Daesh defends final pocket of dying ‘caliphate’ in Syria

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take a rest during an operation to expel Daesh extremists from their last bastion, in Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)
Updated 19 February 2019
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Daesh defends final pocket of dying ‘caliphate’ in Syria

  • Diehard extremist fighters are now trapped in a patch of territory of less than half a square kilometer in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border
  • Thousands of people have streamed out of the so-called ‘Baghouz pocket’ in recent weeks, but no civilians have made it out in the last three days

OMAR OIL FIELD, Syria: Extremists defending their last dreg of territory in Syria have no choice but to surrender, a Kurdish-led force said on Monday, ahead of a victory declaration expected within days.

The warning by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) comes as EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the repatriation of European nationals in Syria, which Germany said would be “extremely difficult” to do.

Diehard extremist fighters are now trapped in their last patch of territory of less than half a square kilometer in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.

The SDF are moving cautiously on the extremist holdout, saying Daesh is increasingly using civilians as “human shields” to block the advance.

“The clashes are sporadic and very limited,” SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali told AFP on Monday.

“So far there have been no significant changes on the ground,” he said, adding that coalition warplanes have reduced air strikes on Daesh positions over the past two days.

The SDF “are still working on trying to get civilians out,” the spokesman said.

Thousands of people have streamed out of the so-called “Baghouz pocket” in recent weeks, but no civilians have made it out in the last three days.

An informed source told AFP that holdout Daesh fighters are seeking safe passage to the extremist-held city of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

“They want to take the remaining civilians with them as human shields. But the SDF are not willing to discuss this option,” said the source who asked not to be named.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the SDF have turned down the request.

AFP could not confirm this with an SDF official, but a commander with the alliance said that Daesh has no leverage to negotiate.

“They are besieged in a very tight area and they have no other choice but to surrender,” said the SDF commander, who asked not to be named.

The group declared a “caliphate” across large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, which at its height spanned an area the size of United Kingdom.

Successive offensives in both countries have since shattered the proto-state, but the extremist group still retains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and has claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

After years of fighting Daesh, the Kurdish-led SDF hold hundreds of foreign suspected Daesh fighters, as well as related women and children.

Syria’s Kurds have long urged their home countries to take them back, but these nations have been reluctant.

The issue has taken on greater urgency, however, amid fears of a security vacuum since US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement in December that American troops would withdraw.

The subject is to be raised on Monday at a meeting of European foreign ministers called to discuss among other issues “the situation in Syria, in particular the recent developments on the ground,” according to an agenda for the talks.

The meeting comes after Trump on Sunday called on his European allies to take back their citizens who are being held by the Kurds in Syria.

“The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 Daesh fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial,” Trump said in a tweet.

His appeal sparked a reaction from Berlin, Paris, and Brussels.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that it would be “extremely difficult” to organize the repatriation of European nationals from Syria.

A return could only be possible if “we can guarantee that these people can be immediately sent here to appear in court and that they will be detained,” he said.

Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen stressed the difficulties however of putting the ex-fighters on trial.

“We must be able to ensure that prosecution is possible,” she said.

French junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said Sunday that, if suspected extremists return, “they will all be tried, and incarcerated.”

In Belgium, justice minister Koen Geens called for a collective “European solution.”

Meanwhile, a top Kurdish official called on Europe not to abandon Syrian Kurds.

European powers “have a political and moral responsibility” to the Kurds, Aldar Khalil told AFP in an interview in Paris late Sunday.

The Kurds would seek the protection of Syrian President Bashar Assad if failed by Europe and the United States, he said.


Syria's return to Arab League not on summit agenda: spokesman

Updated 40 min 27 sec ago
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Syria's return to Arab League not on summit agenda: spokesman

  • The pan-Arab bloc, which is set to hold its annual summit in Tunisia on March 31, froze Syria's membership in November 2011 over a bloody government crackdown on protestors
  • But several of the bloc's other 21 members have recently renewed ties with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad

CAIRO: The Arab League said Sunday it was not planning to discuss reinstating Syria's membership at a summit later this month, more than eight years after suspending it as the country descended into war.
The pan-Arab bloc, which is set to hold its annual summit in Tunisia on March 31, froze Syria's membership in November 2011 over a bloody government crackdown on protestors.
But several of the bloc's other 21 members have recently renewed ties with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and some have called for Syria to be re-admitted to the league.
"The issue of Syria's return to the Arab League has yet to be listed on the agenda and has not been formally proposed," said the League's spokesman Mahmoud Afifi.
He noted that the "Syrian crisis" however still tops the agenda, along with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the situation in Yemen and Libya.
Syria's conflict flared in 2011 with anti-government demonstrations that sparked a brutal regime crackdown.
It has since drawn in regional powers, killing 370,000 people and displacing millions.
But the regime, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has since re-conquered much of the territory it had lost to rebels and terrorists, and now controls some two-thirds of the country.
Syria's Kurds, which declared victory over Daesh on Saturday, control much of the oil-rich northeast, which the regime has hinted it may seize back in a military operation.
Earlier this month, Syrian officials attended a meeting of Arab states in neighbouring Jordan for the first time since the country's Arab League membership was suspended.
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir in December made the first visit of any Arab leader to the Syrian capital since 2011.
The same month, Egypt hosted Syria's national security chief and top Assad aide Ali Mamluk.
The UAE also reopened its Damascus embassy in a major sign of a diplomatic thaw.
Arab states have also slammed US President Donald Trump's call for recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a strategic territory the Jewish state seized from Syria in 1967.