US-backed Syrian force begins ‘final battle’ against Islamic State
Jihadist group’s enclave is close to the Iraqi border and comprises two villages
Civilians who have fled fighting in Bagouz, Syria, wait to board trucks after being screened by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began an assault against the final Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria on Saturday in a bid to wipe out the last vestige of the jihadist group’s “caliphate” in the SDF’s area of operations.
The enclave is close to the Iraqi border and comprises two villages, though Islamic State, also known as Isis, also still has territory in the part of Syria that is mostly under the control of the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government.
SDF official Mustafa Bali, speaking to Reuters, described the assault as “the last battle”. He later wrote on Twitter that the attack had started and the enclave would “be cleared soon”.
The SDF had handled the last 10 days “patiently” as more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the besieged IS enclave, Mr Bali said.
Senior SDF official Redur Xelil told Reuters the force hoped to capture the area by the end of February, but cautioned that IS would continue to pose “great and serious” security threats even after that.
President Donald Trump, who is planning to pull US forces out of Syria, said on Wednesday he expected an announcement as early as next week that the US-led coalition operating in support of the SDF had reclaimed all the territory previously held by the jihadist group.
Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a “caliphate” across large areas of Syria and Iraq. But the group steadily lost ground and its two main prizes - the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul - fell in 2017.
US security sources said the US government’s top experts strongly believe IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.
Spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF has been the main US partner in Syria and has driven Islamic State out of a swathe of the north and east over the last four years.
After capturing Raqqa, the SDF advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province, attacking the jihadists in territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.
The remaining Islamic State territory in Syria is west of the Euphrates.
Mr Trump said in December he was pulling all 2,000 US troops out of Syria, saying the battle against Islamic State there was almost won.
But a top US general said on Tuesday the group would pose an enduring threat following the US withdrawal, as it retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that would fuel a menacing insurgency. – Reuters