Battle of Baghuz Fawqani

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Battle of Baghuz Fawqani
Part of the Deir ez-Zor campaign (September 2017–present), the Syrian Kurdish–Islamist conflict (2013–present), and the American-led intervention in the Syrian Civil War
Baghuz Fawqani 14 February.png
Clashes in Al-Baghuz Fawqani, 14 February 2019
Date9 February 2019 – present
(1 week and 6 days)
Location
34°27′37″N 40°57′13″E / 34.46028°N 40.95361°E / 34.46028; 40.95361
Status Ongoing
Belligerents

Syrian Democratic Forces
CJTF–OIR

 Iraq

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

Commanders and leaders
Mazlum Kobane
(SDF commander in chief)
Jiya Furat[2]
(leader of SDF for Baghuz campaign)
Ahmad Abu Khawla[3]
(Deir ez-Zor Military Council commander)
Mustafa Manbij[4]
(Manbij Revolutionaries Battalion commander)[5]
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi[6]
(Leader of ISIL)
Units involved

Syrian Democratic Forces

United States United States Armed Forces

France French Armed Forces

United Kingdom British Armed Forces

Iraq Iraqi security forces

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Military of ISIL
Strength

~17,000 fighters[10]
Coalition: air support, artillery and special forces

1,000–1,500 fighters within the enclave (per U.S.-led Coalition)[16]
3,000 fighters within the enclave (per SDF and SOHR)[17]

Casualties and losses

SOHR:
19 killed[22]

Other sources:
14 killed (SDF)[18]
1 vehicle destroyed

SOHR:
27 killed including 8 suicide bombers[22][23]
~440 captured[24]
Other sources:
37 killed by Coalition airstrikes (First day, per SDF)

  • 1 weapons cache destroyed[25]
16 civilians (7 children, 8 women) killed by Coalition airstrikes (SOHR)[26]
1 Italian photographer injured
Al-Baghuz Fawqani is located in Syria
Al-Baghuz Fawqani
Al-Baghuz Fawqani
Location of Al-Baghuz Fawqani along the Euphrates River

The Battle of Baghuz Fawqani began on 9 February 2019 during the Syrian Civil War, encompassing the immediate surroundings of the Syrian town of Al-Baghuz Fawqani along the eastern banks of the Middle Euphrates River Valley in the Abu Kamal District. The battle marked the last stand of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in eastern Syria as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), assisted by American-led Coalition airstrikes, artillery, and military advisers, began their thrust into the last enclave controlled by the Islamic State in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate.[27][28]

Background

Since September 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces had been on a campaign to wrest territorial control from the Islamic State terror group in eastern Syria. The SDF's advances were supported by American, British and French forces from the CJTF-OIR Coalition via close air support, French and American artillery, and American special forces advice and oversight. The SDF launched its third and final phase of their campaign in September 2018, gradually capturing the remaining ISIL pocket of territory straddling the Euphrates river near the Iraq-Syria border.[29] By 1 February 2019, ISIL was reduced to four square kilometers of territory, boxed in against the river. The massive exodus of civilians complicated advances, with the SDF pausing its advance for almost 10 days prior to the battle.[30] Within the 10 days preceding the battle, over 20,000 civilians fled the enclave.[31][32] Redur Kalil, the SDF's senior public relations officer, told The Times newspaper that a number of foreign hostages, including missing British journalist John Cantlie and the kidnapped Italian Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, were possibly being held in the enclave.[33]

On 9 February 2019, France's Defense minister Florence Parly visited Firebase Saham, a joint French-U.S. Marine artillery fire support base near Al-Qa'im, Iraq. Meeting with French forces there, Parly told them not to be distracted and that France "is determined to complete this fight against those who have struck her,” referring to terror attacks in France in recent years conducted by ISIL loyalists.[34]

The battle

9–11 February

The Syrian Democratic Forces announced the decisive, "final battle" against the Islamic State enclave on the evening of 9 February 2019. Available SDF forces in the offensive consisted of around 17,000 fighters, backed by Coalition artillery and close air support, along with assistance from the U.S. Army special forces and, according to a YPG commander, the British Special Air Service.[35][36] It was estimated that ISIL still had around 400–1,000 of its most committed, battle-hardened jihadist fighters resisting to the bitter end, though general estimates still varied widely.[37]

