Dying days of caliphate in Syria

Baghouz: Fighters defending the last dreg of the IS group’s “caliphate” on Saturday were holed up in half a square kilometre of a village in eastern Syria. US President Donald Trump said the fall of the IS proto-state would be announced on Saturday, but a top Syrian commander said his forces had slowed down their advance to protect civilians. The extremists declared a “caliphate” in large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but have since lost all of it but the tiny patch in eastern Syria near the border with Iraq.
Hundreds of metres from the frontline in the village of Baghouz, an AFP reporter heard artillery shelling and two air strikes on the extremists holdout.
Huge craters had been blown into the ground, and the road was lined with destroyed buildings and the skeletons of burned-out cars.
“IS is besieged in a neighbourhood that is estimated to be 700 metres long and 700 metres 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 IS’s existence,” he told reporters at the Omar oil field turned SDF base.
Thousands of people have flooded out of Baghouz over the past week —mostly women and children related to IS fighters, but also suspected extremists.
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 said.
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 IS 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, said.
The SDF said dozens of IS fighters had surrendered to advancing SDF fighters. The Kurdish-Arab alliance have been closing in on holdout extremists 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.
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 IS had been “beaten”.
That plan, which prompted the resignation of then defence secretary Jim Mattis, is set to be accelerated following a victory announcement. Beyond Baghouz, IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries. — AFP