Kurdish-led forces said Saturday they were holding up the announcement of final victory over the Islamic State group for “a few days” because the large number of civilians remaining on the battlefield had forced a delay.
US President Donald Trump had said Friday that he expected the eradication of the “caliphate” that IS proclaimed in 2014 to be announced within 24 hours.
But spokesmen for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the surprise discovery of so many civilians still inside the jihadists’ last enclave had forced commanders to slow the advance.
IS is now reduced to a tiny pocket of half a square kilometre (a fifth of a square mile) where its fighters and civilians still under their control are holed up in tunnels, the assault’s overall commander Jia Furat told a news conference.
“In a very short time, not longer than a few days, we will officially announce the end of IS’s existence,” Furat said.
“These days, IS is besieged in a neighbourhood that is estimated to be 700 metres (yards) long and 700 metres wide.”
Advancing SDF fighters have been met by “large numbers” of civilians, to the surprise of commanders who had thought the exodus of recent days had emptied the remaining IS pocket of all but diehard fighters, SDF spokesmen said.
Women and children who had endured appalling conditions inside the remaining enclave were emerging from tunnels and foxholes beneath the battlefield.
“There are still civilians inside in large numbers,” SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said at the main staging point for frontline forces.
“We weren’t expecting this number, otherwise we wouldn’t have resumed the campaign four days ago. This is why it’s been delayed,” Afrin said.
He declined to would comment on the timeline set by Trump for an announcement that the “caliphate” had been eradicated.
“We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate and that will be announced over the next 24 hours,” Trump had told reporters at around 1600 GMT on Friday.
‘Lapses’ in timetable
US-led coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan acknowledged the timeline had slipped because of the presence of so many civilians on the battlefield.
“There have been lapses as we continue to see hundreds of civilians still attempting to flee to safety,” Ryan said.
Human Rights Watch called on commanders not to try to accelerate the offensive to suit Trump’s timetable.
“The tempo of battle must not be dictated by political imperatives — it must first of all protect civilians and possible hostages,” HRW’s director of counterterrorism, Nadim Houry, said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS fighters were surrendering in large numbers to the advancing SDF fighters.
The Britain-based war monitor said around 240 IS fighters had surrendered on Thursday and another 200 on Friday night.
There was no immediate SDF confirmation of the Observatory’s figures.
The SDF have been closing in on holdout jihadists since September.
IS still has thousands of fighters and sleeper cells scattered across several countries, but the speck of terrain around the village of Baghouz is all that’s left of the group’s self-declared “caliphate” that in 2014 spanned an area the size of Britain and administered millions of people.
Successive offensives in Iraq and Syria have shattered the proto-state, which lost its key cities one after the other and has since late 2017 been confined to its traditional heartland in the Euphrates Valley.
No plans for aftermath
Trump’s promise of a swift announcement of victory over the “caliphate” came after he shocked allies and senior figures in his own administration with a December announcement that he had ordered a full troop withdrawal from Syria because IS had been “beaten.”
The plan, which prompted the resignation of then defence secretary Jim Mattis, is set to be accelerated following a declaration of victory.
Vice-President Mike Pence vowed Saturday the United States would “hunt down” the Islamic State group even after pulling its troops out of Syria, where the jihadists are facing the loss of their final scrap of land.
“The United States will continue to work with all our allies to hunt down the remnants of ISIS wherever and whenever they rear their ugly heads,” Pence told the Munich Security Conference, using an alternative name for the Islamists.
But aid and human rights groups have criticised a lack of planning by Washington for the aftermath of an IS defeat which risks allowing the jihadists to regroup underground among a resentful population.
“The victory against Daesh (IS) leaves a trail of destruction along the Euphrates, without reconstruction plans or the return of civilians,” HRW’s Houry said.
“Many residents are dead, have not returned or have lost everything and there is no new economic activity; the poverty is abject.
“Beyond the defeat of Daesh, no political project has been proposed. There are no means, materials or politics to reconstruct this vast region.”
The autonomous region which the SDF has set up in northeastern Syria has no support outside the coalition and no recognised status to call on international aid.