U.S.-backed force expects ‘decisive battle’ against ISIS

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian force closing in on the last patch of ISIS territory near the Iraqi border expects a “decisive battle” on Sunday after advancing gradually, a spokesman said overnight.

Thousands of fighters, followers and civilians had retreated to a tiny cluster of hamlets and farmland in Deir al-Zor province as IS territory shriveled. Over the last few weeks, they have poured out, holding up the final assault.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) clashed with IS for nearly 18 hours inside Baghouz after extricating the remaining civilians and resuming their assault on Friday evening, Marvan Qamishlo, an SDF military media official, told Reuters.

“Our forces are advancing at a slow pace to avoid any problems since Daesh (IS) mined the area very extensively. Thousands of mines are present along the roads in that small patch,” he said on a hill overlooking Baghouz.

The jihadists still holed up there are mostly foreigners who are using tunnels to hide and launch surprise attacks, Qamishlo said.

“We expect a decisive battle in the morning.”

IS has lost virtually all its Syrian territory including Raqqa to a military campaign by Kurdish and Arab groups in the north supported by the United States, and also to the Syrian army, backed by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite Muslim militias.

Washington has about 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly to back the SDF against IS. President Donald Trump announced in December he would withdraw all of them, but the White House partially reversed itself last month, saying some 400 troops would stay.

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