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Last days of the caliphate: Mutlu Civiroglu on Islamic State’s final stand in Syria

Mutlu Civiroglu is a Kurdish analyst and journalist based in Washington, D.C. In March 2019 he traveled to northeastern Syria to cover the Syrian Democratic Forces’ final battle against Islamic State in northeast Syria. Speaking to The Defense Post via WhatsApp, Civiroglu detailed his experience with the SDF in the last days of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TDP: How long have you been in Baghuz and how close are you to the front lines?

MC: I’ve been in the Baghuz area for three weeks. From time to time I travel to different cities, like Kobani and Raqqa. I’ve been inside of the Baghuz, almost 100 meters from the ISIS front line, in the range of snipers.

TDP: How has the fighting changed while you have been there?

MC: The fighting in recent days has been the SDF attacking at night, and ISIS trying to hunt down and prevent SDF’s advance.

Coalition jets and artillery are supporting the SDF, and the clashes mainly took places at night to prevent ISIS from having an advantage in targeting SDF forces. The fear of ISIS holding civilians captive (Yezidis, other kidnapped people) and using these people and their own as human shields made the operation very difficult from an SDF perspective.

So in the daytime there is fire exchange – mortar exchange – but at night more heavy fighting has been observed. The night also gives an advantage to airplanes using thermal cameras to eliminate ISIS fighters.

Mutlu Civiroglu
Mutlu Civiroglu

TDP: What kind of resistance is ISIS putting up?

MC: ISIS have put up heavy resistance. The final phase of the operation has been continuing since January, so because of that there have been thousands of people in this tiny town, so multiple times the operation had to be paused because each time a certain number of people were released by ISIS.

This has been an obstacle for the SDF because just when they start fighting they have to stop again. Evacuating these people, screening them, searching them – it’s a very time-consuming operation. Aside from the combat operation it’s these kinds of operations that cause difficulty for the SDF and the Coalition.

But from the impact of fighting we could see that ISIS have put up very strong resistance because most of their fighters are battle-hardened, hardcore jihadis who came from different parts of the world, especially the Russian-origin – Chechen and Dagestan, from those areas – and other jihadists from North Africa and elsewhere. They were jihadists; they were strong believers in their ideology, so they put up a tough fight on the ground.

Because they have been in Baghuz for a long time they are familiar with the geography, while for the SDF – mainly Kurdish SDF – it’s very unfamiliar territory, because their cities and towns are 200 to 300 km away from here, or even longer. They have been fighting in unfamiliar territory; this causes a disadvantage for the SDF.

Moreover, because of the civilians that have been used as human shields by ISIS, it has made the job of the SDF and the Coalition very, very hard. Even at the moment we see in the last one or two days propaganda spreading that SDF and the Coalition have been targeting civilians, but all international media observed very clearly that human life, protection of civilians – even surrendered ISIS fighters or suspected ISIS fighters were given humane treatment. They were treated respectfully. So many journalists witnessed firsthand how the SDF valued human life and tried to protect them.

Coming back to the fighting, they put up a tough resistance by using heavy weaponry, by using trenches, by using suicide bombers – men and women – and in some cases motorcycle suicide attacks.

Women and children from ISIS-held areas
YPJ fighters screen women and children from ISIS-held camps in Baghuz, Syria. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu

One other thing I heard from SDF sources is that there was a dispute between ISIS fighters, local ISIS members and international jihadis. International, especially Russian-origin ISIS members and other international members, seemed to be willing to fight until the end whereas Syrian or more regional ISIS members were willing to surrender.

I want to share this because not all of them stayed to fight until the end. Of course this might be a tactic of the organization, to space out some of its fighters for the future, hoping that they might have some opportunities, maybe escaping from prison like what happened in Syria and Iraq before.

Whatever the reason might be, a large number of fighters chose to surrender. I believe this was a deliberate tactic of to slow down the SDF, cause exhaustion and distraction, and use so-called surrendered people in future.

TDP: Are you seeing ISIS using women or children in the fighting?

MC: I haven’t seen with my own eyes but talking with the commanders I heard that they have been using women and there are some videos from the last few days clearly showing that there are female ISIS fighters and also children are used, children carrying weapons. That has been told to us by the SDF, but there are videos and photographs proving this. Women carried out suicide attacks this week and previously as well.

