OMAR OIL FIELD: US-backed fighters said Saturday they are keeping a corridor open to rescue remaining civilians from the Islamic State group’s last speck of territory in Syria, as the UN appealed for urgent assistance, reports AFP.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have evacuated nearly 5,000 men, women and children from the jihadist holdout since Wednesday, bringing the SDF closer to retaking the less than half a square kilometre still under IS control.“On our side, the corridor is open and we hope a larger number of civilians will arrive but that depends on IS fighters and whether they will give civilians a chance to exit,” SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin told AFP at their Al-Omar base.
He said the SDF had evacuated “more than 2,000 people, including women, children and men” on Friday, mostly wives and children of IS fighters.
Nearly 2,500 people arrived the same day at a Kurdish-run camp for the displaced further north, compounding dire conditions inside the already crammed settlement, the UN’s humanitarian coordination office OCHA said.
It warned of the “huge challenges” posed by the influx.
More than four years after IS overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and declared a “caliphate”, they have lost all but a tiny patch in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
Some 2,000 people are believed to remain inside Baghouz, according to the SDF.The force says it is trying to evacuate remaining civilians through a corridor before pressing on with a battle to crush the jihadists unless holdout fighters surrender.
The SDF transferred the fresh batch of evacuees to a screening point outside Baghouz on Friday, to weed out potential jihadists.
An AFP corespondent saw hundreds of women and children spread out on the arid desert ground, surrounded by bags, begging for food and water.
A smaller group of men were separated from the women as SDF fighters searched the latest arrivals and checked their identification cards.
An Iraqi woman in her forties wearing a face veil held in her hand a medical report in English.
She said the report was written for her by a doctor inside the Baghouz pocket, explaining that she needed treatment for kidney problems.
Syrian woman Khadija Ali Mohammad, the 24-year-old wife of a deceased IS fighter, said conditions inside the IS pocket were deplorable.
“We were living in tents and eating bread made from bran. My three sisters and I didn’t have enough money to pay smugglers to get us out before, and our husbands had died in battle” the woman from Aleppo’s countryside in northern Syria told AFP.
She was disappointed at the collapse of the IS proto-state.
“God had promised us a caliphate and we went to it,” she said. “I feel there will be no victory although they (jihadists) tell us victory is near.”
Around 44,000 people—mostly civilians—have streamed out of IS’s shrinking territory since early December, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
While civilians are trucked north to Kurdish-run camps for the displaced, mainly to Al-Hol, six hours drive from Baghouz, suspected jihadists are sent to SDF-controlled detention centres.
OCHA said 18 of the 2,500 latest arrivals in Al-Hol, mostly women and children, were in “critical condition”.
“Thousands more are expected in coming hours/days at Al-Hol camp, putting a further strain on basic services,” it tweeted.
“This sudden influx presents huge challenges to the response - additional tents, non-food items, water & sanitation and health supplies are urgently needed.”
The International Rescue Committee on Friday said 69 people, mostly children, had died on the way to Al-Hol, now home to more than 40,000 of the displaced, or shortly after arriving in past weeks.
“Two thirds of the deaths are of babies under one year old,” the relief group said.
The SDF says it has limited resources to administer camps and has called for support from the international community.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump insisted Friday he was not pulling an about-face on his Syria withdrawal plans, after it was announced hundreds of US troops would remain in the war-torn country.
The White House quietly dropped the news late Thursday that around 200 American “peace-keeping” soldiers would remain in northern Syria indefinitely, amid fierce criticism of Trump’s decision to withdraw America’s more than 2,000 troops there by April 30.
“I am not reversing course,” Trump said at the White House, noting that 200 soldiers was only a “very small, tiny fraction” of the overall presence.
Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham heralded the move, claiming the residual forces would somehow catalyze a bigger presence by European allies who had balked at the idea of committing troops to Syria minus an American ground presence.
“This 200 will attract probably 1,000 Europeans,” Graham said in an interview with Fox News.
Trump, an avid Fox viewer, said he watched Graham and supported leaving “a small force with others. Whether it’s NATO troops or whoever it might be, so that (IS) doesn’t start up again.”
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sean Robertson said the US troops would be part of a “multinational observing and monitoring force” that would be made up “primarily” of NATO allies in a northeast Syria “safe zone.”
Robertson added the US would also maintain its presence at Al-Tanaf, a desert garrison in southern Syria where some 200 US soldiers are presently based.
Trump declared victory over IS in December despite thousands of fighters remaining and a continued effort to clear jihadists from a final scrap of territory. The decision prompted his defense secretary Jim Mattis to quit.
Critics have decried a number of possible outcomes from a US precipitous withdrawal, including a Turkish attack on US-backed Kurdish forces and a resurgence of IS.
Apart from the US, currently only France and Britain have a handful troops on the ground in Syria helping train local forces in the US-led effort against IS.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan visited Europe last week and attempted to convince allies to furnish a troop presence in Syria after the US pulls out.
But he struggled to persuade other countries why they should risk their forces with America gone.
Graham claimed “thousands of Europeans” had been killed by IS fighters coming from Syria into Europe.
“Now, the burden falls on Europe. Eighty percent of the operation should be European, maybe 20 percent us,” he said.
According to various tracking groups, far fewer than 1,000 people have been killed in attacks by Islamists of all origins in Europe since 2014.
But Graham’s rhetoric feeds into one of Trump’s favorite topics—the notion that European and NATO allies aren’t contributing enough to global security.
Shanahan, who spoke briefly to Pentagon reporters as he met with Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, insisted the mission to defeat IS remained unchanged.
“The transition that we are working towards is stabilization, and to enhance the security capability of local security forces,” Shanahan said.
General Joe Dunford, who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added he was confident allies would step into the fray.
“There is no change in the basic campaign. The resourcing is being adjusted because the threat has been changed,” Dunford said.
Graham meanwhile said he had been speaking to Trump “continuously” about the withdrawal and persuaded him that a buffer zone needs to be created to protect US-backed Kurdish fighters from a possible attack by Turkey.
“You don’t want to end one war and start another,” Graham said he told Trump.
Akar, the Turkish minister, said Ankara did not have a problem with the Kurds in Syria, only with the armed US-backed Kurdish fighters there.
“We are fighting against terrorist organizations,” Akar said.