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ISIS Tries To Hold On To The Last Of Its Territory In Syria


The battle to defeat ISIS in the eastern part of Syria seems to be slowing down right now. The group has been surrounded by U.S.-backed forces in the town of Baghuz in northeastern Syria. ISIS fighters are resisting as they try to defend the last pocket of territory they hold on to. And they're using human shields, according to a spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been covering this from his base in Istanbul. Good morning, Peter.


GREENE: So we have heard so many different messages, I mean, from President Trump in terms of removing U.S. forces, keeping U.S. forces there, claims of victory, backing off claims of victory. What exactly is the situation right now?

KENYON: Well, the U.S.-backed coalition does appear to be in the final stages of the actual combat. But what exactly the victory entails, what it achieves, how final it proves to be, those are all still open questions. Over the weekend, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF - they're the ones actually in there trying to seize this last bit of ISIS control - said it would be over in a matter of days. There could still be some intense fighting, though, between now and then.

SDF commanders say some of those airstrikes that have been pounding the ground were targeting vehicle bombs left by ISIS. There was a Twitter post from an SDF spokesman. He said three car bombs were taken out. And there's - he also said it's going to be over soon, this battle. There's estimates hundreds of ISIS fighters are left. They're not going anywhere without a fight. But it sounds like a victory over those fighters is being portrayed as more a question of when rather than if.

GREENE: So how much territory does ISIS actually still hold on to? I mean, I've heard this described as an area, like, the size of Central Park in New York City. Does that sound right?

KENYON: Yeah, 1 square mile is about what it adds up to. It's in Baghuz. That's a town in eastern Syria on the Euphrates River, not far from the border with Iraq. Coalition forces, they held Baghuz last September, but they weren't able to keep it. ISIS fighters got it back. And now, slowly, slowly, the coalition is retaking it.

The SDF has pointed out some of the reasons why it's taking this long. Some of the ISIS fighters are launching sneak attacks from underground tunnels. Besides the car bombs, they've got mines, other explosives. There have been suicide attackers with explosive vests. There have been snipers. The coalition also says multiple times they're doing everything they can to not have civilian casualties, and that certainly doesn't speed things up.

GREENE: So you use tactics like that even though you're - if you're just 100 fighters. I mean, you really can hold on for a while. Let me ask you about civilian casualties. There was this pause for something like two weeks - right? - to allow for civilians to get out of this city. Did that happen, and are most civilians now safe and out of harm's way?

KENYON: It did happen. Hundreds of people did flee Baghuz. A lot of them were civilians, and some were fighters. One aid group estimated more than 1,000 people could have gotten out. I have not seen any reports definitely saying all the civilians got out, though. And the anti-ISIS coalition says they're trying not to kill any that - or hurt any that are still in the area. The two-week pause ended on Friday. Since the remaining ISIS holdouts basically have nowhere to go, this could be some intense fighting for a brief period.

There are plans being made for a victory once Baghuz is retaken. There will be a celebration of a decisive defeat for this group that once controlled an area the size of Britain in parts of Syria and Iraq. But there's ISIS sleeper cells. They were there before. They'll probably be there afterward. And there are also several million Syrians who are displaced and need to get back to their homes.

GREENE: Yeah, another very important side of the story, of course. NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting this morning. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "HELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.