Battle for last Islamic State enclave edges toward its end

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The operation to take Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria looked close to an end on Wednesday, with no sign of clashes as U.S.-backed fighters said they were combing the area for hidden jihadists.

Reuters reporters overlooking Baghouz from a hill on the bank of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border said the area was calm, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia searched for tunnels and landmines, an SDF official said.

The SDF on Tuesday captured an encampment where the jihadists had been mounting a last defense of the tiny enclave, pushing diehard fighters onto a sliver of land at the Euphrates riverside.

There was no immediate update from the SDF on Wednesday on the fate of these remaining militants. A group of women and children were seen being evacuated from the Baghouz area.

Islamic State’s defeat at Baghouz would end its territorial control over the third of Syria and Iraq it held in 2014 as it sought to carve out a huge caliphate in the region.

(GRAPHIC: How Islamic State lost Syria – https://tmsnrt.rs/2O7l4mN)

While it would represent a significant milestone in Syria’s eight-year-old war and in the battle against Islamic State, the jihadist group remains a threat.

Some of the group’s fighters remain holed up in the central Syrian desert and others have gone underground in Iraqi cities to wage an insurgent campaign to destabilize the government.

For the SDF, it would cap a four-year military campaign in which its fighters drove Islamic State from swathes of northeastern Syria with the help of a U.S.-led coalition, taking the city of Raqqa after a months-long battle in 2017.

The group was also forced into retreat by numerous other local and foreign forces roused by its public displays of bloodletting and the attacks it plotted abroad.

Its enclave at Baghouz was the last part of the massive territory it suddenly seized in 2014, straddling swathes of Iraq and Syria, where its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a new caliphate.

His fate, along with other Islamic State leaders, is not known, though the United States has said it believes him to be in Iraq.

The group’s supporters in Baghouz faced months of siege, pounded by coalition air strikes. Over the past two months, some 60,000 people poured out of the shrinking IS territory.

About half of that number were civilians, the SDF has said, including some Islamic State victims such as enslaved women from Iraq’s Yazidi religious community.

The others were the group’s supporters including about 5,000 fighters. In recent days, as the enclave shrank, the SDF said hundreds more of them started to surrender, or were captured trying to escape.

Most of those who left were moved to displacement camps in northeast Syria. The fighters were detained, but the SDF has urged foreign countries to take back their citizens, causing a dilemma for some Western states who see them as a threat.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Baghouz, writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut, Editing by Mike Collett-White, William Maclean)

U.S.-backed force says it has taken positions in Islamic State Syria camp

FILE PHOTO: Injured Islamic state militants are seen in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah/File Photo

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed fighters said they had taken positions in Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria and air strikes pounded the tiny patch of land beside the Euphrates River early on Monday, a Reuters journalist said.

Smoke rose over the tiny enclave as warplanes and artillery bombarded it. Another witness said the jihadists had earlier mounted a counter attack.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia said in an update on Monday that tens of militants had been killed during what it called fierce clashes, and one SDF fighter had been injured. It said Islamic State had sent four suicide bombers to points close to SDF fighters.

Late on Sunday, an SDF spokesman, Mustafa Bali, said on Twitter that several enemy positions had been captured and an ammunition storage area had been blown up.

The enclave resembles an encampment, filled with stationary vehicles and rough shelters with blankets or tarpaulins that could be seen flapping in the wind during a lull in fighting as people walked among them.

Backed by air power and special forces from a U.S.-led coalition, the SDF has pushed Islamic State from almost the entire northeastern corner of Syria, defeating it in Raqqa in 2017 and driving it to its last enclave at Baghouz last year.

Late on Sunday, the Kurdish Ronahi TV station aired footage showing a renewed assault on the enclave, with fires seen to be raging inside and tracer fire and rockets zooming into the tiny area.

The SDF has waged a staggered assault on the enclave, pausing for long periods over recent weeks to allow mostly women and children who are families of suspected fighters to pour out.

Women and children leaving have spoken of harsh conditions inside, under coalition bombardment and with food supplies so scarce some resorted to eating grass.

