The Syrian Democratic Forces prepared Tuesday, March 5 to pluck more civilians out of Islamic State’s last Syrian stronghold, after evacuating almost 3,000 people including hundreds of fighters over the past 48 hours.
The mass outpouring of people from the dying “caliphate” has sparked a major humanitarian emergency, with the United Nations saying hundreds are expected to arrive at camps for the displaced on Tuesday alone.
The SDF and allies from the U.S.-led Coalition smashed their way into the last sliver of ISIS territory in the village of Baghuz at the weekend, unleashing a deluge of airstrikes and artillery attacks on besieged fighters.
But the force slowed down the offensive on Sunday, motivated by concern for civilians still trapped inside the pocket.
An SDF spokesperson said thousands had been evacuated from the crumbling jihadist bastion since his force dialed down its advance.
“We managed to evacuate about 3,000 people from [the] ISIS pocket,” Mustafa Bali said on Twitter on Monday night.
“A large number of Daesh jihadists surrendered to our forces among the same group,” he added, using another acronym for ISIS.
Slowing down the offensive in #Baghouz yesterday, we managed to evacuate about 3.000 ppl from ISIS pocket through the corridor we opened. A large number of Daesh jihadists surrendered to our forces among the same group overnight.
— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) March 4, 2019
An SDF official told AFP that “hundreds of ISIS fighters” were among the thousands that “surrendered” to the Kurdish-led force.
The latest evacuees also include relatives of jihadists, as well as civilians who had been held by the group as “human shields,” he said.
But civilians still remain inside the enclave, he said.
“Evacuations of civilians, jihadists and their relatives who want to surrender will likely continue” on Tuesday, he told AFP.
Smoke and gunfire
Diehard ISIS fighters are fiercely defending their riverside hamlet after the SDF and the Coalition resumed their offensive on Friday night, following a two-week pause to allow for civilian evacuations.
The Kurd-led force pushed into Baghuz on Saturday, breaching the parameter.
On Monday night, an AFP correspondent near the frontline saw black smoke billowing over the besieged pocket after an airstrike hit ISIS targets.
The thousands that have poured out of Baghuz have posed a huge humanitarian challenge in camps for the displaced in northeast Syria.
Around 15,000 people reached the Al-Hol camp from Baghuz between February 22 and March 1, the U.N. humanitarian coordination office OCHA said on Monday.
The new arrivals have pushed the camp’s population to over 56,000, exacerbating already dire conditions at the crammed facility, it said.
Hundreds more are expected to arrive on Tuesday, according to OCHA.
After months under heavy bombardment and sometimes with very little to eat, families emerging from Baghouz are often in poor physical and psychological health.
Around 90 people, mostly children under the age of five, have died en route to the shelter or shortly after arriving, OCHA said.
Dying days of ‘caliphate’
The remaining ISIS fighters are massively outnumbered and the SDF say they expect a victory within days.
The capture of Baghuz would mark the end of ISIS territorial control east of the Euphrates river and deal a death blow to the “caliphate,” which once covered huge parts of Syria and Iraq.
At its peak more than four years ago, the proto-state created by ISIS was the size of the United Kingdom and administered millions of people.
It minted its own currency, levied taxes, published a wide array of propaganda material and designed its own school curricula.
The caliphate effectively collapsed in 2017 when ISIS lost most of its major cities in both countries.
The fall of Baghuz would carry mostly symbolic value.
The chiefs of the U.S. and Russian militaries met in Austria on Monday to discuss the situation in Syria, where a residual U.S. military force will remain following the territorial defeat of ISIS.
“The two military leaders discussed the deconfliction of Coalition and Russian operations in Syria,” U.S. military spokesperson Colonel Pat Ryder said.
Syria’s war has killed 360,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
With reporting from AFP