Nearly 2,000 civilians are being prevented from escaping as remnants of the terror group remain holed up in Deir Ezzor province. The tactics of the YPG-dominated SDF backed by the US-led coalition have come under fire for civilian deaths.

Civilians who fled from the embattled Baghouz area in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor sit in a truck on February 14, 2019.
Civilians who fled from the embattled Baghouz area in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor sit in a truck on February 14, 2019. (AFP)

From a self-proclaimed 'caliphate' that once spread across much of Syria and Iraq, Daesh has been knocked back to a speck of land on the countries' shared border. 

In that tiny patch on the banks of the Euphrates River, hundreds of Daesh members are using civilians as human shields under the shadow of a small hill in the village of Baghouz, a spokesman for the US-led coalition said.

"Civilians who have escaped are reporting ISIS is using them as human shields," Sean Ryan said. ISIS is another commonly-used acronym for Daesh.

Daesh has been cornered by the US-backed YPG/PYD-dominated SDF militia in a battle for the terror group’s last territory in Syria.

The YPG is the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terrorist organisation. In its 30-year terror campaign against the Turkish state more than 40,000 people, including women and children, have been killed.

Turkey, the US and the EU recognise the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Civilian hostages

According to reports from the area, Daesh is preventing nearly 2,000 civilians from leaving the village in eastern Deir Ezzor province, closing a corridor from which nearly 40,000 residents have managed to escape since December.

For weeks, the Daesh fought desperately for their shrinking territory. The terror group now controls little more than what is being described as a small tented village atop a network of tunnels and caves. 

Those holed up may include high-level commanders, and the presence of possible captives could explain the slow final push, the YPG/PYD led-SDF has said.

Filtering future threats

As civilians trickled out of the enclave in recent weeks, coalition officials screened them. Women and children were transferred to camps miles away; men suspected of links to the terror group were taken into custody at other facilities. Around 800 foreign fighters have been captured.

US President Donald Trump called on Europe Sunday to take back and put on trial its citizens who joined Daesh and were captured by US forces in Syria. Otherwise he said th US might be forced to release them.

The battle in Deir Ezzor has been ongoing since September.

Battle-hardened terrorists, including some of the group's leading members and foreign commanders, had taken refuge in the area between Syria and Iraq. They dispatched suicide bombers from underground tunnels, deployed female militants and launched counteroffensives that reclaimed some villages east of the Euphrates for weeks. Over 400 civilians have been killed in the fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The capture of the last pocket of Daesh territory in either Syria or Iraq would mark the end of a four-year global campaign to crush the group's so-called caliphate.

Daesh was stripped of its self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria in the summer of 2017, leaving behind a destroyed city whose residents are still struggling to return.

But experts and US defence officials warn that Daesh still poses a major threat and could regroup within six months if pressure is not kept up.

Turkey has vowed to keep the fight going when US troops leave, a decision Trump announced in December.

Turkey has an existing "memorandum of understanding with Syria to fight terrorists,” Turkey's Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar said at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. 

Akar was referring to the 1998 Adana agreement between Turkey and Syria which included provisions on the fight against terrorism.

“Because of the current situation in Syria, Damascus cannot fight against terrorists. So this is the reason why we are there, why we are fighting,” he said.

In an interview on the sidelines of the conference, Akar emphasised Turkey's ability to clear Syria of terrorists, citing earlier operations without the US and US-backed coalition.

US, YPG-dominated SDF tactics under fire

A senior French officer involved in the fight against Daesh in Syria faces punishment after launching a scathing attack on the US-led coalition's methods to defeat the group in its remaining stronghold, the army said on Saturday.

Colonel Francois-Regis Legrier, who has been in charge of directing French artillery supporting the SDF in Syria since October, said the coalition's focus had been on limiting its own risks and this had greatly increased the death toll among civilians and the levels of destruction.

"Yes, the Battle of Hajin [in Deir Azzor province] was won, at least on the ground but by refusing ground engagement, we unnecessarily prolonged the conflict and thus contributed to increasing the number of casualties in the population," Legrier wrote in an article in the National Defence Review.

"We have massively destroyed the infrastructure and given the population a disgusting image of what may be a Western-style liberation leaving behind the seeds of an imminent resurgence of a new adversary," he said, in rare public criticism by a serving officer.

The coalition could have got rid of just 2,000 militant fighters – who lacked air support or modern technological equipment – much more quickly and effectively by sending in just 1,000 troops, he argued.

"This refusal raises a question: why have an army that we don't dare use?" he said.

France is one of the main allies in the US-led coalition, with its warplanes used to strike militant targets, its heavy-artillery backing the SDF and its special forces on the ground.

Legrier's article has embarrassed French authorities just hours before the coalition is expected to announce the defeat of Daesh.

"We have in no way won the war because we lack a realistic and lasting policy and an adequate strategy," Legrier said. "How many Hajins will it take to understand that we are on the wrong track?"

The article was removed from the review's website on Saturday and Legrier may be disciplined.

Source: AP