Former residents also say hundreds of civilians have been killed in months of heavy aerial bombing by the coalition that have razed many of the hamlets in the area along the Iraqi border.

The coalition says it takes great care to avoid killing civilians and investigates reports that it has done so.

Last month, the SDF said it had found a mass grave in an area it captured. Former residents say those buried were victims of coalition air strikes.

The SDF and the coalition say the Islamic State fighters inside Baghouz are among the group’s most hardened foreign fighters, although Western countries believe its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has left the area. The group issued a propaganda film from inside the enclave last week calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

While Islamic State’s defeat at Baghouz will end its control of inhabited land in the third of Syria and Iraq that it captured in 2014, the group will remain a threat, regional and Western officials say.

(Reporting by a Reuters journalist in Baghouz; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Robert Birsel, Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry)

Hundreds surrender in last Islamic State enclave as SDF advance

By Ellen Francis

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State militants along with women and children surrendered in the hundreds to U.S.-backed forces in eastern Syria on Thursday as the jihadists lost ground in their last shred of territory.

Many of the men were limping as they crossed out of the Baghouz enclave along a dirt path over a rocky hill, with weeping children and fully veiled women, dragging suitcases and backpacks behind them.

Some men trudged along on crutches with bandages wrapped around their legs. Women hoisted children onto their shoulders to get them up the hill, leaving strollers and blankets behind in the dust.

Adnan Afrin, a commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said hundreds of people were emerging, adding to the many thousands who have streamed out of Baghouz in recent weeks.

“They are coming out this way in case there are snipers or someone wants to attack.”

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said some 1,300 jihadists and their families came out on Thursday. SDF fighters said they included foreigners.

The militants surrendered during a pause in the U.S.-backed assault to seize the final patch of populated Islamic State territory – a self-declared “caliphate” that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

In the morning, explosions rang out at the front line as artillery fire pounded Baghouz and warplanes buzzed overhead.

The SDF, which the Kurdish YPG militia spearheads, said the jihadists had deployed more than 20 suicide bombers in counter-attacks in the last two days.

It said at least 112 militants had been killed since it resumed the offensive at the weekend.

No Islamic State commanders are believed to be in Baghouz village, a U.S. defense official has said. U.S. government experts strongly believe its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The jihadists are still assessed to be a potent security threat with a foothold in remote areas and widely expected to escalate a wave of guerrilla attacks.

TWISTED METAL, FALLEN PALM TREES

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared its ultra-radical Sunni Islamist “caliphate” and established a rule known for mass killings, sexual enslavement and meting out punishments such as crucifixion.

The militants suffered their major military defeats in 2017, when they lost the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. They were then forced down the Euphrates River to their last bastion at Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets on the eastern bank.

In part of the Islamic State encampment which the SDF seized a few days ago, collapsed tents and fallen palm trees lay among a scattering of rubble and twisted metal.

Dirty, ripped blankets, carpets, mattresses and abandoned motorcycles littered the ground.

The SDF assault had been postponed repeatedly over the last few weeks to evacuate people from the enclave, many of them wives and children of fighters.

Overall, tens of thousands have fled Islamic State’s shrinking territory in recent months. The SDF has mostly transferred to a camp at al-Hol in the northeast.

The United Nations says the camp now holds around 67,000 people, 90 percent of them women and children – well beyond its capacity. Camp workers say they do not have enough tents, food or medicine. They have warned of diseases spreading.

Aid agencies say scores of people, mostly children, have died en route to the camp or shortly after arriving.

(Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah; Writing by Lisa Barrington, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Islamic State counter-attacks out of final Syria enclave fall short -U.S.-backed SDF

Islamic state fighters and their families walk as they surrendered in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State launched two counter attacks on U.S.-backed fighters besieging their final shred of territory in eastern Syria on Wednesday but were beaten back without any progress, the Syrian Democratic Forces said.

The jihadists, waging a last-ditch battle in Baghouz, a collection of hamlets and farmland near the Iraqi border, dispatched suicide bombers against SDF fighters, who thwarted the attacks, the U.S.-backed force said.