The battle began with a heavy preemptive bombardment throughout the afternoon from SDF mortar teams and U.S. bombers, including B-1B Lancers,[38] with intermittent machine gun clashes throughout the day. Fighting continued into the night with the SDF only advancing until nightfall as Coalition flares illuminated the battlefield[39] amidst numerous air raids and "constant" shelling of al-Baghuz Fawqani; local sources reported night fighting over the Baghuz-Bukhamal bridge as well.[40] The SDF reported the deaths of 37 ISIL members along with the destruction of 19 enemy forward positions, four roads, one mortar piece, one motorbike, and one weapons cache during the preemptive bombardment.[41]

Throughout the night of 9 February and into the morning of 10 February, the SDF was able to advance and seize 41 tactical points within a total of 2 square kilometers of land while repelling an ISIL counterattack at 4 a.m. local. The SDF reported killing many ISIL fighters while only losing 2 of their own. They also reportedly secured a humanitarian corridor for 200 civilians to flee the fighting.[42][43] SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali, commenting on alleged behind the scenes negotiations between ISIL, the SDF, and the Coalition, stated that Islamic State representatives had asked for safe passage out of the pocket. Bali said that the SDF would "fight until the very last minute"; however, American negotiators allegedly stated that safe passage to the Idlib Governorate, dominated by ISIL's rival Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, was an offer still on the table.[44] Meanwhile, commenting on the battle, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted “The U.S. will soon control 100% of ISIS territory in Syria."[45]

By the morning of 11 February, another 1,500 civilians had fled the area in a column of 17 trucks filled with men, women, and children, some identifying as Iraqi.[46] Hundreds of civilians continued to stream out of the enclave into SDF-Coalition makeshift screening centers established for filtering out fleeing jihadists. One YPG commander showcased to the UK's Daily Star that some desperate ISIL militants would resort to wearing women's clothing when fleeing. "[ISIL fighters] have been trying to escape in women’s clothes," the commander said, explaining that "some of them dress as women because we don’t ask the women to raise their hijab."[47]

The Coalition's combat missions continued; Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan stated the SDF were making "significant progress" despite poor weather conditions. Poor visibility such as overcast weather or dust storms typically benefited ISIL fighters as it concealed some of their ground deployments and hindered SDF-Coalition reconnaissance. Coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan said that despite the poor weather, airstrikes were being called in "whenever possible". ISIL elements were entrenched and fortified, leaving the SDF to rely greatly on Coalition air power to soften defenses and dislodge strongpoints. One airstrike struck a mosque in the town allegedly being used as an ISIL command and control center to direct attacks and deploy suicide car bombs (SVBIEDs) against the SDF. “This mosque lost its protected status when ISIS deliberately chose to use it as a command and control center,” the Coalition stated. The mosque strike came amid reports that ISIL was deliberately using human shields in order to deter Coalition targeting and impede the SDF's advance. Syrian state media reported that about 70 people were killed or wounded on the edge of the town after an airstrike hit a settlement where hundreds of people were taking shelter. Coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan responded "we are aware of open source reports of alleged civilian casualties. We take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously, and understand there is a lot of misinformation as well."[48]

SDF units engaging the Islamic State near Al-Baghuz Fawqani, 11 February 2019

The sound of explosions and gunfire echoed dozens of kilometers away from the battlefield as intense Coalition airstrikes and SDF missile attacks continued; eyewitnesses described the mushrooming columns of white and dark grey smoke billowing over the skyline as warplanes and missiles streaked through the sky.[49] The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitor said the SDF was advancing at a slower momentum than initially expected due to ISIL's usage of tunnels to navigate the battlefield along with deploying snipers, VBIEDS, anti-tank guided missiles, and land mines against the SDF, forcing them to simultaneously conduct de-mining operations with every advance. United States Central Command (USCENTCOM) commander Gen. Joseph Votel, whom oversees the United States' middle east operations, commented on the battle during a trip to Cairo. "It's a relatively confined space, it's heavily urbanized, it's laden with a lot of explosive hazards, improvised explosive devices for example, and kind of a prepared defense by ISIS," he said, emphasizing the asymmetrical warfare commonly associated with fighting ISIL.[50]