Polat Can and Mutlu Civiroglu in Syria
SDF senior leader Polat Can (left) and Mutlu Civiroglu in Syria. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu

Even among the women who surrendered in previous days we have seen very fanatical women. Most of them are hardcore: they don’t show any remorse, they don’t feel regret for anything, and they promise to continue ISIS’s ideology and ISIS’s fight. I saw women who still justify the treatment of the Yazidi people and enslavement of Yazidi women. So there can certainly be some women who were forced, but there’s also a large number of women who chose to be in ISIS and chose to fight for it until the end.

I believe these women may cause serious problems for their respective countries or whoever will handle them. Therefore the SDF and the Coalition should immediately come up with a joint program to decide how to handle them.

TDP: Why is it taking so long to clear this small pocket?

MC: Because there have been thousands of people. Nobody, neither SDF nor the Coalition, could predict such a high number of people could be living in such a tiny place. There were tens of thousands of people evacuated from Baghuz in recent weeks. This number is huge. Each time the operation was intensified, ISIS released some number of people, so that slowed down the operation very drastically, and the focus on saving civilian lives and possible captives’ lives pushed the SDF and Coalition to be more careful, to slow down, and at some points at the expense of frustrating and tiring their own fighters.

Having such a large number of people in a tiny place is the main reason that this operation has been very, very slow and because this is the last pocket of ISIS and it borders Iraq, it is still a mystery what kind of place it is, and what kind of preparation ISIS had. We’ve seen many trenches where people have been living, so probably surveillance planes could not catch them, and also tunnels underground. It’s like a closed box for SDF ground forces: they don’t know what to expect. That’s one of the reasons they had to be extra cautious while advancing.

TDP: Can you describe the camps ISIS fighters have been living in?

MC: Camp conditions have been very dire, very bad. The town is very small and the number of people is extremely high, so probably there was a problem with food, water, and sanitation. There is a bad smell. People were living in those trenches under poor circumstances, so I think the situation would have been very hard for them because they were surrounded.

The Coalition gave them the opportunity but not all of them agreed to surrender, so based on what we have seen the situation has been difficult because such a small place is not suitable for such a large number of people.

Yazidi children freed from ISIS captivity
Yazidi children freed from ISIS captivity in Baghuz, Syria. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu

TDP: What’s the mood and morale like among SDF fighters? Do they seem frustrated?

MC: The mood and morale among the SDF fighters is very high. They are sure of a victory and confident they’ll bring to an end the so-called ISIS caliphate, but at the same time they are aware that ISIS is not finished with the end of the caliphate.

In a way they are getting ready for stage two of the fight against ISIS, which is going after sleeper cells, stabilization of the liberated areas, and to make sure the circumstances that allowed ISIS ideology to flourish are removed, and this requires a long, lasting and enduring struggle. They are aware of that and they are getting ready for that. Taking Baghuz will only end the territorial existence of ISIS, but its ideological existence, its ideological threat to the world, is there and they are aware of that.

The Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac ethnic groups are all very happy and the women – YPJ and other women components of SDF – are especially happy and proud that they are playing a major role in defeating an ideology that took pride in enslaving women, and treating women as worthless. Each time Yazidi women were liberated I’ve seen the happiness among the Kurdish women, YPJ fighters. It’s extra special for them, for sure.

Frustration is there, honestly, because the operation has been taking too long and the advance is too slow. And remember this is a territory that most of them are not familiar with, they are in this territory for the first time in their lives.

There are logistics problems, water, food, sanitization, hot weather, sometimes dust storms – it makes it very hard to fight. Remember one-and-a-half months ago when there was a dust storm ISIS launched a huge attack and caused serious problems for SDF fighters. Desert conditions have their own difficulties and most SDF fighters are very unfamiliar with these circumstances, and fighting in this geography is not something they are experts in. It causes some frustration, and to me it’s totally natural. But ISIS is almost on the verge of ending.

SDF continue ISIS clearing operations inside Baghuz, Syria
SDF continue ISIS clearing operations inside Baghuz, Syria on March 20, 2019. Image: Mutlu Civiroglu

TDP: Do you think the SDF will declare victory for Nowruz?

MC: Although the public is pushing, the SDF is not going to declare any territorial victory until they are fully sure that Baghuz is 100 percent cleared of ISIS members, explosives, landmines, booby traps, any other danger.

They’ll make sure everything is cleared, there is no one left, there is no harm to their fighters, there is no harm to Coalition partners, there is no harm to journalists. Only then will they announce, but it’s possible that the announcement might come on Friday or Saturday. But again if there are some people remaining inside they will make sure everything is taken care of. They are not rushing; they have been fighting for months now. This operation has already taken too long, so they will not mind waiting for a few more days until everything is taken care of.

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