Thousands of men and women pour out of Baghouz

NEAR BAGHOUZ: Civilians evacuated from the Islamic State (IS) group’s embattled holdout of Baghouz wait at a screening area held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. —AFP

SOUSA: Holdout Islamic State group fighters hunkered down in a riverside camp in eastern Syria yesterday as US-backed forces looked to expel them from the last shred of their dying “caliphate”. Thousands of men and women have poured out of the pocket of territory in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border in recent days, suitcases and dust-covered children in tow. The exodus has sparked a humanitarian emergency, with an aid group saying one camp for non-combatants has reached “breaking point” after receiving 12,000 people from Baghouz in the past 48 hours.

IS carved out a proto-state across large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, ruling millions of people, but has since lost all of it except the last tiny patch by the Euphrates River. The group’s fighters and their families are cornered by the advancing US-backed forces in an improvised encampment on the water’s edge. Footage obtained by AFP showed men, as well as women draped in black, walking among a sea of pickup trucks and rudimentary tents scattered across the uneven riverbank. A black cow grazed on a patch of dry grass between the makeshift dwellings.

The images, filmed by the Free Burma Rangers aid group, showed a motorbike darting between a dark earth berm topped with clumps of reeds and a line of temporary shelters. Just a few meters from the river, a few figures sat behind a wall of breeze-blocks erected among a thick bed of reeds, shielding them from the other side of the waterway, which is held by regime troops. The Syrian Democratic Forces, who are backed by air power of a US-led coalition, are waiting for all civilians to be evacuated before moving in to retake the last scrap of IS-held territory.

‘Breaking point’
SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said no civilians had been evacuated on Friday, but expected more to flow out on Saturday. “The situation has completely stalled except for some intermittent clashes,” he added on the situation on the frontline. Nearly 58,000 people have left the last IS redoubt since December, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It is unclear how many people remain inside, but the SDF has been surprised by the seemingly endless flow from the IS pocket. The International Rescue Committee on Friday said that 12,000 women and children had arrived at the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp since Wednesday.

The latest batch of evacuees, including 6,000 people who came on Thursday, has pushed the camp’s population to over 65,000, exacerbating to a tent shortage and “health crisis”, it said. “The IRC and other agencies are doing all they can do to help the new arrivals but Al-Hol camp is now at breaking point,” IRC’s Misty Buswell said. The organization said there have been “hundreds of cases of severe acute malnutrition, including 220 children who needed to be transferred to a local hospital for treatment”. A large number of people are also arriving with shrapnel wounds and are in need of immediate surgery, it added.

‘Blood to your knees’
At the height of its rule, IS imposed its brutal interpretation of Islam across an area the size of the United Kingdom. After it lost major cities in both countries in 2017, the fall of Baghouz would be a symbolic end to its territorial control. But many warn the battle is far from over, and some of those fleeing jihadist territory appear to have their devotion intact.

At an SDF position outside Baghouz this week, women covered from head to toe in black stood in front of journalists, pointing their index fingers to the sky in a gesture used by IS supporters to proclaim the oneness of God. “The Islamic State is here to stay!” they cried in unison. One woman added: “We will seek vengeance, there will be blood up to your knees.” General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, warned Thursday that many of those being evacuated are “unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized”. He stressed the need to “maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization”.

Beyond Baghouz, IS fighters are still present in Syria’s vast Badia desert and have claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory. US President Trump stunned allies in December when he announced all 2,000 US troops would withdraw from Syria as IS had been defeated. The White House later said that around 200 American “peace-keeping” soldiers would remain in northern Syria. Baghouz is the latest front in Syria’s eight-year civil war, which has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions. – AFP