QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – ISIS fighters in eastern Syria are pinned down in a final tiny pocket with their wives and children, forcing the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to slow its advance to protect civilians, the militia said on Tuesday.
An aid agency said separately that 10,000 civilians had fled the enclave since last week and were arriving hungry and desperate at a camp.
The Kurdish-led SDF, which have been backed by 2,000 US troops and air support, are preparing for a final showdown with ISIS in eastern Syria after helping to drive the fighters from the towns and cities that once formed the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said ISIS fighters were now confined to a pocket of just 5-6 square km (around 2 square miles) by the Euphrates River. The presence of their wives and children meant the US-backed militia could not launch an all-out storm of it, and was using slower, more precise tactics instead.
“There are thousands of ISIS families there. They are civilians at the end of the day,” Bali told Reuters. “We cannot storm the area or put any child’s life in danger.”
The SDF had refused an offer from the jihadists via mediators to surrender the territory in return for safe passage out, Bali said.
Clashes had slowed because of the presence of the civilians, and “precise operations” were taking more time. “Calm prevails on the frontlines but there’s a state of caution and waiting.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) charity said it was helping tend to a sudden influx of more than 10,000 people, almost all women, children and elderly, who had arrived at a camp in northeast Syria since last week.
Most were exhausted, extremely hungry, and thirsty as they fled ISIS territory, the global aid agency said. Many arrived barefoot. The United Nations confirmed that 12 young children had died after reaching the al-Hol camp or on the dangerous journey there, the IRC added on Tuesday.
The SDF, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has seized much of north and east Syria with US help. It has been battling ISIS remnants near the Iraqi border for months.
Last month, US President Donald Trump declared that ISIS had been defeated and announced the abrupt withdrawal of the US troops, over objections of top advisors including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in protest.
The SDF vowed to escalate its operations against ISIS this month after a bomb attack killed several people including two US soldiers in northern Syria. SDF officials have warned of an ISIS revival if Washington withdraws.
Kurdish leaders also fear a US pullout would give Turkey, which sees the YPG as a threat on its border, the chance to mount a new assault. Washington has since said it will make sure its allies are protected when it leaves.