Backed Syrian forces battle to take last IS pocket

12 February, 2019, 03:05 | Author: Clarence Schmidt
  • Islamic State chief escapes death as his fighters turn on him: report

The final military push for control of ISIS-held territory began with "intense" clashes, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Sunday.

More than 23,000 Syrian civilians and foreign nationals fled eastern Syria this past week as the SDF, which includes Kurdish YPG militia fighters, prepared to move on IS in Deir el-Zour governorate, according to local officials and activists.

Up to 600 jihadists could remain inside the area, including many foreign fighters, said Mustafa Bali, SDF spokesman.

One big question has been whether some US forces in Syria might move to neighboring Iraq, where the United States has more than 5,000 troops helping Baghdad fight ISIS and prevent the group's resurgence.

As the operation enters its final stages, fleeing ISIS militants have been caught attempting to sneak past SDF checkpoints by any means possible.

"There is of course a safe corridor and civilians are coming out daily, and this reduces their number in Baghouz until we can be sure the town is free of civilians".

A picture taken on February 9, 2019, near Al-Qaim, a few kilometres away from the last scrap of territory held by ISIL in eastern Syria, shows wheeled 155 mm gun-howitzer CAESAR system used by French soldiers engaged in Operation Chammal, the French military operation within Operation Inherent Resolve, the global coalition against ISIL.

France's Defence Minister Florence Parly visited the Iraqi side of the border on Saturday where France has a forward artillery base near al-Qaim, just a few kilometres from Baghouz.

The US military has already started withdrawing equipment from Syria.

President Donald Trump, repeating a variation of an earlier statement by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, predicted earlier this week that the U.S. military and its coalition partners will have successfully liberated all ISIS-controlled territory.

US Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on February 5, 2019, in Washington.

Bali said there could be up to 600 IS fighters still inside the pocket, a lot of them foreigners.

But the expected United States pullout has seen them grappling to mend ties with the Damascus regime, which is against Kurdish self-rule.

Hundreds of additional troops have been sent to Syria to facilitate the withdrawal.

Syria's war has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, declaring a "caliphate" in areas it controlled.

Bali said there were "dozens of SDF hostages held by IS" inside their last foothold, but denied reports of executions.

However, the WSJ also noted that the Pentagon has yet to comment: "We are not discussing the timeline of the USA withdrawal from Syria", said a Pentagon spokesman.

"ISIS remains an active insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria", noted a report last week by the Pentagon's Inspector General.

The detention of foreign fighters has been a point of concern among USA officials who have expressed concerns about the fate of the detainees following Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops.

The SDF managed, with the help of the US, to defeat the IS in much of the areas it had controlled in the eastern Euphrates area.



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