In last stand at Baghouz, IS uses civilians, car bombs and booby traps to slow on-off SDF offensive

People who fled the Islamic State group's last holdout of Baghouz ride in the backs of trucks in an area controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on March 4, 2019. Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP.

AMMAN: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces renewed advances against the last sliver of territory held by the Islamic State in eastern Syria’s Deir e-Zor province, following a pause in fighting on Monday to allow the evacuation of several thousand civilians and surrendering fighters.

The fight to clear the scattered tents and buildings that demarcate the last vestiges of the Islamic State (IS), and its self-proclaimed “caliphate,” has wound on for weeks in Baghouz—a small village on the banks of the Euphrates River, close to the Syrian-Iraqi border. Staggered convoys have evacuated thousands of civilians and IS fighters, in between bouts of fierce US-led coalition airstrikes and ground clashes.

The halt in ground fighting lasted throughout Monday daytime, according to Mustafa Bali, a spokesperson for the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“Slowing the offensive in Baghouz yesterday, we managed to evacuate about 3,000 [people]. A large number of Daesh jihadists surrendered to our forces among the same group overnight,” Bali wrote on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for the hardline Islamist group.

Around 150 IS fighters were reportedly identified among the group evacuated on Monday and were subsequently detained, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Civilians evacuated from the Baghouz pocket have been confined to a series of displacement camps managed by the Kurdish-led Self-Administration authorities.

The UN’s humanitarian access agency, UNOCHA, stated that 600 people had arrived at the al-Hol displacement camp on Tuesday morning, bringing the camp’s total population to 57,000.

The on-off campaign against IS has progressed haltingly since SDF fighters, backed by US led-coalition airstrikes, cornered IS fighters and began their final push three weeks ago.

More than 20,000 people, a mix of fighters and many more civilians, have fled in several waves of evacuations since then.

Although SDF fighters have chipped away at the dwindling patch of IS-held territory along the Euphrates, the battle has been protracted and advances slow.  

By night, US-led coalition warplanes have pummelled Baghouz with airstrikes and artillery—and over the weekend, alleged use of phosphorus munitions reportedly lit up a cluster of tents in the pocket. The US-led coalition denied the claims.

Widespread use of improvised explosives planted by retreating IS fighters, and an extensive network of underground tunnels, have meanwhile complicated SDF advances on the ground.

According to SDF commanders in Baghouz, progress has also been slowed by the suspected presence of large numbers of civilians, tucked away within the last clusters of tents and buildings, as well as IS’ use of car bombs and explosive boobytraps.

SDF commander Adnan Afrin told Syria Direct that fears of civilian casualties, along with IS’ brutal but unpredictable defensive tactics, has dramatically slowed the group’s advance in recent days.

“What hampers the progress of our forces is the presence of civilians, as we are seeing [IS] use civilians as human shields,” he said. “There have been a number of car bombs, but we are targeting them and monitoring the cars left behind.”

Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesperson for the US-led coalition that backs the SDF, said  that boobytrapped tunnels and car bombs had created unique challenges in the final days of the Baghouz campaign, slowing the campaign to a crawl.

“Tunnels are being laced with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] by [IS], intended for pursuing SDF fighters, and IEDs can slow progress in an offensive assault,” Col. Ryan told Syria Direct via email on Tuesday. “Coalition airstrikes have destroyed multiple car bombs and suicide vests are common for the remaining [IS] fighters, who seem poised to fight to the end.”

Even with IS fighters cornered along the Euphrates, a simultaneous anti-IS campaign by the Syrian army and pro-government forces in the nearby a-Sakhna region of the central Badia desert is a reminder that the group still maintains small pockets of support and control in other areas of the country.

Sleeper cells are poised to create problems for local authorities long after the last IS territory is cleared.

IS claimed a January 16 attack on a restaurant in downtown Manbij, in Syria’s north, which killed two US service members along with one Department of Defense civilian and a contractor. At least a dozen other people were also killed.

In towns and cities across eastern Syria, underground cells of IS fighters are said to be responsible for scattered bombings and assassinations, while flying checkpoints by nightfall before disappearing back into the shadows before sunrise.

Despite the slow and bloody progress that has marked the last days of the SDF’s anti-IS campaign in Baghouz, sources who spoke to Syria Direct on Tuesday appeared confident that battle would soon reach a decisive conclusion.

“I believe that the battle will end within days after seeing surrenders from among their ranks,” said one SDF fighter.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman. Follow Mohammad on Twitter: @mohamma59717689.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.