'Nothing remains in Baghouz except terrorists', say SDF as final assault against ISIS begins

The final victory declaration will come from Syria, not the US, American-backed forces tell Campbell MacDiarmid in Al Omar oil field

Since US President Donald Trump told soldiers that 100 per cent of ISIS territory had been retaken on Thursday night, American-backed Syrian forces in Deir Ezzor province have announced that the final push against diehard fighters has begun.

On a bend of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, there is a tiny patch of farmland and hamlets called Baghouz. It is here that several hundred ISIS fighters and an unknown number of their followers are making their final stand.

Over the past month, the last denizens of what ISIS called a “caliphate” – which in 2014 stretched across a third of Syria and Iraq – have been gradually surrendering to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. They have now encircled this enclave, the only sliver of ISIS territory left.

Civilians walk to be screened after fleeing from the last pocket of ISIS territoy in Baghouz, Syria, 28 February 2019. Campbell MacDiarmid

A pause in fighting appeared to last until Friday, when the SDF announced it had begun an operation to clear the pocket – the ultimate battle in a war to destroy what was once a brutal quasi-state intent on expanding its territory by conquest. ISIS once vowed to capture Rome and take over the White House.

Until the announcement, the SDF were still ferrying thousands of civilians out of the last pocket of territory held by the extremist group. On Thursday, a convoy of 30 double-trailer lorries normally used for transporting goods relocated another 1,000 women, children and a few men who lived under ISIS.

Local drivers have been employed for the delicate task of entering the last bastion to collect those who are free to leave, which those who make the journey say now includes all remaining women and children.

They left behind tunnels, trenches and an unknown number of fighters.

Driven to a desert screening area strewn with rubbish outside Baghouz, they climbed down from lorries and stood in lines amid discarded clothing and personal items of the 15,000 people who SDF media chief Mustafa Bali said had fled Baghouz in the last month.

A featureless plain stretching to the horizon in all directions, there is little here to welcome those fleeing, save for a few dilapidated tents and some piles of bottled water. There are bags of bread to sustain the exiles until they are transported to displacement camps further north.

“When will ISIS surrender?” Mr Bali asked an elderly woman standing at the front of a line of a dozen women robed in black. Barefoot, screaming children clutched at their abayas and as wind whipped dust across the plain.

“I don’t know” the woman said over the chorus of mewling children.

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Most of the women, hidden behind their veils, refused to speak. Those who did said they did not know the whereabouts of their husbands. The suspicion among the SDF fighters is that all those who leave here at this stage are hardline ISIS supporters. “How can you go out dressed like that?” a woman asked a female journalist with uncovered hair. “God intended us to be covered.”

And from within their baggage, SDF fighters have seized pistols, hand grenades, laptops and other suspicious items – evidence that at least some of these women intended to contribute to an ISIS resurgence from within the camps.

Men suspected of belonging to ISIS are screened by Syrian Democratic Forces after fleeing from the last pocket of territory held by the group outside Baghouz, Syria, 28 February 2019. Campbell MacDiarmid

Among the people fleeing from Baghouz is a disproportionately high percentage of foreigners. They are part of the surviving cohort of tens of thousands who travelled to Syria after ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s 2014 call for Muslims worldwide to recognise him as caliph and to make hijrah – migrate – to live in the lands under his control.

Some of the ISIS women carried western-brand backpacks and wore hiking shoes but declined to say where they were from. “Sit down,” one woman told her child in English, but remained silent when asked her nationality.

“I am from Spain,” another woman said quietly in English but, when spoken to in Spanish, appeared not to understand the language. Others said they were from Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

Armed SDF fighters screened a much smaller group of men after separating them from the women. The fighters said they assumed all of them were committed ISIS supporters. Many of the surrendering men had been seriously wounded, several had missing limbs or hobbled on crutches.

Among the men, a teenage boy walked with his hands raised, looking indistinguishable from those marching in front and behind him. But when he identified himself as Yazidi, the SDF fighters pulled him from the line.

In 2014, ISIS overran the Sinjar area of northern Iraq – the traditional homeland of the Yazidi people. The extremists considered members of this religious minority to be infidels and devil worshippers and they killed thousands of the sect’s men before carrying off thousands of Yazidi women and children into slavery.

A Yazidi boy who just left the last pocket of ISIS territory is screened by Syrian Democratic forces, outside Baghouz 28 February 2019. Campbell MacDiarmid

Khalil, now 15, told the SDF fighters he was among those snatched from his village and held by the militants. It was unclear if he had been enslaved or indoctrinated, trained and used in operations by ISIS, as many were after 2014. Thousands of Yazidi men and boys remain missing after the Sinjar slaughter was recognised by the UN as a genocide.

Earlier that day, the SDF reported finding a mass grave outside Baghouz. It contained dozens of decapitated bodies that may belong to enslaved Yazidis murdered by ISIS.

Speaking in Arabic, Khalid said he did not know the whereabouts of his family. “I forgot how to speak Kurdish,” he said.

“We’re Kurds; we’re close to the Yazidi,” a SDF fighter told him. “You’re finished with ISIS now.”

The boy looked uncertain but smiled, and the fighter brought him bread.

More ISIS fighters and their families remain in Baghouz, said Mr Bali, who does not know how much longer the militants will hold out.

“Every day has been like this for the past month,” he said.

Those fleeing told The National that food supplies in Baghouz were dwindling and medical care was almost non-existent. Those who remain are living on a starvation diet consisting mostly of "ISIS bread" – coarse loaves baked from animal feed. Many of the fleeing children have open sores on their faces and are listless with hunger.

Women and children wait to be screened after fleeing from the last pocket of ISIS territory outside Baghouz, 28 February 2019. Campbell MacDiarmid

Dave Eubank, an aid worker with the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian organisation, has been delivering food and water to the screening area for the past month. He says up to 7,000 people may remain in Baghouz, according to what he was told by the truck drivers who are bringing people out.

“I was told by some US people that it would be over in about three days, and that was on February 2,” he said.

But he witnessed a growing number of ISIS fighters giving up. “They looked like they didn’t want to die in there,” Mr Eubank said.

On Friday, following the evacuation of about 100 more people, mostly women and children, the SDF launched an operation to clear the Baghouz pocket, Mr Bali tweeted.

“After our forces completed the evacuation of civilians from Baghouz and the freeing of our fighters who were kidnapped by Daesh, nothing remains in Baghouz except for terrorists,” he wrote.

“Therefore our forces have begun military action and engagement with the terrorists to complete its final liberation,” he said.

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter searches the possessions of civilians who fled the last pocket of ISIS territory in Syria outside Baghouz, 28 February 2019. Campbell MacDiarmid

At Al Omar oil field, a rear base about an hour’s drive from Baghouz, the SDF is constructing a stage where it intends to make its own declaration of triumph, should it be deemed too dangerous to stage a victory rally in Baghouz itself.

A shrouded object that appears to be a statue stands next to the wooden dais outside the converted quarters that now house local SDF commanders.

The SDF fighters here do not expect that announcement to be made immediately, but they say that the victory is theirs to claim.

“Al Omar oil field is like the White House,” said one SDF commander.

Identifying himself by his nom de guerre Heval Aram, he added:

“The decision to make the announcement will be made here.”