On brink of Syria defeat, ISIS unleashes car bombs

A vehicle burning at the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Syria's Hasakeh province on Jan 21, 2019. The Syria Democratic Forces said ISIS launched suicide attacks to stave off defeat, on March 3, 2019.
PHOTO: Reuters

NEAR BAGHOUZ, SYRIA - Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched car bombs and suicide attackers 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 (March 3).

Capturing the village in eastern Syria will be a milestone in international efforts to roll back the militants, whose self-styled "caliphate" covered roughly one-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 desolate pockets of territory.

The SDF had said it expected a "decisive battle" on Sunday after advancing gradually for 18 hours to avoid land mines sown by ISIS, whose fighters are also using underground tunnels to stage ambushes and then disappear.

By midday, however, there was no sign of the battle being over, and a spokesman for the US-led international coalition supporting the SDF 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 Baghuz," Colonel Sean Ryan told Reuters.

"They still hold civilians and are lacing the tunnels with IEDs as well," he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.

The SDF has previously estimated several hundred ISIS insurgents to be inside Baghouz, mostly foreigners, and the coalition has described them as the "most hardened" militants. But Mr Ryan said their hiding underground made it difficult to determine current numbers.

From a position about 3km from the front line on Sunday afternoon, warplanes and the pounding of artillery could be heard overhead as plumes of smoke rose over Baghouz.

An SDF commander there told Reuters that ISIS had sent explosive-ridden vehicles towards advancing fighters the night before. Air strikes destroyed two of them, and the SDF fired on a third to blow it up, he said.

The terrorists also shelled the approaching force.

Mr Sinjar Shammar, from the Kurdish YPG which spearheads the SDF coalition, was wounded when shrapnel from a shell struck the armoured vehicle he was driving.

"My comrade was sent to the hospital. His leg is gone," said Mr Shammar, 22, as his arm was being bandaged at a first-aid point.

"(But) morale is great (at the front line). I will return to the comrades in a bit... God willing, we will triumph."

After declaring a modern-day caliphate across large swathes of territory it had seized in flash offensives in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, ISIS attracted thousands of foreigners to live under its rule and defend its realm.

But its rapid expansion also attracted an array of enemies, both local and international, who began rolling back those gains. As ISIS territory shrivelled, thousands of fighters, followers and civilians retreated to Baghouz, a small cluster of hamlets and farmland along the Euphrates River.

Over the last few weeks, they poured out in greater numbers than expected, holding up the final assault. An SDF commander told Reuters on Thursday that many of the people leaving the enclave had been sheltering underground in caves and tunnels.

After extricating the remaining civilians, the SDF resumed its assault on Friday evening. It has not ruled out the possibility that some militants have crept out, hidden among non-combatants.

The SDF commander-in-chief said on Thursday that his force would declare victory within a week. He was later contradicted by US President Donald Trump, who said the SDF had retaken 100 per cent of the territory once held by ISIS.

Washington has about 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly to back the SDF against ISIS. Mr 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.