AMMAN: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces cornered Islamic State fighters in a tiny patch of land along the banks of the Euphrates River in eastern Deir e-Zor province on Tuesday, having made “significant progress” against the hardline Islamist group, according to SDF commanders.
Backed by warplanes from the US-led anti-IS coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advanced on a long-besieged pocket of territory held by fighters from the Islamic State (IS) in Baghouz from Monday night onwards, seizing a threadbare landscape of tents and abandoned vehicles that represents the hardline Islamist group’s last remaining foothold in Syria.
An SDF commander, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press, told Syria Direct that “our forces advanced on all fronts [in Baghouz]” from Monday night, adding that by Tuesday afternoon IS fighters were “besieged within a tiny strip of land along the Euphrates River.”
“Within hours they will be totally eliminated,” he claimed.
Clashes were reportedly ongoing inside the Baghouz pocket late Tuesday afternoon.
SDF leadership held back from announcing victory, following weeks of predictions about the imminent fall of the hardline Islamist group.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesperson for the SDF, tweeted on Tuesday that the US-backed force was “in control of [a] Daesh encampment area in Baghouz,” using an Arabic acronym for IS.
“This is not a victory announcement,” he added, “but a significant progress in the fight against Daesh. Clashes are continuing as a group of [IS] terrorists who are confined into a tiny area still fight back.”
Abdelhalim Suleiman, a journalist covering IS’ last stand from Baghouz, told Syria Direct Tuesday afternoon that the “camp is being combed right now.”
Meanwhile, he added, “Daesh [fighters are] encircled next to the Euphrates River.”
The SDF, a Kurdish-majority US partner force, have been closing in on the last pocket of IS-held territory since mid-September last year.
Backed by US-led coalition airpower, the SDF launched an offensive against the last IS pocket on September 10. For months, the on-off offensive has seen the SDF sustain large casualties, while gaining and then sometimes ceding territory to the hardline Islamist fighters.
Progress has often been slow, and costly.
During months of heavy fighting, SDF advances have been reversed by surprise attacks often launched by IS under cover of sandstorms and inclement desert weather.
Meanwhile, human rights groups have renpeatedly levelled allegations at the international anti-IS coalition for responsibility in the deaths of hundreds of civilians—with airstrikes reportedly targeting not only military installations but also civilian infrastructure including residential neighborhoods, shops and mosques.
SDF fighters have had IS surrounded in a tent encampment located on the outskirts of the village of Baghouz for several weeks.
And yet the fight to clear the scattered tents and buildings that demarcated the last vestiges of IS, and its self-proclaimed “caliphate,” has wound on slowly in Baghouz—a small village on the banks of the Euphrates River, close to the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Coalition warplanes pummel the camp by night, while ground clashes resume after sunrise.
The campaign has been paused several times since last month to allow for surrendering fighters, their families and other civilians to evacuate the pocket.
Videos emerging from inside the pocket in recent weeks, some of them published to IS’ unofficial news channel Amaq, appeared to show a grim landscape of mud, threadbare tents and abandoned, bullet-ridden vehicles—as fighters and civilians walk in the midst of clashes, the sound of bullets passing over head.
Initial reports by the SDF and Western intelligence sources appear to have vastly underestimated the number of fighters and their families holed up in the Baghouz camp. In recent weeks, upwards of 30,000 people have emerged from the surreal, hellish settlement.
Despite the thousands of IS fighters surrendering to the SDF, the hardline Islamist group has not capitulated without a fight.
On March 15, three suicide bombers detonated themselves while immersed among surrendering fighters and their families, according to the US-led coalition and local media reports.
Several SDF fighters were injured in the blast, and six others killed.
According to coalition spokesperson Colonel Sean Ryan, IS fighters are “trying to mount a desperate last stand defense, and are using civilians as shields as well as dressing up in female attire to either try to escape or cause death by employing suicide vests.”
SDF commanders and analysts said that IS has made use of tunnel networks to conceal tens of thousands of people, and launch unpredictable attacks on advancing fighters.
“The tunnels are more vast and expansive than anyone could have imagined and provided safe refuge to thousands of Daesh and families, including innocent civilians being held hostage,” Ryan said.
Despite the predictions of a now-imminent IS collapse, observers and civilians in eastern Syria warn that the hardline Islamist group could still undermine local stability—with or without any actual territory under its control.
“The SDF’s progress into the [IS] camp in Baghouz is a significant step forward in clearing the last remaining [IS] militants in the area,” John Dunford, a Syria analyst with Washington DC-based Institute for the Study of War, told Syria Direct.
However, he added, while “denying [the group] control over towns is important,” the SDF still faces major challenges in detaining surrendering fighters and housing their families in already stretched displacement camps.
“Radicalized individuals infiltrating SDF-run IDP camps will continue to pose a threat to stabilization efforts in northeastern Syria.”
Additional reporting by Madeline Edwards.