Syria force expects mass evacuations from last IS holdout

Syria: US-backed Syrian forces prepared Monday for another round of evacuations from the Islamic State group’s last shard of territory in Syria as conditions worsen in overcrowded camps for fleeing civilians.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have slowed down their offensive on the final IS pocket as they seek to evacuate civilians before a final push to crush jihadists, who seized swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014 and declared a cross-border “caliphate”.

The Kurdish-led forces have evacuated nearly 5,000 men, women and children from the jihadist redoubt on Wednesday and Friday, but none over the weekend, bringing them closer to defeating IS.

As spokesman said the SDF expected to evacuate a large and final batch of civilians from the jihadist group’s crumbling proto-state on Monday.

“We expect a large number of civilians to exit today and we hope it will be the last batch,” the spokesman, Mustefa Bali, told AFP at the Al-Omar airbase, the main staging ground for the SDF’s offensive.

“According to what we heard from those who have left (the IS redoubt), there are nearly five thousand people still inside,” Bali said.

Holdout IS fighters and civilians, mostly relatives of jihadists, are trapped in less than half a square kilometre in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.

“In the next few days, our forces will announce the defeat of the Islamic State group,” Kurdish foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar told AFP on Monday.

“But this does not mean that we have eliminated terrorism, which must be eradicated at the roots.”

Beyond Baghouz, IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries.

In Syria, it retains a presence in the vast Badia desert, and the jihadists have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

– Secret transfers –

Thousands of suspected IS fighters have attempted to blend in with civilians fleeing the jihadist group’s shrinking territory, including a large number of foreigners.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, around 46,000 people, including thousands of jihadists, have streamed out of the Baghouz pocket since early December.

The SDF screens those exiting at an outpost outside the village to weed out potential IS fighters.

After being vetted, women, children, and men not suspected of belonging to the extremist group are transported north to the Kurdish-run camp of Al-Hol, while suspected jihadists are sent to SDF-held detention centres.

The Observatory on Monday said that 1,400 people, mainly IS relatives, were secretly transported from orchards on the outskirts of Baghouz to neighbouring Iraq over the past 24 hours.

The Kurdish foreign affairs official did not confirm the transfer but denied that the SDF was responsible.

“In principle, we do not hand over any person passing through our territories to Iraqi authorities or any other party,” Omar said.

Such transfers can only happen if they were trucked from Baghouz “by another party,” he explained, without specifying.

– Humanitarian nightmare –

The mast outpouring of men, women and children from the last dregs of the jihadist proto-state has overwhelmed Kurdish-run displacement camps, especially the Al-Hol shelter, six hours north of Baghouz.

“The international community is not currently taking responsibility towards the large number of people leaving the last IS pocket, especially children,” Omar said.

“International (aid) organisations are supplying at most five percent” of the camp’s needs.

Some 5,000 evacuees have arrived in Al-Hol since Wednesday, compounding already dire conditions inside the crammed settlement.

And 2,000 people arrived on Sunday, bringing Al-Hol’s population to over 45,000, the International Rescue Committee said.

At least 78 people, mostly children, have died on the way to the camp or shortly after arriving in recent weeks, the IRC said.

A warehouse fire at Al-Hol on Friday caused by a gas cylinder explosion “destroyed 200 family tents” and five larger ones and injured 16 workers, it said.

That came as the UN’s humanitarian coordination office OCHA warned the camp was struggling to keep up with the flood of evacuees.

“This sudden influx presents huge challenges to the response — additional tents, non-food items, water and sanitation and health supplies are urgently needed,” it tweeted Friday.

The battle for Baghouz is now the only live front in Syria’s war, which has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since 2011.