The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are now in control of an ISIS encampment in Baghouz after weeks of operations and attacks on the village. But isolated gun battles are continuing in the area, seen as ISIS’ last remaining redoubt.
“This is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight against Daesh,” said Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF press office. In a tweet, he added, “Clashes are continuing as a group of ISIS terrorists who are confined into a tiny area still fight back.”
The last holdouts of ISIS have been largely confined to Baghuoz since last month. The Kurdish-led SDF launched a new offensive on March 10 after slowing its push to allow civilians to flee — and to let thousands of ISIS fighters and their families surrender.
In the final push to control Baghouz, the SDF blew up an ammunition storage area and slowly pried positions away from ISIS. On Tuesday, the SDF captured hundreds of sick or injured ISIS militants and sent them to nearby hospitals, Bali said.
“This is the slow unraveling of Baghouz, the last ISIS holdout, whose capture will mark the end of the group’s territory, which once spanned hundreds of miles across Iraq and Syria,” NPR’s Ruth Sherlock reports for our Newscast unit. “More than 60,000 people have poured out of this area in the past two months. Most of them have been ISIS fighters, supporters, and their children, but there have also been ISIS victims – Yazidi children and women who were taken by the group from Iraq and used as slaves.”
Sherlock adds, “It’s believed more hostages – Yazidis, westerners and others – are still trapped inside.”
Separately, Bali said the SDF had captured 157 people he described as experienced terrorists — including more than 100 foreign nationals who had flocked to join the extremist group in its heyday.
Baghouz sits along the Euphrates River at the Iraqi border in eastern Syria. As of last month, U.S. intelligence officials said they believed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be hiding out in Iraq.
ISIS, which once produced elaborate propaganda and shocking videos of violence and abuse, has largely fallen silent as it has lost territory and oil-related revenue. But recently, the group’s spokesman, Abu Hassan al-Muhajir, reacted to the mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand, calling for the group’s followers to take up a religious war.
Muhajir, whose true identity remains unknown, also mocked the U.S. and President Trump — particularly the president’s very public claim of victory over ISIS at the end of 2018. And he spoke about Baghdadi in a way that implies the leader is still alive.