IS cornered in a hole | The Daily Star
12:54 AM, February 15, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:58 AM, February 15, 2019

IS cornered in a hole

Jihadists, trapped in last square kilometre, launch fierce fight back

Islamic State group jihadists using tunnels and suicide bombers were mounting a desperate defence yesterday of their last square kilometre in eastern Syria.

Kurdish-led forces closed in on the small town of Baghouz where IS fighters and their relatives were hunkered down and met hundreds of famished and dishevelled people turning themselves in.

"The fighting is fierce," said Adnan Afrin, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-Arab outfit that has spearheaded the campaign against IS with backing from a US-led coalition.

The few hundred fighters of various nationalities holding out in their last bastion by the Iraqi border have launched bruising counter-attacks in recent days, Afrin said.

The jihadists are clinging to about one square kilometre in the town's built-up area, as well as to an adjacent camp, where a number of civilians are believed to be gathered.

Afrin said it was impossible to provide accurate figures but he estimated the total number of fighters, men and women, at around 1,000.

The US-led coalition is carrying out air strikes on the area while its forces are also present on the ground, sifting through the displaced for wanted jihadists.

IS's elusive Iraqi-born supremo, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is not believed to be among the last jihadist leaders holed up in Baghouz.

The "caliphate" Baghdadi proclaimed in mid-2014 once spanned territory the size of the United Kingdom and administered millions of people. It printed is own schoolbooks, produced oil, collected taxes and minted its own currency, in a brief but unprecedented experiment in jihadist statehood.

Successive offensives in Iraq and Syria have shattered the proto-state, which lost its key cities one after the other and has since late 2017 been confined to its traditional stronghold in the Euphrates River valley.

An official declaration of victory against IS is expected in the coming days, a move of mostly symbolic value that will go down as the death certificate of the "caliphate".

While surviving IS fighters on both sides of the border will no longer hold fixed positions, the jihadist organisation will remain a threat.

The United States is due to pull its troops out of Syria within weeks, creating a vacuum that risks allowing IS to rebuild and project new ambitions.

The Kurds are also afraid they will have to squander the autonomy they acquired and be left exposed to a military offensive by their archfoe Turkey.

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