Mines and tunnels slow final Syria onslaught on IS

Syria: Kurdish-led forces cleared landmines and searched for tunnels blocking their advance Friday on the last square kilometre of an east Syria village defended by a few hundred Islamic State jihadists.

Rainy weather and concern for civilians trapped in IS’s last redoubt was delaying a push that will wipe out the last shred of the jihadists’ once-sprawling “caliphate”.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have been closing in on holdout jihadists since September last year and a few hundred surviving IS members are now boxed into an area of around one square kilometre (less than half a square mile).

“The large number of landmines and tunnels is hindering attempts by the SDF to secure complete control over the area,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

Diehard jihadists were still launching sporadic attacks on SDF positions around their last stronghold in Baghouz, a small town near the banks of the Euphrates river.

“IS fighters are refusing to hand themselves over and they are still putting up a fight. We do not know what is the point of this resistance,” SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said.

Speaking to AFP in Al-Omar oil field, the SDF’s main staging area, he said this week the jihadists had been using ambushes and explosives-laden motorbikes to inflict casualties on the SDF.

The “caliphate” IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in mid-2014 once spanned territory the size of the United Kingdom and administered millions of people.

– Eating grass –

It printed its own schoolbooks, produced oil, collected taxes and minted its own currency, in a brief but unprecedented experiment in jihadist statehood.

Successive offensives in Iraq and Syria have shattered the proto-state, which lost its key cities one after the other and haa since late 2017 been confined to its traditional power base in the Euphrates valley.

An official declaration of victory against IS is expected in the coming days, a move of mostly symbolic value that will go down as the death certificate of the “caliphate”.

Estimates vary on the number of fighters and families left inside the last pocket but accounts from women who escaped with their children in recent days suggest come civilians are left inside.

“To avoid any harm to the wives and children of IS fighters, we are forced to be cautious,” Afrin said.

Close to 40,000 people have left the jihadists’ dwindling enclave in recent weeks, in the latest humanitarian emergency of an eight-year conflict that has killed 360,000 people and displaced 11 million.

Those who flee Baghouz have a perilous journey to the nearest SDF-held collection point, dodging booby traps and sniper fire.

Women veiled from head to toe carrying scant belongings and dirty children often have to spend one night or more sleeping out in the cold.

“These people haven’t had any proper food in weeks… I’ve heard accounts of people making some kind of soup with grass,” said Jean-Nicolas Paquet-Rouleau, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria.

– Humanitarian burden –

Among those who have left the neighbourhood where IS is making its desperate last stand are also adult men, who are screened and often detained by the SDF.

Abdel Karim Omar, the top foreign affairs official in the autonomous administration the Kurds have set up in northeastern Syria, argued jihadists preferred to surrender to the SDF than risk being captured by Iraqi or Syrian government forces flanking the battlefield on either side.

“IS fighters prefer to come to us because we treat them in accordance with international law,” he told AFP.

“Even if they are tried one day in this area, they know that we do not impose the death sentence,” he said.

What happens next to the hundreds of suspected jihadists of all nationalities held by the SDF and to their families is a complex question, the answer to which will emerge from a politically sensitive legal vacuum.

The Kurds are keen to send all foreign jihadists back to their countries of origin for trial but court systems and public opinions in Europe and elsewhere are ill-prepared.

The Kurdish official also complained that the international community was falling short in providing humanitarian assistance to the growing number of displaced.

“Unfortunately, international aid agencies, the international community and even the global coalition (against IS), are not taking responsibility for these displaced people,” Omar said.

“What they are providing does not cover even five percent of their needs,” he said, calling for increased support.