The battle to defeat ISIS in its last stronghold, an interview from the frontline
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN and MAHMOUD SHEIKH IBRAHIM
Over the last two months the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by their US-led Coalition partners, have been struggling to defeat ISIS in an area along the Euphrates valley called Hajin. This pocket of ISIS-held territory stretches from near the Iraq border to the town of Hajin. It is made up of a series of towns and villages with thousands of ISIS fighters and their families and some supporters, as well as civilians among them. A year after Raqqa, the capital of the “caliphate” fell, and a year and a half after Mosul was liberated, this is supposed to be the last battle against the extremists in Syria. But it has been a difficult fight. Even when ISIS is defeated it melts back into the civilian life of villages and remains a threat.
In October a series of sandstorms enabled ISIS to launch counterattacks, killing and wounding dozens of members of the SDF. Casualties were particularly high among the Deir Ezzor Military Council, the mostly Arab force of SDF recruits. To bolster the front, the People’s Protection Units and SDF sent veteran fighters and commanders, as well as special forces to the front. But Turkish shelling near Kobani led to a crises that paused operations in early November. Now, on November 14 the SDF is once again leading the offensive.
Mahmoud Sheikh Ibrahim, a journalist, photographer and fixer who has covered the war against ISIS for four years and has extensive experience in Iraq and Syria, spoke about the challenges on the front.
Ibrahim took several photos and video from the frontline as well, which are incorporated below.
Video by Mahmoud Sheikh Ibrahim of an interview with an SDF member
SF: You mentioned that ISIS members are trying to flee Hajin?
MAHMOUD SHEIKH IBRAHIM: ISIS members are they paying to escape. You won’t believe it but they are paying up to $150,000 US dollars to leave Hajin.
How do they pay, they don’t have banks and ATMs there, so how could they ever come up with such amounts of money?
One thing we heard is that people said ISIS had gold and coins, they were sending them to Mayadeen and Hajin during the battle for Raqqa. They say when they left Raqqa, they had money and gold they brought with them. Some of them are working with international mafias. So we heard that Turkish or Russian mafias were trying to get the gold. They raised the fees to $150,000 to see if they actually have the gold.
Photos by Mahmoud Sheikh Ibrahim showing the frontline areas and region near Hajin
You’ve seen the battle against ISIS in other places, how would you compare it to the battle in Hajin?
It is different from Manbij, Raqqa or Mosul. It is to be or not to be for ISIS. It is the most ideological believers and extremists are in this spot. The most experienced emirs and fighters. There is no place to escape to and that is why it is very tough and they expect tough fighting. These ISISfighters have prepared themselves for this battle and this is the last spot for them, I think it will be the hardest batle. The terrain and nature helps them. They have developed tactics of tunnels and other issues there are rumors here that there are more new weapons and new recruits are arriving to help them.
In Manbij they had a way to escape. In Raqqa they could escape. But here there is no way to escape. In Mosul they escaped through the river. Some went to islands south of Mosul. But here it is hard for them. That is why they want to control the border with Iraq [during the ISIS offensive in October they retook areas near the border].
I think the decision to bring in YPG was because the other fighters were not experienced. The fighters on the front line are majority Arabs and the commanders are also a mix of Arabs and Kurds, with many experienced Kurdish commanders. They have been fighting for many years. Even before ISIS they had experience fighting Al Qaeda and Nusra in eastern Syria [in 2012-2013].
Do you see Coalition presence a lot?
This morning we could hear some air strikes. Some jets. Yesterday we saw some artillery from the Coalition, for instance a vehicle was pulling an artillery piece. Now it is cloudy and stormy again with dust so it is possible that there will be counterattacks. Several weeks ago a dust storm was used by ISIS to launch attacks.
Do the SDF have more resources now than a year or two ago? More heavy weapons?
I don’t see much difference than in Manbij [in 2016]. Maybe a few armored vehicles but mostly the same AK-47s and BKC [machine gun] and DShK [heavy machine gun]. They lack many things and complain about that. That is a problem, they say that it takes four hours to evacuate injured and they may die on way to Hasakah.
It seems to me then on the frontline the SDF have similar weapons as ISIS so this is a major challenge?
Recently ISIS used rockets and SPG-9 [tripod mounted grenade launcher/RPG] and I could see one vehicle that was burned and they said it was hit by an SPG-9. ISIS has access to Grad rockets and other Russian-origin ordinance.
It’s difficult and hard on the front but I feel safe with the YPG. I worked with them for 5 years on different fronts they take a lot of care of journalists and keep them safe and offer us as much as possible. I trust them, when they feel it is safe, I feel it is safe.
This offensive has been going on for months, it’s going slowly, do you think it will take up to a year to complete?
It will take a longer time than expected. It will take months. There are powers that are not happy to finish ISIS until an agreement with US and Russia [or other political issues are sorted out]. Each half meter has to be cleaned here. It’s not just house to house. It’s step by step because of mines and sabotage and that has to be completed.
So the towns that ISIS re-took in October have not been liberated?
Susah is under ISIS control and Baghuz which they took it back recently. The situation is not entirely clear on the ground.
So due to all the mines, is it not safe to even walk around?
We use an armored MRAP vehicle to drive. They don’t let us leave the vehicle until the fighters on the ground have assured us it is safe. This is the situation.
How long does it take to get to the frontline from the rest of eastern Syria?
Qamishli to Hasaka is about a 1.5 hour drive. And then 2.5 hours to the base from Hasaka and then 1.5 hours to front. So it’s like 6 hours.
Are there a lot of civilian traffic and checkpoints?
In some areas you can’t drive by yourself, they [the SDF] will escort you and they use armored vehicles. We use MRAPs, for instance. It’s not safe. There are daily mine attacks from here to Hasakah. We see a lot of civilians in some towns.