Islamic State launched the second counter-attack in the afternoon, “(taking) advantage of smoke and dust over Baghouz”, the SDF media office said. “Fighting is still continuing. (Islamic State) made no progress so far and were stopped.”

There were no SDF casualties. “They attempted to carry out suicide attacks but failed,” the SDF said.

Black smoke mushroomed high over Baghouz as the sounds of gunfire, explosions and planes could be heard in a battle that the SDF has said is as good as over.

In parts of Baghouz already under SDF control, dirt roads were littered with the scorched remains of cars, trucks and motorcycles. Many houses had been completely flattened and roads had been cratered by missile strikes.

Islamic State’s black flag could still be seen painted on walls, while others had been emblazoned with freshly daubed SDF slogans and the words “Down with Daesh”, an Arabic acronym for the jihadists.

Islamic State (IS) held roughly one third of Syria and Iraq at the zenith of its power in 2014, when its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all the world’s Muslims.

Subsequently, IS was steadily beaten back by a range of enemies including the U.S.-led international coalition, suffering its major defeats in 2017 when it lost the Iraqi city of Mosul and its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa.

No Islamic State leaders are believed to be in Baghouz, according to a U.S. defense official. U.S. government experts strongly believe Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The group is still assessed to remain a potent security threat operating in remote territory in both Syria and Iraq.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said its forces had bombarded Baghouz heavily overnight before engaging in direct clashes with IS fighters in the pre-dawn hours.

Live footage broadcast by Kurdish Ronahi TV overnight showed a series of large blasts lighting up the night sky over Baghouz.

SUICIDE ASSAULTS

“There were suicide vest attacks by a group of bombers who tried to blow themselves up amidst our forces. Our forces targeted and killed them before they reached our positions,” Bali said.

The SDF has laid siege to Baghouz for weeks but had repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of Islamic State fighters, to leave. It resumed the attack on Sunday.

Around 3,000 IS fighters and their families surrendered to SDF forces in 24 hours, Bali said overnight. Three women and four children belonging to the Yazidi sect, a minority group who were kidnapped and enslaved by IS in 2014, were also freed, he said.

Islamic State put out a new propaganda video overnight Monday filmed in recent weeks inside Baghouz, maintaining its claim to leadership of all Muslims and calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

“Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in hell,” one of the men interviewed in the video said.

Though Islamic State is on the verge of losing its last piece of territory, Syria remains carved up among other parties to its multi-sided conflict: President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Kurdish-led SDF, and anti-government rebels.

The war has escalated in recent weeks between the Assad government and insurgents in the northwestern region of Idlib, where Islamist militant group Tahrir al-Sham holds sway.

Overnight, government forces rained incendiary bombs on the area, where a full-scale offensive was averted in September by an agreement brokered by Assad’s Russian allies and Turkey, which backs his opponents and has forces on the ground.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Deir al-Zor, Ellen Francis in Baghouz and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Lisa Barrington/Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syria fighters say IS still holds civilians, slowing attack

FILE PHOTO: Black plumes of smoke rise in Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed fighters have slowed an offensive to take Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria because a small number of civilians remain there, though fierce fighting continues, they said on Monday.

Islamic State faces defeat in the last shred of its main territory in Syria and Iraq where it announced a “caliphate” in 2014, suffering years of steady retreats after arousing global fury through grotesque displays of cruelty.

Despite the setbacks, the group remains a deadly threat, developing alternatives to its caliphate ranging from rural insurgency to urban bombings by affiliates in the region and beyond, many governments say.

The Syrian Democratic Forces this weekend resumed its assault on the group’s pocket in the village of Baghouz, the culmination of a campaign that included the capture of Raqqa in 2017, when IS also faced other big defeats in Iraq and Syria.

The militia had already paused its attack for weeks to allow thousands of people to flee the area, including Islamic State supporters, fighters, children, local people and some of the group’s captives.

It said on Friday that only jihadists remained, but now says some more civilians are left.

