After President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of 2,000 troops from Syria last month, the U.S. military ramped up its bombing campaign against the Islamic State’s remaining territory in the eastern part of the country, according to sources on the ground and photographs we obtained.
The fiercest attacks in the past week have occurred in Al Kashmah, a village on the Euphrates River near the border with Iraq, according to three sources in eastern Syria. Amid U.S. airstrikes and artillery fire by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, civilians and family members of ISIS fighters fled to villages to the south, the sources said. While Al Kashmah has not yet fallen, the only people remaining there are fighters representing what has become the front line of the war against ISIS in Deir al-Zour province.
The ISIS fighters are clustered in villages along the Euphrates, from the border with Iraq to south of Hajin, a former ISIS stronghold that fell to the SDF, a Kurdish-led militia, in mid-December. There are about 50,000 to 60,000 people who remain in those areas, according to a civilian activist in Deir al-Zour who documents rights abuses and asked not to be named out of safety concerns. “The civilians in these areas have no place to go or hide from the U.S. bombardment of their villages,” the activist said, noting that the residents have been harmed at the hands of the Syrian government, the United States, and ISIS alike.
The ISIS-held villages along the Euphrates have been the targets of U.S. bombing sorties since November as part of Operation Roundup. In addition to military targets, Operation Roundup bombed civilian areas, including a hospital, The Intercept and Al Jazeera reported last month.
Trump’s abrupt December 19 decision to quickly withdraw U.S. ground troops involved in the fight against ISIS in Syria took even the Defense Department by surprise. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, the president declined to give a timeline for the pullout and said instead that it would happen “over a period of time.” The increased intensity of the bombings, however, belie claims by Trump and others that ISIS has been defeated or that the U.S. war in Syria, which has largely been carried out from the skies, is over. It remains unclear whether U.S. airstrikes will continue once the troops leave.
During the final days of 2018, the U.S. campaign bombed villages up and down the Euphrates, focusing primarily on Al Kashmah. On the night of New Year’s Eve, the bombs relentlessly assaulted Al Kashmah, leaving the village largely destroyed by the next morning, according to an ISIS fighter who was there. (We interviewed members of ISIS and the SDF, as well as a tribal leader, for this article via messaging services, and we’ve granted them anonymity because they all stand to be targeted by the various warring factions for speaking to journalists.)
The coalition against ISIS appears to be targeting internet cafes, according to two sources on the ground. Internet cafes in the villages are used by civilians and ISIS fighters alike. They are not part of ISIS’s tactical communications infrastructure, according to sources, but the militants typically use them to communicate with the outside world, especially their families in other countries.
“They just like to disrupt and mess everything up,” an ISIS fighter said in an interview. “They bombed the places where they sell gasoline for the motor, or they sell cooking oil, or where they filter the water — they bomb all these places. Not just the ‘net, they bomb everything just to make your life horrible.”
The risk of civilian casualties from bombings in Deir al-Zour is high because the rural villages have become densely populated with the families of ISIS fighters and civilians fleeing in recent months from more densely populated cities and towns that have fallen to Kurdish-led forces. “No building is empty here,” the ISIS fighter said, referring to the remaining ISIS-controlled villages in Deir al-Zour. Fighters and civilians in the villages have reportedly been describing the U.S. bombing campaign as a scorched-earth policy, using an Arabic term that translates to “burn the ground.”
On Sunday, the U.S. military admitted that it’s killed 1,139 civilians in Iraq and Syria since the start of its campaign against ISIS in 2014. That number is significantly smaller than the estimates of civilian casualties put out by monitoring groups, like Airwars, which says that between 7,308 and 11,629 civilians have been killed.
In response to a list of questions about the bombings in Syria, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense said in a statement that the coalition dictates “the pace of our strikes against ISIS targets deliberately and with careful consideration of their impact to civilians. The increase in strikes in late December were selected specifically to degrade ISIS capabilities and were unrelated to any other variable.”
Following Trump’s withdrawal announcement, the Kurds, who lead the on-the-ground forces that had partnered with the United States in fighting ISIS in Syria, reached out to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for protection. Feeling betrayed by the United States, the Kurds are concerned about a possible attack by Turkey, which has long feared that its own minority Kurdish population might be emboldened by the existence of a Kurdish state or autonomous region south of Turkey. (In March 2018, Turkish Armed Forces and allied militia seized control of the Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurds.)
In addition, after the evacuation of civilians from Al Kashmah, ISIS negotiated a three-day ceasefire with the Kurds, according to three sources on the ground. On Monday, seven trucks carrying food and humanitarian aid entered ISIS-controlled areas under the agreement, according to one ISIS and one SDF source. The ceasefire was initially scheduled to end December 31, but ISIS officials are discussing a possible six-month extension, according to an ISIS fighter familiar with the talks but who is not directly part of the effort. During the temporary ceasefire, some ISIS fighters and defectors fled Deir al-Zour to other parts of Syria, according to two sources who made such journeys themselves.
A lasting cease fire would allow badly needed supplies to reach civilians in the villages, and ISIS would also use it to regroup. The Kurds would receive a safeguard from a two-front war if the Turks attack.
A ceasefire between ISIS and the Kurds, coupled with the Syrian government’s potential protection of the Kurds from Turkey, would largely undercut part of Trump’s public rationale for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. In a tweet, Trump described how Turkey could “easily take care of whatever remains” of ISIS. In a subsequent tweet, the president spoke of his conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan:
President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria….and he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right “next door.” Our troops are coming home!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2018
But the prospect of Turkey’s completion of a clean-up job against ISIS in Syria seems increasingly unlikely given the rapidly shifting alliances there.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military continues to drop bombs on Deir al-Zour, despite the fact that the Kurds, freshly abandoned by the United States, are not currently engaging ISIS fighters.
“They’ve backstabbed all their allies and they’re killing the people here,” the ISIS fighter said, referring to the United States. “Eventually the Islamic State will survive and spread or it will fall, but there will be people here who will remember what happened here, and they will carry on this information and it will spread throughout the Middle East.”