Daesh loses big part of Syrian enclave, SDF sees militants’ defeat ‘very soon’

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A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces gestures in the village of Baghouz. (Reuters)
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Injured Daesh militants in the village of Baghouz on Thursday, March 14, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 20 March 2019

Daesh loses big part of Syrian enclave, SDF sees militants’ defeat ‘very soon’

  • The camp was the biggest remaining area held by Daesh in Baghouz
  • The SDF earlier said it had captured 157 mostly foreign fighters

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria: US-backed Syrian forces said they were close to capturing Daesh’s last territorial possession in eastern Syria on Tuesday after seizing the militants’ camp at Baghouz, though clashes continued with some remaining militants.

“This is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight against Daesh,” said Mustafa Bali, a media official with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for Daesh.

Asked by Reuters how long it would take to defeat the remaining militants, Bali said he expected the operation to end “very soon.”

“The battles are not yet over. There are still some pockets next to the river. Some of the terrorists have taken their children as human shields. There are intermittent clashes,” he said.

The camp was the biggest remaining area held by Daesh in Baghouz, itself the last populated area the militant group held from the third of Syria and Iraq it suddenly seized in 2014.

It has been steadily forced back there after years of retreats in the face of military campaigns by the US-backed SDF, the Russia-backed Syrian army and the Iraqi army with allied Iran-backed militias.

Over recent weeks, as the group hemorrhaged supporters fleeing the besieged enclave, diehard militants mounted a desperate last stand in the battered Baghouz camp, shooting from trenches and sending car bombs against their enemies.

Conditions inside were dire, said people who left, with inhabitants facing constant danger from bombardment and with little food, forced to eat grass. Hundreds of wounded militants were captured when the SDF overran the camp, Bali said.

However, while the capture of the previously unknown village of Baghouz near Syria’s border with Iraq, will mark a milestone in the battle against Daesh, regional and Western officials say the group will remain a threat

Some of its fighters hold out in the remote central Syrian desert and others have gone underground in Iraq to stage a series of shootings and kidnappings.

The SDF earlier on Monday said it had captured 157 mostly foreign fighters as they tracked efforts by militants to break out of the enclave and escape their besiegers.

Both the SDF and the US-led coalition that backs it have said the remaining Daesh militants at Baghouz are among its most hardened foreign operatives.

Over the past two months, more than 60,000 people have poured out of the group’s dwindling enclave, nearly half of whom were surrendering supporters of Daesh, including some 5,000 fighters.

Even on the brink of defeat, the group’s propaganda division continued to function. On Monday night Daesh released an audio recording of its spokesman, Abi Al-Hassan Al-MuHajjer, saying the group would stay strong.

“Do you think the displacement of the weak and poor out of Baghouz will weaken the Daesh? No,” he said.

It also put out a video recording from inside the Baghouz camp, showing fighters shooting out at the encircling forces and a mess of stationary vehicles and makeshift shelters around them.


Syrian father and daughter laugh off the shelling

Updated 3 min ago

Syrian father and daughter laugh off the shelling

SARMADA, Syria: In Syria’s Idlib, there’s no escaping the war, so Abdullah Al-Mohammed says the only way he found to reassure his daughter Salwa was to turn the shelling into a game.

A video in which she laughs every time an explosion goes off was widely shared on social media in recent days as a heartening but grim reminder of Idlib residents’ daily lives.

“Is it a plane or is it a mortar?” he asks, as a whizzing sound grows in the background.

“A mortar,” the three-year-old answers. “When it comes, we will laugh.”

In another video, Salwa is standing on her father’s lap in their living room and her hearty laugh is set off by the sinister thunder of a bomb dropped by a warplane.

“Tell me Salwa, what did the plane do,” the father asks his daughter.

“The plane came and I laughed a lot. The plane just makes us laugh, it tells us: Laugh at me, laugh at me,” she says.

An AFP reporter met the 32-year-old father in Sarmada, a town in Syria’s last rebel pocket, which Russian-backed regime forces are trying to crush.

He and his family fled from Saraqeb, another town in Idlib which has already been retaken by regime forces and has been partly levelled by air raids.

Now as the regime presses its northwards offensive and continues to push civilians ever closer to the Turkish border, the air strikes are back.

Mohammed explains that when Salwa was still 12 months old, she started crying when she heard fireworks in the neighborhood.

He had to explain that it was only the sound of children playing for the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr.

“After that, whatever was coming to us from the air, I would take out my phone and tell her: ‘Come, let’s laugh together, these are children playing for Eid,” he says.

“I try not to show her that what is happening as a bad thing but rather show it as something funny,” he explains.

“One day, she will know that this is a sound of death but by then, she will have understood who we are and what our story is,” Mohammed says.

The north of the province of Idlib is a dead end for hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced from other former rebel bastions across Syria.

It has been described by aid groups as the world’s largest de facto open-air displacement camp.

Hundreds of people, many of them children, have been killed in recent weeks as pro-regime bombardment spares nothing, from homes to hospitals.

According to the United Nations, 900,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and shelters since December alone.

Tens of thousands of them are left to sleep rough in the thick of winter, with temperatures dipping to minus 7 degrees Celsius (around 19 degrees Fahrenheit) in some areas last week.

More than half of the displaced are children and at least seven of them have died from the cold and the bad living conditions.

For those who have a shelter, the trauma of the intensive shelling is an issue that overwhelmed health services and relief organizations can scarcely address.

After nearly nine years of a conflict that has killed more than 380,000 people, Salwa’s father says he no longer has dreams or hope.

“We are tired of sending messages, we have no aspirations. We just want these children to have a decent life,” he says.