Isil launches fierce counterattack in Deir Ezzor after Trump’s withdrawal announcement

Islamic State (Isil) fighters have been waging a fierce counterattack with suicide bombers and armoured vehicles in the days since Donald Trump declared the jihadist group was “defeated” in Syria. 

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Isil fighters were emboldened by the news of the US withdrawal and were fighting to retake the town of Hajin in Deir Ezzor just days after they were driven out. 

“They got high morale from US decision to withdraw from Syria,” said Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman. “Isil is still strong in the region.” 

The SDF said Saturday it was facing “a fierce and intense attack” by Isil fighters, who launched a wave of at least 17 suicide bombers at their lines followed by shelling and a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades.

Kurdish forces held the line and said they killed “dozens” of jihadist fighters with support by US airstrikes.  

US and British officials fear, however, that the SDF will not be able to hold the territory it has taken from Isil, especially if it is forced to divert forces to the north in face of a threatened offensive by Turkey. 

US military personnel in the Middle East
US military personnel in the Middle East

On Saturday Mr Trump tweeted: "When I became President, ISIS was going wild. Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!"

Brett McGurk, his envoy to the global coalition fighting Isil, resigned on Saturday in protest at the abrupt decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.

General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said shortly before Mr Trump’s surprise withdrawal announcement that there was “a long way to go” to train local forces to hold territory taken from Isil.  

He said the US was aiming to train around 40,000 local fighters in Syria to prevent Isil from regrouping but that only around 8,000 were ready.  

“Our allies in SDF have done a great deal in Syria against Daesh and that is great. But with regard to stability, we still have a long way to go,” Gen Dunford said on December 6. 

Aldar Khalil, a senior Kurdish official, urged the US to stop Turkey from moving ahead with its plans for a major attack against Kurdish groups in northern Syria. "It’s their duty to prevent any attack and to put an end to Turkish threats,” Mr Khalil said. 

Turkey considers the Kurdish armed groups to be terrorist organisations. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, said the attack would start within months and promised Mr Trump he would also fight against Isil remnants.  

Turkey said Saturday that around 300,000 Syrian refugees had returned to their country after two earlier Turkish military operations against Kurdish fighter and Isil in northern Syria. 

After Isil were initially driven out of Hajin on December 14, the SDF estimated there were about 5,000 Isil fighters holed up in their remaining pocket of territory and that they had decided to fight to the death.

This includes some 2,000 foreign fighters, mostly Arabs and Europeans along with their families.

Iran said on Saturday that the US military presence in Syria had been "a mistake, illogical and a source of tension", in Tehran’s first reaction to Mr Trump’s planned withdrawal.

"From the start, the entry and presence of American forces in the region has been a mistake, illogical and a source of tension, and a main cause of instability,” said Bahram Qasemi, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman. 

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