US-backed forces make final push against Daesh

Fighters from the Kurdish women's protection units (YPJ) attend the funeral of a fellow fighter, who was killed while fighting against Daesh (the so-called IS) in northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli on Saturday. — AFP.

HASAKEH, Syria — US-backed forces were locked in fierce fighting Sunday as they pressed the battle against the last shred of Daesh (the so-called IS) group’s “caliphate” in eastern Syria.

The militants overran large parts of the country and neighboring Iraq in 2014, but various military offensives have since reduced that territory to a patch on the Iraqi border.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by a US-led coalition, announced a final push to retake the militant pocket late Saturday, after a pause of more than a week to allow civilians to flee.

An SDF field commander said fighting was ongoing on Sunday morning.

“There are heavy clashes at the moment. We have launched an assault and the fighters are advancing,” he told AFP.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said coalition planes and artillery bombarded militant positions.

“The battle is ongoing. There were heavy clashes this morning, with landmines going off,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based observatory.

The SDF launched an offensive to expel Daesh from the oil-rich eastern province of Deir Ezzor in September.

The Kurdish-led alliance has since whittled down militant-held territory to a scrap of just four square kilometers (one square mile) on the eastern banks of the Euphrates.

Up to 600 militants could still remain inside, most of them foreigners, according to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.

Crumbling ‘caliphate’

Since fighting intensified in December, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of fighters, have fled out into SDF-held desert areas, the observatory says. That figure includes some 3,400 suspected militants detained by the SDF, according to the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.

At the height of their rule, the militants imposed their brutal interpretation of Islamic law on a territory spanning parts of Syria and Iraq that was roughly the size of Britain. But separate military offensives in both countries, including by the SDF, have since retaken the vast bulk of the cross-border “caliphate” they declared in 2014.

On Saturday, Bali said he expected the battle for the last patch of territory held by Daesh to be over in days.

The extremist group however retain a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert, and have claimed a series of deadly attacks by sleeper cells in SDF-held areas.

After years of battles, the SDF holds hundreds of foreigners accused of belonging to the extremist group in its custody, as well as members of their families.

They have repeatedly urged Western governments to repatriate their nationals, but politicians abroad have been reluctant. — AFP