BEIRUT -- U.S.-backed forces in Syria announced the beginning Saturday of the possible final battle for the last village controlled by the Islamic State.
In a brief statement posted on its website, the Syrian Democratic Forces said the push began Saturday night and was focused on the village of Baghouz, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in the southeastern Syria province of Deir al-Zour.
Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted that the offensive began Saturday after more than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from the area.
"The decisive battle began tonight to finish what remains of Daesh terrorists," Bali said, using an Arabic acronym to refer to the Islamic State.
"The battle is very fierce," he later said. "Those remaining inside are the most experienced who are defending their last stronghold. According to this you can imagine the ferocity and size of the fighting."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said Syrian Democratic Forces fighters were advancing "cautiously" because of mines planted by Islamic State gunmen. It said U.S.-led coalition warplanes were giving cover to advancing fighters.
The Syrian Democratic Forces statement gave no indication of how long it could take to capture Baghouz, but President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he had been told that the full territorial conquest of the Islamic State could be completed this week.
"It should be formally announced sometime, probably next week, that we will have 100 percent of the caliphate," Trump told representatives of the 79-member U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.
That would herald an end to the nearly 5-year-old war aimed at pushing the Islamic State out of its self-proclaimed caliphate, the once-vast stretch of territory spanning Syria and Iraq that at its peak was roughly the size of Britain.
Success against the Islamic State in Baghouz would also increase pressure on the U.S. military to pull out of Syria, in accordance with Trump's instructions that the troops should leave once the Islamic State has been defeated.
U.S. officials caution, however, that driving the Islamic State out of its territory would not end the threat it poses. The militants have been regrouping as an insurgency in many of the areas they have already lost. They could quickly rebound if the military victory is not accompanied by solutions to the grievances that contributed to their rise, the officials say.
"ISIS remains an active insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria," noted a report last week by the Pentagon's inspector general. "If Sunni socio-economic, political, and sectarian grievances are not adequately addressed by the national and local governments of Iraq and Syria it is very likely that ISIS will have the opportunity to set conditions for future resurgence and territorial control."
"Currently, ISIS is regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria, but absent sustained [counterterrorism] pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory," the report added, quoting officials with the U.S. Central Command.
In a reminder that the militants have the capability to mount attacks well beyond the front lines, assailants on motorcycles on Saturday tried to storm a base shared by the U.S. military and the Syrian Democratic Forces at the Omar oil field, about 60 miles north of the village where the militants are making their last stand.
Most of the dozen or so attackers were killed and two managed to escape after a battle lasting several hours, during which U.S. airstrikes were called in, according to the Observatory.
The Observatory said that since the Syrian Democratic Forces began its offensive on Sept. 10, some 1,279 Islamic State gunmen and 678 Syrian Democratic Forces fighters have been killed. It said 401 civilians, including 144 children and teenagers, have been killed since then.
The assault on Baghouz is being conducted by the Syrian Democratic Forces' Kurdish and Arab fighters, backed by U.S. airstrikes and U.S. advisers.
Estimates of the number of fighters remaining in the territory vary wildly -- from dozens to hundreds -- but they are thought to include some of the most die-hard and committed extremists who have remained with the group to the bitter end.
U.S. special operations forces working alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces fighters will be particularly keen on establishing whether any key Islamic State commanders are still holed up in Baghouz, including perhaps the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces officials say, however, that they have no reason to believe he is there.
Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria has triggered a scramble among international powers and local forces to figure out how to fill the potentially destabilizing vacuum the Americans will leave behind.
But as the diplomacy drags on, it is becoming clear there is no readily apparent arrangement that will satisfy the competing concerns and agendas of all the parties involved -- and that none seems likely to emerge soon.
Turkey, Russia, the United States' Syrian Kurdish allies and the Syrian government all have a strategic interest in any arrangement for the future of northern Syria, yet most of their demands are diametrically opposed.
Turkey considers the Kurdish forces to be terrorists and wants to create a Turkish-controlled buffer zone to keep them away from its border. The United States' Kurdish allies, who fear persecution at Turkish hands, want the Turks kept out.
The Trump administration wants to satisfy both sides, making good on its promises to protect its Kurdish allies and to give Turkey a stake in the area.
The Kurds would prefer a return of Syrian government authority in the area they control. But one of Syrian President Bashar Assad's closest allies is Iran, and the Trump administration objects to any plan that allows the Iranians to maintain -- much less extend -- their influence in Syria.
The Pentagon still has not announced a date for the withdrawal, but the questions of how and when it will happen are gaining urgency as the Islamic State's territory dwindles.
Turkey is threatening to invade northern Syria if its demands are not met. The Syrian government has deployed troops to the south of the region, and the Islamic State is already trying to regroup in areas from which it has been pushed out.
A power vacuum or new conflict could help the Islamic State make a comeback, military officials say.
To avert such an outcome, intensive diplomacy is underway between the United States and Turkey, aimed primarily at fulfilling Trump's promise to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in their December telephone conversation that the area of northeastern Syria where U.S. troops are currently deployed is "yours." James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, has been traveling to Turkey, and Turkish officials have visited Washington for talks.
Washington is meanwhile also exploring the possibility of maintaining overall American control without U.S. troops on the ground, U.S. officials say.
Under that scenario, small contingents of British and French troops, who are already operating alongside Americans, would remain in the area together with the Syrian Democratic Forces, and perhaps also with private U.S. military contractors and United Nations observers, while the United States provides air cover.
In January, the Kurds asked Russia to mediate between them and the Syrian government. The Kurds have prepared a list of demands, which include allowing them to maintain their control over local government and security forces. A delegation from the Syrian Democratic Council, a coalition including Kurds and local Arabs, visited Damascus to present those demands.
But there has been no response, either from the Syrians or the Russians, said Saleh Muslim, a senior official with the Democratic Union Party, the main Kurdish political organization.
"The matter is very complicated," he said. "Everybody is waiting to see what steps the other side is going to take. And we are waiting for everybody."
Russia, as Assad's most powerful ally, favors restoring Syrian government control and has proposed reviving the 1998 Adana agreement between Turkey and Syria, under which Damascus would be responsible for keeping militant Kurds away from the Turkish border.
Turkey, however, is wary of having Syrian government forces return to its border after eight years of war, without a broader settlement to the Syrian war. The conflict, which has seen the Syrian government regain control over a wide territory once in opposition hands, has turned Assad and Erdogan into foes because of Turkey's support for the rebels seeking Assad's demise.
"This will not help," said Burhanettin Duran, who heads the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research think tank in Ankara. Cutting a deal with Assad that neglected an overall solution to the war "will just empower him and make him very happy," he said.
"But it won't solve the problem, and the future of Syria will be unstable, uncertain and the way will be open to conflict including the return of ISIS."
Turkey's preference remains, Duran said, for a buffer zone along the border to be controlled by the Turkish military and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels. But that approach does not satisfy the United States' concerns for the safety of its Kurdish allies or Russia's desire to restore Syrian government control.
Information for this article was contributed by Liz Sly, Kareem Fahim and Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post; and by Bassem Mroue of The Associated Press.
A Section on 02/10/2019
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