US-backed forces battle last ISIS holdout

Weapons that are being used in the final push by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust the ISIS out of the last shred of land in eastern Syria that the "caliphate" controls. The SDF hopes to capture the area by the end of this month.
Weapons that are being used in the final push by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust the ISIS out of the last shred of land in eastern Syria that the "caliphate" controls. The SDF hopes to capture the area by the end of this month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Up to 600 fighters defending last 4 sq km pocket of Syrian land held by terror group; thousands of civilians trapped

QAMISHLI (Syria) • US-backed forces were locked in fierce fighting as they pressed the battle against the last shred of the ISIS group's "caliphate" in eastern Syria yesterday, according to a war monitor.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by a United States-led coalition, announced a final push to retake the village of Baghuz, the last pocket still under ISIS control in eastern Syria late Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow more than 20,000 civilians to be evacuated to safe camps nearby.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes between both sides yesterday morning, as coalition planes and artillery bombarded militants' positions.

"The battle is ongoing. There were heavy clashes this morning, with landmines going off," said Mr Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the Britain-based war monitor.

The SDF launched an offensive to expel ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September last year.

The Kurdish-led alliance has since whittled down militant-held territory to a patch of just 4 sq km on the eastern banks of the Euphrates. Up to 600 militants could still be inside, most of them foreigners, said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.

Since fighting intensified in December, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of extremist fighters, have fled into SDF-held desert areas, said the Observatory.

That figure includes some 3,200 suspected militants detained by the SDF, according to the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.

At the height of their rule, the militants imposed their brutal interpretation of Islamic law on a territory spanning parts of Syria and Iraq that was roughly the size of Britain.

FIERCE FIGHTING

The battle is continuing and fierce, with the aim of pressing remnants of the (ISIS) elements to surrender. There is no real progress on the ground because the area is full of mines (planted by ISIS) and has many civilians.

MR RAMI ABDEL-RAHMAN, head of The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.

But separate military offensives in both countries, including by the SDF, have since retaken the bulk of the cross-border "caliphate" they declared in 2014.

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians are trapped in eastern Syria.

"There are fears over the lives of thousands of civilians who are stranded in the pocket," said Mr Abdel-Rahman.

 
 
 
 

"The battle is continuing and fierce, with the aim of pressing remnants of the (ISIS) elements to surrender," he added. "There is no real progress on the ground because the area is full of mines (planted by ISIS)  and has many civilians."

Syria's Kurds have played a major role in fighting ISIS in war-torn Syria, gaining much of the territory once held by the radical group in energy-rich eastern Syria.

US President Donald Trump, who is planning to pull US forces out of Syria, said last Wednesday that he expected an announcement soon that the US-led coalition operating in support of the SDF had reclaimed all the territory previously held by the extremist group.

The enclave is close to the Iraqi border, though ISIS also still has territory in the part of Syria that is mostly under the control of the Russian-and Iranian-backed Syrian government.

SDF official Bali described the assault as "the last battle". He later wrote on Twitter that the attack had started and the enclave would "be cleared soon".

Senior SDF official Redur Xelil said the force hoped to capture the area by the end of this month, but cautioned that ISIS would continue to pose "great and serious" security threats even after that.

ISIS redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a "caliphate" across large areas of Syria and Iraq. But the group steadily lost ground and its two main prizes - the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq's Mosul - fell in 2017.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, DPA, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2019, with the headline 'US-backed forces battle last ISIS holdout'. Print Edition | Subscribe