“We’re slowing down the offensive in Baghouz due to a small number of civilians held as human shields by Daesh,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

However, “the battle to retake the last ISIS holdout is going to be over soon,” he added.

Dozens of trucks similar to those that had evacuated people from the enclave in recent weeks were visible heading back there on Monday and the drivers said they were going to pick people up at Baghouz.

Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said in an email that he could not verify who Islamic State was holding but hoped they would be released unharmed.

On Sunday, the SDF faced landmines, car bombs, tunnel ambushes and suicide attacks as they attempted to overrun the enclave – tactics the jihadist group has honed through its hard-fought retreat down the Euphrates.

Reuters photographs from Baghouz on Sunday showed dark plumes of smoke rising above houses and palm trees, and SDF fighters shooting into the Islamic State enclave.

While the capture of Baghouz would mark a milestone in the fight against Islamic State, the group is expected to remain a security threat as an insurgent force with sleeper cells and some pockets of remote territory.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, writing by Angus McDowall, editing by Robert Birsel, William Maclean)

‘This isn’t over’: Islamic State loyalties linger despite defeat

Women sit with their children near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Having joined Islamic State in Syria four years ago, the Algerian woman only abandoned the jihadists’ last scrap of besieged territory when her daughter was shot in the leg.

“I don’t regret it, even now … If my daughter was not injured, I would have stayed,” said the woman, speaking behind a full face veil as her 19-year-old daughter lay on a mattress nearby unable to walk.

At a checkpoint operated by U.S.-backed forces some 30 km (20 miles) from Islamic State’s last enclave at Baghouz, a village on the Euphrates, she described her faith in a movement that once held and terrorized large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

“Even if I’m here because I have no choice, I still believe, and I know this isn’t over,” added the woman, who finally joined the exodus from Baghouz on Monday evening.

The pro-Islamic State loyalties among evacuees showed the potential risk it still poses despite territorial defeat.

The militants once redrew the map of the region with a cross-border “caliphate” amounting to roughly a third of Iraq and Syria. But this has shrunk to Baghouz – a collection of hamlets and farmland – since they lost the bulk of their territory in 2017.

The group has been adapting for some time and has mounted a spate of guerrilla-style attacks in Syria of late.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the main partner of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria, says it wants to be certain all civilians have been evacuated from Baghouz before it launches a final assault to capture the area.

Numbers of evacuees have surpassed initial SDF estimates, and there was no sign of the evacuation ending on Tuesday when dozens of trucks ferried more out along dirt track roads.

People coming from Baghouz in recent days have shown more open loyalty to Islamic State than those who left earlier on, according to a volunteer medic at the checkpoint where they are subjected to preliminary security screening.

“Now they are more hardcore,” the medic said.

GUNSHOTS AND MORTARS

All the women at the checkpoint on Tuesday were dressed head-to-toe in black including the full face veil, or niqab.

A handful of tents on the desert ground were not enough to accommodate all gathered there. Warplanes with the U.S.-led coalition could be seen overhead.

Some children, their faces covered in dirt, cried.

The Algerian woman said there had there had been more gun-battles and mortar shelling than air strikes of late.

Her husband and two other children had been killed by shelling earlier in the war.

She had no desire to return to Algeria, where the government fought a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s.

“I can’t return to people who do not like me and who I don’t like,” said the woman, who lived in France for a time.

Asked why she went to Syria, she said: “This is what I believe in … the laws of God.”

Islamic State used its ultra-radical interpretation of Sunni Islam to justify atrocities including enslavement, mass killings, and draconian punishments including crucifixion.

The evacuees from Baghouz were being taken to a camp for internally displaced people at al-Hol, a town near the Iraqi border. The SDF wants foreign governments to help repatriate Islamic State activists, saying the burden and risk of holding them is growing.

Adnan Afrin, an SDF official, said the civilian convoys from Baghouz have included a growing number of surrendering militants. They are searched for bombs and mines before being allowed to go any further, he said.

The SDF estimates about 30,000 people have left Baghouz. It aims to eliminate or force the surrender of remaining fighters, who, according to the SDF, have dug defensive tunnels.

