US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian forces have launched a final push to defeat the Islamic State group in the last tiny pocket the extremists hold in eastern Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted the offensive began on Saturday after more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the Isis-held area in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor. An SDF statement said the offensive was focused on the village of Baghuz.
The SDF, backed by US air power, has driven Isis from large swaths of territory it once controlled in northern and eastern Syria, confining the extremists to a small pocket of land near the border with Iraq.
Scores of Isis fighters are now besieged in two villages, or less than 1% of the self-styled caliphate that once sprawled across large parts of Syria and Iraq. In recent weeks, thousands of civilians, including families of Isis fighters, left the area controlled by the extremists.
“The decisive battle began tonight to finish what remains of Daesh terrorists,” Bali said, using an Arabic name for Isis.Advertisement
“The battle is very fierce,” he later told the Associated Press. “Those remaining inside are the most experienced who are defending their last stronghold. According to this you can imagine the ferocity and size of the fighting.”
Bali did not say how long they expecte the battle to last.
The Britain-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters were advancing “cautiously” due to mines planted by Isis gunmen. It said US-led coalition’s warplanes are giving cover to advancing SDF fighters.
The US president, Donald Trump, predicted on Wednesday that Isis will have lost all of its territory by next week.
“It should be formally announced some time, probably next week, that we will have 100% of the caliphate,” Trump told representatives of the 79-member coalition fighting Isis.
U.S. officials have said in recent weeks that Isis has lost 99.5% of its territory and is holding on to fewer than 5 square kilometres in Syria, or less than 2 square miles, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated. But activists and residents say Isis still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq, and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency. The US military has warned the group could stage a comeback if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased.
Earlier on Saturday, Isis militants attacked SDF fighters near an oil field in the country’s east, triggering airstrikes by the US-led coalition.