OMAR OIL FIELD (Syria): US-backed forces were locked in fierce fighting on Sunday as they pressed the battle against the last shred of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group’s “caliphate” in eastern Syria.
The jihadists overran large parts of the country and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but various military offensives have since reduced that territory to a patch on the Iraqi border.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by a US-led coalition, announced a final push to retake the jihadist pocket late Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow civilians to flee.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on Sunday afternoon said his fighters had battled their way forwards against the jihadists, capturing 41 positions from them. “Our forces are relying on direct combat with light weapons,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said the SDF had advanced across farming land, backed by coalition air strikes and artillery fire.
Earlier, an SDF field commander reported “heavy clashes” as his fighters gained ground.
The SDF launched an offensive to expel IS from the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September. The Kurdish-led alliance has since whittled down jihadist-held territory to a scrap of just four square kilometres between the Euphrates and the Iraqi border.
But Bali added the extremist group’s elusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was likely not in the last pocket. “We do not think he is in Syria,” Bali said, without adding further details about the whereabouts of the man who declared a cross-border IS “caliphate” in 2014.
On Saturday, Bali said he expected the battle for the last patch of IS territory to be over in days.
Since December, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of jihadist fighters, have fled out into SDF-held areas, the Observatory says.
The SDF holds hundreds of foreigners accused of belonging to the extremist group in its custody, as well as members of their families.
They have urged Western governments to repatriate their nationals, but politicians abroad have been reluctant.
Relatives at home fear alleged foreign jihadists may end up facing tough justice in Iraq, where Human Rights Watch warned they could face “torture and unfair trials”.
On Sunday, a Russian diplomatic source says Russia was repatriating 27 children who mothers are being held in Iraq for belonging to IS.
Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2019