Civilians prompt delay in assault on last IS enclave
US will 'hunt down' IS even after jihadists' defeat in Syria
US pullout from Syria risks boosting Russia, Iran influence
Kurdish-led forces yesterday said they were holding up the announcement of final victory over the Islamic State group for "a few days" because the large number of civilians remaining on the battlefield had forced a delay.
US President Donald Trump had said Friday that he expected the eradication of the "caliphate" that IS proclaimed in 2014 to be announced within 24 hours.
But spokesmen for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the surprise discovery of so many civilians still inside the jihadists' last enclave had forced commanders to slow the advance.
IS is now reduced to a tiny pocket of half a square kilometre (a fifth of a square mile) where its fighters and civilians still under their control are holed up in tunnels, the assault's overall commander Jia Furat told a news conference.
"In a very short time, not longer than a few days, we will officially announce the end of IS's existence," Furat said.
Advancing SDF fighters have been met by "large numbers" of civilians, to the surprise of commanders who had thought the exodus of recent days had emptied the remaining IS pocket of all but diehard fighters, SDF spokesmen said.
"We weren't expecting this number, otherwise we wouldn't have resumed the campaign four days ago. This is why it's been delayed," Afrin said.
IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries, but the speck of terrain around the village of Baghouz is all that's left of the group's self-declared "caliphate" that in 2014 spanned an area the size of Britain and administered millions of people.
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 heartland in the Euphrates Valley.
Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence yesterday vowed at a security conference in the German city of Munich that Washington would continue to fight IS remnants even after a military pullout.
"The United States will continue to work with all our allies to hunt down the remnants of ISIS wherever and whenever they rear their ugly heads," Pence said, using an alternative acronym for IS, but providing no further details.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Washington's plan to swiftly pull its soldiers out of Syria risks allowing Russia and Iran to boost their role in the region.
A US withdrawal risks leaving Syria's Kurds exposed to a long-threatened attack by neighbouring Turkey, who views Kurdish fighters as "terrorists".