Kurds report ‘significant progress’ in fight against Isis in Baghouz
Clashes continuing as group of Isis fighters confined to pocket still resisting, says SDF
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces who are opposing Isis fighters in the village of Baghouz. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces captured hundreds of wounded jihadis on Tuesday at the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz, the last bastion of the former “caliphate” stretching from central Syria to eastern Iraq.
Kurdish spokesman Mustafa Bali said 157 jihadis, “mostly foreign nationals”, had been seized while wounded fighters were being transported to medical facilities in Hasakeh province in northeastern Syria.
Although he told Kurdish news agency Rudaw that the Kurds have taken over the tent camp of Islamic State (also known as Isis), the battle has not yet been won. “This is not a victory announcement, but [a report on] significant progress in the fight against [Isis]. Clashes are continuing as a group of Isis terrorists who are confined to a tiny area still fight back.” Isis fighters have also mounted attacks on Kurdish positions outside Baghouz.
Another Kurdish spokesman, Kino Gabriel, has estimated that some 5,000 fighters and family members remain in the besieged, shelled, scorched and bombarded pocket, sheltering in trenches and tunnels.
When they mounted their campaign in southeastern Syria, the Kurds did not expect an exodus of 34,000 local and displaced civilians, 5,000 fighters and 35,000 family members from the Baghouz enclave. Among the civilians were hostages, enslaved Yazidis and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen who had taken refuge from Iraqi Shia militiamen in Baghouz, which is located just across the border from Iraq.
In a separate operation, Kurdish forces have detained Isis militants involved in the January suicide bombing that killed four US military personnel in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. This was the worst attack on US forces since they entered Syria in 2015.
In the northwest, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, has been attacking jihadi groups in Idlib province. This is not the promised frontal assault postponed last September but tactical operations on the edges of the province where thousands of jihadi fighters are based among three million civilians.
The army has been compelled to take action by al-Qaeda’s Tahrir al-Sham and its allies, which have staged attacks outside Idlib. Jihadis have brought in Russia by launching armed drones at the Russian airbase in Latakia province south of Idlib.
Following consultations with Iraqi and Iranian army chiefs visiting Damascus, Syrian defence minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub said: “The Syrian government will reassert its complete control over all Syrian territory sooner or later.” Damascus “will deal with [Kurdish forces] in one or two ways: a reconciliation agreement or liberating the territory they control by force.”
The Kurds responded by criticising the “threatening language” used by Mr Ayoub. Damascus has been negotiating terms with the Kurds, who hold 25 per cent of Syria, since last year but they seek autonomy in a federation – a demand the government rejects.
Mr Ayoub also vowed to reclaim Idlib and stressed the importance of co-operation and co-ordination among the three militaries “to confront challenges, dangers and threats” posed by terrorism.
On the political front, new UN envoy Geir Pederson of Norway was told by Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem that the process of writing and adopting a post-war constitution must be “Syrian led and owned”, thereby dismissing efforts of external actors to draft a document.