Islamic State’s once-sprawling “caliphate” has been reduced to a four-square-kilometer pocket of territory in eastern Syria, a senior Syrian Democratic Forces commander said Monday, January 28.
With support from a U.S.-led military Coalition, the SDF are in the final stages of an assault launched more than four months ago against the jihadists’ last bastion.
A dwindling number of ISIS fighters, led mostly by Iraqi commanders, are now defending only a handful of hamlets in the Euphrates Valley, SDF commander Heval Roni said.
“Geographically speaking, there are only four square km left under ISIS control, stretching from Baghouz to the Iraqi border,” he told AFP in the Baghouz area.
“There are some high-ranking ISIS leaders among them … but we don’t know who exactly,” said Heval Roni, who heads SDF operations in the area.
The SDF is a Kurdish-led force that also includes Arab fighters from the region and which has spearheaded the fight against ISIS in Syria since it was formed in 2015.
The commander said he had no information about ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is believed to still be alive and is the world’s most wanted man.
Earlier Monday, SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali said ISIS fighters were using civilians as human shields to stop the SDF’s progress.
“They send messages via smugglers demanding an agreement which will let them flee the area in return for releasing civilians,” Bali tweeted.
“They through escaping civilians or smugglers asked us 2 provide them with safe passage to either #HTS-held Idlib or Turkey several times recently. All their demands were rejected by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Operation will go on until the last terrorist is dead.”
#ISIS, squashed into a tiny area of 6 km2, uses thousands of civilians as human shields in order to stop the progress of #SDF. They send messages via smugglers demanding an agreement which will let them flee the area in return for releasing civilians. + pic.twitter.com/5frTkPHIkr
— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) January 28, 2019
In an interview to AFP last week, the top commander of the SDF said that the battle was winding up but that his forces would need about a month to assert full control over the area and declare victory.
General Mazloum Kobane said the the battle had been complicated as ISIS shifted its strategy after the SDF ousted the jihadists from their de-facto Syrian capital of Raqqa in 2017.
New tactics include “sleeper cells everywhere, secretly recruiting people again, and carrying out suicide operations, bombings, and assassinations,” he said.
“We expect there will be an increase in the intensity of ISIS operations against our forces after the end of their military presence.”
ISIS has retained a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and has claimed a series of attacks in SDF-held territory.
“We will shift from large military operations like this one … to precise security operations,” Kobane said.
With reporting from AFP