Cap­ture could end war

The Dallas Morning News - - World - By BASSEM MROUE and ZEINA KARAM

BEIRUT — Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants cor­nered in their last foothold in east­ern Syria fought back with sui­cide car bombs, snipers and booby traps Mon­day, slow­ing Kur­dish fight­ers ad­vanc­ing un­der the cover of U.s.­led coali­tion airstrikes, Kur­dish news agen­cies and a Syr­ian war mon­i­tor said.

An Ital­ian pho­tog­ra­pher was wounded in the clashes be­tween the U.s.­backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, or SDF, and the mil­i­tants holed up in the vil­lage of Baghouz, near the bor­der with Iraq, an Ital­ian news agency said.

No one knows ex­actly how many Is­lamic State fight­ers are still hold­ing out in the sliver of ter­ri­tory un­der at­tack, al­though they are esti­ mated to be in the hun­dreds, most of them for­eign fight­ers. It is also un­clear if civil­ians are still in­side, caught un­der heavy bom­bard­ment.

The SDF on Satur­day launched its fi­nal push to clear the area from the Is­lamic State, af­ter months of fight­ing that saw 20,000 civil­ians flee­ing just in the past few weeks. The num­bers have over­whelmed Kur­dish­run camps in north­east­ern Syria, where hu­man­i­tar­ian con­di­tions are al­ready dire amid a cold win­ter and mea­ger re­sources.

The cap­ture of the Is­held vil­lage of Baghouz and nearby ar­eas would mark the end of a dev­as­tat­ing four­year global war to end the IS ex­trem­ists’ ter­ri­to­rial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group es­tab­lished its self­pro­claimed “caliph­ ate” in 2014. That in turn, would open the way for U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to be­gin with­draw­ing U.S. troops from north­ern Syria as he has promised to do once the Is­lamic State group has been de­feated.

“The U.S. will soon con­trol 100% of ISIS ter­ri­tory in Syria,” Trump tweeted Sun­day. He has said re­peat­edly that he doesn’t want the U.S. to be the world’s po­lice­man and that he in­tends to bring the 2,000 U.S. troops home.

U.S. of­fi­cials and Trump’s own mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers, how­ever, have warned that los­ing its ter­ri­to­rial hold does not mean that the Is­lamic State group is de­feated, warn­ing that IS could stage a come­back in Syria within six months to a year if the mil­i­tary and coun­tert­er­ror­ism pres­sure on it is eased. Gen. Joseph Vo­tel, the com­man­der of U.S. forces in the Mid­dle East, es­ti­mated there are be­tween 1,000 and 1,500 IS fight­ers in the small area they still con­trol, but he said oth­ers have “dis­persed” and “gone to ground.”

It is not clear how long the fi­nal push to free Baghouz from IS will take. Trump said last week he had been told that the full ter­ri­to­rial con­quest to de­feat the Is­lamic State could be com­pleted in the com­ing week.

But progress ap­pears to be slower than what SDF of­fi­cials had ini­tially es­ti­mated. The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said SDF were mov­ing slowly due to land mines and sniper fire, as well as the ex­trem­ists’ use of tun­nels and car bombs. IS also is us­ing civil­ians as hu­man shields, the Ob­ser­va­tory said.

Delil Souleiman/ Agence France­presse

Women and chil­dren fled the Is­lamic State­held hold­out of Baghouz in the back of a truck on Mon­day in east­ern Syria. Us­backed fight­ers bat­tled a fierce fight­back as they pushed to re­take a last morsel of ter­ri­tory.

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