US-backed forces launch 'last battle against IS' in Syria's east

US-backed forces launch 'last battle against IS' in Syria's east
3 min read
12 September, 2018
The US has confirmed the Syrian Democratic Forces' announcement that the battle against IS in Deir az-Zour has launched after months of trying to close in on the group.
SDF forces hope this will be the last battle against IS in Deir az-Zour

The US military announced on Tuesday that Washington-backed fighters have launched what they hope will be the final battle to take back a dwindling pocket of territory held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, announced on Monday that they began an offensive on the IS-held town of Hajin in eastern Deir az-Zour province, after closing in on the town for months.

"Our forces today began attacking the last bastions of Daesh in Hajin, with intense artillery and air support," said the SDF commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity and used the Arabic acronym for IS. 

"The clashes will be fierce in Hajin because Daesh has reinforced their positions, but we will take control of it," the commander told AFP

The UK-based observatory said the SDF had been amassing fighters and equipment and beefing up their positions for weeks ahead of the attack.

"The operation to end Daesh's presence in this pocket began today, with the heaviest air strikes, artillery fire, and ground attacks in months by the SDF and the coalition," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

He said the SDF had broken into Hajin from its northwestern edge and taken control of part of the area, while opening a humanitarian corridor to allow residents to flee. 

IS declared a self-styled "caliphate" in 2014 across swathes of Syria and Iraq, but various separate offensives by the national armies of both countries, Kurdish forces and international backers have seen the jihadis territory shrink dramatically.    

In Syria, IS controls part of Deir az-Zour as well as some territory in the south.

The SDF, founded in October 2015, has been backed by US-led coalition air strikes, artillery, and special forces advisers. 

It ousted IS from swathes of Syria's north last year, including from their main bastion Raqqa

In Deir az-Zour, the SDF is battling IS on the eastern side of the Euphrates River that cuts through the province, while Syrian regime troops backed by Russia battle them west of the river. 

In July, a coalition official said a few hundred IS fighters remain in the eastern pocket.

In a purported new audio recording released on 22 August, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remained defiant.

"The caliphate will remain," he said. "IS is not confined to Hajin."

On Monday, coalition spokesman Sean Ryan told AFP that IS still held an estimated 1,000 square kilometres (under 400 square miles) in the Euphrates Valley.

"The challenges ahead include a difficult fight and it will not be easy," said Ryan, adding that IS' use of mines "will make fighting slower than expected".

Coalition troops would not take part in any "major ground advance" alongside the SDF, he said, although they did expect that some high-value IS targets could still be present in Hajin. 

Agencies contributed to this report.