Across Syria in the last few days, strikes and explosions have wracked the country, which is on the verge of recapturing the last of Daesh's territory. US airstrikes killed dozens in the far eastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate, while Israeli shelling struck a hospital in the Golan, and an unclaimed truck bomb exploded on the Syrian side of the Turkish border.
The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched their assault against Daesh's last redoubt, the village of al-Baghuz Fawqani, over the weekend, supported by US airstrikes. However, the going is slow, as the roughly 600 remaining Daesh fighters have been using civilians as human shields, the UK Independent reported.
US airstrikes on Baghuz killed dozens of civilians this week. One strike, on a mosque being used as a command center by Daesh, killed 16, while another airstrike hit a refugee camp on the edge of town and killed at least 70 civilians, according to the Syrian Arab News Network.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOfHR) confirmed that seven children and eight women were among the dead in the mosque attack.
The US doesn't have approval from Damascus, nor has it obtained a mandate from the United Nations, to strike targets inside the borders of Syria, which has been locked in a catastrophic civil war since 2011.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted Tuesday that Israel is "constantly operating" against "Iran and its satellites" in Syria, in response to questions about Israeli shelling of Quneitra, a mostly-abandoned city just inside the Syrian border, from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel invaded the Golan in 1967 and has refused to return it to Syria. Quneitra, once a city of 20,000, was purposefully destroyed by the Israeli army as it withdrew from the city in 1974, according to the Times of London.
Sputnik noted the significance of the artillery bombardment as compared to previous airstrikes, which was likely due to the stationing of Russian-supplied S-300 air defense systems in Syria this past fall.
Radio Sputnik's Loud and Clear spoke with Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, about the situation in the country and what's in store after Daesh is done.
"Like the so-called rebels," Ford said, "they [Daesh] have been using mosques, hospitals, schools as command and control centers. But of course, when [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad bombs these command and control centers, it's a humanitarian outrage, it's an atrocity. But of course the coalition can do it, and it's ‘just an accident, bad luck' if they hit civilians."
Ford noted that the remaining Daesh fighters are likely not drawn from the local population, but are rather foreign fighters, since they are the only ones who cannot blend back into society and escape the warzone. Sputnik has previously reported that of the 37,000 refugees from Deir ez-Zor battlefields, at least 3,200 have been militants, according to SOfHR.
"They are attempting to escape through intermixing with the innocent women and children attempting to flee the fighting," SDF deputy commander Major General Christopher Ghika told AFP last week.
The remaining Daesh fighters have proven especially intransigent, resisting US, SDF and Syrian Arab Army forces to the last and deploying suicide attacks to slow down all advances on their last redoubt.
But once Baghuz is liberated, the fight is far from over. There remain "pockets of ISIS in the government-held territory in the vast Syrian Badiyat, or desert," Ford told Sputnik. "There are bands of loosely organized ISIS remnants; I'm not sure if they even control a single village, but there are bands of them still on the loose. But in Western eyes, they don't count. [US President Donald] Trump will announce, ‘We have annihilated ISIS!' By his interpretation, Syria just means 30 percent [of the country], which is US-controlled. The rest doesn't count."
Ford cautioned that the "latest flurry" by Israel in the Golan didn't amount to anything new, but noted that "we are in a pre-election period in Israel. This sounds like Netanyahu flexing his muscles, showing that he's the best military leader." Netanyahu faces a serious military leader in April's Knesset elections: Benjamin Gantz, the former of chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who's founded a new party, Israel Resilience.
"He's brushing up his military credentials," Ford said of Netanyahu, "trying to ramp up the crisis atmosphere in which he tends to flourish, ramping up the Iran threat… I don't think the Iranians and their allies, like Hezbollah, will be stupid enough to play into Netanyahu's game by overreacting."
But Ford said the 2,000 US troops leaving Syria wouldn't amount to much of a change in the situation, as the troops are "just a tripwire" for the US Air Force, which US commanders have confirmed will still be able to carry out airstrikes just the same from its bases in Iraq, which have been expanded.
However, the situation in the northwest of Syria, where a truck bomb went off Tuesday, injuring three on the border with Turkey, is less promising.
When asked by hosts John Kiriakou and Brian Becker if a political solution was possible in Idlib, Ford flatly answered "no."
"HTS, that's Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham, the most radical al-Qaeda-affiliated armed group, has taken control of probably 70, 80 percent of Idlib. This was not supposed to happen on the terms of the Sochi agreement" penned last September between Turkey, Russia and Iran, he noted.
"The Turks negotiated with the Russians, which ensured that the Russians and Assad would not themselves advance on Idlib. The Turks have not respected the terms, and now they're in intensive discussions with the Russians on what to do about it."
Ford noted there was an upcoming summit on February 14, again in Sochi, between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, concerning the future of the deescalation zone around Idlib.
"The only solution can be a military solution," Ford said. "Even the Russians and the Iranians pay lip service to this convenient fiction that in the end, there can only be a political solution."
"What we have on the ground already is a military solution: Assad has clawed back control over the great majority of the country, and the remaining pockets, too, will in due time be clawed back by military means. There may be some negotiations with the Kurds; these are ongoing at the moment — but then the Kurds have never actually fought Assad. There have never been any significant battles between the Kurdish forces [and Syrian government forces], which have never actively sought to separate from Syria; they just want a bit more local self-control. So yes, there could be a political solution for that corner of Syria," he said, but noted that "there's no way to negotiate with HTS to get back control over Idlib. The solution can only be their military annihilation."