Scores of civilians, fighters depart Daesh stronghold in Syria

People who fled battles between Syrian Democratic Forces and Daesh fighters arrive in the Syrian village of Baghuz. (AFP)
Updated 28 January 2019

Scores of civilians, fighters depart Daesh stronghold in Syria

  • Terrorist group ‘confined to a four-square-kilometer pocket of territory’
  • The SDF is a Kurdish-led force that also includes Arab fighters from the region

SOUSA: Syrian opposition activists said on Monday scores of civilians and fighters have evacuated the Daesh’s last major stronghold in Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said some 2,000 people, including 300 Daesh gunmen, have left the area in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor since Sunday.

The DeirEzzor 24, an activist collective, reported on Monday that dozens of civilians had left the area, which US-backed Syrian fighters have been trying to take since September.

It said that the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led group, captured a local Daesh commander and his bodyguard.

Meanwhile, a senior Kurdish commander said the Daesh’s once-sprawling “caliphate” has been reduced to a four-square-kilometer pocket of territory.

With support from a US-led military coalition, the SDF are in the final stages of an assault launched more than four months ago against the militants’ last bastion.

A dwindling number of Daesh fighters, led mostly by Iraqi commanders, are now defending only a handful of hamlets in the Euphrates Valley, SDF commander Heval Roni said.

“Geographically speaking, there are only 4 square kilometers left under Daesh control, stretching from Baghouz to the Iraqi border,” he told AFP in the Baghouz area.

“There are some high-ranking Daesh leaders among them ... but we don’t know who exactly,” said Roni, who heads SDF operations in the area.

The SDF is a Kurdish-led force that also includes Arab fighters from the region and which has spearheaded the fight against Daesh in Syria since it was formed in 2015.

The commander said he had no information about Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who is believed to still be alive and is the world’s most wanted man.

In an interview with AFP last week, the top commander of the SDF said that the battle was winding up but that his forces would need about a month to assert full control over the area and declare victory.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 1,200 militants and around half as many SDF fighters have been killed since the start of the offensive on Sept. 10.

The Britain-based monitoring group says more than 400 civilians have also perished, many of them killed by coalition airstrikes.


Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

Updated 12 min 54 sec ago

Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

  • Troops drive north toward Turkish border
  • Kurdish buffer zone ‘fully operational’

BEIRUT: Assad regime troops massed in northwest Syria on Saturday in preparation for a new drive north toward the border with Turkey.

The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition. Until last week, it was controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes captured the key town of Khan Sheikhun from the militants on Wednesday, and on Friday they overran the countryside to the south of the town.

“The day after they controlled the area south of Khan Sheikhun, regime forces began massing in the area north of it,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They were “preparing to continue their advance toward the area of Maaret Al-Noman,” a town about 25km north, he said.

Heavy bombardment hit the area on Saturday in preparation for a further push north. Thick gray smoke billowed up into a clear blue sky after a strike on the outskirts of Maaret Al-Noman. Like Khan Sheikhun, the town sits on the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo, a key target for the regime to recapture.

However, the new offensive that began in April has heightened tension with Turkey, which fears an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting. Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region in an attempt to set up a buffer zone to protect civilians.

FAST FACTS

  • The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition.
  • Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region.

The regime accuses Turkey of using the observation posts to arm and supply the militants. Last week, airstrikes targeted a Turkish military convoy traveling south down the main highway toward one of the posts at Morek. The convoy was still stranded on Saturday north of Khan Sheikhun.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied the Morek observation post had been surrounded and said Turkish troops would not withdraw from the position.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Further east in Syria, a joint Turkish-US control center to establish and manage a safe zone is fully operational, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said. 

“The command of the center is by one US general and one Turkish general,” he said, and the first joint helicopter flight took place on Saturday after Turkish drones carried out surveillance work in the safe zone last week.

Syrian Kurds said on Saturday they would support the implementation of the buffer zone. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) played a key role in the battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views them as terrorists.

“The SDF will be a positive party toward the success of this operation,” said Mazloum Kobani, head of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.