Fighters and families with the Islamic State terror group are clinging to one last sliver of land next to the Euphrates River in Syria, using women, children and possible hostages as human shields in an effort to postpone defeat.
Human rights observers and officials with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say IS followers have been pushed out of the eastern Syrian village of Baghuz and taken refuge in what they describe as a collection of tents. Various officials have described the size of the camps as covering less than one square kilometer.
But efforts by the SDF to deal a final defeat to the terror group’s self-declared caliphate have been slowed due to the presence of the civilians, and efforts to negotiate a surrender have also gone nowhere.
Speaking at the White House on Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that’ll be announced over the next 24 hours and many other things.”
In Munich, the top U.S. defense official offered a cautious assessment.
“We have eliminated the group’s hold on over 99 percent of the territory it once claimed as part of its so-called caliphate,” acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan said during a Friday news conference with his German counterpart at the Munich Security Conference.
“We have ensured ISIS no longer holds the innocent people of Syria or Iraq in their murderous, iron fist,” he said, using an acronym for the terror group. “We have destroyed its ability to mass forces, and we have eliminated most of its leadership and significantly diminished its resources.”
‘Despicable and ghastly acts’
Coalition officials Thursday described SDF efforts in and around Baghuz as “clearance operations,” warning that IS fighters had become so desperate that they were shooting at their wives and children as they sought to flee.
“These utterly despicable and ghastly acts further illustrate their barbaric nature and desperation,” Operation Inherent Resolve Deputy Commander, British Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, said in a statement.
“The end of the physical caliphate is at hand,” he added.
Some IS followers appear to have given up.
Monitors with the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 240 IS fighters surrendered this past week. The U.S.-led coalition and an SDF commander contacted by VOA could not confirm the claim.
They said the SDF also evacuated about 700 people, mostly women and children, from the terror group’s refuge outside Baghuz on Thursday, taking them by cars and trucks to secured areas away from the front.
The SDF itself says over the past several weeks, tens of thousands of civilians have fled from IS.
But they say about 300 hardened IS fighters, many of them foreign, still remain, willing to fight to the death. And some SDF commanders say more civilians are being brought to the tent city, apparently from underground tunnels.
Observers late Thursday reported a resumption of shelling by the SDF and coalition forces, saying it appeared to be another attempt to convince the remaining IS holdouts to give up.
IS threat to remain
Still, even once the last pocket of IS-held territory is taken, U.S. and coalition officials warn the fight will not be over.
Top U.S. military officials have warned the terror group still has 20,000 to 30,000 followers, including fighters, spread across Syria and Iraq. And they worry about the ability of their Syrian partners, in particular, to keep IS in check once U.S. troops withdraw under plans announced by Trump.
The commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, Central Command Commander Gen. Joseph Votel, told CNN on Friday he disagreed with Trump’s decision to call for U.S. forces to leave.
“It would not have been my military advice at that particular time. … I would not have made that suggestion, frankly,” he said. “[The caliphate] still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.”
In the meantime, U.S. officials have been talking with other members of the coalition about increasing their help as U.S. troops prepare to leave. But so far, other coalition members, many of whom have no troops on the ground in Syria, have been unwilling to make any specific commitments.
“I think there’s a tremendous desire to have a security arrangement or mechanism that doesn’t result in a security vacuum. What that is … is still being developed,” a senior defense official said Friday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.
“We’ve been pretty clear that this is going to be a deliberate withdrawal,” the official added. “There’s a timeline associated with that that’s conditions-based. We’ve said publicly on a number of occasions that it will be here in months, not weeks and not years.” (VOA)
In October 2016, Umm Aysha and her three children huddled on the ground outside a bombed-out shopping plaza with a crowd of other women, all wearing the black veils required by Islamic State militants.
They were on the outskirts of Mosul city in Iraq, fleeing a battle as Iraqi, Syrian and coalition forces pummeled IS across the region from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city and village to village. “Our house was bombed,” she told VOA, explaining why she fled.
That battle subsided and bit by bit, IS lost the lands they captured over the previous three years. On Saturday, after five years of fighting, the militants lost their last sliver of land, a bombed out camp in Syria. What was once a self-proclaimed “Caliphate,” occupying vast territories in Iraq and Syria and bent on the destruction, is now once again an elusive insurgency.
