BAGHOUZ, SYRIA – U.S.-backed fighters are moving slowly into Islamic State’s final pocket in eastern Syria to avoid losses in the face of sniper fire and land mines, a commander said on Monday.
Warplanes flew above Baghouz, a cluster of houses on the banks of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border where Islamic State fighters still hold out, and smoke rose from the area along with the sound of intermittent clashes.
The defeat of Islamic State at Baghouz will mark a milestone in the campaign against the jihadi group, ending its control of populated territory in the area straddling Iraq and Syria where it suddenly expanded in 2014 and declared a caliphate.
However, it has already shown it will continue to mount a potent security threat, with a string of insurgent attacks in both countries.
Pro-Syrian government forces hold the opposite bank of the Euphrates across from Baghouz and Iraqi militias are stationed at the border, cutting off any easy escape route for the jihadis.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has made “modest advances” since resuming its assault late on Sunday, killing and wounding many jihadi fighters said Adnan Afrin, a senior commander in the U.S.-backed militia.
The SDF pressed on with operations on Monday along with coalition airstrikes, but Afrin said advances were slow because the SDF wanted to complete the campaign with minimal losses.
Islamic State fighters attempted four suicide attacks but the SDF captured an arms dump, said militia spokesman Mustafa Bali. One SDF fighter was killed and four wounded.
The SDF has held off from a full assault for most of the past few weeks as many thousands of people poured from the enclave, including surrendering fighters, Islamic State supporters, other civilians and some of the group’s captives.
By Sunday evening, no more people had come out, prompting the SDF to start its attack.
Inside Baghouz, a squalid area of makeshift shelters, garbage and trenches filmed by Reuters TV on Sunday showed the harsh conditions in the ruins of Islamic State’s “caliphate.”
Amid palm trees and scrubby patches of vegetation in front of dry bluffs, rusting cars stood among the bivouacs made by stringing blankets from rope. Oil drums and plastic barrels lay scattered around.
The SDF has shipped most people fleeing the wreckage of Islamic State’s rule over recent weeks to al-Hol in northeast Syria where some 65,000 people now live in a camp that the U.N. says was built to house 20,000.
The obdurate support voiced by many of them for Islamic State, particularly among foreigners, has posed a complex security, legal and moral challenge for both the SDF and their own governments.
Those issues were underscored on Friday with the death of the newborn son of Shamima Begum, a British woman who left to join Islamic State when she was a schoolgirl.
On Monday, the head of the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said there were about 3,000 children from 43 countries living in al-Hol, along with many more Syrian and Iraqi children, in “extremely dire conditions.
“Since the 1st of January 2019, every single day, a child has died fleeing the fight against ISIS,” said the UNICEF head, Geert Cappelaere, at a news conference in Beirut.