Many fighters remain, according to Afrin.

“We know from the civilians who came out that there are a big number, mostly European and Asian jihadists.”

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Operation to end last IS Syria pocket hits evacuation snag

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gives bread to children near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The operation to destroy Islamic State’s final vestige of rule in Iraq and Syria hit a temporary snag on Thursday, as an expected evacuation of the remaining civilians from its last enclave in eastern Syria did not go ahead.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has steadily driven the jihadists down the Euphrates, has surrounded them at Baghouz near the Iraqi border but does not want to mount a final attack until all civilians are out.

Iraqi sources said the SDF handed over more than 150 Iraqi and other foreign jihadists to Iraq on Thursday, under a deal involving a total of 502.

The SDF had expected to pull the last civilians from Baghouz on Thursday, but trucks it sent in left empty. “We can’t get into details, but today no civilians came out,” SDF official Mustafa Bali told Reuters.

Baghouz is all that remains for Islamic State in the Euphrates valley region that became its final populated stronghold in Iraq and Syria after it lost its major cities of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017.

In Paris, a French source said the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State was verifying whether an air strike killed French jihadist Fabien Clain, who voiced the recording claiming the November 2015 attacks on Paris.

A second French source close to the matter said Clain had been killed and his brother Jean-Michel seriously wounded after a coalition strike on Wednesday in Baghouz.

In the 2015 attacks, gunmen and suicide bombers killed 129 people in the French capital. France’s military, foreign ministry and president’s office declined to comment. The coalition said it could not confirm the information at this time.

The capture of Baghouz will nudge the eight-year-old Syrian war towards a new phase, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge to withdraw troops leaving a security vacuum that other powers are seeking to fill.

Though the fall of Baghouz marks a milestone in the campaign against IS and the wider conflict in Syria, Islamic State is still seen as a major security threat.

The group has steadily turned to guerrilla warfare and still holds territory in a remote, sparsely populated area west of the Euphrates River – a part of Syria otherwise controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.

Bali told Reuters the SDF would attack Baghouz once the civilian evacuation was complete. He did not say how much more time was needed to finish off the remaining Islamic State militants or give a new estimate of how many fighters remained.

The SDF has previously estimated several hundred fighters – believed mostly to be foreign jihadists – are still inside.

A Reuters witness saw warplanes in the sky over Baghouz on Thursday though there was no sound of fighting or shelling.

The U.S.-led coalition said on Wednesday “the most hardened” jihadists remain in Baghouz.

More than 2,000 civilians left the enclave on Wednesday, the SDF said. It has said more than 20,000 civilians left Baghouz in the days leading up to the start of the SDF’s final push to capture the enclave this month.

The SDF has not ruled out the possibility that some Islamic State fighters had left Baghouz with the civilians.

SDF and coalition forces are recording the names and questioning everyone who has left in the civilian convoys.

Many of the people who left the enclave in civilian convoys have been Iraqis, some of whom said they had crossed from Iraq into Syria as Iraqi government forces made gains against Islamic State on the other side of the frontier.

FACING THE CONSEQUENCES

Two Iraqi military sources told Reuters the handover of Islamic State fighters on Thursday was the first of several.

“The majority of the fighters are Iraqi,” said a military colonel whose unit is stationed at the Syrian border. “But we have a few foreigners.”

Islamic State, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all Muslims, in 2014, attracted members from all over the world, including many Western states.

A Turkish official said Turkey was doubling down its own security measures to make it harder for foreign fighters still in Syria or Iraq to pass through Turkey, noting that the threat was much greater than the 800 that the SDF says it is holding.

Western countries refusing to repatriate jihadists were not living up to their responsibilities and leaving countries like Turkey to face the consequences, the official added.

