Archive for March 2, 2019

US-backed fighters advance against Islamic State in its last Syrian territory

March 2, 2019

Source: US-backed fighters advance against Islamic State in its last Syrian territory | The Times of Israel

Syrian Democratic Forces report heavy clashes in area of Baghouz, on the east bank of the Euphrates River; aid group says over 10,000 civilians evacuated since February 20

In this Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019 file photo, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters watch as an airstrike hits territory still held by Islamic State in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

AL-OMAR OIL FIELD BASE, Syria — A spokesman for the US-backed force fighting the Islamic State group in eastern Syria says fighters are waging intense battles with the group, advancing on two fronts in the last area they control.

Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces tweeted Saturday that “heavy clashes” are taking place in the area on the east bank of the Euphrates River.

Bali said three SDF fighters were wounded.

The SDF on Friday evening resumed military operations to liberate the last piece of territory held by IS in the province of Deir el-Zour after evacuating thousands of civilians and hostages who had been besieged inside.

Zana Amedi, an SDF commander, told The Associated Press that “an active ground force” is advancing into IS-held territories as the jihadists resort to sniper fire and booby-traps.

A girl waits to be screened by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, Friday, March 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

“Those left inside are fighters who do not wish to surrender,” Bali told The Associated Press.

The military campaign to uproot the militants from the eastern banks of the Euphrates River began in September, pushing them down toward this last corner in the village of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border. The military operation was halted on February 12 as the SDF said a large group of civilians and hostages were holed up in the territory, which sits atop caves and tunnels where they had been hiding.

The remaining speck of IS-controlled land in Baghouz village is also along the Euphrates from one side and the desert near the Iraqi border from the other. Thousands of civilians were living in a tent encampment and houses along the riverside.

Over the last two weeks, thousands of civilians have been evacuated, many of them women and children in desperate conditions. The only aid group at the evacuation site, the Free Burma Rangers, estimated that at least 10,000 civilians have left the IS pocket since February 20, in trips organized by the SDF.

The evacuees, who included IS family members, said food was running low and clean water and medicine were scarce. Despite its demise, many defended what remained of the group’s territorial hold, which once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

As they trickled out, SDF and coalition officials screened them. Women and children were transferred to camps miles away. Men suspected of links to the militant group were taken into custody at other facilities.

Women and children exit the back of a truck as they arrive at a US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) screening area after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State, in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, Friday, March 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

US President Donald Trump said Thursday that IS has lost “100 percent” of the territory it once controlled in Syria, but officials estimate there are hundreds of militants left in the small patch of territory in Baghouz, and that they will likely fight till the end.

Bali would not speculate on how long the military operation might take but said he expects a “fierce battle.”

He said the battles are expected to take place in a very small area that includes a complex network of tunnels, as well as suicide bombers and land mines.

“The battle to finish off what is left of Daesh has started,” said SDF commander Adnan Afrin, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Afrin said he expects “resistance” from the remaining fighters who are likely to deploy all their weapons, including suicide bombers.

He said most of the remaining fighters are Europeans, Asians, Iraqis and Arabs from the area.

On Friday, the smallest batch of evacuees, just over 200, came out of the pocket in around six trucks used to transport sheep. About 10 trucks sent to the perimeter of the IS pocket came back empty, and drivers said no more evacuees came out after hours of waiting.

The evacuees Friday included wounded men but were mostly women and children. There were Russians, Indonesians, Bosnians, Dagestani, Kazaks, Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis. They dragged along few belongings, distraught children and broken spirits.

A woman walks with her children at a US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) screening area after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State, in the desert outside Baghouz, Syria, Friday, March 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Umm Mohammed — or mother of Mohammed — a 38-year-old Syrian, left Baghouz with her three children Friday but her husband stayed behind in support of IS. “There are many fighters and families inside,” she said. “The Islamic State is weak only in Baghouz but elsewhere it is expanding and growing.”

The capture of the last pocket still held by IS fighters in Baghouz would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign to end the group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq — their so-called “caliphate” that at the height of the group’s power in 2014 controlled nearly a third of both Iraq and Syria.

It would allow Trump to begin withdrawing the estimated 2,000 US troops from Syria, a decision he accounced in December — though last week he partially reversed course and agreed to keep a residual force of perhaps a few hundred troops as part of an international effort to stabilize northeastern Syria.

The resumption of military operations against IS breaks a dayslong standoff while the civilians were being evacuated. In the last week alone, 13,000 people, most of them women and children, arrived at the al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province which now houses approximately 45,000 people, according to the United Nations.

In a statement Friday, the UN cited reports that more than 84 people, two thirds of them young children under five years of age, have died since December on their way to al-Hol camp after fleeing the group in Syria’s Deir el-Zour province.

“Many of the arrivals are exhausted, hungry and sick,” according to Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at a news briefing in Geneva.