Saturday 23 February 2019

Fear and frustration stalk desert as Isil fighters cling to last square mile

  

Kurdish officials have said Isil may be claiming to hold high-value captives to gain a stronger hand in the negotiations. (Militant Photo via AP)
Kurdish officials have said Isil may be claiming to hold high-value captives to gain a stronger hand in the negotiations. (Militant Photo via AP)

Josie Ensor

The landscape of the eastern Syrian Desert is so flat that from a vantage point 300 yards away you can almost see the entirety of the minuscule last pocket of territory ruled over by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Women in black abayas walk the street that runs through the village of Baghuz in Deir Ezzor province - a hamlet so small it does not even feature on the map - while white Toyota pickup trucks speed past.

A once-vast, cross-border territory that had covered an area the size of Britain has been reduced to just a square-mile patch, surrounded on the eastern side by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the militia allied with the UK, and cut off to the west by the Euphrates river. The topography has made it easy for the SDF to keep an eye on its enemy, but has also made the final battle the most difficult in the three-year war against the jihadists.

"You see those women just over there?" asks Heval Khalid, the local commander, as he points into the near distance. "Daesh [a pejorative term for Isil] has put them between our forces and theirs, using them as human shields so we have not been able to advance.

"They make the women and children walk outside the houses, collecting firewood and water, leaving us with no choice but to change tack."

The SDF says it has halted fighting to protect civilians, though reports suggest the real reason for the pause is that negotiations are taking place over a number of hostages held by the jihadists, including dozens of SDF fighters captured several months ago. Whether this includes John Cantlie, the British photojournalist kidnapped in 2012 whom Ben Wallace, the UK Security Minister, said this week may still be alive, remains unclear.

Kurdish officials have said Isil may be claiming to hold high-value captives to gain a stronger hand in the negotiations. It is understood they are yet to provide proof of life, but have been asking in return for safe passage to Idlib in north-western Syria - the only remaining rebel stronghold.

The fact the SDF feels comfortable enough to take journalists to a rooftop within striking range of Isil suggests a de facto ceasefire is in place.

Commander Khalid estimates some 1,000-1,500 hardcore fighters remain - most of them foreign - and as many as 2,000 civilians.

Another commander, who declines to give his name as he is not authorised to speak to the media, says there are three groups left: "The local Syrians who believe this is their land and it should be up to them to decide what to do; the Iraqis who see themselves as acting in the wishes of their caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (himself an Iraqi), and the foreigners who believe they are the most important."

He adds: "The locals want to surrender, while the foreigners want to stay and fight until the end as they have nothing to lose."

While Isil has threatened those who try to flee, civilians still stream out. More than 36,000 people have escaped since December, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and every day hundreds more are being received at a screening centre just outside Baghuz. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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