Britain has stripped the citizenship of a teenager who went to Syria aged 15 to join Islamic State. But interior minister Sajid Javid said he would not take a decision that would leave anyone stateless, after Bangladesh said it would not accept her.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a woman born in the United States who joined Islamic State did not qualify for U.S. citizenship and had no legal basis to return to the country.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Raya Jalabi in Erbil, Tom Perry in Beirut and Tulay Karadeniz, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Angus McDowall, William Maclean)

U.S. cannot back Syrian forces who align with Assad: U.S. commander

FILE PHOTO: A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen on the main road to the airport in Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Phil Stewart

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The United States will have to sever its military assistance to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling Islamic State if the fighters partner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russia, a senior U.S. general said on Sunday.

The remarks by Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, underscore the tough decisions facing the SDF as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Syria.

Syrian Kurdish leaders have sought talks with Assad’s state, hoping to safeguard their autonomous region after the withdrawal of U.S. troops currently backing them.

They fear an attack by neighboring Turkey, which has threatened to crush the Kurdish YPG militia. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as indistinguishable from the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an insurgency inside Turkey.

But LaCamera warned that U.S. law prohibits cooperation with Russia as well as Assad’s military.

“We will continue to train and arm them as long as they remain our partners,” LaCamera said, praising their hard-won victories against Islamic State militants.

When asked if that support would continue if they aligned themselves with Assad, LaCamera said: “No.” “Once that relationship is severed, because they go back to the regime, which we don’t have a relationship with, (or) the Russians … when that happens then we will no longer be partners with them,” LaCamera told a small group of reporters.

President Donald Trump’s surprise December decision to withdraw all of the more than 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria has triggered deep concern among U.S. allies about the risk of a resurgence of Islamic State.

With U.S.-backing, the SDF has routed Islamic State and is on the verge of recapturing the final bits of its once sprawling territory. But Islamic State still has thousands of fighters, who, now dispersed, are expected to turn to guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks.

On Friday, the four-star U.S. general overseeing U.S. troops throughout the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, told Reuters that he backed supporting the SDF as needed as long as it kept the pressure on Islamic State militants.

But LaCamera’s comments make clear that the SDF may have to choose between backing from Assad, Russia or the United States.

Kurdish forces and Damascus have mostly avoided combat during the war. Assad, who has vowed to recover the entire country, has long opposed Kurdish ambitions for a federal Syria.

Earlier on Sunday, Assad warned the United States would not protect those depending on it, in reference to the Kurdish fighters.

“We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you,” he said without naming them. “The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter, and they have started with (it).”

Reuters has reported that Trump’s decision was in part driven by an offer by Turkey to keep the pressure on Islamic State once the United States withdrew.

But current and former U.S. officials warn Ankara would be unable to replicate the SDF’s success across the areas of Syria that the militias captured with U.S. support including arms, airstrikes and advisers.

Brett McGurk, who resigned in December as Trump’s special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, warned last month that the SDF could not be replaced as the provider of stability in areas of Syria formerly held by the militant group. He also cautioned that Turkey, a NATO ally, was not a reliable partner in the fight in Syria.

“The Syrian opposition forces (Turkey) backs are marbled with extremists and number too few to constitute an effective challenge to Assad or a plausible alternative to the SDF,” McGurk wrote.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; editing by David Evans)

U.S.-backed Syrian forces call for 1,500 coalition troops to stay

U.S. Army General Jospeh Votel, head of Central Command, visits an airbase at an undisclosed location in northeast Syria, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Phil Stewart

By Phil Stewart

AIRBASE IN NORTHEAST SYRIA (Reuters) – The commander of U.S.-backed forces in Syria called on Monday for about 1,000 to 1,500 international forces to remain in Syria to help fight Islamic State and expressed hope that the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout.

The remarks by Mazloum Kobani, the commander-in-chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, followed talks with senior U.S. generals at an airbase in northeast Syria and offered perhaps the most comprehensive view to date of his requests for an enduring military assistance from the U.S.-led coalition.

“We would like to have air cover, air support and a force on the ground to coordinate with us,” Kobani told a small group of reporters who traveled with the U.S. military to an airbase at an undisclosed location in northeast Syria.

With U.S. help, the Kurdish-led fighters are poised to seize Islamic State’s last holdout in eastern Syria. At the height of its power four years ago, Islamic State held about a third of both Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed Caliphate.

