US-backed Kurdish-led forces have resumed their assault against the final ISIL enclave in eastern Syria, aiming to wipe out the last vestige of its self-declared “caliphate” that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.
While Baghouz represents the last shred of populated land held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL, ISIS) fighters, the armed group is still widely seen as a big security threat with remote territory elsewhere and the continued capacity to launch attacks.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been poised to advance into the enclave for weeks, but have repeatedly held back to allow for the evacuation of civilians, many of them wives and children of ISIL fighters.
Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said on Sunday no further civilians had emerged from the enclave at the Iraqi border since Saturday and the SDF had not observed any more civilians in the area, prompting the decision to attack.
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“The military operations have started. Our forces are now clashing with the terrorists and the attack started,” he said.
He said they had given ISIL fighters time to surrender, and that time was over.
‘ISIL is surrounded’
Reporting from Gaziantep, near the Turkish-Syrian border, Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid said that while the fighting had resumed, it was still unclear if this was the final push.
“Whether this is the final battle or not, it is too early to say.
“That’s simply because there has been a pattern over the past few months … [where] there has been fighting, then a very dramatic picture of ISIL women and children coming out of Baghouz in the thousands,” said Abdel-Hamid.
“There is a sense that ISIL is surrounded, weaker and on the verge of defeat, but there is also a lot of caution because nobody knows how many fighters are left inside,” she added.
Tens of thousands of people have streamed out of the shrinking territory held by ISIL in recent months. Aid agencies in the area are struggling to cope with the influx, according to NGOs, including Save the Children.
Bali said more than 4,000 fighters had surrendered to the SDF in the past month.
Earlier on Sunday, a Reuters news agency correspondent saw SDF forces advance into a tented area of Baghouz after ISIL fighters withdrew from it. SDF fighters gathered some ammunition and rifles left behind by the armed group.
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The SDF announced the military operation to capture Baghouz in September, but has held off on a full-blown assault after it became apparent that a huge number of civilians were still inside.
Syrian military air raids against ISIL fighters further west, in the country’s central desert, were a reminder of the constant warnings by both Arab and Western officials that the group will continue to pose a serious security threat.
After its sudden advance across swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the group held about one-third of both countries, but its wholesale slaughter or sexual enslavement of minorities and its grotesque public killings roused global anger.
Separate offensives by different forces in both countries steadily drove it back, inflicting major ISIL defeats in 2017, and eventually forcing it back on Baghouz, a little cluster of hamlets and farmland on the Euphrates.
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Al Jazeera and news agencies