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Coalition Forces Prepare For Final Fight In Syria's Last ISIS Stronghold


In northeastern Syria, people are pouring out of the last ISIS stronghold. It's a dramatic scene - women leading children by the hand carrying overstuffed backpacks, walking across an empty plane.


SHAPIRO: Coalition forces say they're giving civilians time to flee and ISIS fighters a chance to surrender before they make a final push to clear out of the area. Sarah El Deeb with The Associated Press is in this part of Syria and joins us now. Welcome.

SARAH EL DEEB: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Explain who these people are that are leaving this week and what they're telling you when you talk to them.

EL DEEB: We've seen thousands of people finally evacuate the last pocket. They were mostly women and children, and they were either really beat and very hungry and tired or very defiant and defensive of the Islamic State.

SHAPIRO: That explains the sort of defiant shouting that we heard in that tape. When we spoke to you more than two weeks ago, commanders of U.S.-backed forces were saying that there were days, maybe even just hours left for ISIS in the area before these Western forces controlled this area, and it has obviously stretched on much longer than that. Why has it been so much more complicated than they thought?

EL DEEB: I mean, I think the word is that there are lots of civilians that keep coming out of that pocket, and no one wants to see a massacre in the final battle against ISIS of lots of civilians. I think that's one thing. But I also think that the militants are cornered. They are besieged, and they have no other options to go.

So I don't - I - my understanding or my sense covering this for the last couple of weeks - two weeks - is that there is no hurry to go after this group and finish it off in a bombing campaign that would also yield lots of casualties while they are no longer or appear to be no longer a major threat.

SHAPIRO: As people pour out of this area, they are straining the camps that are holding internally displaced people. The International Rescue Committee released a report saying one of those camps is at a breaking point. What do you know about the conditions there?

EL DEEB: From what I understand, this is a camp that was made to contain or to take about 10,000 people, more or less. And now it's got 65,000 people, most of them in the last three months. It's cold. It's desert. It's very wet. There's no tents. There are lots of children that arrive there in really bad condition because of the really long trip. It's, like, hours on the road in a very rugged terrain, very cold conditions. So we've known - we know of, like, a hundred people that might have died because of that road trip - like, hypothermia, malnutrition. So I think it's just a really terrible place to be at the moment.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. We're describing this as the last of ISIS's territory, the last stronghold. But your reporting makes it clear that there is still support for this group among people in the region.

EL DEEB: It almost feels like we're taking out the Islamic State militants out of that pocket and putting them out in the world like seeds for an Islamic State. I don't want to be alarmist, but I think from what I've seen, a lot of the women that spoke to us are saying that they would bring up their kids to the jihadists for what the group stands for. A lot of them are angry and defiant and humiliated. That's not a very reassuring message.

SHAPIRO: Sarah El Deeb, thank you so much.

EL DEEB: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: She's a reporter for The Associated Press speaking with us from Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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