Dying days of caliphate in Syria as ISIS fighters trapped
BAGHOUZ, Syria – Jihadist fighters defending the last dreg of the Islamic State group's "caliphate" Saturday, February 16 were holed up in half a square kilometer of a village in eastern Syria.
US President Donald Trump said the fall of the ISIS proto-state would be announced Saturday, but a top Syrian commander said his forces had slowed down their advance to protect civilians.
The jihadists declared a "caliphate" in large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, but have since lost all of it but the tiny patch in eastern Syria near the border with Iraq.
Hundreds of meters (yards) from the frontline in the village of Baghouz, an Agence France-Presse reporter heard artillery shelling and two air strikes on the jihadist holdout.
Huge craters had been blown into the ground, and the road was lined with destroyed buildings and the skeletons of burned-out cars.
"ISIS is besieged in a neighborhood that is estimated to be 700 meters long and 700 meters wide" in the village, said Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander Jia Furat.
"Baghouz is within our firing range but we are moving cautiously considering there are civilians still trapped there as human shields," said Furat, the overall commander for the operation.
"In a very short time, not longer than a few days, we will officially announce the end of ISIS' existence," he told reporters at the Omar oil field turned SDF base.
'Lapses' in timetable
Thousands of people have flooded out of Baghouz over the past week – mostly women and children related to ISIS fighters, but also suspected jihadists.
But SDF spokesman said there were "still civilians inside in large numbers".
"We weren't expecting this number... This is why it's been delayed," SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin told AFP.
Trump at around 1600 GMT on Friday said announcements over "the eradication of the caliphate" would be made "over the next 24 hours".
On Saturday, US-led coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan acknowledged that the timeline had slipped because of the presence of civilians inside.
"There has been lapses as we continue to see hundreds of civilians still attempting to flee to safety," he said.
"The area of Baghouz has many tunnels, which slows operations."
The Kurdish-led SDF fighters are busy clearing improvised explosives from the area while staying on the lookout for any ISIS suicide bombers, he added.
Human Rights Watch called on commanders not to try to accelerate the offensive to suit Trump's timetable.
"The tempo of battle must not be dictated by political imperatives – it must first of all protect civilians and possible hostages," HRW's director of counterterrorism, Nadim Houry, told AFP.
The SDF said dozens of ISIS fighters had surrendered to advancing SDF fighters.
The Kurdish-Arab alliance have been closing in on holdout jihadists since September.
The speck of terrain in Baghouz is all that is left of a self-proclaimed "caliphate" that in 2014 spanned an area the size of the United Kingdom.
Successive offensives in Iraq and Syria have shattered the proto-state.
'Hunt down' IS remnants
Trump's promise of a victory declaration came after he shocked allies with a December announcement that he had ordered a full troop withdrawal from Syria because ISIS had been "beaten".
That plan, which prompted the resignation of then defense secretary Jim Mattis, is set to be accelerated following a victory announcement.
Beyond Baghouz, ISIS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries.
In Syria, it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and has claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.
The US Department of Defense has warned that without sustained counterterrorism pressure, ISIS could resurge within months.
US Vice President Mike Pence vowed Saturday at a security conference in the German city of Munich that Washington would continue to fight IS remnants even after a military pullout.
"The United States will continue to work with all our allies to hunt down the remnants of ISIS wherever and whenever they rear their ugly heads," Pence said, using an alternative acronym for IS, but providing no further details.
A US withdrawal risks leaving Syria's Kurds exposed to a long-threatened attack by neighboring Turkey, who views Kurdish fighters as "terrorists".
To prevent this, they have scrambled to seek a new ally in the Damascus government after spending most of Syria's civil war working towards self-rule.
Eight years into a war that has killed more than 360,000 people, President Bashar al-Assad's government controls nearly two-thirds of the country.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned in Munich that a US pullout risks allowing regime allies Russia and Iran to boost their role in Syria. – Rappler.com