US-backed forces make final push in long battle with IS

US soldiers survey the area during a combined joint patrol in Manbij.
US soldiers survey the area during a combined joint patrol in Manbij.

US-backed forces were locked in fierce fighting on Sunday as they pressed the battle against the last shred of the Islamic State 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 on Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow civilians to flee.

An SDF field commander said his fighters were battling their way forwards on Sunday morning.

“There are heavy clashes at the moment. We have launched an assault and the fighters are advancing,” he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said coalition planes and artillery had bombarded jihadist positions.

“The battle is ongoing. There were heavy clashes this morning, with landmines going off,” head of the Britainbased Observatory Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The SDF launched an offensive to expel IS from the oilrich eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September.

The Kurdish-led alliance has since whittled down jihadistheld territory to a scrap of just 4km² between the Euphrates and the Iraqi border.

Up to 600 jihadists could still remain inside, most of them foreigners, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said.

But he added the extremist group’s elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was most likely not in the pocket.

“We do not think he is in Syria,” Bali said, without adding any details about the whereabouts of the man who declared a cross-border IS “caliphate” in 2014.

On the Iraqi side of the border, French members of the coalition on Saturday stood ready to pour fury on any IS diehards seeking to escape.

Dozens of 155mm shells were lined up ready to be loaded onto three green-and-black Caesar gun-howitzers with a range of 40km.

Coalition deputy commander Christopher Ghika said on Friday Iraqi forces had sealed the border of their country.

At the height of their rule, the jihadists imposed their brutal interpretation of Islamic law on a territory roughly the size of Britain.

But separate military offensives in both countries, including by the SDF, have since retaken the vast bulk of that “caliphate”.

On Saturday, Bali said he expected the battle for the last patch of IS territory to be over in days. The jihadists however retain a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert, and have claimed a series of deadly attacks by sleeper cells in SDF-held areas.

Since December, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of jihadist fighters, have fled out into SDF-held areas, the Observatory says.

That figure includes about 3,400 suspected jihadists detained by the SDF, according to the monitor, , which relies on sources inside Syria.

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.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since erupting eight years ago. – AFP