Anti-Daesh Syria force boosted as extremist holdout shrinks

Women and children walk with their belongings as they are directed by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after leaving Daesh's last holdout of Baghouz, in the eastern Syrian Deir Ezzor province on March 1, 2019. (AFP/Delil Souleiman)
Updated 15 March 2019

Anti-Daesh Syria force boosted as extremist holdout shrinks

  • A total of about 60,000 people have streamed out of Daesh-held territory since December
  • The exodus has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Kurdish-held camps for the displaced

SOUSA, Syria: US-backed forces consolidated their positions around Daesh’s last redoubt in eastern Syria Friday as the country’s devastating conflict entered its ninth year with more than 370,000 dead.
All that remains of a once sprawling proto-state that the Daesh extremists declared in 2014 is a battered riverside camp in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and warplanes of a US-led coalition backing them, have rained fire on the enclave since Sunday, blitzing thousands of Daesh members into surrender.
The Kurdish-led force said “1,300 terrorists and their families” gave themselves up on Thursday alone as its fighters slowed their advance to allow them to exit the enclave.
AFP correspondents on the ground said Thursday night was relatively calm apart from limited air strikes, as the SDF said its fighters were consolidating their positions after extremist counter-attacks and foiled suicide bombings.
The force was “consolidating and rotating its troops,” an SDF spokesman told AFP.
“There are still women and children who want to surrender, so we are obliged to slow down operations,” Jiaker Amed said in the neighboring village of Sousa.
“Operations risk being slowed again today to allow more departures of jihadists and their families,” Amed said, but he was unable to give an estimate for the number of people left inside Baghouz.
“Those left are strongly attached to the (extremists’) ideology,” he said. “There are a lot of suicide bombers but there are also families and children.”
Since the months-old SDF offensive resumed on March 10, 3,000 IS suspected members have surrendered, according to the SDF.
A total of about 60,000 people have streamed out of Daesh-held territory since December, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says, a tenth of them suspected extremists.
The exodus has sparked a humanitarian crisis in Kurdish-held camps for the displaced, where women and children have arrived exhausted after weeks of siege.
These include the wives and children of alleged foreign extremists, hundreds of whom are being held by the Kurdish forces.
The International Rescue Committee says 120 people — mainly young children — have died on their way to the camp or after arrival.
Eight years of war in Syria have left more than 370,000 people dead including 112,000 civilians, the Syrian Observatory said, raising its last toll of over 360,000 issued in September.
The Britain-based monitoring group, which has a network of sources across Syria, said that more than 21,000 children and 13,000 women were among the dead.
The conflict flared after unprecedented anti-government protests in the southern city of Daraa on March 15, 2011.
Demonstrations spread across Syria and were brutally suppressed by the regime, triggering a multi-front armed conflict that has drawn in foreign powers and militant groups.
Over 125,000 Syrian government soldiers and pro-regime fighters figure in the latest death toll, the Observatory said.
It said other fighters, including rebels and Kurds, accounted for 67,000 of those killed.
Almost 66,000 were extremists, mainly from Daesh and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), dominated by Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria.
The devastating conflict has displaced or sent into exile around 13 million Syrians, and cost almost $400 billion in damages, according to the United Nations.
With the support of powerful allies Russia and Iran, President Bashar Assad has won his war for political survival but his country is fractured and cash-strapped.
Having reversed rebel gains with a massive Russian intervention, Assad now controls almost two-thirds of Syria’s territory.
But key areas remain beyond regime control, including a swathe of the oil-rich northeast held by the SDF.
Idlib in northwestern Syria, held by HTS, is protected by a cease-fire deal between Ankara and Moscow which has seen Turkish troops deployed to the area.
Syria’s conflict is estimated to have set its economy back three decades, destroying infrastructure and paralysing the production of electricity and oil.
Assad, however, has regained control of key commercial arteries and started a tentative comeback on the Arab diplomatic scene.
Several countries have called for Syria to be reintegrated into the Arab League, from which it was suspended as the death toll from the uprising mounted in 2011.

Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

Updated 20 July 2019

Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

  • Hazza Al-Mansoori 'living a dream' as he and backup astronaut train for space mission in September
  • Soyuz-MS 15 launch could be the beginning of a bold new era of Arab exploration of space

DUBAI: More than 30 years after an Arab first journeyed into space, an  Emirati is preparing to become the latest Arab space traveler when he joins a team of astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) in September.

For months, Hazza Al-Mansoori and backup pilot Sultan Al-Neyadi have been undergoing intensive training in Russia, Germany and the US to prepare for the mission. The first Emirati to travel into space will make the historic journey on board a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft due to take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 25.

During the eight-day mission, he will conduct a tour of the ISS for Arabic viewers on Earth and carry out 15 experiments for the Science in Space schools competition conducted by Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center.

The crew, who will include an American and a Russian, are allowed to take up to 1 kg of personal items with them on the mission.

“I will take my family photo and share the experience of being in space with them,” Al-Mansoori said. There will also be an image of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s founding father, meeting American astronauts in 1976.

“I am also going to take an Emirati flag. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.”

‘I will take an Emirati flag into space. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.’

Emirati astronaut Hazza Al-Mansoori

Al-Mansoori will join an elite space club comprising Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman and Syria’s Muhammed Faris. Prince Sultan became the first Arab to travel to space as part of space shuttle Discovery’s crew in 1985. Faris was a crew member of USSR’s Soyuz spacecraft in 1987.

The Emirati astronaut is aware that history is resting on his shoulders. Speaking to the media recently during his training program in Houston, Al-Mansoori  said it is a huge personal honor to be the first Emirati chosen for space exploration.

“I’m excited about the whole mission, but especially to experience the microgravity and be living in the ISS, and conducting daily experiments and working with the amazing group on board,” he said.

Al-Mansoori and Al-Neyadi have been undergoing rigorous training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The program includes familiarization with NASA equipment on board the space station, and handling emergency situations, such as ammonia gas leaks and depressurization.

The Emiratis have been trained to fend for themselves if the return goes off course and they land in the wilderness of Russia.

Speaking of the Soyuz-MS 15 mission, Yousuf Al-Shaibani, director general of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, said: “We strive to see the UAE Astronaut Program achieve its objective of preparing generations of Emiratis who will contribute to enhancing the country’s position in space science and research to serve the ambitious aspirations aimed at building a national knowledge-based economy.”

The September launch could prove to be the beginning of a bold new era for Arabs and space. Al-Neyadi, the backup pilot, has been promised a seat on a future mission, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are drawing up ambitious plans for the development of the region’s space industry.