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In Syria, U.S.-backed forces launch battle for last Islamic State foothold

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, 10:09 p.m.
BAGOUZ, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 09: Civilians who have fled fighting in Bagouz board trucks after being screened by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at a makeshift screening point in the desert on February 9, 2019 in Bagouz, Syria. After weeks of fighting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the start of a final operation to oust ISIS from Bagouz the last village held by the extremist group. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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BAGOUZ, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 09: Civilians who have fled fighting in Bagouz board trucks after being screened by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at a makeshift screening point in the desert on February 9, 2019 in Bagouz, Syria. After weeks of fighting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the start of a final operation to oust ISIS from Bagouz the last village held by the extremist group. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — U.S.-backed forces in Syria announced the beginning Saturday of the possible final battle for the last village controlled by the Islamic State.

In a brief statement posted on its website, the Syrian Democratic Forces said the push began on Saturday night and was focused on the village of Baghouz, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in the southeastern Syria province of Deir al-Zour.

The statement gave no indication of how long it could take to capture Baghouz, but President Donald Trump said last week he had been told that the full territorial conquest of the Islamic State could be completed in the coming week.

That would herald an end to the nearly five-year-old war aimed at pushing the Islamic State out of its self proclaimed “caliphate,” the once vast stretch of territory spanning Syria and Iraq that at its peak was roughly the size to Britain.

Success against the Islamic State in Baghouz would also increase pressure on the U.S. military to pull out of Syria, in accordance with Trump’s instructions that the troops should leave once the Islamic State has been defeated.

U.S. officials caution, however, that driving the Islamic State out of its territory would not end the threat it poses. The militants have been regrouping as an insurgency in many of the areas they have already lost. They could quickly rebound if the military victory is not accompanied by solutions to the grievances that contributed to their rise, the officials say.

“ISIS remains an active insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria,” noted a report last week by the Pentagon’s Inspector General. “If Sunni socio-economic, political, and sectarian grievances are not adequately addressed by the national and local governments of Iraq and Syria it is very likely that ISIS will have the opportunity to set conditions for future resurgence and territorial control.”

“Currently, ISIS is regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria, but absent sustained [counterterrorism] pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory,” the report added, quoting officials with the U.S. Central Command.

In a reminder that the militants have the capability to mount attacks well beyond the front lines, assailants on motorcycles on Saturday tried to storm a base shared by the U.S. military and the SDF at the Omar oil field, around 60 miles north of the village where the militants are making their last stand.

Most of the dozen or so attackers were killed and two managed to escape after a battle lasting several hours, during which U.S. airstrikes were called in, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

The assault on Baghouz is being conducted by the SDF’s Kurdish and Arab fighters, backed by U.S. airstrikes and U.S. advisers. It comes after more than 20,000 civilians were allowed to flee the area over the past two weeks, many of them suspected fighters or the wives and children of fighters. They have been escorted to camps where they are screened for ties to the militants.

Estimates of the number of fighters remaining in the pinprick of territory vary wildly from dozens to hundreds, but they are thought to include some of the most die-hard and committed extremists who have remained with the group to the bitter end.

Many of them are foreigners who can’t blend in with the locals to escape, according to SDF and U.S. officials.

U.S. Special Operations forces working alongside the SDF fighters will be particularly keen on establishing whether any key Islamic State leaders are still holed up in Baghouz, including perhaps the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. U.S. and SDF officials say, however, they have no reason to believe he is there.

They will also be hunting for evidence of the survival of any of the Islamic State’s foreign hostages who remain unaccounted for, including British journalist John Cantlie and an Italian priest, the Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was kidnapped by the Islamic State in the city of Raqqa in 2013 and has not been heard of since.

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