ISIL snipers and landmines have slowed a US-backed ground force as it pushes to retake the armed group’s last enclave in eastern Syria.
Black smoke clouds rose over ISIL’s final territory in Deir Az Zor province on Monday as coalition fighter jets fired missiles in support of the Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF launched an offensive on Saturday attempting to expel about 600 Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS) fighters from a 4-square-kilometre area in Baghouz village, near the Iraqi border on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River.
The US-led coalition maintained a steady beat of bombings on the enclave after an early morning ISIL counter-attack caused several SDF casualties.
“[ISIL] launched a counter-attack on our forces and we are now responding with rockets, air strikes and direct clashes,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.
About 1,500 civilians had fled the enclave on Monday. “It seems there are still many civilians inside Baghouz,” Bali said. “We are compelled to go cautiously and accurately in this battle.”
Bali said there were “dozens of SDF hostages” captured by ISIL.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters had pressed forward in the face of tough obstacles.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the SDF was “advancing slowly” on the edges of Baghouz, but cautioned landmines, snipers and tunnels dug by ISIL fighters were hindering progress.
Planned US troop withdrawal
Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF alliance has been battling to eliminate ISIL from Deir Az Zor since September.
The armed group overran large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but a series of military offensives have reduced that territory to just Baghouz.
In December, US President Donald Trump announced a full withdrawal of US troops from Syria, saying ISIL had been “beaten”.
The surprise announcement prompted the US military to caution in a report published this month that the group “could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory” if sustained pressure is not maintained.
ISIL still retains a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and has claimed a series of deadly attacks by sleeper cells in SDF-held areas.
Analysts have warned the US decision to pullout troops from Syria will leave a vacuum that will “increase the international and regional conflict” for power and influence in Syria.
“After the defeat of ISIS we cannot say that the roots of violence and terrorism are over, as ISIS is an ideological status and not only a military structure,” Assaad Bechara, political analyst and editor of Lebanon’s Al-Joumhouria newspaper, told The Associated Press on Monday.
“The American allegations of quitting Syria after accomplishing the mission of defeating ISIS lacks a lot of proof and are totally illogical,” Bechara added.
Kurds scramble for safeguards
Trump’s decision to withdraw about 2,000 US troops has also left Syria’s Kurds scrambling for reassurances.
A US departure makes them more vulnerable to a long-threatened attack by neighbouring Turkey, which considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) a “terrorist” organisation.
The YPG has spearheaded the SDF, the US’ main ally in Syria.
The Kurds have largely stayed out of Syria’s nearly eight-year civil war, instead focusing on building their own semi-autonomous institutions in the northeast of the country.
But the expected US pullout has seen them grappling to mend ties with the Damascus regime, which is also against Kurdish self-rule.
Al Jazeera and news agencies