BAGHOUZ (Reuters) – Islamic State unleashed car bombs against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) assaulting Baghouz, in a last-ditch effort to stave off defeat in its final patch of territory, fighters from the US-backed force said on Sunday.
Capturing the besieged village in eastern Syria will be a milestone in international efforts to roll back the jihadists, whose self-styled “caliphate” covered roughly a third of Syria and Iraq at its height in 2014.
But it is universally accepted that the group, which has been in territorial retreat since then and suffered its major defeats in 2017, will remain a security threat as an insurgent force with sleeper cells and some remote pockets of territory.
The SDF had said it expected a “decisive battle” after advancing gradually for 18 hours to avoid landmines sown by Islamic State (IS), whose fighters are also using underground tunnels to stage ambushes and then disappear.
A Reuters witness spotted Islamic State militants inside the enclave as gun battles raged intermittently and the SDF fired mortar and artillery shells. Warplanes from the US-led coalition flew overhead.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition said the pace of the advance had ebbed.
“ISIS fighters have been using suicide vests and car bombs to slow down the SDF offensive and hide from Coalition strikes in the area of Baghouz,” Colonel Sean Ryan said.
“They still hold civilians and are lacing the tunnels with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) as well.”
The SDF has previously estimated several hundred IS insurgents to be inside Baghouz. The coalition has described them as the “most hardened” militants.
But Col Ryan said their hiding underground made it difficult to determine numbers.
The SDF said that several car bombs were destroyed by coalition air strikes in the past two days and that SDF fighters had destroyed three other car bombs targeting SDF positions.