ISIS defends final pocket of dying 'caliphate' in Syria

OMAR OIL FIELD, Syria (UPDATED) – Jihadists defending their last dreg of territory in Syria have no choice but to surrender, a Kurdish-led force said on Monday, February 18, ahead of a victory declaration expected within days. 

The warning by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) comes as EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the repatriation of European nationals in Syria, which Germany said would be "extremely difficult" to do.

Diehard Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) fighters are now trapped in their last patch of territory of less than half a square kilometer in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.

The SDF are moving cautiously on the jihadist holdout, saying ISIS is increasingly using civilians as "human shields" to block the advance.

"The clashes are sporadic and very limited," SDF spokesman Mustefa Bali told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday.

"So far there have been no significant changes on the ground," he said, adding that coalition warplanes have reduced air strikes on ISIS positions over the past two days.

The SDF "are still working on trying to get civilians out," the spokesman said.

Thousands of people have streamed out of the so-called "Baghouz pocket" in recent weeks, but no civilians have made it out in the last 3 days.

An informed source told AFP that holdout ISIS fighters are seeking safe passage to the jihadist-held city of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

"They want to take the remaining civilians with them as human shields. But the SDF are not willing to discuss this option," said the source who asked not to be named.

'No choice'

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the SDF have turned down the request.

AFP could not confirm this with an SDF official, but a commander with the alliance said that ISIS has no leverage to negotiate.

"They are besieged in a very tight area and they have no other choice but to surrender," said the SDF commander, who asked not to be named.

The group declared a "caliphate" across large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, which at its height spanned an area the size of United Kingdom.

Successive offensives in both countries have since shattered the proto-state, but the extremist group still retains a presence in Syria's vast Badia desert and has claimed deadly attacks in SDF-held territory.

After years of fighting ISIS, the Kurdish-led SDF hold hundreds of foreign suspected ISIS fighters, as well as related women and children.

Syria's Kurds have long urged their home countries to take them back, but these nations have been reluctant.

The issue has taken on greater urgency, however, amid fears of a security vacuum since US President Donald Trump's shock announcement in December that American troops would withdraw.

The subject is to be raised on Monday at a meeting of European foreign ministers called to discuss among other issues "the situation in Syria, in particular the recent developments on the ground," according to an agenda for the talks.

European security risk

The meeting comes after Trump on Sunday, February 17, called on his European allies to take back their citizens who are being held by the Kurds in Syria.

"The United States is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial," Trump said in a tweet, using another acronym for ISIS.

His appeal sparked a reaction from Berlin, Paris, and Brussels.

Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that it would be "extremely difficult" to organize the repatriation of European nationals from Syria.

A return could only be possible if "we can guarantee that these people can be immediately sent here to appear in court and that they will be detained," he said.

Germany's Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen stressed the difficulties however of putting the ex-fighters on trial.

"We must be able to ensure that prosecution is possible," she said.

French junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said Sunday that, if suspected jihadists return, "they will all be tried, and incarcerated."

In Belgium, justice minister Koen Geens called for a collective "European solution."

Meanwhile, a top Kurdish official called on Europe not to abandon Syrian Kurds.

European powers "have a political and moral responsibility" to the Kurds, Aldar Khalil told AFP in an interview in Paris late Sunday.

The Kurds would seek the protection of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if failed by Europe and the United States, he said. – Rappler.com