Syria fight­ing aims to re­take last ISIS turf

20,000 civil­ians evac­u­ated as U.S.-backed bat­tle be­gins


BEIRUT — U.S.-backed forces in Syria an­nounced the be­gin­ning Satur­day of the pos­si­ble fi­nal bat­tle for the last vil­lage con­trolled by the Is­lamic State.

In a brief state­ment posted on its web­site, the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces said the push be­gan Satur­day night and was fo­cused on the vil­lage of Baghouz, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in the south­east­ern Syria province of Deir al-Zour.

Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted that the of­fen­sive be­gan Satur­day af­ter more than 20,000 civil­ians were evac­u­ated from the area.

“The de­ci­sive bat­tle be­gan tonight to fin­ish what re­mains of Daesh ter­ror­ists,” Bali said, us­ing an Ara­bic acro­nym to re­fer to the Is­lamic State.

“The bat­tle is very fierce,” he later said. “Those re­main­ing in­side are the most ex­pe­ri­enced who are de­fend­ing their last strong­hold. Ac­cord­ing to this you can imag­ine the fe­roc­ity and size of the fight­ing.”

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a war mon­i­tor, said Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fight­ers were ad­vanc­ing “cau­tiously” be­cause of mines planted by Is­lamic State gun­men. It said U.S.-

led coali­tion war­planes were giv­ing cover to ad­vanc­ing fight­ers.

The Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces state­ment gave no in­di­ca­tion of how long it could take to cap­ture Baghouz, but Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said Wed­nes­day that he had been told that the full ter­ri­to­rial con­quest of the Is­lamic State could be com­pleted this week.

“It should be for­mally an­nounced some­time, prob­a­bly next week, that we will have 100 per­cent of the caliphate,” Trump told rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the 79-mem­ber U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State.

That would her­ald an end to the nearly 5-year-old war aimed at push­ing the Is­lamic State out of its self-pro­claimed caliphate, the on­cev­ast stretch of ter­ri­tory span­ning Syria and Iraq that at its peak was roughly the size of Bri­tain.

Suc­cess against the Is­lamic State in Baghouz would also in­crease pres­sure on the U.S. mil­i­tary to pull out of Syria, in ac­cor­dance with Trump’s in­struc­tions that the troops should leave once the Is­lamic State has been de­feated.

U.S. of­fi­cials cau­tion, how­ever, that driv­ing the Is­lamic State out of its ter­ri­tory would not end the threat it poses. The mil­i­tants have been re­group­ing as an in­sur­gency in many of the ar­eas they have al­ready lost. They could quickly re­bound if the mil­i­tary vic­tory is not ac­com­pa­nied by so­lu­tions to the griev­ances that con­trib­uted to their rise, the of­fi­cials say.

“ISIS re­mains an ac­tive in­sur­gent group in both Iraq and Syria,” noted a re­port last week by the Pen­tagon’s in­spec­tor gen­eral. “If Sunni so­cio-eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal, and sec­tar­ian griev­ances are not ad­e­quately ad­dressed by the na­tional and lo­cal gov­ern­ments of Iraq and Syria it is very likely that ISIS will have the op­por­tu­nity to set con­di­tions for fu­ture resur­gence and ter­ri­to­rial con­trol.”

“Cur­rently, ISIS is re­gen­er­at­ing key func­tions and ca­pa­bil­i­ties more quickly in Iraq than in Syria, but ab­sent sus­tained [coun­tert­er­ror­ism] pres­sure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and re­gain lim­ited ter­ri­tory,” the re­port added, quot­ing of­fi­cials with the U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand.

In a re­minder that the mil­i­tants have the ca­pa­bil­ity to mount at­tacks well be­yond the front lines, as­sailants on mo­tor­cy­cles on Satur­day tried to storm a base shared by the U.S. mil­i­tary and the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces at the Omar oil field, about 60 miles north of the vil­lage where the mil­i­tants are mak­ing their last stand.

Most of the dozen or so at­tack­ers were killed and two man­aged to es­cape af­ter a bat­tle last­ing sev­eral hours, dur­ing which U.S. airstrikes were called in, ac­cord­ing to the Ob­ser­va­tory.

The Ob­ser­va­tory said that since the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces be­gan its of­fen­sive on Sept. 10, some 1,279 Is­lamic State gun­men and 678 Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fight­ers have been killed. It said 401 civil­ians, in­clud­ing 144 chil­dren and teenagers, have been killed since then.

The as­sault on Baghouz is be­ing con­ducted by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces’ Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers, backed by U.S. airstrikes and U.S. ad­vis­ers.

Es­ti­mates of the num­ber of fight­ers re­main­ing in the ter­ri­tory vary wildly — from dozens to hun­dreds — but they are thought to in­clude some of the most die-hard and com­mit­ted ex­trem­ists who have re­mained with the group to the bit­ter end.

U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces work­ing along­side the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fight­ers will be par­tic­u­larly keen on es­tab­lish­ing whether any key Is­lamic State com­man­ders are still holed up in Baghouz, in­clud­ing per­haps the leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi. U.S. and Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces of­fi­cials say, how­ever, that they have no rea­son to be­lieve he is there.


Trump’s de­ci­sion to pull U.S. troops out of Syria has trig­gered a scram­ble among in­ter­na­tional pow­ers and lo­cal forces to fig­ure out how to fill the po­ten­tially desta­bi­liz­ing vac­uum the Amer­i­cans will leave be­hind.

But as the diplo­macy drags on, it is be­com­ing clear there is no read­ily ap­par­ent ar­range­ment that will sat­isfy the com­pet­ing con­cerns and agen­das of all the par­ties in­volved — and that none seems likely to emerge soon.

