A top U.S. diplomat in the fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has praised recent talks with Syrian tribal leaders slated to play a large role in governing Raqqa once the jihadists are expelled.
But the plan to create a careful balance of local power on the ground in Raqqa that will likely see former ISIS-affiliated officials ultimately in charge could cause a split between the U.S. and its Kurdih allies.
Brett McGurk, who was appointed special Presidential Envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS by former President Barack Obama in 2015, recently tweeted a picture of himself with tribal leaders near Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the jihadist’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
There are no allies to be had among the Muslim states of the Middle East.
A military offensive targeting the capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” is paying dividends, with Brett McGurk—US special envoy for the coalition against the Islamic State—revealing that about 45% of Raqqa has been recaptured. “Today, [the Islamic State] is fighting for every last block…and fighting for its own survival,” he affirmed. “They most likely will die there.”
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces—mainly compromised of Kurdish militias known as YPG—launched an operation on June 6 to liberate Raqqa, which was seized by Islamic State in 2014. The loss of its “headquarters” would be a second consecutive major setback for the jihadist group, which was driven from its Iraqi bastion of Mosul last month.
A senior war crimes prosecutor has announced she is resigning from a United Nations panel on Syria, saying she has lost faith it will ever bring criminals to account and that “everyone is bad” now in the war-torn country.
Carla Del Ponte said she was quitting the three-member commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria after five years because it “does absolutely nothing”.
“We have had absolutely no success,” she said on Sunday. “For five years we’ve been running up against walls.”
Syrian government and allied forces have taken the last major town in Homs province from the Islamic State, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday, as the army advances toward militant strongholds in the east of the country.
The town of al-Sukhna lies some 50 km (30 miles) northeast of the ancient city of Palmyra, which was captured by government forces in March.
It is also 50 km from the administrative frontier of Deir al-Zor province, which is almost entirely under Islamic State control.
The west’s policy on Syria has been thrown into disarray due to sweeping advances by al-Qaida-linked militants in the north-west of the country, gaining the military upper hand in the largest area of opposition-held territory.
The assertion of control by Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaida affiliate previously known as the al-Nusra front and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, over the province of Idlib amid the scaling back of American support for rebel groups has led to fears that Assad’s allies, including Moscow, would use the move as a pretext for a broad and devastating military campaign.
“The future of the north is in great danger,” said Michael Ratney, the US state department’s Syria envoy, in a statement posted online. “If [Hayat Tahrir al Sham’s] control of Idlib is realised it will be difficult for the US to convince other international parties to refrain from necessary military measures.”
“The coalition only supports the forces committed to fighting ISIS,” Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters Thursday, adding that “one of the partner forces that [the coalition] was working with” had objectives that “were not consistent with defeating ISIS.”
The colonel identified the group as “Shuhada al-Qaryatayn, commonly referred to as the Shuq” and said that it is stationed in the al-Tanf area in southern Syria.
Al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate is consolidating territory in a major clash with a rival rebel group and could make the terror group a more formidable threat in the longer term than the Islamic State, U.S.-based intelligence advisory firm The Soufan Group (TSG) warns.
The warning comes amid a major clash between al-Qaida affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and another Islamist rebel group in the province that the Syrian regime and its allies do not largely control. The U.S., by and large, is focused on defeating ISIS in other areas of Syria and has largely given over a leadership role for post-ISIS Syria to Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime.
For six years, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria has been painstakingly gathering information about possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict.
The investigators have produced 13 reports, the evidence in each is harrowing. Villages destroyed, crops burnt, wells poisoned, torture, rape, starvation sieges, mass bombing of civilians, and what only a decade ago might have been unthinkable – chemical weapons.
There is no doubt that war crimes have been committed by all sides, the commission says. In each report there is a demand for “accountability” – that no-one should be allowed to commit such horrific acts and get away with it.
“This would be incredible, a scandal,” says commission member Carla Del Ponte, who describes the violations in Syria as by far the worst she has ever come across. “But nothing happens, only words, words, and more words.”
Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia Hezbollah and the Syrian army advanced against Sunni militants on Saturday, the second day of an assault to drive them from their last foothold along the Syria-Lebanon border, pro-Damascus media reported.
The operation has targeted Sunni Muslim insurgents from the former Nusra Front, a group that was aligned to al Qaeda and who have controlled the barren, mountainous zone of Juroud Arsal.
A military media unit run by Hezbollah said its forces captured a strategic hilltop area called Dhahr al-Huwa, previously a key Nusra Front base, which allowed them to overlook several border crossings in the area.
“Svetlana herself started wearing hijab all the time, and she also always put some horrible black headscarves on her daughter. Many Muslims live in our neighborhood, but I’ve never seen little Muslim girls wearing black headscarves,” Valery said.
Around 31,000 refugees returned from neighbouring countries in the first six months of 2017, while more than 440,000 internally displaced people went back to their homes – a combined total of almost half a million people.