Isis stall advance of US-backed forces in eastern Syria
Despite air raids, fighters from jihadi bastion in Kurdish-controlled area reclaim positions
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters stand guard as a convoy of trucks transports civilians fleeing the battered Islamic State-held holdout of Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor on Monday. Photograph: Fadel Senna/AFP
Reported civilians fleeing the battered Islamic State-held holdout of Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor sit in the back of a truck on Monday. Photograph: Fadel Senna/AFP
Fierce resistance from Islamic State fighters has stalled the advance of US-backed forces on the last jihadi bastion in the Kurdish-controlled area in eastern Syria. Despite US air raids and shelling, Islamic State – also known as Isis – recaptured positions seized by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces after the offensive began last Saturday.
The Kurds regained lost ground on Tuesday.
“The progress is slow and methodical as the enemy is fully entrenched and [Islamic State] fighters continue to conduct counter-attacks. The coalition continues to strike at [Isis] targets whenever possible,” said US-led coalition spokesman Col Sean Ryan.
Ryan did not say when the offensive would end, although US president Donald Trump has predicted victory over Isis within days.
The Kurds have encountered landmines, booby traps and snipers in the town of Baghouz near the Syrian-Iraqi border. Isis fighters operate from a network of tunnels which give them freedom of movement and the ability to attack and flee as well as protection from bombs and shells.
An unexpected exodus of 1,200 civilians since this operation began has compelled the US and its allies to reconsider their attack plan. Hundreds of civilians are believed to remain and are being used as human shields by the jihadis occupying the town. At least 86 civilians, including women and children, are reported to have died in coalition air strikes.
More than 20,000 civilians fled this area in the three weeks ahead of the operation to eradicate remnants of the “caliphate” which once controlled 400,000sq km of territory in Syria and Iraq. This has shrivelled to 4sq km in Baghouz and tiny pockets in government-held central Syria.
To complicate the situation, Syrian and Iraqi army gunners have been shelling Baghouz from nearby bases. Damascus and Baghdad are determined to stop jihadis from escaping into the desert.
Up to 600 Isis fighters have mounted a last stand in Baghouz. While many Iraqi and Syrian fighters have escaped, some disguised as women, most remaining are battle-hardened Turks, French, Russian Caucasians, Chinese Uighurs and other foreigners who cannot merge into local communities on either side of the border.
No option but to fight
They believe they have no option but to fight since their countries reject their return.
Self-proclaimed Isis caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his close aides have deserted the fighters in Syria and, reportedly, taken refuge in the mountains in eastern Iraq, their home country.
Civilians escaping Baghouz who have been interviewed by journalists taken to the front by the Kurds have claimed the fallen “Islamic State” was always an Iraqi entity ruled by Iraqis. This was inevitable because Isis was a 2013 offshoot of the Islamic State in Iraq founded by an al-Qaeda branch in Iraq a decade earlier.
Isis has prepared for the loss of its territorial base by establishing sleeper cells and resuming low-level insurgencies in Iraq and Syria and exporting the movement’s ideology to Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa.
There, young Muslims, alienated by poverty, lack of education, and unemployment, continue to be persuaded to fight for the mirage of Islamic State.