Despite assurances from US President Donald Trump that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Syria is no more, the US-led battle to remove the armed group from its last stronghold the county’s east has intensified in recent weeks, sources said in joint investigation by Al Jazeera and The Intercept.
Amid heavy fighting between the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and hardened ISIL fighters, scores of civilians and prisoners have been killed in US air raids in the eastern province of Deir Az Zor, according to sources on the ground.
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As part of that campaign, US warplanes bombed a hospital in the village of Al Sha’fah late last month, killing patients and medical personnel working there, including their families, sources told Al Jazeera and The Intercept. An ISIL fighter said “the hospital was reduced to only stones and a huge crater in the middle”.
Two senior US diplomats with knowledge of the fight against ISIL, who spoke to Al Jazeera and The Intercept on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the air raid on the hospital. One of them maintained that it was justified and legal, saying ISIL fighters were firing at coalition forces from the hospital, making it a legitimate target.
On Wednesday, Trump announced a withdrawal of US troops from Syria, tweeting: “We have defeated ISIL in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
The reality, however, is far more complex. It’s true that the group, which once controlled a wide swath of land stretching from Syria to Iraq, has been significantly weakened. But even after Trump’s announcement, the Department of Defense said the campaign against ISIL is not over. In the territories that remain under the group’s control, it is waging fierce battles against US-backed forces while facing sorties from US warplanes in the sky.
What’s more, ISIL fighters in Syria are confident they are still being led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph and ISIL leader whose death has been reported by Iraqi, Russian, and Iranian media.
Multiple sources have said the recent air raids in eastern Syria have killed the families of ISIL members, as well as Kurdish prisoners being held by the group.
Bombing of hospital
In October 2017, when ISIL began to lose control of its de facto capital, Raqqa, multiple US and British news organisations described the battle there as the group’s last stand. But it was largely an orchestrated one. As part of a negotiated withdrawal of Raqqa, the Syrian government provided buses to transport ISIL fighters and their families to towns in Deir Az Zor, an eastern province near the border with Iraq that was at the time largely under ISIL control.
The remaining pockets of ISIL-held territory are villages in Deir Az Zor along the Euphrates River. These areas are largely under siege by Syrian government forces on one side and Kurdish forces on the other.
For weeks now, markets in these towns and villages have been barren, leaving local civilians with little food. Things here are very difficult now, an injured former ISIL fighter in Hajin told The Intercept.
US planes have been dropping leaflets in the remaining ISIL-controlled areas of Syria. The ISIL fighters and residents of those areas often rip up those leaflets and leave them on the side of the road. One side of a leaflet, an image of which was obtained by The Intercept, shows a soldier in fatigues looking out victorious over the desert as two fighter jets fly towards the horizon. The other side shows a tattered ISIL flag as a fighter throws down his weapon and retreats. “The Syrian Democratic Forces are coming”, the leaflet reads in Arabic.
The humanitarian situation was worsened by a US air campaign from November 25 through December 1, part of Operation Roundup, which has targeted the Middle Euphrates River Valley and Iraqi-Syrian border region. In a December 5 press release, US Central Command disclosed the bombings of ISIL armoured vehicles, supply routes, staging positions, and a storage facility, among other targets. But these air raids also have targeted heavily trafficked open-air markets and other civilian areas, according to multiple sources on the ground.
The late November attack on the Al Yarmouk Hospital in the village of Al Sha’fah, also near Hajin, was part of that operation. The hospital had patients on the first floor, including captured Kurdish fighters; doctors’ families lived on the second floor. The hospital was hit with a so-called double-tap attack – one bomb followed soon after by a second at the same location, according to sources on the ground. The monitoring group Airwars reported that between 10 and 45 civilians were killed, based on local news reports.
The intentional bombing of hospitals and civilian areas during armed conflict is a violation of international law. US Central Command has said it is committed to avoiding and in every case minimising civilian casualties in bombing campaigns against ISIL. While the US official said the hospital was being used as an ISIL attack site, an ISIL fighter interviewed by The Intercept presented an alternative narrative. While he admitted that his understanding was that ISIL fighters were using the hospital as a meeting point, he said the group had been negotiating with the Syrian Democratic Forces to release the Kurdish fighters in its custody in exchange for opening the single main road out of the region to supplies for up to nine months.
