WASHINGTON - Clashes and fierce fighting continued in northeastern Syria Monday, where U.S.-backed forces say their final assault on the Islamic State terror group enclave of Baghuz is underway.
A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mustafa Bali, said IS militants are fighting back with suicide bombers and damaged an SDF minesweeper. Writing on Twitter, he said the fighting has killed one SDF member and wounded four others. He added that U.S-led coalition airstrikes are destroying IS storage facilities and vehicles.
On, Sunday he announced the offensive to wipe out the last remnant of the terror group’s self-declared caliphate resumed at 6 p.m. local time.
Officials with both the SDF and the United States are expecting a difficult battle over the collection of tents and wrecked buildings spanning no more than 1.6 square kilometers on the outskirts of the northeastern Syrian town of Baghuz.
They say IS has been using a network of tunnels, caves and trenches to hide and launch counter attacks. They describe the tunnel system as complex, extending possibly for more than two kilometers, and rigged with explosives and booby traps.
There are also questions about how many IS fighters are left to defend the last shred of the terror group’s self-declared caliphate.
In late February, SDF officials estimated that no more than 1,000 people remained the bombed-out farming community on the banks of the Euphrates River, including perhaps 300 of the terror group’s most hardened and devoted fighters.
But as more than 20,000 civilians and fighters have emerged from the area to surrender over the past week, taking advantage of a brief cease-fire, they have been forced to reassess their estimates. Officials now say it is possible thousands of IS fighters are still there, prepared to fight to the death.
“We have been consistently wrong as have our SDF [Syrian Democratic Force] partners on how big this is,” a senior U.S. defense official said Friday.
“The number of civilians coming out of Baghuz has exceeded any prediction of humanitarian actors,” Hedinn Halldorsson, with the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Damascus, told VOA late last week.
Yet as surprising as the numbers have been, U.S. defense officials do not believe it is an accident or a happenstance of the campaign to liberate this part of Syria from IS rule.
“What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision,” the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, told U.S. lawmakers Thursday.
He, and other officials, warn IS’ goal is to preserve as much of the group’s capabilities as possible as it completes a transition from an almost traditional army to a clandestine insurgency, counting on every man, woman and child to do their part.
"The vast majority of these are assessed not to be innocent civilians," the senior defense official said of the thousands of stragglers who evacuated Baghuz in recent days.
The prolonged battle to wrest Baghuz from the control of IS has played out as U.S. President Donald trump has repeatedly declared victory over IS and its caliphate.
"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," he tweeted Dec. 19, 2018, adding in a video released by the White House that "we have beaten them and we have beaten them badly."
Most recently, on February 28, he told troops at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska of the self-declared caliphate’s demise, "You kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent, the caliphate in Syria. Now it's 100 percent.”
"We have the whole thing," he added.
Trump’s national security adviser defended the president’s comments Sunday.
“The president has been, I think, as clear as clear can be when he talks about the defeat of the ISIS territorial caliphate," Bolton said told ABC News’ “This Week.” "He has never said that the elimination of the territorial caliphate means the end of ISIS in total. We know that's not the case.”
“We know right now that there are ISIS fighters scattered still around Syria and Iraq and that ISIS itself is growing in other parts of the world,” Bolton added. “The ISIS threat will remain"
Despite losing administrative control over almost all the land it once held in Syria and Iraq, U.S. defense officials warns IS still has “tens of thousands” of fighters working either as part of sleeper cells or as part of an active, clandestine insurgency.
A series of reports issued starting last year warned IS could have as many as 30,000 followers and fighters in Syria and Iraq, with officials cautioning they remain “well-positioned” to rebuild a physical caliphate.