A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands in front of a military vehicle belonging to the US-led coalition near the Islamic State group's last holdout of Baghouz, in the eastern Syrian Deir Ezzor province late on March 3 2019. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ AFP/ BULENT KILIC
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands in front of a military vehicle belonging to the US-led coalition near the Islamic State group's last holdout of Baghouz, in the eastern Syrian Deir Ezzor province late on March 3 2019. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ AFP/ BULENT KILIC

Baghouz, Syria — US-backed Syrian forces prepared for another outpouring of civilians and suspected jihadists on Thursday from the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) group’s “caliphate”, which is teetering on the brink of total collapse.

A fierce assault on the besieged enclave in eastern Syria has sparked an exodus of dust-covered children, veiled women dragging suitcases and dishevelled, wounded men from the village of Baghouz.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are waiting for more survivors to trickle out before dealing what they hope will be a final blow to jihadists holed up in a makeshift camp along the banks of the Euphrates. The SDF was not actively advancing on Thursday, out of concern for remaining civilians, but its fighters entered the settlement two days earlier and control a chunk of it, an SDF source said. 

Remaining families have been pushed towards the far end of the camp near the river, he said. More than 7,000 people have exited the enclave over the past three days, mostly women and children.

The operation to smash the last pocket of the “caliphate” that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed in 2014 resumed last Friday after a long humanitarian pause. The deluge of fire unleashed by SDF artillery and coalition air strikes at the weekend appears to have taken a toll on the diehard jihadists and relatives still inside.

Many emerged on Wednesday wounded and using crutches. One bearded man gripped the handle of a half-full blood bag attached to his body, as he trudged across a field to reach an SDF screening point. Around him, a solemn procession of bearded men led by armed guards filed slowly towards US-led coalition troops for processing.

Around a 10th of the nearly 58,000 people who have fled the last IS bastion since December were jihadists trying to slip back into civilian life, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.

They have emerged into the spotlight of the international media for the first time.

IS fighters had previously managed to secure passage out of their former strongholds before US-backed forces recaptured the territory.

Remaining jihadists, however, are now surrounded on all sides, with the Syrian government forces and their allies on the west bank of the Euphrates blocking any escape across the river and Iraqi government forces preventing any move downstream.

A senior SDF officer said 400 jihadists were captured on Tuesday night as they attempted to slip out of Baghouz in an escape he said was organised by a network that had planned to smuggle them to remote hideouts.

 While suspected jihadists are transferred to Kurdish-run detention centres, their relatives are trucked to camps for the displaced further north.

An AFP correspondent on Thursday saw more than 10 truckloads of people leaving an SDF screening point en route to the camps, a day after hundreds steamed out of Baghouz.

Around 4,000 people arrived from Baghouz to the Al-Hol camp on Wednesday, pushing the camp's population to  more than 60,000, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Many are wounded or in poor physical shape after living for weeks without much food and hiding from bombs in underground shelters.

“Many of the arrivals are in a very weak condition or have life-changing injuries,” Misty Buswell of the IRC said. "Particularly vulnerable are the many heavily pregnant women as well as mothers with newborns".

The battle against IS is now the main front of the Syrian war, which has claimed more than 360,000 lives since 2011. The capture of Baghouz would mark the end of IS territorial control in the region and deal a death blow to the “caliphate” proclaimed in 2014, which once covered huge swathes of Syria and Iraq.

At its peak more than four years ago, the proto-state created by IS was the size of the UK and administered millions of people. It effectively collapsed in 2017 when IS lost most of its major cities in both countries.

The loss of Baghouz, which the SDF says is only days away, would carry mostly symbolic value. The group remains a potent force in both Syria and Iraq, where it carries out deadly attacks. In Syria, it maintains a presence in the vast Badiya desert and has claimed attacks in SDF-held territory.

AFP