Civilians flee final ISIS-held enclave in Syria
Baghouz evacuation signals possible end to standoff between militants, Syrian forces
A convoy of trucks carrying hundreds of civilians, including children, left the final area held by ISIS militants in eastern Syria on Wednesday, signalling a possible end to a standoff that has lasted for more than a week.
The tiny enclave on the banks of the Euphrates River is the final scrap of territory left to the extremist group that only a few years ago controlled vast stretches of territory across Syria and Iraq — at one point nearly from Aleppo to Baghdad — and aspired to create an enduring and expanding jihadist state.
Its recapture by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces would spell the territorial defeat of ISIS and would likely prompt U.S. President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, as he has pledged to do, opening a new chapter in Syria's eight-year civil war.
However, few believe that ending the group's territorial rule will end the threat posed by an organization that still stages and inspires attacks through sleeper cells in both Syria and Iraq.
Some 300 ISIS militants — many of them foreign fighters — are believed to be holed up in the enclave in the remote village of Baghouz, along with several hundred civilians believed to be mostly their families. The presence of so many civilians intermingled with the militants in a crammed space halted the military offensive by the SDF and led to a days-long standoff with the militants, who refuse to surrender and prevented the civilians from leaving.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the evacuation on Wednesday, although food supplies and ammunition for the besieged militants have been fast diminishing.
An Associated Press team in Baghouz, a village near the Iraqi border where ISIS is making its final stand, counted at least 18 trucks that emerged through a humanitarian corridor used in past weeks to help move people out of the militants' last patch of territory.
Women, children and men, some with checkered headscarves, or keffiyehs, could be seen through a flap opening on the flatbed trucks.
SDF fighters surround Baghouz
There were reports of ISIS militants surrendering, but the U.S.-led coalition said those reports could not be independently verified. In a tweet, it said the SDF continue to receive civilians attempting to escape to safety and the most hardened ISIS fighters still remain in Baghouz.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesperson for the SDF, the militia spearheading the fight against ISIS in Syria, confirmed the trucks were carrying civilians out of the enclave.
On Tuesday, Bali said a military operation aimed at ousting the extremists from the area will begin if they don't surrender, and such an operation would take place after separating the civilians from the militants.
An SDF commander, Zana Amedi, said most of the militants remaining inside the enclave are seriously wounded or sick.
ISIS has been reduced from its self-proclaimed "caliphate," an area that at its height in 2014 spread across much of Syria and Iraq, to a speck of land on the countries' shared border.
The SDF has been encircling the remaining ISIS-held territory for days, waiting to declare the territorial defeat of the extremist group.
Nearly 20,000 civilians had left the shrinking area in recent weeks before the evacuation halted last week when the militants closed all the roads out of the tiny area.