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Syrian forces launch endgame battle against IS

February 10, 2019

The Kurdish-led forces have described the operation as the "decisive battle" to defeat the militant group in Syria. With a looming US withdrawal, pressure is on to uproot IS in its remaining enclave.

A SDF soldier holds an assault rifle
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/S. Backhaus

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Saturday said they had begun the "decisive battle" targeting the last remnants of the "Islamic State" militant group in eastern Syria.

"After saving more than 20,000 civilians from IS-held area and ensuring their safety in nearby camps, the SDF started to move on to the last village remaining under the jihadists' control," SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said in a tweet.

The SDF said it had waited nearly two weeks to allow thousands of civilians to flee the area. But the Kurdish-led alliance of anti-IS fighters noted that there could be hundreds more trapped inside the militant group's enclave.

Read more: As 'Islamic State' crumbles, Syrian Kurds want Germany to take back foreign fighters 

Breaking the caliphate

Since IS rose to prominence in 2014 following a blitzkrieg campaign across Iraq and Syria that culminated in the declaration of a "caliphate" by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, regional forces and global powers have attempted to uproot the militant group.

In 2017, US-backed forces in Iraq and Syria seized on a series of victories against IS to regain control of Iraq's Mosul and Syria's Raqqa, the latter considered the militant group's de facto capital. Since then, ongoing efforts — including those by Syrian regime forces and the Russian military — have significantly reduced IS' capabilities.

On Friday, Major General Christopher Ghika, deputy commander for the anti-IS coalition, said the militant group's remaining territory amounted to "less than one percent of the original caliphate."

Read more: With 'Islamic State' in tatters, al-Qaida renews call for jihad

Withdrawal on the horizon

In December, US President Donald Trump stunned allies when he announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, citing victory over IS. But the move triggered criticism from military officials and prompted then-Defense Secretary James Mattis and anti-IS coalition envoy Brett McGurk to resign.

On Friday, New York-based newspaper The Wall Street Journal reported that the withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops in Syria would take place by the end of April, citing US officials. But the SDF has refused to acknowledge any changes to the current situation.

"What we know is that so far there is no withdrawal, and the situation on the ground is unchanged," the SDF told Reuters news agency. "There is no discussion to set any date or time ceiling (for a withdrawal)."

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2 years of presidential power

ls/kl (AFP, Reuters)