Asia Watch

The Marawi siege: IS enters Philippines

The city of Marawi in the south of the Philippines has been engulfed by a deadly, ongoing siege since late May, when government forces began to take on heavily armed militants linked to the Islamic State. Local media estimate the death toll to be above 300. Over 200,000 residents have fled what has effectively become an urban battlefield. 

Jun 28, 2017
The city of Marawi in the south of the Philippines has been engulfed by a deadly, ongoing siege since late May, when government forces began to take on heavily armed militants linked to the Islamic State. Local media estimate the death toll to be above 300. Over 200,000 residents have fled what has effectively become an urban battlefield. 
 
While Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte quickly declared martial law across the island for 60 days, some say the blame rests with the political leadership for ignoring the rise of the IS, and especially Mr. Duterte’s decision last year to reject a ceasefire offer from the Maute group. Now this group is on the front lines in the fight against the Philippine military in Marawi. Marawi is on Mindanao, the country’s second largest island, rocked by armed insurgency for years. At the heart of the conflict is Mr. Duterte’s mission to capture or kill Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Islamist group who was named emir of the “Caliphate” in Southeast Asia by IS boss Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2016. 
 
The situation in Marawi does not inspire confidence: rebels still control key areas, they have set up checkpoints on bridges and their snipers have occupied local minarets. When the army fires mortars or RPGs, battle-hardened militants, reportedly including foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia, are responding with similar armaments. Worse still, many civilians remain in the area, complicating the calculus of any planned government assault.
 
 
While the siege of Marawi will draw Mr. Duterte’s attention beyond the brutal drug war that his government has waged, its political significance has echoed throughout the region and beyond. IS jihadist publications and videos have painted Singapore as a target, with two attacks against the city-state reportedly foiled. Similarly, Malaysia faced its first IS attack last June when a grenade injured eight people at a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur. As the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia is concerned that IS members could easily traverse the poorly policed waters between itself and the southern Philippines. While the U.S. no longer has military bases in the Philippines, its military advisers and intelligence analysts have been deployed to aid the efforts of Mr. Duterte, notwithstanding his anti-American jibes. 
 
U.S. President Donald Trump may have found common cause with Mr. Duterte in fighting Islamic extremism, yet the nature of the beast is quite different in the two countries. For Mr. Duterte the priority is to bring the battle to a quick, decisive end, and if necessary, to resume negotiations with some groups that had earlier held out the promise of ending hostilities. Tackling the humanitarian crisis created by this conflict depends as much on these negotiations and on relief efforts as it does on ending the long neglect of Mindanao.
 
The Hindu, June 28, 2017

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