But Islamic State still has thousands of fighters, who, now dispersed, are expected to turn to guerrilla-style attacks.

Kobani said there was discussions about perhaps French and British troops supporting the SDF in Syria. But he stressed he also wanted at least “a partial group of American forces,” who now number more than 2,000 in Syria, to stay as well.

U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, said after the talks with Kobani that he was still carrying out President Donald Trump’s December order for a complete U.S. withdrawal of American forces.

“We certainly understand what they would like us to do, but of course that’s not the path we’re on at this particular point,” Votel told reporters.

U.S. PRESENCE

Asked about any discussions on a continuing U.S. presence in Syria, Votel said: “So the discussion really isn’t about U.S. forces staying here. We’ve looked at potentially what coalition (forces) might be able to do here.”

Trump’s surprise December decision to withdraw all the U.S. troops from Syria has triggered deep concern among U.S. allies about the risk of an eventual resurgence of Islamic State.

But the pullout raises an even more immediate threat to Kobani’s SDF, which fears that Turkey will make good on threats to attack them. He warned of a “new genocide” in SDF controlled areas of Syria.

Kobani thanked Trump for publicly stating his intent to protect the SDF but said: “I want him to live up to his word.”

Without a deal with the U.S.-led coalition, experts say Kobani may have to strike a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to avoid a Turkish sweep or a resurgence of Islamic State.

Votel is recommending continued support to the SDF as long as it keeps up pressure on Islamic State militants.

But Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, cautioned on Sunday that the United States would be legally unable to support the SDF if they partnered with Assad or Assad’s Russian backers.

Kobani stressed he was not seeking a military deal with

Damascus.

Perhaps sensing an opportunity to stoke doubt among the Kurdish communities, Assad warned on Sunday the United States would not protect those depending on it.

“We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you,” he said. “The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter, and they have started with (it).”

Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, is among the U.S. lawmakers expressing concern the U.S. withdrawal could deal a devastating blow to Kurdish forces and warned that any sense of U.S. betrayal could cast a long shadow for years to come.

“It will chill future potential groups from assisting us if we’re going to treat the people who have been so stalwart on our behalf in this way. It is very dangerous in terms of national security,” he has said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.S.-backed Syrian fighters advance in clashes with Islamic State: official

FILE PHOTO: Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces ride on trucks as their convoy passes in Ain Issa, Syria October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized ground from Islamic State in a fierce battle to capture its last enclave in eastern Syria, an SDF official said on Sunday.

The SDF, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, began the assault on Saturday, seeking to wipe out the last remnants of the jihadist group’s “caliphate” in the SDF’s area of operations in eastern and northern Syria.

The enclave is close to the Iraqi border and comprises two villages. Islamic State (IS) also still retains territory in the part of Syria that is mostly under the control of the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government.

SDF fighters had so far seized 41 positions but had faced counter-attacks early on Sunday that had been repelled, Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, told Reuters.

“The clashes are ferocious naturally because the terrorist group is defending its last stronghold.”

President Donald Trump, who is planning to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, said on Wednesday he expected a formal announcement as early as this week that the coalition had reclaimed all the territory previously held by Islamic State.

Bali said 400 to 600 jihadists were estimated to be holed up in the enclave, including foreigners and other hardened fighters.

Between 500 to 1,000 civilians are also estimated to be inside, Bali said. More than 20,000 civilians were evacuated in the 10 days leading up to Saturday, he said.

“If we can, in a short time frame, get the (remaining) civilians out or isolate them, I believe that the coming few days will witness the military end of the terrorist organization in this area,” Bali said.

Senior SDF official Redur Xelil told Reuters on Saturday the force hoped to capture the area by the end of February, but cautioned that IS would continue to pose “great and serious” security threats even after that.

IS redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large areas of Syria and Iraq. But it steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.

Spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF has been the main U.S. partner in Syria.

A top U.S. general said last week Islamic State would pose an enduring threat following the U.S. withdrawal, as it still has leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Frances Kerry)