US-backed forces launch ‘decisive battle’ against last Islamic State enclave in Syria
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces have launched a ‘last battle’ against Islamic State. (AP: Asmaa Waguih)
US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces have launched a final push to defeat the Islamic State group in the last tiny pocket the extremists hold in eastern Syria.
- More than 20,000 civilians evacuated from the besieged enclave
- 12 IS gunmen attacked the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and clashed with them for several hours
- Syrian opposition activists said Islamic State militants have attacked US-backed fighters near an oil field
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), tweeted that the offensive began Saturday (local time) after more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the IS-held area in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.
An SDF statement said the offensive was focused on the village of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border.
The SDF, backed by US air power, has driven IS from large swaths of territory it once controlled in northern and eastern Syria, confining the extremists to a small pocket of land near the border with Iraq.
Scores of IS fighters are now besieged in two villages, or less than 1 per cent of the self-styled caliphate that once sprawled across large parts of Syria and Iraq.
In recent weeks, thousands of civilians, including families of IS fighters, left the area controlled by the extremists.
“The decisive battle began [Saturday night] to finish what remains of Daesh terrorists,” Mr Bali said, using an Arabic acronym to refer to IS.
“The battle is very fierce,” he later told The Associated Press.
“Those remaining inside are the most experienced who are defending their last stronghold. According to this you can imagine the ferocity and size of the fighting.”
Mr Bali did not say how long they expect the battle to last.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said SDF fighters were advancing “cautiously” due to mines planted by IS gunmen.
It said US-led coalition warplanes were giving cover to advancing SDF fighters.
US President Donald Trump predicted last week that IS will have lost all of its territory by next week.
Mustafa Bali twitter: “After saving more than 20K civilians from IS-held area and ensuring their safety in nearby camps, #SDF started to move on to the last village remaining under jihadists’ control in N. Syria. Village of Baghuz, which is the only remaining #ISIS pocket, will be cleared soon.”
“It should be formally announced sometime, probably next week, that we will have 100 per cent of the caliphate,” Mr Trump told representatives of the 79-member, US-led coalition fighting IS.
US officials have said in recent weeks that IS has lost 99.5 per cent of its territory and is holding onto fewer than 5 square kilometres in Syria, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated.
But activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq, and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency.
The US military has warned the group could stage a comeback if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased.
The Observatory said that since the SDF began its offensive against IS in the area on September 10, some 1,279 IS gunmen and 678 SDF fighters have been killed.
It said 401 civilians, including 144 children and teenagers, have been killed since then.