US-backed forces were locked in fierce fighting on Sunday as they pressed the battle against the last shred of the Islamic State group’s “caliphate” in eastern Syria.
President Donald Trump praised the advancement in a bizarre tweet despite announcing in December that the militant group had been defeated, and that American troops would be withdrawn.
Trump has been unclear on the issue, and in January said the US would “be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight IS”.
In his tweet, the president was also quick to take a swipe at American media outlet CNN, who he has often accused of peddling “fake news”.
“The US will soon control 100 per cent of ISIS terriroty in Syria. @CNN (do you believe this?).,” Trump tweeted.
Spokesman Mustafa Bali said heavy fighting was going on inside Baghouz on Sunday, adding that an IS counter-attack was foiled early in the day.
He did not say how long the battle was expected to last, with US-led coalition warplanes giving cover to advancing SDF fighters.
Trump predicted on Wednesday that the Islamic State group will lose by next week all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria.
That would mark the end of a four-year global war to end the extremist group’s territorial holdover large parts of Syria and Iraq where the group established its self-proclaimed “caliphate” in 2014.
American officials have said in recent weeks that IS has lost 99.5 per cent of its territory and is holding onto fewer than 5 square kilometres in Syria where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated.
Up to 600 jihadists could still remain inside, most of them foreigners, Bali said.
But activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq, and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency.
The US military has warned the group could stage a comeback if the military and counter-terrorism pressure on it is eased.
ISIS LEADER’S LOCATION A MYSTERY
Bali added the extremist group’s elusive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was likely not in the last pocket.
“We do not think he is in Syria,” Bali said, without adding further details about the whereabouts of the man who declared a cross-border IS “caliphate” in 2014.
On the Iraqi side of the border, French members of the coalition on Saturday stood ready to descend on any jihadists trying to escape.
Dozens of 155-mm shells were lined up ready to be loaded onto three green-and-black Caesar gun-howitzers with a range of 40 kilometres.
Coalition deputy commander Christopher Ghika last week said Iraqi forces had sealed their border with Syria.
Since September, more than 1270 IS militants, more than 670 SDF fighters, and around 400 civilians have been killed in the fighting, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said.
At the height of their rule, the jihadists imposed their brutal interpretation of Islamic law on a territory roughly the size of Britain.
But military offensives in both countries, including by the SDF, have since retaken the vast bulk of that caliphate.
Bali said he expected the battle for the last patch of IS territory to be over in days.
The jihadists however retain a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert, and have claimed a series of deadly attacks in SDF-held areas.
Since December, more than 37,000 people, mostly wives and children of jihadist fighters, have fled out into SDF-held areas, the Observatory sad.
That figure includes some 3400 suspected jihadists detained by the SDF, according to the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.
FEARS IF US WITHDRAW FROM BATTLE
The SDF holds hundreds of foreigners accused of belonging to the extremist group in its custody, as well as members of their families.
They have urged Western governments to repatriate their nationals, but politicians abroad have been reluctant.
Relatives of foreign jihadists fear they may end up facing tough justice in Iraq, where Human Rights Watch warned they could face “torture and unfair trials”.
On Sunday, a Russian diplomatic source says Russia was repatriating 27 children who mothers are being held in Iraq for belonging to IS.
The issue of jihadist repatriation from Syria has come into sharper focus since the US in December announced its military withdrawal from Syria.
That announcement has seen the Kurds warn they may struggle to keep jihadists in jail, and pushed them to seek a new ally in the Damascus regime to prevent a long threatened Turkish offensive.
While the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been a key US ally in the fight against IS, Ankara views them as “terrorists”.
Syria’s Kurds have largely stayed out of the country’s civil war, instead building semi-autonomous institutions in northern and northeastern regions they control.
The conflict has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.
The regime has made a military comeback with Russian military support since 2015, and now holds almost two-thirds of Syria.
Source: AP, AFP, staff writer