64 months of International Coalition operations in Syria:  U.S.-Russia tension overshadows the region … Logistical and military support to SDF… Silence continues over the issues of abductees by the ‘Islamic State’ and massacres committed by ‘Coalition’

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

January 2020

The past few months have been crucial for the International Coalition’s role in the elimination of ISIS in Syria. The International Coalition has completed 64 months of  military operations in Syria. The last month, however, has seen the coalition re-strengthening its position on the ground in Syria after a series of withdrawals and redeployments that began in early October 2019 by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw his troops from Syria.

From December 23, 2019 to January 23, 2020, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the International Coalition  brought in bought dozens of trucks carrying logistical and material support to strengthen its presence in north-eastern Syria and enhance its  support for SDF. The International Coalition voluntarily withdrew from half of the territory it controlled on October 9, 2019, where coalition forces only controlled a few parts, mainly in areas containing oil and gas wells in Deir ez-Zor.

Since the beginning of the International Coalition’s intervention in the Syrian crisis, and with successive shifts in the map of conflict, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has monitored all developments to document and analyse what has been going on in north-east Syria, amid continued violations by all parties against civilians in North Syria.

After International Coalition has completed 64 months of its operations in Syria, the map of alliances and spheres of influence got clearer, especially after the U.S. Trump’s decision of withdrawal, following a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Erdogan on the 6th of October 2019.

President Trump decided to withdraw US troops from Syria, only to backtrack later on, announcing that the US would maintain a few hundred US soldiers to ”protect oil” from being retaken by ISIS and prevent the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran accessing the oilfields installations. That’s what made the coalition’s control limited to the eastern Euphrates and Deir ez-Zor areas, where the oil fields sources are located. Therefore, the International Coalition against ISIS voluntarily lost control of, or gave up nearly one third of the Syrian territory by the U.S. president’s decision.

Countering ISIS re-emergence: International Coalition states its commitment to fighting terrorism in Syria

Although ISIS was declared defeated on March 2019, the International Coalition continued its military operations in Syria, however, coalition operations continue against ISIS leaders and group members who have become sleeper cells throughout the eastern Euphrates region and many other areas of Syria.

The coalition announced the killing of the prominent ISIS figure, Abu Al-Ward Al-Iraqi, who was eliminated in a joint security operation by the International Coalition and Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) on the 14th of December 2019. The Syrian Observatory has obtained exclusive information about him, Abu Al-Ward Al-Iraqi who is said to have been Islamic State’s oil chief, in charge of oil wells in Fulayteh, Al-Azraq and Al-Melh, even after SDF had controlled the area, he remained a coordinator and mediator between SDF and ISIS in order to facilitate the passage of oil trucks to SDF and regime-controlled areas. Al-Iraqi is also said to have been in charge of forming and supporting ISIS cells and he was referred to as “Emir Al-Badia” (‘Prince of Desert’ in English).

Reliable sources told the Observatory that Abu Al-Ward Al-Iraqi was arrested earlier by SDF intelligence near “Al-Be’r Al-Azraq” (Blue Well), but was released nearly five months ago after paying 50,000 USD. He had also been arrested by “Al-Hazimyun”, an ISIS hardliner military wing, in Hajin city in 2017. However, he managed to escape to Al-Badia, only to return later on to Hajin and kill many of Al-Hazimyun’s rebels, the source added.

Al-Iraqi came under surveillance for three days by International Coalition aircraft in Al-Rawdah Desert on Syria- Iraq border, after intelligence information was obtained by SDF and Coalition. According to SOHR sources, Al-Iraqi was shot dead while trying to escape, alongside another ISIS figure from Theban town in rural Deir Ezzor, who was also killed in the operation.

SOHR monitored over the past period, the continuation of weapons and logistics  equipment and assistance entering, in addition to establishment of a center by the “Coalition” in Al-Omar oilfield in Deir Ezzor countryside on the eastern bank of Euphrates River, for training the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) how to use drones.

Over the past (number) weeks/months, the Coalition continued to bring in more military and logistical reinforcement, as well as establish a ‘training centre’ for the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) at Al-Omar oilfields,  to the east of the Euphrates river in rural Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Observatory also documented SDF raids and arrests, with Coalition air support, in which a well-known arms dealer was arrested in Deir ez-Zor on December 30, 2019.

Attempting to show its commitment to fighting ISIS, the International Coalition in cooperation with SDF, launched several security campaigns and raids on ISIS cells, While the Coalition is seeking to affirm its military engagement against Islamic State, the situation on ground shows that the Coalition has abandoned its biggest achievement and prize, the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), the Coalition’s most reliable partner in the fight against ISIS over the past five years.

The International Coalition chose to cooperate with the Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces, mainly formed from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). SDF and the International Coalition controlled until September 30 about 28.8% of Syria, with a total area of 53396 km2 of the north and east of Syria, including  Manbij and countryside in the west of the Euphrates River, and the entire east of the Euphrates area except for some areas controlled by regime forces and allies in the east of the Euphrates, opposite the city of Deir Ezzor.

However, the situation has changed following the Turkish military intervention. SDF was left with only 29220 km2, 55.2% of the total area it controlled before October 9, with the regime taking control of 18821 km2 (35.6% of the total area of SDF’s before the Turkish operation).

SOHR has observed that, since mid-December 2018, the map of alliances has taken on a new shape following the first announcement by US President Donald Trump to withdraw from Syria, before he partially reversed his decision and announced changes in the International Coalition’s goals in Syria, from eliminating  Islamic State to countering Iranian influence.

