U.S.-backed forces face resistance from Islamic State in ‘final battle’
U.S.-led coalition airstrikes pummeled an eastern Syrian village near the Iraqi border at sunrise Sunday as fighters from the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces launched an assault to oust the Islamic State from its last remaining enclave, the final remnant of the terrorist group’s so-called “caliphate.”
As dark columns of smoke from the western part of the village of Baghouz were being sent into the sky, SDF commanders said their fighters are being met by fierce resistance from IS fighters, who are retaliating with heat-seeking missiles. Two SDF fighters were killed and others injured after one SDF vehicle was hit.
“The battle is very fierce,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali. “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.”
After pausing more than a week to allow thousands of civilians to flee the town, the SDF on Saturday renewed its push to wrest the last 1½ square miles from the extremists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said SDF fighters are advancing “cautiously” due to mines planted by IS gunmen. It said U.S.-led coalition warplanes are giving cover to advancing SDF fighters.
The terrorists have burrowed beneath the town, building a network of tunnels that allow them to shift from house to house undetected. The strategy, which the group deployed in Mosul and elsewhere, is presenting a real challenge, SDF commanders said.
At least 500 IS fighters are believed to remain in Baghouz, thought to be a concentration of IS’s most experienced and battlehardened fighters and commanders.
At its peak, IS held large swaths of Iraq and Syria — an expanse about the size of Portugal.
Its territory has now shrunk to a tiny pocket in Syria’s eastern Deir elZour province, with terrorists holed up in Baghouz.
President Donald Trump suggested last Wednesday that IS’s defeat was imminent, adding that a formal announcement declaring “100 percent of the caliphate” retaken would be made sometime in the coming week.
The president’s remarks to representatives of a 79member, U.S.-led coalition fighting IS largely glossed over his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the conditions and logistics of which are still under negotiation.
American, French and British forces are also operating in the area. The teams, which are not engaged in street fighting, are firing artillery and mortars at IS positions.
Before the assault began at sunset Saturday, civilians could be seen fleeing the town. CNN spoke to one person who said many people were trapped, but numbers were impossible to come by. SDF officials say some 1,500 civilians could still be inside.
The Observatory said that since the SDF began its offensive against IS in the area Sept. 10, some 1,279 IS gunmen and 678 SDF fighters have been killed. It said 401 civilians, including 144 children and teenagers, have been killed since then.