Horror and hunger: Inside IS’s last stronghold
The terror group's last remaining 'caliphate' in Syria plays host to a battle locked in a deadly stalemate
In Baghuz, a single black flag fluttered on Sunday in a light afternoon breeze above wrecked vehicles and improvised tents – the last Islamic State banner flying over the last of its territory east of the Euphrates.
The final slice of the terror group’s “caliphate” was braced for a fresh assault from Western-backed forces, who relaunched their stalled offensive against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. After years of hard fighting, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led alliance, have boxed IS into a tiny triangle of land next to the village of Baghuz, a rural settlement on the fertile banks of the Euphrates.
But for the past week, the battle has been locked in a frustrating stalemate. Bound by high cliffs to the south, the river to the west, and by SDF positions in the wrecked houses of the village to the north and east, the jihadists have nowhere left to run. And their capacity to mount the audacious and deadly counter-attacks they are infamous for has been broken.
However, with dedicated fighters packed in among an unknown number of civilians, the SDF was forced to pause or risk colossal collateral damage. “We can’t advance any more. There is just not more space between fighters and civilians,” an SDF fighter, watching IS positions from 200m away, said. “It is impossible to go any further. The fighters are living with their families. There is no way to discriminate between them and the women and children,” he said. “The only thing to do is wait for them to come out.”
But SDF and coalition commanders appeared to lose patience on Sunday night. Hours after this reporter saw the IS flag flying, airstrikes lit up the sky as coalition jets struck targets within the shanty town after sunset. “Our forces are now clashing with the terrorists and the attack started,” said Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media office. He said no civilians had emerged since Saturday and that the SDF had not seen any more civilians in the pocket.
However, I saw at least two women, and several other figures moving inside IS-controlled territory on Sunday afternoon. There are only a dozen or so low, flat-topped concrete buildings in IS’s last stronghold. Its members leaving the pocket last week told this publication that people avoided staying in the buildings because they tended to be targeted by air raids or missile strikes. Instead, people were living in a sea of improvised huts and tents dotted among what were once fields and pomegranate orchards.
The proximity of the two forces is alarming. A building near the front line briefly came under IS fire as we visited forward SDF positions on Sunday, and soldiers say small children sometimes came within 50m of their positions, searching desperately for food. The misery of life inside IS’s last pocket is starkly apparent. In former defensive positions, stormed by the SDF just days ago, improvised shelters are stuffed with the mundane clutter of a family household: mattresses, blankets, saucepans and women’s clothes left behind by fleeing families. But scattered among personal effects is fighting equipment: loaded Kalashnikov magazines, loose 7.62mm rounds and rocket-propelled grenades.
And a few metres from a family tent, a discarded suicide belt, carefully curved to fit a human body, ball bearings glistening dully under the poly-film that protects the tightly packed explosive.
On a patch of tilled ground next to a bombed-out building, a dozen earth mounds lie in rows, a quickly dug graveyard. None of the graves has markers. Sturdier materials such as sheets of corrugated tin, doors from houses, and metal items such as pipes appear to have been reserved for covered fighting positions. But despite reports of complex tunnel systems, the SDF fighters who captured this section of Baghuz last week say they have only found a few underground passageways, typically linking one or two houses or fighting positions. Protection from airstrikes and artillery takes the form of barely adequate foxholes and slit trenches.
No one knows for sure how many fighters, civilians, and hostages remain in Baghuz. One SDF unit commander said on Saturday that intelligence gathered from surrendering jihadists suggested 2,000 fighters and 6,000 women and children remain concealed in the tent city. But the SDF, the Western militaries of the coalition, and various humanitarian groups have all badly underestimated the numbers concentrated here in the past. At the beginning of the month officials estimated there were no more than 3,500 people in the remaining pocket. At least twice that number have left in the past week.
– © The Daily Telegraph