NEAR AS-SUSAH (Syria) (AFP) – Fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces sing for courage as they ready for battle, this time for an assault on the Islamic State group’s last stronghold in the country’s east.
The US-backed SDF and their American advisers have been grouped on the outskirts of the village of As-Susah on the east bank of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor province.
As pick-up trucks loaded with fighters of the joint Kurdish-Arab force skid along snaking dirt roads, coalition forces have been firing rounds of mortar fire and rockets at jihadist positions.
After a salvo of outgoing fire, thick columns of smoke rise from As-Susah, which along with the town of Hajin and other nearby villages make up IS’s last enclave in eastern Syria.
“Daesh has strong fortifications. We’re seeking to break the defences and bring its presence east of the Euphrates to an end,” said an commander, Ibrahim al-Dairi, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
The SDF has been closing in on the pocket for months and it officially launched its offensive on Monday.
Heavy clashes have since killed 53 jihadists and 37 SDF fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
The most recent IS ambush on Friday left at least 20 SDF fighters dead.
Jihadists attacked the force during a sandstorm, launching explosives and opening fire, the Britain-based Observatory said.
The coalition battling IS has said the offensive “will clear remnants of (IS) from northeastern Syria along the Middle Euphrates River Valley toward the Syria-Iraq border”.
“The battle is fateful for us and for Daesh too,” said Dairi, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.
He expects the remaining jihadists to “fight to the death”.
The SDF estimates IS has some 3,000 fighters in its besieged holdout, a large portion of them foreigners.
– ‘Eliminate them here’ –
After having declared a cross-border “caliphate” in 2014, IS now controls less than three percent of Syria following a string of military defeats inside the country and neighbouring Iraq.
The group once held nearly all of Deir Ezzor, but separate offensives last year by the SDF and Russian-backed regime forces left the jihadists with a just small besieged pocket near the Iraqi border.
IS slogans such as “the caliphate remains” mark the walls of homes in towns and villages from which IS has been expelled.
A few kilometres away in the desert hills along Syria’s border with Iraq, the SDF and coalition leaders are charting the offensive.
“We’re committed to the campaign and we will win,” Zaradasht Kobani, another Kurdish commander, told AFP after speaking with fighters who were cleaning their weapons shortly after returning from the front lines.
“Even though Daesh has taken a lot of (defensive) measures… we will end its presence east of the Euphrates,” he said.
“This is the last bastion for Daesh’s mercenaries,” Kobani said. “We will eliminate them here.”
– ‘Defeat terrorism’ –
While IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts are unknown, the SDF believes other “major leaders” are hiding out in the pocket, according to Deir Ezzor military council chief Ahmad Abu Khawla.
“Most of the frontline commanders in this pocket are Iraqis,” he added.
The US coalition is backing up the SDF’s push with artillery support and air cover.
Kobani stressed that the coalition’s involvement was important for SDF morale. “We will end this campaign together,” he said.
Like in other battles that the SDF has waged against IS, booby traps and mines planted by the jihadists pose the biggest challenge.
As artillery fire pounded jihadist positions, yellow military bulldozers worked to clear roads for fighters.