Thursday 27 June 2019

Jihadists are pinned down in battle for Isil's last square mile

Smoke: An explosion on the frontline in Bagouz, Syria. Photo: Getty Images
Smoke: An explosion on the frontline in Bagouz, Syria. Photo: Getty Images

Josie Ensor Erbil

US-backed troops yesterday battled at Syria's eastern edge to oust Isil from the last square mile of the group's once-sprawling so-called caliphate territory.

More than four years into Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led coalition against Isil is close to claiming victory in the battle for territory once overrun by jihadists from all over the world.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led group and the lead coalition proxy on the ground, said late on Saturday that it would mount a final push following a week-long pause in fighting.

The SDF claimed the pause was because Isil was using civilians as human shields.

However, it is understood the reason was to allow for negotiations between the SDF and Isil, which had been seeking safe passage to other desert areas of Syria in return for the release of dozens of SDF fighters captured in battle.

Talks collapsed on Friday and on Saturday Isil released a video of the execution of two Arab members of the SDF.

The SDF, backed by coalition air power, has mowed through Isil's former territory, moving south to a one square mile wedge of land bordered by the Iraqi border to the east and the Euphrates river to the west.

The SDF yesterday pushed towards the village of Bagouz, where it is estimated up to 600 jihadists could remain, including many foreign fighters.

"Our forces are relying on direct combat with light weapons," said Mustafa Bali, the SDF spokesman, claiming his men had captured 41 jihadist positions before the day's end.

Just inside Iraq, French troops were poised to ambush any jihadists trying to escape across the border they once bulldozed through with ease.

Coalition deputy commander Christopher Ghika last week said Iraqi forces had sealed their border with Syria.

But even as the ground held by the jihadists shrinks, the terror group maintains a network of cells and supporters spanning the globe.

The presence of hundreds of foreign fighters and their wives raises difficult questions about the group's legacy and the willingness of other countries to tackle it head-on.

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