Syria: Kurdish-led fighters pressed their assault against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria Monday, boxing the jihadists into a tiny last pocket of land along the Euphrates River.
Bad weather and reduced visibility delayed the launch of yet another push to flush out the few hundred die-hard jihadists battling to defend the remnants of their once-sprawling “caliphate”.
With support from a US-led military coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces are in the final stages of an assault launched more than four months ago against the jihadists’ last bastion.
A dwindling number of IS fighters, led mostly by Iraqi commanders, are now defending only a handful of hamlets in the Euphrates Valley, SDF commander Heval Roni said.
“Geographically speaking, there are only four square kilometres left under IS control, stretching from Baghouz to the Iraqi border,” he told AFP in the Baghouz area.
“There are some high-ranking IS leaders among them… but we don’t know who exactly,” said Heval Roni, who heads SDF operations in the area.
The SDF is a Kurdish-led force that also includes Arab fighters from the region and which has spearheaded the fight against IS in Syria since it was formed in 2015.
– ‘No end to IS’ –
The commander said he had no information about IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is believed to still be alive and is the world’s most wanted man.
In an interview to AFP last week, the top commander of the SDF said the battle was winding up but that his forces would need about a month to assert full control over the area and declare victory.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 1,200 jihadists and around half as many SDF fighters have been killed since the start of the offensive on September 10.
The Britain-based monitoring group says more than 400 civilians have also perished, many of them killed by coalition air strikes.
The SDF has warned that perilous sweeping operations would follow the conquest of IS’s last fixed position in the area.
US President Donald Trump announced in December that he had ordered a complete troop withdrawal from Syria, a move that left the SDF feeling betrayed and exposed to Turkish threats.
Trump justified the decision by claiming that IS had been defeated, a claim described as premature by most, including by members of his own administration.
The White House’s special envoy to the fight against IS resigned after the announcement.
The main US partner on the ground in Syria has said that the final demise of the “caliphate” as a statehood experiment will not eliminate the threat posed by IS as an armed group.
“There is no end to IS as an organisation. They’ve been trying to finish Al-Qaeda for 20 years and they didn’t manage. It’ll be the same with IS,” said Heval Roni.