Estimates on the number of remaining ISIL militants in the enclave varied; SDF officials and SOHR estimated there were around 3,000 mostly foreign ISIL jihadists remaining, though previous Coalition estimates put the number at about half that.[51] SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said up to 600 fighters were still present in Baghuz Fawqani proper.[52] Claims of ongoing backdoor negotiations also persisted, though an SDF source denied any such talks were happening, saying that the SDF demanded an unconditional ISIL surrender.[53] Meanwhile, Italian media reported freelance photographer Gabriele Micalizzi was badly, though not critically, wounded in the head by splinters from an rocket-propelled grenade. Micalizzi was airlifted by the Coalition to Baghdad to be evacuated back to Italy.[54] The Observatory said 13 ISIL militants, including five suicide attackers, were killed as well as six SDF fighters in recent fighting.[55] 16 civilians were reported to have been killed in airstrikes by the end of 11 February.[56]

12–15 February

On 12 February, civilians continued to flee on the back of dusty trucks filled with women and children bound for Kurdish-ran camps in northeastern Syria. The civilian truck drivers said 18 foreigners were among the dozens of civilians fleeing with them, including Russians, Turks, and Ukrainians. Regional and foreign journalists clamored over the edges of the trucks to find non-Arabs among the fleeing civilians, some shouting "France? France?" One fleeing civilian, a mother of five, described the bombing as "unimaginable". "There was no food. We ate grass from the ground like sheep... Daesh had blocked the roads and smugglers wanted thousands of US dollars," she added.[57] Two Muslim-convert French mothers that paid to be smuggled out of the enclave claimed that "massacres" were taking place inside the town while many others starved. Only Syrian and Iraqi women were allowed to be smuggled out, according to the women.[58]

Violent clashes continued throughout 12 February; Coalition airstrikes bombarded entire districts, such as the Sheikh Hamad neighborhood, as the SDF captured the Baghuz-Bukamal Bridge and made advances in the Al-Khanafirah neighborhood. A fleet of 15 vehicles carrying U.S. soldiers was seen reinforcing a secondary front line as ISIL units fielded machines gun and anti-tank guided missiles against SDF positions.[59][60][61] Local eyewitnesses said ISIL was using trash and tire fires to fill the skyline with thick smoke to complicate Coalition airstrike capabilities and to make the air harder to breathe for SDF troops. Syrian reporter Mushin Khalil reported at least 14 SDF fighters were killed on the 12th in an ISIL counterattack that involved a suicide bomber.[62] At the end of the day, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali announced that ISIL controlled only 1 square kilometer of territory, and that all the people remaining there were ISIL militants and their families.[63][64] Meanwhile, SOHR reported that U.S. officials demanded ISIL surrender 40 tons of stolen gold the group possesed in exchange for safe-passage to an "undisclosed location" during alleged ongoing negotiations.[65]

On 13 February, reports emerged that ISIL had executed more than 15 of its own fighters for attempting to surrender, seven of which were French nationals. Some reports claimed that, after clearing the Sheikh Hamad neighborhood, the SDF were able to break through ISIL defenses and capture the town center, forcing tens of ISIL jihadists to flee towards as-Safafinah with the rest of ISIL's militants held up at a nearby refugee camp near the town orchards.[66] The SDF reported receiving 425 civilians fleeing the pocket within the past 24 hours by truck and by foot; some of the fleeing women — many of them wives of ISIL fighters — had gunshot wounds, likely from ISIL forces shooting at their own fleeing wives in hopes of using their families as both human shields and bargaining chips during negotiations.[67][68] SDF and Coalition personnel singled out fleeing male civilians during processing and were reportedly using retinal scans when screening them for jihadist ties. Meanwhile, the International Rescue Committee stated 51 people had died on the way to the Al-Hawl refugee camp or shortly after arriving, most in the past few weeks. The majority were toddlers or newborn babies dying from hypothermia via long treks through the cold desert terrain with their relatives.[69]

