Kurdish-led fighters overran the last village held by the Islamic State group in Syria on Wednesday, confining its once vast cross-border “caliphate” to two small hamlets, a war monitor said.
It is the culmination of a broad offensive launched by the Syrian Democratic Forces last September with US-led coalition support in which they have reduced the jihadists’ last enclave on the north bank of the Euphrates valley near the Iraqi border to a tiny rump.
The capture of the village of Baghouz leaves the few remaining diehard IS fighters holed up in scattered homesteads among the irrigated fields and orchards on the north bank of the Euphrates Valley.
“Search operations are continuing in Baghouz to find any IS fighters who are still hiding,” the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
“The SDF will now have to push on into the farmland around Baghouz.”
“Around 4,900 people, mostly women and children but including 470 IS fighters, have fled the jihadists’ fast dwindling enclave since Monday, Abdel Rahman said late on Tuesday.
Of those 3,500 surrendered to the advancing SDF on Tuesday alone.
They were evacuated on dozens of trucks chartered by the SDF.
The fall of Baghouz follows the SDF’s capture of the enclave’s sole town of Hajin and the villages of Al-Shaafa and Sousa in recent weeks.
The new wave of departures means that nearly 27,000 people have left former IS areas since early December, including almost 1,800 jihadists who have surrendered, the Observatory said.
The whereabouts of the ultra-elusive IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has made just once public appearance — in Iraq’s then IS-held second city Mosul in 2014 — are unknown.
It is a far cry from the jihadists’ peak in 2014, when they overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and Baghdadi proclaimed a “caliphate” in areas under their control.
The gains have come at the cost of heavy losses for the mainly Kurdish fighters of the SDF and despite their sense of betrayal by their US ally after President Donald Trump made the surprise announcement last month that Washington would withdraw all its troops.
Neighbouring Turkey has threatened repeatedly to launch a cross-border operation to crush the Kurdish fighters of the SDF and the autonomous region they have set up in areas of northern and northeastern Syria under their control.
Turkish troops had been held at bay by the intervention of US troops who set up observation posts along the border and mounted joint patrols with Kurdish fighters.
But with those troops gone, the Kurds fear they will be exposed to the full might of the Turkish military.