Tuesday 19 March 2019

Isil cornered but still unbowed in last stronghold

A fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) searches through ruble in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria. Photo: REUTERS/Rodi Said
A fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) searches through ruble in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria. Photo: REUTERS/Rodi Said

Roland Oliphant in Baghuz

In Baghuz, a single black flag fluttered yesterday in a light afternoon breeze above wrecked vehicles and improvised tents - the last Isil banner flying over the last of its territory east of the Euphrates. The final slice of the terror group's "caliphate" was braced for a fresh assault from Western-backed forces.

After years of hard fighting, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led alliance, has boxed Isil into a tiny triangle of land next to the village of Baghuz, a rural settlement on the Euphrates river.

But for the past week, the battle has been locked in a frustrating stalemate.

Bound by high cliffs to the south, the river to the west, and by SDF positions in the wrecked houses of the village to the north and east, the jihadists have nowhere left to run.

However, with dedicated fighters packed in among an unknown number of civilians, the SDF was forced to pause or risk colossal collateral damage. "We can't advance any more. There is just not more space between fighters and civilians," said an SDF fighter just 200 metres away from Isil positions.

"It is impossible to go any further. The fighters are living with their families. There is no way to discriminate between them and the women and children," he said. "The only thing to do is wait for them to come out."

But SDF and coalition commanders appeared to lose patience last night.

Hours after this reporter saw the Isil flag flying, airstrikes lit up the sky as coalition jets struck targets in the shanty town after sunset.

There are only a dozen or so low, flat-topped concrete buildings in Isil's last stronghold.

Isil members leaving the pocket said people avoid staying in the buildings because they tend to be targeted by missiles. Instead, people live in a sea of huts and tents among what were once fields and orchards.

The proximity of the two forces is alarming. A building near the frontline briefly came under Isil fire as we visited forward SDF positions yesterday, and soldiers say small children sometimes come within 50 metres of their positions, searching desperately for food.

The misery of life inside Isil's last pocket is starkly apparent. In former defensive positions stormed by the SDF just days ago, shelters are stuffed with the mundane clutter of a family household: mattresses, blankets, saucepans and clothes left behind by fleeing families.

But scattered among personal effects are fighting equipment: loaded Kalashnikov magazines, loose 7.62mm rounds and rocket-propelled grenades.

No one knows for sure how many fighters, civilians, and hostages remain in Baghuz. One SDF unit commander suggested 2,000 fighters and 6,000 women and children remain.

But the SDF, the Western militaries of the coalition, and various humanitarian groups have all badly underestimated the numbers concentrated here in the past. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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