Original article by Richard Hall, Independent, Feb 15, 2019


SDF forces return across the Syrian desert after a long day fighting the last remnants of ISIS – Twitter @rojavaic

The Isis caliphate has been reduced to a few dozen tents in a small village in eastern Syria, where several hundred fighters are hiding among civilians.

Dozens of hardened Isis members have surrendered over the past few days as the group has been surrounded in an orchard in the village of Baghouz, in Deir ez-Zor. Families, too, have filed out of the camped settlement, realising the end is near.   

But some jihadis are choosing to fight to the end, and they are preventing civilians still living there from leaving. Some 1,600 women and children remain in the last area under Isis control, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed force leading the battle. Most of them are thought to be family members of Isis militants.

Around 54 tents, set up to house civilians still remaining in the Isis-held territory, are now all that remains. Grainy images of the scene from Wednesday show a collection of ramshackle tents with women in abayas moving among them, a handful of vehicles scattered around.

Fighting was paused overnight on Wednesday to allow the holdouts a chance to surrender, but that deadline has now passed and a final offensive is expected to be launched soon.

“The operation is coming toward an end, and the eradication of Isis,” said Adnan Afrin, the Syrian Democratic Forces commander in charge of the Baghouz offensive.

“Two days ago we were talking about kilometres, yesterday we said a square kilometre, but today it’s even less. Now, we talk about hundreds of square metres,” he told the Rojava Information Centre.

The commander said the last Isis holdouts were mostly foreign fighters, who had prevented others from fleeing.

More than 20,000 civilians, mostly women and children, have fled Isis-held areas over the past month, arriving on the other side of the frontlines in a terrible condition.

“Among those arriving to be screened are the wives of Isis fighters, some of whom sustained gunshot wounds while fleeing from Isis,” said UK Major General Christopher Ghika, deputy commander in the anti-Isis coalition. “These utterly despicable and ghastly acts further illustrate their barbaric nature and desperation as Isis struggles to hold onto its remaining territory.”

He added that the fight against Isis would continue after the fall of the caliphate. 

“While Isis is on the verge of collapse, and the end of the physical caliphate is at hand, it does not signal the end of this campaign. Isis continues to pose a threat to the security of the region, and we will pursue it until that threat is eliminated,” he said. 

One mother who fled earlier this month told The Independent that food was scarce, and that she had kept her infant child alive by feeding him flour and water.  

After leaving the scene of fighting, civilians are taken north to a detention camp, where they are investigated for links to Isis. The arduous journey, together with lack of medical care and cold temperatures at the camp, has led to the death of 51 children over the past month, according to the International Rescue Committee.