Nevertheless, on October 6, the telephone call between the US president and his Turkish counterpart changed the scene dramatically by withdrawing US troops from the border with Turkey, and allowing Turkish forces and Syrian proxies factions to intervene militarily in northern Syria and launch operation “Peace Spring”.

Over the past month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that dozens of trucks carrying logistical, military and food entered SDF-controlled areas as part of the “international coalition” attempts to re-engage in Syria.

Powers and influence in NE Syria: Tension and skirmishes flare up between U.S. and Russian forces

Tension continues to rise between the U.S. forces and their Russian counterpart as each side tries to extend influence over the north east of Syria, especially the strategic highway of Al-Haskah – Aleppo. Recently, tension rose widely and daily skirmishes reported taking place between both sides. U.S. forces intercepted Russian patrols in several areas.

U.S. forces are deployed at the entrances and exits of the strategic town of Tal Tamr which is a link between Al-Hasakah – Al-Qamishli – Aleppo; and at the entrance of Abu Rasin (Zarkan) and the junction in Ghabish village. US forces also and run many patrols on Aleppo – Al-Hasakah highway known as “M4”.

These actions come as a part of the U.S. attempts to undermine the Russian role in NE Syria, and prevent the Russians from using the M4 highway in the area, except when heading to the border areas with Turkey.

A Russian military patrol was also intercepted in Karzarat village on Al-Malikia-Ma’abadeh road in rural al-Hasakeh, where the Russian patrol tried  to reach the Simalka border crossing with Iraq, which is controlled by SDF and the Coalition.

A few days ago, activists told SOHR that a U.S. military patrol stopped a Russian military convoy in Mustafawiyah village of Al-Malikiyah (Dayrik) in Al-Hasakah countryside, and prevented it from reaching Smilka border crossing.

Yesterday, U.S. forces intercepted a Russian patrol in Tal Fukhar village while heading to Al-Malikiyah city (known as Dayrik) and countryside. According to SOHR sources, the Russian patrol was stopped for two hours, which caused traffic jam on the road, before SDF mediated between both forces. After that, the Russian patrol continued its way to Al-Malikiyah countryside, while the U.S. forces headed to Rumaylan base.

It is noteworthy that the Russian forces used to take dirt roads, but this time they took t highway roads due to bad weather.

On 17th of January, SOHR reported that a column of the Russian forces of about 40 cars was heading towards Tal Tamr town in al-Hasakah countryside and was intercepted by an American patro ], which caused tension between both sides  and ended with the departure of the Russian forces headeding for Ayn Issa town, after mediation and intervention by the Syria Democratic Forces.

Furthermore, the Syrian Observatory monitored on the 14th of January 2020  a U.S. patrol stopping a Russian patrol at Hittin junction on the road between Al-Hasakah and Al-Qamishly. An altercation took place between both parties and ended with the return of the Russian patrol after being prevented from continuing its way on the M4 Highway.

International coalition and SDF’s total disregard for people abductees by ISIS

Nine months have passed since the international coalition’s official declaration of the end of IS as a dominating force over east of the Euphrates River. Despite all the developments that took place over the past month, however, the coalition and SDF’s silence continues regarding the ISIS abductees.  No details on the fate of thousands of abductees are provided; and no information about the results of the ISIS members interrogations is available, as thousands of ISIS members are held by by SDF and the coalition, east of the Euphrates.

Concerns about the abductees’ lives and fate are growing, including the fate of father Paulo Dall’Oglio, Bishop John Ibrahim, Paul Yaziji, Abdullah al-Khalil, a British journalist, Sky News journalist, and other journalists, and hundreds of abductees from Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) and Afrin and other people from Deir Ezzor.

A new month passes without an actual transparent investigation into massacres that the Coalition is allegedly implicated

Over the past month, from December 23, 2019 to January 23, 2020, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called upon  all international actors and the international coalition against the Islamic State and SDF, to announce the results of investigations with IS detainees and to determine what happened to thousands of abductees.

The Syrian Observatory had previously called upon the international community to investigate information regarding the killing of 200 ISIS operatives and their families, women and children, in a massacre committed by the coalition’s jets by bombing al-Baghouz camp on March 21, 2019. According to information obtained by SOHR, 200 bodies were buried at dawn on that particular day, without information as to whether the international coalition was aware of the presence of children and women from ISIS families inside the camp or not.

However, all these appeals remain unanswered. Therefore, SOHR renews its appeals to all relevant parties to announce the whole facts and hold accountable those responsible for the massacres and violations over the period during which the Coalition involved in the Syrian crisis.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights provides adequate monitoring of Coalition operations over the past year, between the 23rd of December 2018 and the 23rd of December 2019, stresses that it would have been possible to avoid the heavy losses of Syrian civilian lives if the international coalition had not ignored SOHR’s calls to neutralize civilians from its operations. We want to emphasise  that the presence of  Islamic State militants or other jihadist groups in a civilian area does not in any way justify the bombardment of the area and the loss of civilian lives there.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also stresses that the negative effect of Turkish military intervention on civilians could have been avoided, if the US President had applied enough pressure over on his Turkish counterpart to stop a new humanitarian crisis, displacing thousands and killing and injuring hundreds.

We, at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, strongly affirm the fact that the oil and gas resources, still under the control of the International Coalition, belong only to the Syrian people. Therefore, SOHR calls upon all parties to preserve these resources and ensure that they will not be stolen or seized in any way; these resources do not belong to the “regime”, “Iran” or any other party;  they belong only to the people of Syria, the very people that have been suffering the ravages of war for over nine years. SOHR also warns of repercussions of exploiting these sources, seizing them or depriving the Syrians of their rights in resources.

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