Fears of a resurgence as thousands flee to IDP camps in the ‘final’ offensive to push ISIL out of eastern Syria.
It is the moment Abu Jaber al-Shaiti has waited for more than four years. A few more hours, a few hundred metres, and he will have his revenge.
In 2014, as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS) expanded to Syria through the Iraqi border, Abu Jaber’s kin in the al-Shaitat tribe stood up to challenge the group’s designs on their oil-rich lands.
ISIL hunted down 700 to 1,000 men, shot some and beheaded others, and even filmed their slaughter to serve as a lesson for the rest.
With 90,000 members, the al-Shaitat tribe controlled several villages along the Syria-Iraq border. But they could not win that war. At the time ISIL was at its peak and held an area the size of Britain. Abu Jaber was forced to go on the run.
Now, the group is holed up in a 1sq km area in Baghouz village in eastern Syria’s Deir Az Zor province.
Abu Jaber is on the other side of the front line, commanding 1,000 of his tribesmen, trigger finger at the ready to mete out their form of justice.
‘Victory for our martyrs’
ISIL’s defeat is a moment of great regional and global significance. However, for the sons, nephews and cousins of the al-Shaitat men who were massacred, it is an intimate affair.
“I can taste our victory,” Abu Jaber said. “You cannot feel the ecstasy I feel. They killed 86 of my cousins.”
Abu Jaber joined the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) because he wanted to help wipe out ISIL, thereby honouring the tribal code and regaining his confiscated property.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Baghouz, he said: “Every victory we’ve made is a victory for the souls of our martyrs.”
The victory also has levelled towns and villages and left hundreds of civilians dead.
As the SDF swept across eastern Syria and finally into the last besieged enclave, thousands of civilians have fled to camps for displaced people. Not all have found safety.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which is working in the camps, told Al Jazeera that people were being forced to walk up to 30km to the screening point where the SDF assesses their links to ISIL before releasing them.
Most of those travelling are women carrying children and unable to cope with the perilous journey to the camp.
IRC said as many as 51 people had died either en route or soon after reaching the camps.
Wendy Taeuber, IRC’s director for Iraq and northeast Syria, said hundreds of people were arriving at the al-Hol camp in al-Hasakah Governorate every day and many more were expected, putting pressure on the already feeble aid infrastructure.
She said: “While it is impossible to estimate exact numbers it is possible that as many as 4,000 more people may still flee the remaining ISIL-controlled territory in eastern Syria.”
On Tuesday, 500 more civilians fled Baghouz. At least 16 more were killed in coalition air attacks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based war monitoring group.
Laylawa Abdallah, a spokeswoman for Operation Jazeera Storm, defended the coalition and said fighting had been halted on several occasions to give a window for the civilians to get out.
“ISIS’ fighters are trapped in a very small area and are holding civilians as human shields,” she said. “We’ve opened safe corridors to free the families and transfer them into the areas we have liberated.”
Abdallah added the pause in the fighting had nothing to do with negotiations over hostages ISIL may still be holding captive, as some suggested in reports.
“We haven’t negotiated with Daesh [ISIL’s Arabic acronym] at all on any issue. Although for sure, Daesh is holding the captives in order to hamper the operation and increase pressure on us,” she said.
However, Abu Jaber said SDF and ISIL were in fact engaged in talks. He said ISIL seemed divided over what it wanted in return for freeing the captives.
“The battle stopped to negotiate for the captives, but Daesh stalled the talks and were trying to gain more time,” he said. “We tried to listen to them and fulfil their demands to whatever extent we could, but the problem is that they themselves don’t know what they want. Some are willing to surrender, while others are not.”
Tens of al-Shaitat tribesmen could be among the hostages. Some Westerners, British journalist John Cantlie, and Italian priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio are also said to be among them.
The SDF struck a deal with ISIL in Raqqa in 2017 and under the US-led coalition’s watch gave safe passage to thousands of ISIL fighters with their weapons and family members.
Those fighters have spread across Syria and may have even left the country, raising the possibility they may eventually pose a threat within Syria and to the outside world. In that case, such deals would do more harm than good.
SDF suspects there are 400 to 600 ISIL soldiers still in the tiny enclave. The debate about what to do with them is even more relevant, with current concerns the group could revive itself within months through a guerrilla rebellion in both Iraq and Syria.
SOHR estimated another 4,000 to 5,000 ISIL fighters were hiding in Syria’s Badia desert, to the west of the Euphrates River.
General Joseph Votel, commander of US forces in the Middle East, said on Tuesday that ISIL still had “leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts”.
Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Al Jazeera: “ISIS has established a large network of operatives and supporters in eastern Syria that is [it] expects to use to renew its influence over this region.”
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat currently based in the US, enumerated several reasons why ISIL’s resurgence seems imminent.
He said all the factors that led to the formation of the group in the first place were set to return, enabling them to go on another recruitment drive and enlist disaffected youth from around the world.
“ISIL’s ideology, its strategy is based on a feeling of Sunni victimisation,” he said. “Today ISIL has been defeated, and the day after, once US withdraws, who will fill the vacuum?”
“In Iraq, the Shia are taking over,” Barabandi added. “In Syria, the Russians or the Shia militias or Iran or the Kurds are looking to replace them. Won’t the Sunnis of the Shaitat ask, did we fight ISIS to be ruled by the Kurds?”
The view resonated with other Syria experts.
Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said once the battle against ISIL was won, historical rivalries among the Arabs and Kurds would resurface.
“The Jazeera region of Syria is framed with minorities, ethnic and religious,” he said. “It has always presented a difficult challenge for rulers whether Ottoman franchises or Damascene. Today the situation is even more challenging because there has been so much violence, destruction and impoverishment. And Arabs and Kurds are bound to compete and come to blows over political and economic power.”
Throughout the nearly eight-year Syrian war, Arabs and Kurds have fought ISIL together. There are no guidelines or agreements on how to move forward when ISIL has left.
Abu Jaber said the Arab-dominated governorates of Raqqa and Deir Az Zor would one day be administered by Arabs such as himself.
“Of course Arabs will govern Deir Az Zor,” he said. “They have paid blood to liberate it, but our Kurdish brothers will be our allies as they too have given martyrs to achieve this victory.”
The post-ISIL phase will have its own set of challenges and the road to stability is a long one.
For now, the armed men of the al-Shaitat are holding their breath, counting the minutes before they secure their victory over the ISIL invaders. Only then can they go back home with pride restored, the al-Shaitat say.
“Daesh is resisting but in vain,” Abu Jaber said as fighting resumed. “They are few, we are many, and we are backed by America’s air power.”
What happened to ISIL? An UpFront special
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