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U.S. To Begin Search Through The Remnants Of The Islamic State’s Final Enclave

SDF officials have raised the possibility that the remaining IS fighters may also be holding prisoners and hostages, but there has been no word as to their fate in recent days.

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Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) patrol near the village of Baghuz in the Syrian countryside, March 20, 2019. VOA

U.S.-backed forces are starting to search through the remnants of the Islamic State’s final enclave in northeastern Syria, looking for fighters, mines and booby-trapped explosives.

The effort Wednesday to sift through the broken buildings and shredded tents that litter the landscape in the town of Baghuz comes a day after Syrian Democratic Forces took the area from IS fighters in what officials described as a significant blow to the terror group.

SDF officials said as many as 1,500 more people surrendered following Tuesday’s incursion into IS’s final stronghold, including hundreds of injured IS fighters.

Suspected Islamic State (IS) group fighters and civilians are screened by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the village of Baghuz, Syria, March 20, 2019.
Suspected Islamic State (IS) group fighters and civilians are screened by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the village of Baghuz, Syria, March 20, 2019. VOA

But concerns run high that fighters lurk in trenches dug all around the former IS enclave, as well as in a complex network of caves and tunnels, which some officials said could run for more than two kilometers.

An unknown number of IS fighters have also retreated to a sliver of land along the Euphrates River, and there are no estimates for how many fighters could be hiding in other parts of Baghuz.

“A group of Daesh in Baghuz still fight back and hold their families as human shields,” Zana Amedi, a media official with the YPG militia, which has been supporting the SDF offensive, told VOA Wednesday, using the terror group’s Arabic acronym.

Despite the official caution, small celebrations broke out Wednesday around Baghuz, with some groups of SDF fighters playing music and dancing.

“We have won. We have eliminated the enemy, the terrorists,” Majid Hejjo, an SDF fighter, told the French news agency.

“The comrades are tired, and the battle is over,” said another SDF fighter.

No ‘complete victory’ yet

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump was equally effusive, telling reporters on the South Lawn of the White House that the very last speck of IS-held territory would be liberated within hours.

“There is no red,” Trump said just hours after an intelligence briefing, showing off a map that compared IS-held territory now and the day he was elected. “In fact, there’s actually a tiny spot, which will be gone by tonight.”

Still, SDF officials and U.S. defense officials have been wary of saying the fight against the terror group’s self-declared caliphate is over.

It has been three months since Trump first announced the defeat of IS in a tweet,and more than a month since he told a meeting of ministers from coalition countries that the end of the caliphate “should be formally announced, probably sometime next week.”

More recently, multiple SDF officials have also forecast the fall of IS within days or even hours, only to see efforts slowed by fierce fighting and the presence of tens of thousands of civilians, mostly the wives, children and family members of IS fighters.

They now say more than 5,000 people have fled Baghuz since SDF resumed its final assault on IS just over a week ago, despite earlier saying only about 1,000 civilians and 300 fighters were holed up in Baghuz shortly after the operation to liberate the town got under way last month.

Smoke rises from the Islamic State (IS) group's last remaining position in the village of Baghuz during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the countryside of the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour, March 20, 2019.
Smoke rises from the Islamic State (IS) group’s last remaining position in the village of Baghuz during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the countryside of the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour, March 20, 2019. VOA

In all, SDF says more than 5,000 IS fighters have surrendered or been captured over the past month, while another 1,300 have been killed in the fighting.

The U.S.-led coalition also said Wednesday there has been no letup in efforts to ensure the terror group is defeated.

“The ground offensive, coalition airstrikes and artillery continue as needed,” coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan told VOA. “The SDF feel they are in control of the area, but as long as Daesh puts up any type of fight and hides in tunnels, they cannot declare complete victory.”

Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather near the village of Baghuz, Syria, March 20, 2019.
Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather near the village of Baghuz, Syria, March 20, 2019. VOA

‘Tens of thousands’ of fighters

SDF officials have raised the possibility that the remaining IS fighters may also be holding prisoners and hostages, but there has been no word as to their fate in recent days.

Thousands of SDF troops have massed around Baghuz for weeks, laying siege to the town in an effort to liberate the final IS enclave in Syria. Officials said Kurdish special forces from Iraq also had been brought in to help with the operations.

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Even once an official announcement is made, U.S. defense officials caution IS still has “tens of thousands” of fighters working either as part of sleeper cells or as part of an active, clandestine insurgency.

Additionally, senior officials believe most of the group’s senior leadership, including its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain at large. (VOA)

Next Story

Here’s Everything you Need to Know About the Increasing Islamic State Terror Activity in Syria

Surge of IS Violence and Terrorism Seen in Syria

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Smoke rises while people gather at a damaged site after two bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State hit the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, Syria. VOA

By Sirwan Kajjo

Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.

Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.

Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.

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Islamic State militants clean their weapons in Deir el-Zour city, Syria. VOA

‘Threat to our forces’ 

IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.

“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”

In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.

While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.

The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.

Baghdadi’s death

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The Islamic State group’s leader extolled militants in Sri Lanka for “striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” a reference to IS’ last bastion in eastern Syria, which was captured by U.S.-backed fighters. VOA

Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.

“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.

Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.

“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.

Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”

US withdrawal 

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A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.

Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.

“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.

IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

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“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.

But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)