But besides broken hearts, homes and families, IS is leaving a new threat in its wake, said Badran Chiya Kurd, an advisor for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which declared the final victory. Militants are regrouping and hope to continue to attacks in Syria, Iraq and around the world, he said.
Recovery for now-destroyed former IS holdings, including major cities in both Syria and Iraq, will require political will, investment and education, according to Kurd. If cities and towns remain in shambles without services or economies to speak of, extremism will continue to thrive, no matter who is officially in charge, he said.
“If we don’t get rid of the extremism, IS can come back at any time and destabilize our lands,” he added, speaking on the phone from his office in Qameshli, Syria.
Over the last few months, SDF forces battled for Baghuz, the last IS stronghold. Militants fought bitterly as IS supporters poured into camps and prisons, often vowing that IS will rise again.
But even back in 2016, when IS’s imminent demise was just becoming apparent in Mosul, Umm Aysha could see members of the group plotting their survival.
“There were two militants wearing veils among the women we came with,” she whispered. “They were wearing makeup and everything.”
The next time we saw Umm Aysha was only a few weeks later in November 2016, but we didn’t recognize her at first. She had cast off the black full-body and face veil and replaced it with a pink headscarf and a smile.
She was at one of the camps housing displaced families in northern Iraq, and the weeks without bombings had been a relief. The camp was quickly filling up and others were opening across Iraq and Syria. Millions of people would flee their homes as the fighting continued.
“It’s this one,” she said, showing us the tent her family would make a home for the winter, despite the increasingly cold and rainy weather.
She didn’t know then, that this tent would become her only home.
Over the course of the next 28 months, IS-held towns and cities fell to Iraqi, Syrian and coalition forces. Thousands of civilians were killed in airstrikes, and the bodies of militants were left strewn across the region.
In the final few months of fighting, many of the most devoted IS fighters finally surrendered after retreating for months or years with the group before their “last stand” in Baghuz.
Syrian camps and prisons are now packed with IS supporters, including thousands of foreigners–fighters, their wives and their children–from countries that are hesitating, and in some cases refusing, to take them back.
Many areas once occupied by IS have been rebuilt, but many have not. Locals whisper that they still fear IS and describe circumstances that lead to the rise of the group that are still present. The region remains unstable, poor and people often feel neglected by authorities.
“It was lucky we escaped early,” Umm Aysha told VOA in late-February this year as the final battles raged on in Syria. We sat in a small space secluded by tarps and blankest outside her tent, as she held her youngest child. Aysha was born only six months before and has never lived outside a camp. “If we had stayed with IS, who knows what my children would be like?”
Umm Aysha’s older three children played in the sun, vying to pose for pictures. They were not in school for different reasons. Marwa is 12, and stays home to help with household chores. Nahida, is 4. “I don’t have a backpack,” she said, explaining why she doesn’t go.
Mahmoud, 8, finds some of the children at school to be bullies and his mom fears the ones whose fathers were IS fighters could teach him extremist ideas.
“Of course they will grow up with the same ideologies as their fathers,” she said. “I tell my children not to talk about these things.”
At the al-Hol camp in Syria a week later, as IS was in the final throws of battle in Baghuz, children there said they were also not attending school. With about 62,000 new arrivals at the camp since December 4, 2018, the camp is in crisis, short of tents and other far more urgent supplies.
More than 90 percent of the newly-arrived people at al-Hol are women and children, and camp workers say they are nearly all related to IS. Several mothers told us they plan to raise their children to support the next generation of IS, and hope their sons will join the insurgency.
“My children are free to be fighters or not,” said Umm Mohammed, a mother of five with her black veil fully covering her eyes. “But Islamic State was good.” Like Umm Aysha, Umm Mohammed does not know when, how or if she will be able to move her children out of the camp.
And across the border in Iraq, Umm Aysha says although she fears IS will soon regroup, that is not the real reason she still lives in a camp, more than two years after she fled her home. She used to live in the suburbs of Mosul, but her neighborhood was destroyed and she doesn’t have the money to rebuild.
“Where would we go back to?” she asked, shrugging. (VOA)