A US-backed Syrian force closing in on ISIL’s last territorial bastion near the Iraqi border expects a “decisive battle” on Sunday after advancing slowly, a spokesperson said.
Capturing Baghouz, an eastern Syrian village on the bank of the Euphrates River, would cap four years of international efforts to roll back the armed group, but its fighters remain a threat, using guerrilla tactics and holding some desolate land further west.
Thousands of fighters, followers and civilians had retreated to this tiny cluster of hamlets and farmland in Deir Az Zor province as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) territory shrunk and over the last few weeks, they have poured out, holding up the final assault.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) clashed with ISIL for nearly 18 hours inside Baghouz after removing the remaining civilians and resuming their assault on Friday evening.
“Our forces are advancing at a slow pace to avoid any problems since ISIL mined the area extensively. Thousands of mines are present along the roads in that small patch,” said Marvan Qamishlo, an SDF military media official.
“We expect a decisive battle in the morning,” he told Reuters news agency on a hill overlooking Baghouz.
The remaining fighers are mostly foreigners who are using tunnels to hide and launch surprise attacks against SDF fighters, Qamishlo added.
But even once Banghouz falls, and ISIL suffers what some are calling a “final” territorial defeat, the group and its members will remain a serious threat.
“This isn’t the end of the ISIL at all,” Sami Nader, an analyst for al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse told Al Jazeera. “We’ve seen how ISIL and similar groups are thriving in Africa, and I won’t be surprised if these same groups will target civilians, or they will have military operations inside Europe and the US,” Nader added.
“All the grudges that led to the emergence of this group are still there.”
The evacuees on Friday included wounded men but were mostly women and children. There were Russians, Indonesians, Bosnians, Daghestani, Kazakhs, Egyptians, Syrians, and Iraqis. They dragged along a few belongings and distraught children.
Umm Mohammed, a 38-year-old Syrian, left Baghouz with her three children on Friday but her husband stayed behind in support of ISIL “There are many fighters and families inside,” she told AP news agency. “ISIL is weak only in Baghouz but elsewhere it is expanding and growing.”
The military campaign to uproot the fighters from the eastern banks of the Euphrates River began in September, pushing them down towards this last corner in the village of Baghouz, near the Iraqi border.
The military operation was halted on February 12 as the SDF said a large number of civilians and hostages were holed up in the territory, which sits atop caves and tunnels where they had been hiding.
The remaining speck of ISIL-controlled land in Baghouz village is also along the Euphrates from one side and the desert near the Iraqi border from the other. Thousands of civilians were living in a tent encampment and houses along the riverside.