw from the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It was the latest setback for IS, which declared its “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq three years ago but has since lost most of the territory it once controlled. It came too as Iraqi forces announced the recapture of an iconic mosque in IS’s last major Iraqi bastion Mosul, prompting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to declare “the end” of the “fake” jihadist state.
The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces backed by the US-led anti-IS coalition, broke into Raqqa on June 6 after spending months chipping away at jihadist territory around the city. Its fighters have since captured two eastern and two western districts of the city and are pushing towards the city centre, where IS fighters are holding tens of thousands of civilians. The SDF had surrounded the jihadists from the north, east and west but they were still able to escape across the Euphrates, which forms the southern border of the city.
Thursday’s advance saw SDF fighters capture the villages of Kasrat Afnan and Kasab on the southern bank of the Euphrates, cutting off the route the jihadists were using to withdraw to territory IS controls in the Syrian desert and in Deir Ezzor province. “The SDF has been able to completely encircle Raqqa,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain- based Observatory, which monitors Syria’s conflict through a network of sources on the ground. IS overran Raqqa in mid-2014 as part of the offensive that saw it seize control of large parts of Syria and Iraq. The city became infamous as the scene of some of the group’s worst atrocities, including public beheadings, and is thought to have been a hub for planning attacks overseas.
The United Nations estimates some 100,000 civilians remain in the city, with the jihadists accused of using them as human shields. Meanwhile, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces warned on Thursday of the prospect of fierce confrontation with the Turkish army in northwestern Syria if it attacks SDF areas, and said this would undermine the assault on Islamic State at Raqqa. Naser Haj Mansour, a senior SDF official, told Reuters the SDF had taken a decision to confront Turkish forces “if they try to go beyond the known lines” in the areas near Aleppo where the sides exchanged fire on Wednesday. “Certainly there is a big possibility of open and fierce confrontations in this area, particularly given that the SDF is equipped and prepared,” he said. “If it (the Turkish army)attacks we will defend, and if it attacks there will be clashes.” Turkey has recently deployed reinforcements into the area, according to Turkey-backed rebel groups, prompting SDF concern that Ankara is planning to attack nearby areas that are under SDF control.
The SDF is an alliance of Kurdish and Arab groups spearheaded by the YPG militia which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a threedecade insurgency in Turkey. The Turkish military said on Wednesday it had fired artillery at YPG positions south of the town of Azaz in what it said was a response to the YPG’s targeting of Turkey-backed rebels. Mansour said the SDF had responded to Turkish shelling. On Thursday, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, said it would retaliate against any cross-border gunfire from the YPG and not remain silent in the face of anti- Turkey activities by terrorist groups abroad. Kurtulmus also reiterated Ankara’s opposition to the US arming of YPG combatants and said US officials would understand this was the “wrong path”.
Mansour said an attack on SDF-controlled areas would “do great harm” to the US-backed Raqqa assault by drawing some SDF fighters away from front lines. The SDF launched a long-anticipated assault on Raqqa city earlier this month. Mansour said SDF forces would soon completely besiege the city by closing the last remaining way out from the south. “There is a plan to impose a complete siege, but if this will take a day or two days, I can’t say,” he said. Later the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the SDF had fully encircled the city after closing the militants’ last way out from the south.