Interview with Mahmoud Sheikh Ibrahim
In an exclusive interview with Ibrahim, who has been on the front line near Hajin several times in the last months, he reveals the recent collapse of the last ISIS-held pocket in Syria. The battle for Hajin has been a difficult struggle since September 2017. With the US decision to withdraw in December and Turkish threats to launch an operation in the north, as well as ISIS counterattacks, the Syrian Democratic Forces have faced a variety of hurdles and distractions as they try to defeat ISIS in the Euphrates valley.
On January 20 around 400 people fled an area held by ISIS and the next day he said that the number had increased as families and alleged ISIS fighters fled Baghuz. He estimates the numbers may be as many as 2,000. This comes at an important juncture in the war on ISIS. Ibrahim and his photos shed light on the developments taking place. We discussed several other incidents such as a terror attack by ISIS against a checkpoint on the road to Shaddadi.
You’ve been near the front line in the battle for the last ISIS pocket near Hajin, tell us what are you seeing?
We were 3-4km from the frontline. Families and fighters were escaping ISIS enclave. The majority Iraqis and then after that Syrians and some foreigners. Men were mostly Iraqis. I saw very few Syrians actually. The women were covered so it was difficult to know who they were. I could tell they were Iraqi by accents and some women said they were. Some were from Al-Qaim area and Anbar in general. One had family in Baghdad. Some said they had fled the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq to Syria.
And were you able to speak to them?
When they first arrived they are afraid and scared. The women avoid questioning. We suspect some are foreigners. Last night we came across a Turkish woman but she said she wouldn’t speak. The Turkish woman had fair skin, was. Very recognizable and different. Later one of the SDF medics said this particular. Woman had lived in Paris for years and then come to join ISIS. She was proud of joining.
These are suspected to be ISIS members and families?
The SDF says that 99.99% are fighters. There are some elderly men who are not fighters. But the injured ones are fighters. The SDF takes their finger prints and name and then transport them to a IDP or temporary camp. For instance last night there were 100 men suspected of being fighters and they were taken away. Some of them that fled near Baghuz were clearly fighters and even if they didn’t wear distinctive clothes that mark them as such. For instance Chechan-style outfits.
They are interrogated when they arrive?
After they take their prints they don’t interrogate them there. They take them on a convoy. Then they take them to a place near Busayrah, with an initial contact and interrogation. Some go to Al-Hawl camp. It’s near Iraqi border near Sinjar.
Isn’t that a problem to transport suspect ISIS members to a camp near Sinjar where ISIS committed a genocide against Yazidis?
The camp has existed there and has been there since 1991 and was built by UN for Iraqi refugees and ISIS used it as a training center. UNHCR is there.
Did you see any kidnapped Yazidis or hear about any?
No. I asked a bunch of women and they also said no.
But they could flee and return to insurgency etc?
From the camp I don’t think they will be able to go somewhere. But some might be able to escape, their numbers are large and they come from unknown places and there is not enough information against them.
What about ISIS members suspected of being commanders or officers or high level individuals?
One intelligence officer said that some of the big commanders are seeking to escape to Iraq or via Syrian regime areas and then to Idlib and they want to try to get to Turkey that way.
What becomes of those that are captured by the SDF though?
If they have captured some they don’t announce exactly who or how, for instance in December they announced the foreigners that were captured, including Americans. There are FBI members who were around and with the Americans the FBI has interviewed some of them. For instance I have requested to interview some of them and I was told that the FBI had already interviewed them.
Recently you posted that 400 ISIS fighters fled on January 20?
Last night it was 400 ISIS and families. And then daytime a lot of people. Maybe 2,000 or more. They came in vehicles, some of these big trucks, around 15 trucks with 40 people each. Smaller trucks with 10-15 people in each. Some of them are civilian trucks and the larger ones are those provided by SDF. They take them to some intermediate stopping place called Busayrah.
How much longer do you estimate ISIS has left, taking into account we have heard before that ISIS will soon be defeated?
Maybe it will take a week, they are collapsing and starving, they have nothing, they were scrambling to eat just bread, they are starving, they were rushing to get the bread.
Aren’t the SDF concerned about the future, once they defeat ISIS the US will leave, do they feel they are being needlessly sacrificed?
They say they began without the Americans and will survive after.
Recent video claimed to show oil being transported to the regime? Did you see evidence of this?
They have been selling oil to the regime for a while from a different area and that was known. So now suddenly people are interested because of a few reports. It’s normal and nothing changed. They send the oil for examples from Rmelan to an area east of Aleppo. They send the oil that is produced from that Rmelan oilfield and Qrachok too. Syrian regime convoys of tankers from areas close to where ISIS was previously take the oil to a Homs refinery. Syrian regime helicopters were monitoring the oil convoys there were never attacks by rebels on the convoys.
But these are different oil fields?
I don’t mean Deir ez-Zor, I mean Rmelan.
But the accusation is from near Deir Ez-Zor?
There was a story recently that some local people want to loot the oil, but I don’t think they are producing oil from these oil fields yet, from here nothing.
What about the terror attack today on road to Shaddadi?
I wasn’t there but I heard there was a car parked there under a bridge and Asayish [Internal security forces] says there was a suicide bomber. The SDF have some of these armored vehicles for convoys and ambulance and the car in the photo that was damaged by the attack was one of those armored vehicles provided by the Coalition to the SDF.
From the Hajin front to Shaddadi though there is a lot of security?
There are a lot of checkpoints to Shaddadi, this area is a desert and ISIS can come from anywhere. This suicide car came from some village, not from ISIS areas near Hajin. Some of these villages are sympathetic to ISIS.
Yesterday (January 20, 2019) by the way there was another explosion in Raqqa also. An IED. And there was news of the Israeli airstrikes today in Syria, people feel another war is coming.
Do the SDF feel they will be sold out in a subsequent deal as the US withdraws and the regime seeks to return and Turkey also seeks a role?
Yes they are trying to do a deal with the regime under patronage of. Russia. But the issue is not going well because the regime is not going well. There is a ten-point road map, they want an autonomous administration, in part of Syria. I think the regime will accept them into the security forces but not the autonomous aspect. They want it to return to before 2010.
Have you had any interaction with the Americans on the ground and what they think?
We are prevented from talking with the Americans.