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Bill Law

A small Syrian town turns the tide against Daesh

A united Arab-Kurdish front liberated al-shaddadi from Daesh [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 December, 2015

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The liberation of Al-Shaddadi, a small Syrian town currently held by Daesh could prove to be a turning point in the fight against the group.
The town of Al-Shaddadi in eastern Syria could be the place where the tide against Daesh truly begins to turn.

It sits on the western bank of a tributary to the River Tigris in the eastern Syrian province of Hasakah and has been under the jihadists’ control for nearly two years.

There is nothing particularly noteworthy about the town itself so what makes its liberation so important?

While it is true Al-Shaddadi is the last major stronghold still in the hands of Daesh in Hasakah province, that tells only part of the story.

It is the primary target of an offensive that began in mid October, one which has swept south and liberated some 200 towns and villages in the province. And it is how that campaign has so far succeeded that really matters to the bigger picture of how to defeat Daesh.

The operation combines elements of Syrian Kurdish YPG militias with roughly 5000 Syrian Arabs under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and as such it is a rebuff to sceptics who have argued that Arabs and Kurds are incapable of joining forces to defeat a common enemy.

The thinking was that the Kurds were only interested in liberating territory that they have historically claimed as their own.

But the facts on the ground are starting to prove otherwise.

The US military estimates that fighting jointly, the two forces have collectively recaptured about 1,000 square kilometres, much of it Syrian Arab territory.

Using dozens of US special forces soldiers as advisors, the Americans have been carefully nurturing this Kurdish-Arab alliance, cautiously doling out weapons and ammunition and calling in airstrikes as the fighters showed progress in the drive south to Al-Shaddadi.

The battlefield success thus far has vindicated President Obama, often derided for his hesitant response to the war in Syria.

It was he who ordered the military advisors in and this is the first real sign that his initiative is working. It could prove to be the turning point in the Syrian campaign.

Al-Shaddadi is a key logistical target.

Liberating the town which in the 2004 census had a population of 15000, would cut off a supply route to the jihadists’ putative capital of Raqqa some 160 kilometres to the west. That may seem a long way off but a lot of ground can be covered in short order in desert fighting.

And it is worth recalling that in June the YPG with some support from the fractious Syrian Free Army and with American air backing liberated Tal Abyad, another crucial Daesh supply hub north of Raqqa.

The town sits close to the border with Turkey, less than 90 kilometres from the jihadists’ ‘capital’.

And the YPG continues to probe even closer to the city. With the liberation of Al-Shaddadi to the east, the noose will inevitably begin to tighten.

Thus the very strategy of encirclement that Daesh used so effectively to capture villages, towns and cities in Syria and Northern Iraq is now being deployed with growing success against them.

The battle for Al-Shaddadi is one that Daesh knows it can ill-afford to lose.

Whereas the jihadists retreated quickly from other towns in Hasakah province, they are digging in there with one US official, speaking anonymously, saying trenches are being dug and defensive berms being prepared.

At the same time, local sources have reported long convoys of private cars leaving Al-Shaddadi carrying families of the jihadists further south to Daesh held territory in Deir Az-Zour province.

If these reports are correct, the image of jihadists in retreat will be of enormous propaganda value. 

It will challenge the slick narrative of constant success that Daesh pumps out via the internet.

It will show that the strategy of “remain and expand” is a failing one. 

And perhaps most importantly it will undermine the myth of invincibility that has encouraged young Muslims to join it in fighting for a global jihad.

Beginning to turn the tables in the propaganda war while winning on the ground are the two key elements that will ultimately destroy Daesh.

But battlefield victory, it now seems likely, will come only at a very high cost to civilians.

Rolling Daesh back from Tal Abyad and before that the defense of Kobane were bloody affairs but with relatively light civilian casualties.

Most of the local population fled before the heavy fighting began.

That’s not the case with Al-Shaddadi. Increasingly the jihadists are preventing locals from leaving towns they hold.

The risk is that given its strategic and propaganda value, Daesh will use civilians as human shields or force them to become suicide bombers, a grim scenario to contemplate as the battle for a small town in Syria commences.


Bill Law is a former BBC Gulf analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @Billlaw49

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.
 

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