On 14 February, journalists reporting outside of the town said things were "quiet" on their end, as the pace of the SDF's advance had slowed. A few civilians came out overnight — the smallest batch in weeks — according to one aid worker on site. An SDF official said that clearing operations were continuing while the day's fighting mainly took place on the town's northeastern axis where he added that combatants were fielding new "thermal weapons."[70] The SDF reported capturing a clinic used for treating ISIL troops and a weapons cache full of ammo, including 10 mortars, an artillery piece, and a car bomb rigged with explosives on the northeast axis. SDF fighters on the southeastern axis reportedly discovered the bodies of 26 ISIL troops late 14 February, one of which was of a child soldier.[71][72]

The SDF's conquest of ISIL's Euphrates pocket from 30 November 2018 to 17 February 2019

Rainy weather, fleeing civilians, and ISIL ambush tactics continued to bog down SDF advances on 15 February as engineering teams conducted continuous tunnel clearing and de-mining operations on the northeastern axis.[73] Coalition surgical strikes were reportedly reduced to a maximum of two a day as Adnan Afrin, a Kurdish commander, said the SDF wanted to avoid "causing a massacre" due to ISIL bringing hundreds of civilian hostages out from underground tunnels in recent days. SOHR reported that a Coalition convoy of seven trucks, three ambulances and other vehicles headed towards the remaining ISIL-held area aiming to draw out the remaining jihadists and their families. At the end of the day, 200 ISIL fighters surrendered.[74][75][76]

16 February–present

Speaking at the al-Omar oil field staging area on 16 February, SDF commander Jiya Furat stated that ISIL's remaining territory was reduced to 700 square meters, and that a declaration of victory will be announced in "days." Furat added that 10 previously captured SDF members were also freed in an operation. The SOHR stated that the SDF was almost done asserting control, but residual ISIL fighters were hiding out in tunnel networks with hostages. Two Coalition airstrikes were also reported in the area. Civilian evacuations with minor front line skirmishes continued throughout to the 18th.[77]

On 19 February, with ISIL's territory reduced to a small stretch of encircled hamlets composing a couple hundred square meters, the SDF affirmed their ultimatum to ISIL: surrender or die in battle. The SDF continued to operate cautiously as dozens of trucks evacuating civilians regularly streamed in and out of the region. The United Nations expressed concern over “the situation of some 200 families, including many women and children, who are reportedly trapped" in the besieged ISIL enclave.[78] By nightfall, two Coalition airstrikes were reported in the area as many ISIL fighters seemed to have refused to surrender.[79]

SDF officials stated on 20 February that they wanted to evacuate every civilian before storming the remaining 120-300 ISIL fighters, believed to be hold up at the Hawi al-Dandal hamlet area with around 100 civilians present.[80] On 21 February, SOHR reported about 260 mostly foreign ISIL fighters remained encircled in the farmlands and in nearby tunnels, seemingly preferring to die fighting than surrender to the SDF.[81] The SDF predicted the last batch of civilians would be out of the area by the 21st, but no civilians were seen leaving during the day. Journalists reported seeing warplanes and U.S. attack helicopters scouting the area,[82] but no signs of combat. Meanwhile, French sources reported that the Coalition was verifying whether French jihadist Fabien Clain was killed in an airstrike the day prior that also left his brother Jean-Michel seriously wounded.[83]

Aftermath

Both before and throughout the battle, immense focus was put on the surrounding humanitarian situation in the ISIL enclave. The Kurds had helped transfer tens of thousands of civilians to internally displaced persons camps in northeast Syria while also holding over 1,000 captured ISIL suspects and their family members as a result of their conquests. Both the Kurds and the U.S. began urging international countries to repatriate the captured jihadists during the later stages of the battle.[84][85]

On 21 February, an Iraqi official stated that the SDF had transferred 150 ISIL militants to Iraqi authorities under a deal involving a total of 502, making it the largest single repatriation of ISIL suspects thus far.[86]

See also

References

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