Us-backed forces in final fight against IS ‘caliphate’
40,000 people, mostly wives and kids of jihadists, evacuated
BEIRUT: The Us-backed Syrian forces captured 41 positions held by Islamic State group militants and destroyed their fortifications in the last tiny pocket they hold in eastern Syria amid fierce fighting, a spokesman said on Sunday.
Mustafa Bali said the Kurdishled Syrian Democratic Forces made the advances overnight and on Sunday, hours after they launched a final push to clear the area from IS militants.
The final battle to clear the village of Baghouz is now playing out after nearly 40,000 civilians were evacuated from the area in the eastern province of Deir-elZour over the past few weeks.
Bali said heavy fighting was going on inside Baghouz on Sunday, adding that an IS counterattack was foiled early in the day. He did not say how long the battle was expected to last. The Us-led coalition warplanes are giving cover to advancing SDF fighters. US President Donald Trump predicted on Wednesday that the Islamic State group will lose by next week all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria.
That would mark the end of a four-year global war to end the extremist group’s territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq where the group established its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in 2014. The US officials have said in recent weeks that IS has lost 99.5% of its territory and is holding onto fewer than 5 square kilometres in Syria, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated. But activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq, and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The US military has warned the group could stage a comeback if the military and counter-terrorism pressure on it is eased.
The enclave, where the fierce battle is raging, is close to the Iraqi border and comprises two villages. Islamic State also still retains territory in the part of Syria that is mostly under the control of the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government.
Bali, who heads the SDF media office, said, “The clashes are ferocious naturally because the terrorist group is defending its last stronghold.”
Bali said 400 to 600 jihadists were estimated to be holed up in the enclave, including foreigners and other hardened fighters.
Between 500 to 1,000 civilians are also estimated to be inside, Bali said. “If we can, in a short time frame, get the (remaining) civilians out or isolate them, I believe that the coming few days will witness the military end of the terrorist organisation in this area,” Bali said.
Senior SDF official Redur Xelil told Reuters on Saturday the force hoped to capture the area by the end of February, but cautioned that IS would continue to pose “great and serious” security threats even after that.
Spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF has been the main US partner in Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said coalition planes and artillery bombarded jihadist positions. “The battle is ongoing. There were heavy clashes this morning, with landmines going off,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory.
On the Iraqi side of the border, French members of the coalition on Saturday stood ready to pour fury on any IS diehards seeking to escape. Dozens of 155-mm shells were lined up ready to be loaded onto three green-and-black Caesar gun-howitzers with a range of 40 kilometres.
French defence minister Florence Parly (2nd L) talks to French soldiers engaged in the Operation Chammal, which is part of the Operation Inherent Resolve, the international coalition against the Islamic State near Al-qaim, a few kilometres away from the last scrap of territory held by IS in east Syria.