US-backed fighters expect ‘fierce battle’ with Islamic State

Terror group remains holed up in Syrian enclave in spite of Trump’s ‘100 per cent victory’ claim

Civilians evacuated this week from Baghouz, the Islamic State terror  group’s last enclave in Syria. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Civilians evacuated this week from Baghouz, the Islamic State terror group’s last enclave in Syria. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

 

US-backed Syrian fighters said on Friday they expect a fierce battle with Islamic State militants still holed up in their last enclave in eastern Syria, after US president Donald Trump said the jihadists had been driven from all the territory they held.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been poised for several weeks to wipe out the last vestige of Islamic State’s territorial rule at the besieged village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border, but the operation has been held up by efforts to evacuate thousands of civilians.

The United Nations said at least 84 people, two thirds of them children, had died since December on their way to a camp in northeastern Syria where thousands of people have been taken after leaving the shrinking Islamic State area.

The terror group’s enclave at Baghouz, a tiny area on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, is the last populated territory held by the jihadists who have been steadily driven by an array of enemies from swathes of land they once held.

Though the fall of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State, also known as Isis, the group continues to be seen as a security threat, using guerrilla tactics and holding some desolate territory in a remote area west of the Euphrates River.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said Islamic State militants were still holed up inside the area and had not surrendered, and that there were still civilians in the enclave. The SDF planned to evacuate another large group of civilians on Friday, he said.

“We won’t storm the village and declare it liberated unless we have completely confirmed the departure of civilians,” he said. “We expect a fierce battle”. Many of the jihadists left in Baghouz are foreign fighters, the SDF has said previously.

Sheltering in caves

Speaking to American troops in Alaska on Thursday, Mr Trump said: “We just took over, you know, you kept hearing it was 90 per cent, 92 per cent, the caliphate in Syria. Now it’s 100 per cent we just took over, 100 per cent caliphate.”

Some 40,000 people have crossed out of the jihadists’ diminishing territory in the last three months as the US-backed SDF sought to drive the militants from remaining pockets.

The number of evacuees pouring out of Baghouz has surpassed initial estimates of how many were inside.

An SDF commander said on Thursday that many of the people leaving Baghouz had been sheltering underground in caves and tunnels.

A spokesman for the US-led international coalition, which supports the SDF, said the Kurdish-led Syrian group had adopted a “slow and deliberate” approach to Baghouz. “They are dealing with multiple dilemmas and trying to stabilise the area,” Col Sean Ryan said.

The coalition said late on Thursday it had killed veteran French jihadist Fabien Clain, who voiced a recording claiming responsibility for the November 2015 attacks on Paris, in a strike in Baghouz. It did not say when he had been killed.

The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly to support the SDF in fighting against Islamic State.

Mr Trump announced in December he would withdraw all of them because Islamic State had already been defeated, a decision that shocked allies and top aides and prompted defence secretary Jim Mattis to quit. Earlier this month, the White House partially reversed the decision and said around 400 US troops would stay. – Reuters