Tur­key, Rus­sia, the United States’ Syr­ian Kur­dish al­lies and the Syr­ian govern­ment all have a strate­gic in­ter­est in any ar­range­ment for the fu­ture of north­ern Syria, yet most of their de­mands are di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed.

Tur­key con­sid­ers the Kur­dish forces to be ter­ror­ists and wants to cre­ate a Turk­ish-con­trolled buf­fer zone to keep them away from its bor­der. The United States’ Kur­dish al­lies, who fear per­se­cu­tion at Turk­ish hands, want the Turks kept out.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to sat­isfy both sides, mak­ing good on its prom­ises to pro­tect its Kur­dish al­lies and to give Tur­key a stake in the area.

The Kurds would pre­fer a re­turn of Syr­ian govern­ment au­thor­ity in the area they con­trol. But one of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s clos­est al­lies is Iran, and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ob­jects to any plan that al­lows the Ira­ni­ans to main­tain — much less ex­tend — their in­flu­ence in Syria.

The Pen­tagon still has not an­nounced a date for the with­drawal, but the ques­tions of how and when it will hap­pen are gain­ing ur­gency as the Is­lamic State’s ter­ri­tory dwin­dles.

Tur­key is threat­en­ing to in­vade north­ern Syria if its de­mands are not met. The Syr­ian govern­ment has de­ployed troops to the south of the re­gion, and the Is­lamic State is al­ready try­ing to re­group in ar­eas from which it has been pushed out.

A power vac­uum or new con­flict could help the Is­lamic State make a come­back, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials say.

To avert such an out­come, in­ten­sive diplo­macy is un­der­way be­tween the United States and Tur­key, aimed pri­mar­ily at ful­fill­ing Trump’s prom­ise to Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan in their De­cem­ber tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion that the area of north­east­ern Syria where U.S. troops are cur­rently de­ployed is “yours.” James Jef­frey, the U.S. en­voy to the anti-Is­lamic State coali­tion, has been trav­el­ing to Tur­key, and Turk­ish of­fi­cials have vis­ited Wash­ing­ton for talks.

Wash­ing­ton is mean­while also ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of main­tain­ing over­all Amer­i­can con­trol with­out U.S. troops on the ground, U.S. of­fi­cials say.

Un­der that sce­nario, small con­tin­gents of British and French troops, who are al­ready op­er­at­ing along­side Amer­i­cans, would re­main in the area to­gether with the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, and per­haps also with pri­vate U.S. mil­i­tary con­trac­tors and United Na­tions ob­servers, while the United States pro­vides air cover.

In Jan­uary, the Kurds asked Rus­sia to me­di­ate be­tween them and the Syr­ian govern­ment. The Kurds have pre­pared a list of de­mands, which in­clude al­low­ing them to main­tain their con­trol over lo­cal govern­ment and se­cu­rity forces. A del­e­ga­tion from the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Coun­cil, a coali­tion in­clud­ing Kurds and lo­cal Arabs, vis­ited Da­m­as­cus to present those de­mands.

But there has been no re­sponse, either from the Syr­i­ans or the Rus­sians, said Saleh Mus­lim, a se­nior of­fi­cial with the Demo­cratic Union Party, the main Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“The mat­ter is very com­pli­cated,” he said. “Ev­ery­body is wait­ing to see what steps the other side is go­ing to take. And we are wait­ing for ev­ery­body.”

Rus­sia, as As­sad’s most pow­er­ful ally, fa­vors restor­ing Syr­ian govern­ment con­trol and has pro­posed re­viv­ing the 1998 Adana agree­ment be­tween Tur­key and Syria, un­der which Da­m­as­cus would be re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing mil­i­tant Kurds away from the Turk­ish bor­der.

Tur­key, how­ever, is wary of hav­ing Syr­ian govern­ment forces re­turn to its bor­der af­ter eight years of war, with­out a broader set­tle­ment to the Syr­ian war. The con­flict, which has seen the Syr­ian govern­ment re­gain con­trol over a wide ter­ri­tory once in op­po­si­tion hands, has turned As­sad and Er­do­gan into foes be­cause of Tur­key’s sup­port for the rebels seek­ing As­sad’s demise.

“This will not help,” said Burhanet­tin Du­ran, who heads the Foun­da­tion for Po­lit­i­cal, Eco­nomic and So­cial Re­search think tank in Ankara. Cut­ting a deal with As­sad that ne­glected an over­all so­lu­tion to the war “will just em­power him and make him very happy,” he said.

“But it won’t solve the prob­lem, and the fu­ture of Syria will be un­sta­ble, un­cer­tain and the way will be open to con­flict in­clud­ing the re­turn of ISIS.”

Tur­key’s pref­er­ence re­mains, Du­ran said, for a buf­fer zone along the bor­der to be con­trolled by the Turk­ish mil­i­tary and Tur­key-backed Syr­ian rebels. But that ap­proach does not sat­isfy the United States’ con­cerns for the safety of its Kur­dish al­lies or Rus­sia’s de­sire to re­store Syr­ian govern­ment con­trol.


“It should be for­mally an­nounced some­time, prob­a­bly [this] week, that we will have 100 per­cent of the caliphate,” Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, re­fer­ring to the Is­lamic State group’s ter­ri­tory, told rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State at a meet­ing Wed­nes­day at the State Depart­ment. On Satur­day, U.S.-backed forces in Syria an­nounced the start of “the de­ci­sive bat­tle” against the Is­lamic State.

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