By Ariel Steinsaltz
On Feb. 22, CNN reported that thousands of Syrian civilians were still living under ISIS control in its last enclave in the country. A commander with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said that many civilians are fleeing the ISIS-held territory through tunnels and buildings.
Most of the people fleeing ISIS custody were women and children, who were separated from the men, who were taken for interrogation, according to NBC News.
An SDF commander said that civilians have been informing him that numerous ISIS fighters want to surrender, while many as 200 or 300 were planning to “‘fight to the end,’” according to CNN.
ISIS’s reigning control has dwindled over time. At its peak, ISIS had control of a population of 10 million people. That number has now been reduced to just thousands. According to CNN, it formerly controlled “an area the size of Great Britain,” but it now only has control over about a half of a square kilometer.
According to Commander Chia Kobani, the head of SDF operations, SDF fighters have slowed their advance on the remaining ISIS territory to avoid harming any civilians since ISIS often uses civilians as human shields, CNN reported.
In Syria, there are approximately 2,000 U.S. troops, who are primarily there to aid the SDF in the fight against the Islamic State. Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, reported on March 2 that “the SDF were advancing on two fronts using medium and heavy weaponry.” He also stated that three SDF soldiers were wounded so far, according to the NBC News.
CNN reported that Nadim Houry, the director of terrorism and counter-terrorism at the Human Rights Watch, was worried about the well-being of the civilians. The civilians in custody include relatives of ISIS members or sympathizers.
HRW interviewed civilians escaping ISIS custody, who reported that the town had been destroyed by shells and air strikes. Conditions grew difficult and food supplies were short, but those who attempted to escape areas controlled by ISIS found it difficult because the group was punishing them and smugglers “‘were charging up to $400 per person,’” according to CNN.
Some of the people who had been bussed away from the territory, including a woman named Um Bassam, said that they still believed in and were loyal to ISIS, said CNN. She claimed that they wanted peace and to be ruled by the “‘law of the Almighty.’”
On Thursday, Feb. 28, President Donald Trump said that U.S.-backed forces “‘just took over’” the territory and defeated ISIS in the country, CNN reported.
“‘That means the area, the land, we have 100 percent, so that’s good,’” Trump said.
However, members of SDF said they were surprised to hear this. SDF spokesman Adnan Afrin said no final decision had been made. Others in Syria contradicted the president’s statement, saying the fight was not over. Even once ISIS loses its territorial holds, it is still likely to be a threat, which is why a few hundred U.S. troops will remain in Syria, according to The Washington Post.
‘“ISIS is not simply laying down arms and surrendering. Instead they’re preparing to make a last stand,”’ Zana Amedi tweeted, according to The Washington Post.