ISIS jihadists defending their last scrap of territory in Syria have no choice but to surrender, a Kurdish-led force said on Monday, ahead of a victory declaration expected within days.
The warning by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) came as European nations reacted coolly to a US call to repatriate their nationals from Syria, which Germany said would be “extremely difficult”.
Diehard ISIS fighters are now trapped in a final patch of territory of less than half a square kilometer (0.2 square miles) in the village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border.
From an SDF position hundreds of meters (yards) away, an AFP reporter spotted people moving between white tents inside the last jihadist redoubt, including a woman clad in black and masked men.
An SDF fighter pointed towards a water tanker parked in the arid plain that separated his force from jihadists.
“Do you see people moving behind the water truck. It’s not clear if they are fighters or civilians,” he said.
The SDF are moving cautiously on the jihadist holdout, saying ISIS is increasingly using civilians as “human shields”.
Spokesman Mustefa Bali said the alliance was “still working on trying to get civilians out”.
“The clashes are sporadic and very limited,” Bali told AFP on Monday. “There have been no significant changes on the ground.”
Thousands of people have streamed out of ISIS turf in recent weeks, but no civilians have made it out in the last three days.
Those that managed to escape have been ferried on trucks to Kurdish-held camps for the displaced to the north.
The International Rescue Committee said Monday that 62 people, mostly children, had died on the way to the Al-Hol camp or shortly after arriving in the past few weeks.
An informed source told AFP that ISIS fighters are seeking safe passage to the jihadist-held city of Idlib in northwestern Syria.
“They want to take remaining civilians with them as human shields. But the SDF are not willing to discuss this,” said the source, asking not to be named.
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 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 commander.
ISIS declared a “caliphate” across large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, which at its height spanned an area the size of the United Kingdom.
Successive offensives in both countries have since shattered the proto-state, but the extremist group still retains a presence in Syria’s Badia desert.
After years of fighting ISIS, the Kurdish-led SDF hold hundreds of foreigners suspected of being 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.
European countries gave a cool response to a call by US President Donald Trump to take back their citizens captured in the fight against ISIS.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said Monday that foreign fighters should be tried “in the region where the crimes had been committed”.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that it would be “extremely difficult” to organize the repatriation of European nationals from Syria.
In France, Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said the government would stick to its current policy of dealing with fighters on a case-by-case basis.
European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini ruled out any EU involvement in the disputes, saying they are a matter for national governments.
Trump stunned allies in December when he announced all 2,000 US troops would withdraw from Syria as ISIS had been defeated.
General Joseph Votel, commander of US forces in the Middle East, was in Syria earlier Monday but “has since left the region”, a US-led coalition spokesman said.
A top Kurdish official called on Europe not to abandon Syria’s Kurds.
European powers “have a political and moral responsibility” to the Kurds, Aldar Khalil told AFP in Paris.
The Kurds fear the US withdrawal will leave them facing a long-threatened assault by Turkey, which views their fighters as terrorists.
They have begun looking to President Bashar al-Assad for possible cover, as his regime has gained the upper hand in the civil war with Russian backing.
Almost eight years into a conflict that has killed more than 360,000 people, SDF-held areas and the northwestern Idlib region remain beyond government control.
Two bomb attacks in Idlib on Monday killed 24 people, including four children, the Observatory said.
The area is administered by a jihadist alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.