OUTSKIRTS OF BAGHOUZ, SYRIA • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) faces final territorial defeat as the United States-backed Syrian force battling the militants said yesterday it was closing in on ISIS' last bastion near the Iraqi border, capping four years of efforts to roll back the group.
While the fall of Baghouz, an eastern Syrian village on the bank of the Euphrates River, would mark a milestone in a global campaign against ISIS, the group remains a threat, using guerilla tactics and holding some desolate land further west.
An array of enemies, both local and international, confronted ISIS after it declared a modern-day "caliphate" in 2014 across large swathes of territory it had seized in lightning offensives in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
Thousands of ISIS fighters, followers and civilians, who had retreated to Baghouz as the group was gradually driven out of those lands, have poured out of the tiny cluster of hamlets and farmlands in Deir al-Zor province over the last few weeks.
Their evacuation held up the final assault until Friday evening, when the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said it had advanced and would not stop until the terrorists were defeated.
"We expect it to be over soon," Mr Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the SDF, told Reuters shortly after sunrise.
He said the SDF were advancing on two fronts using medium and heavy weaponry. ISIS responded with drones and rockets, and seven SDF fighters have been wounded so far, said commander Adnan Afrin.
The SDF has previously estimated several hundred ISIS insurgents - believed mostly to be foreigners - to be still in Baghouz, and the US-led international coalition has described them as the "most hardened" militants.
The SDF's final advance was slowed for weeks by the militants' extensive use of tunnels and human shields. It has not ruled out the possibility that some militants have crept out, hidden among civilians.
When reporters arrived at the village outskirts around midday, columns of smoke could be seen rising from inside but the scene appeared calm. Warplanes hovered in the sky, but no air strikes were observed.
A spokesman for the coalition, which supports the Kurdish-led SDF, said it was too early to assess the battle's progress "as it is a complicated situation with many variables".
The SDF commander-in-chief said last Thursday that his force would declare victory within a week. He was later contradicted by US President Donald Trump, who said the SDF had retaken 100 per cent of the territory once held by ISIS.
Washington has about 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly to support the SDF in fighting ISIS.
Mr Trump announced in December that he would withdraw all of them, but the White House partially reversed the decision last month, saying some 400 troops would stay.
Some 40,000 people bearing various nationalities have left the ISIS' diminishing territory in the last three months as the SDF sought to oust the militants from remaining pockets.
The number of evacuees streaming out of Baghouz surpassed initial estimates of how many were inside.
Mr Afrin told Reuters last Thursday that many of the people leaving the enclave had been sheltering underground in caves and tunnels.
A 27-year-old Indonesian widow who emerged last Friday said she would have liked to stay in ISIS territory but conceded that conditions had become untenable.
"I have no money, I have no food for my baby, no medicine, nothing for my baby, so I must go out," she said.