Almost six months after it began the last battle against the last ISIS enclave near the Euphrates River began on March 1. ISIS is confined to a tiny area of tents and buildings. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the US-led Coalition expect the battle to end in several days.The SDF and coalition launched a major operation to defeat ISIS in a small area along the Euphrates in September 2018. It has been a difficult campaign against the hard core of ISIS supporters. In addition, sand storms and weather slowed the advance last fall. Political considerations, including a Turkish threat to launch operations against the SDF in northern Syria in October, also caused the operation to stop.
Air strikes targeting Islamic State in Baghouz, March 3, 2019 (Reuters)
In December the US decided to withdraw from Syria, throwing the entire anti-ISIS campaign into question. In addition US President Donald Trump had repeatedly insisted ISIS is defeated. Most recently, on his way back from a meeting in Vietnam he claimed ISIS was 100% defeated.The situation on the ground has been more complex. Even though ISIS lost almost all its territory, more than 10,000 pro-ISIS supporters are still crammed into a pocket near the town of Baghuz. These were ISIS families and many foreign fighters, including Westerners who had come to the ‘caliphate’ in 2014 and 2015 with dreams of owning slaves after watching scenes of minorities being murdered by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Now their dreams have been dashed in the mud and reeds along the banks of the Euphrates. Many of them have chosen to surrender rather than fight. They have enjoyed access to health care and a free ride to a displaced persons camp after leaving Baghuz.Some of the former ISIS members have become minor celebrities, holding court and giving interviews about how they want to go back “home” to their Western countries, describing their experience in ISIS as a kind of vacation gone wrong.For the SDF, the last battle has been difficult and harrowing. Yazidi slaves, kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 in Sinjar in Iraq, have been found among those leaving Baghuz. These include traumatized children. Locals have also reported they found at least one mass grave, and videos have appeared showing ISIS massacring civilians. This area of the Euphrates was not only a conduit for ISIS to sell Yazidis as slaves, it was also where they had massacred members of the local al-Shaitat tribe. The area of Abu Hamam up river from Baghuz was badly affected by the ISIS massacre of the locals.While the battle for Baghuz was supposed to begin in January, the SDF discovered that there are up to 10,000 people in the small ISIS enclave and some of them were families. Over the last 38 days convoys have helped extract those who wanted to leave. Men have been screened and women and children brought to an IDP camp. The SDF has also negotiated with ISIS for the release of SDF hostages that ISIS had captured in battles last year. More than 24 SDF members were liberated prior to the commencement of the final battle.Video on Friday showed SDF members looking over a tablet-style computer at night with a map of the area, plotting the battle.Gunfire could be heard in the morning as houses were cleared. While the last battle unfolds, much of what comes next is unclear. There has been little in the way of commitment from the members of the Coalition for housing the former ISIS members or a plan to de-radicalize and prosecute them. Yazidi activists in Sinjar protested on Friday, demanding answers about the 3,000 Yazidis who are still missing. Nadia Murad and the Yazidi organization Yazda posted a statement recalling the murder of 5,000 Yazidis in 2014 and the abduction of 6,000. They want answers in Baghuz about the fate of their loved ones.