The ISIL fighter, who has knowledge of but was not directly involved in the negotiations, said the group believes the US did not want the deal to happen and bombed the hospital to kill the Kurdish prisoners, thus eliminating ISIL’s bargaining chip.
Al Jazeera and The Intercept could not independently verify the claims of the US official or ISIL fighters on the ground. The US official evaded questions about the presence of civilians at the hospital. A Defense Department spokesperson did not respond to questions about the hospital bombing.
ISIL power struggle
As ISIL has suffered defeats on the battlefield, it has become increasingly driven by internal conflicts over questions of ideology, as well as allegations of corruption on the part of its leaders, according to three sources with knowledge of the divisions, and internal communications reviewed by Al Jazeera and The Intercept. Some religious scholars in towns and villages the group controls have questioned ISIL’s leadership and ideological doctrine, the sources said.
Due to their religious authority, these scholars represent a credible threat to ISIL’s leadership control over the region. In recognition of this threat, ISIL had been imprisoning a number of these dissidents in a large building south of Hajin, three sources closely connected to ISIL said. Also held in that prison were Kurdish fighters captured on the battlefield. According to sources on the ground, a US bombing sortie levelled the prison where the leadership critics and Kurdish fighters were being held in an air raid last month.
Among those said to have been killed in the bombing were a notorious Austrian fighter named Mohamad Mahmoud al-Namsawi, who had been seen in videos taking part in executions, and Yousef Simrin, a Jordanian also known as Abu Yacoub al Urduni, who was formerly a senior religious official within ISIL. Despite their track records, these men had become internal theological critics of the group, the sources told Al Jazeera.
Some of the other men killed in the air raid on the prison were former high-ranking members of ISIL’s religious and military leadership. According to sources, the imprisoned former leaders were accused of apostasy for opposing some of the group’s practices, such as ex-communicating members for not following ISIL’s strict religious edicts. Others were imprisoned for their alleged communication with Jordanian Abu Mohamad al-Maqdisi, who is considered one of the key religious scholars behind modern Salafism, an ideology associated with groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL.
Al-Maqdisi was a mentor to Jordanian fighter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is credited by some with laying the foundation for ISIL. Al-Maqdisi has also criticised ISIL’s practices and wanton killing of noncombatant Westerners and locals. His opposition to ISIL and his early refusal to join the group, despite personal overtures from al-Baghdadi himself, caused the group to label him an apostate, the sources said.
Still, scores of ISIL fighters venerated al-Maqdisi for his knowledge and history in the movement. ISIL’s security services accused many of these fighters of having secret communications with Maqdisi following ISIL’s defeats in Raqqa and Mosul. These men were among the prisoners killed in the US air raid, according to three sources closely connected to ISIL.
ISIL leadership is also plagued by rumours of corruption, according to three sources in contact with former high-ranking ISIL members. These sources said that al-Baghdadi had taken at least a dozen women as concubines. This narrative tallies with claims that al-Baghdadi kept US aid worker Kayla Mueller as a sex slave before her 2015 execution. Even as ISIL’s territories erode, the sources said, the group’s leader and others in his circle are also believed to be holding onto small fortunes accumulated through oil smuggling and extortion rackets during the group’s rise.
As the situation worsens for civilians in Syria’s ISIL-occupied towns and villages, the fighters appear to be retreating. For weeks now, some of the group’s fighters have travelled to the Iraqi border with cash to bribe their way across, according to an ISIL fighter interviewed by The Intercept. The plan is to slip as many ISIL fighters back into Iraq as possible before its remaining territory in Syria falls to Syrian government or Kurdish forces, the source said.
But even as remnants of ISIL slip into the desert straddling Syria and Iraq, it is unlikely that this will be the last of them. “So long as the region is plagued by sectarianism, dictatorships, and collapsing governments, ISIL is bound to make a comeback,” said Peter Bergen, a US national security analyst. “The real issue in the region is not ISIL itself”, Bergen said, “but rather the underlying conditions that produced it.”
Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @ali_reports