Remnants of Isis force sheltering among civilians for last stand

Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces prepare for final push against Islamic State diehards

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria. Photograph: Reuters

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria. Photograph: Reuters

 

During a lull in fighting Islamic State fighters could be seen on the move in their last neighbourhood of Baghouz village near the Iraqi border where they are sheltering among civilians.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the presence of civilians among the militants was compelling their fighters to proceed cautiously.

With US help, the Kurdish-led fighters are poised to seize Islamic State’s last holdout in eastern Syria. At the height of its power four years ago, Isis held about one-third of Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed caliphate.

But Islamic State still has thousands of fighters, who, now dispersed, are expected to turn to guerrilla-style attacks.

Consequently, US military and intelligence officials have warned of the risk of a resurgence of Islamic State. But the planned pullout of US forces raises an even more immediate concern to SDF commander-in-chief Mazloum Kobani who fears Turkey will make good on threats to attack the Kurdish-led fighters that Ankara brands terrorists. He warned of a “new genocide” in SDF-controlled areas of Syria unless the United States and its allies can reach some agreement with Turkey.

Mr Kobani thanked US president Donald Trump for publicly stating his intent to protect the SDF but said: “I want him to live up to his word.”

The SDF commander-in-chief called for about 1,000 to 1,500 international troops to remain in Syria to help fight Islamic State and expressed hope that the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout.

Without a deal with the US-led coalition, experts say Mr Kobani may have to strike an agreement with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to avoid a Turkish sweep or Isis revival.

US army Gen Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, is recommending continued support to the SDF as long as it continues to exert pressure on Islamic State militants.

But army Lieut Gen Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the US-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said on Sunday the United States would be legally unable to support the SDF if they partnered with President Assad or his Russian backers.

Mr Kobani said he was not seeking a military deal with Mr Assad.

“We’re trying to preserve the current situation,” he said. “We’re trying to have a political deal with the regime to reach a solution, a constitutional solution, for this part of Syria.”

Aftermath of fighting to to expel Islamic State group jihadists from their last bastion, in Baghouz. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Aftermath of fighting to to expel Islamic State group jihadists from their last bastion, in Baghouz. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
A village recently retaken from Islamic State militants by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Baghouz. Photograph: AP
A village recently retaken from Islamic State militants by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Baghouz. Photograph: AP
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, ahead of the final battle with Isis militants. Photograph: Reuters
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, ahead of the final battle with Isis militants. Photograph: Reuters
A heavily armoured troop carrier in transit in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria. Photograph: Reuters
A heavily armoured troop carrier in transit in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria. Photograph: Reuters
An armoured Humvee in the village of Baghouz. Photograph: Reuters
An armoured Humvee in the village of Baghouz. Photograph: Reuters
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces walk positions in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria. Photograph: Reuters
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces walk positions in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria. Photograph: Reuters

Perhaps sensing an opportunity to stoke doubt among Kurdish communities, Mr Assad warned on Sunday that the US would not protect those depending on it.

Senator Angus King, an Independent from Maine, is among the US politicians expressing concern the US withdrawal could deal a devastating blow to Kurdish forces and warned that any sense of US betrayal could cast a long shadow for years to come.

“It will chill future potential groups from assisting us if we’re going to treat the people who have been so stalwart on our behalf in this way. It is very dangerous in terms of national security,” he told said.

Turkey wants to set up a safe zone with logistical support from allies and says it should be cleared of the US-backed Kurdish YPG militia. But Mr Kobani said ceding the area to Turkish control would be unacceptable to the SDF, which is led by Kurdish fighters but also includes Arabs.

The US is hoping allies will contribute forces to help stabilise areas freed from Islamic State. But it is unclear which allies will send their troops once US forces depart.

A French diplomat said Europeans would not provide troops when it was unclear what the objectives of such a safe zone would be or how this would monitored or guaranteed.

“For now, there is no plan,” said the diplomat. – Reuters