USA ‘weeks’ away from Syria withdrawal start

Islamic State chief escapes death as his fighters turn on him: report

US Military Aims to Withdraw From Syria by April: WSJ

The tiny hamlet of Baghouz in northern Syria was the scene of intense fighting for the third day on Monday, as US-backed Syrian forces advanced on the final ISIS-held pocket in the country.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, did not indicate how soon he expected the civilian evacuation to be completed, Reuters reported, noting that most of the civilians are family members of ISIS militants.

The head of the SDF media office, Mustafa Bali, told Reuters that the main battle will be launched on the evening of February 9 and its mission will be to eliminate the last remnants of "the terrorist organization".

Yet the U.S. withdrawal leaves questions about what will become of the foreign ISIS fighters, many of them accused of heinous crimes such as beheadings, enslavement of people and even burning people to death.

A final push against IS' last pocket of territory in eastern Syria is being made by SDF forces.

France's Defence Minister Florence Parly visited the Iraqi side of the border on Saturday where France has a forward artillery base near al-Qaim, just a few kilometres from Baghouz.

President Donald Trump, repeating a variation of an earlier statement by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, predicted earlier this week that the United States military and its coalition partners will have successfully liberated all ISIS-controlled territory.

General Joseph Votel said ISIS fighters are "dispersed and disaggregated" but that there is "leadership", "fighters" and "facilitators" there.

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Many of those fighters are believed to be foreigners who traveled to Syria to join the terror group and have been unable to escape as they have been unable to blend in with the local population.

Bali said there were "dozens of SDF hostages" captured by ISIL.

It's estimated that between 500 and 1,000 civilians are inside, Bali said. They could quickly rebound if the military victory is not accompanied by solutions to the grievances that contributed to their rise, the officials say.

The capture of the IS-held village of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a devastating four-year global war to end the IS extremists' territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group established its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in 2014.

The civil war that has engulfed Syria began with Arab Spring protests in 2011.

In recent weeks, US officials have said IS has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to under 5 square kilometers (under 2 square miles), where most of the fighters are concentrated in Syria. Special Operations forces working alongside the SDF fighters will be particularly keen on establishing whether any key Islamic State leaders are still holed up in Baghouz, including perhaps the Islamic State's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. U.S.

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.

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