Waves of people still leaving Islamic State’s last Syrian enclave

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces launched final assault on Baghouz last month

Civilians evacuated from  Islamic State’s holdout of Baghouz wait for bread and water at a screening area held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor, on Tuesday. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Civilians evacuated from Islamic State’s holdout of Baghouz wait for bread and water at a screening area held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor, on Tuesday. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

 

Thousands of people could still be left inside Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said, as the waves of evacuations from the tiny area continued on Thursday.

The SDF has said it wants to ensure all civilians have been evacuated before launching a final assault on the besieged enclave of Baghouz. It is the last shred of populated territory held by the Islamic State terror group, also known as Isis, which once controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria.

“We are still hearing about the presence of thousands inside Baghouz,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told al-Hadath television.

“We expect a fierce battle later on after the end of the civilian evacuation, given that those that will remain in Baghouz are the ones brimming with salafi jihadi ideology and the ones for whom surrender is not an option,” he said.

Even with its defeat at Baghouz looming large, Islamic State is still widely assessed to represent a security threat, with a foothold in patches of remote territory and the ability to mount guerrilla attacks.

Many thousands of people, many of them the families of Islamic State fighters, have poured out of Baghouz over the last several weeks. Hundreds of Islamic State militants have also surrendered, the SDF says.

The SDF announced it was launching a final battle for the enclave last month but has slowed its attack to allow civilians to leave. SDF commander Adnan Afrin said on Thursday he hoped the evacuations would “be completed today”.

On Wednesday the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said preparations were under way in eastern Syria to announce the end of Islamic State there. But Col Sean Ryan, spokesman for the US-led coalition backing the SDF, said the international force had “learned not to put any timetables on the last battle”.

Islamic State suffered its major military defeats in 2017 when it was driven from the Iraqi city of Mosul and its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa by local forces supported by a US-led international coalition.

The head of the US military’s central command, Gen Joseph Votel, said on Thursday the reduction of Islamic State’s territorial footprint was a “monumental military accomplishment”, but the fight was “far from over”.

“What we are seeing now is not the surrender of Isis as an organisation,” he told a hearing of the US House of Representatives armed services committee.

Rather, he said, it was the group’s “calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge”. – Reuters