U.S.-Backed Forces In Syria Close In On ISIS' Last Stronghold The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have launched another assault on the Islamic State group's last enclave in Syria. A major concern is that people are still being held hostage by ISIS.

U.S.-Backed Forces In Syria Close In On ISIS' Last Stronghold

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Who remains in a tiny swath of territory that ISIS is clinging to? This is land just a few hundred yards wide in Syria. U.S.-backed forces are trying to take this final bit of territory, but they know civilians have been there. And one father knows civilians may still be there. He spoke to NPR's Ruth Sherlock, who joins me now.

Hi, Ruth.


GREENE: So who is this father we're talking about?

SHERLOCK: Well, his name is Bashirul Shikder, and he's an American dad who is from Florida - lives in Florida. And four years ago, his two children - one of them was just an infant less than a year old - were kidnapped by their mother and taken to Syria, where she came to join ISIS. He's been trying to get his kids back since then. And then last month, he received the awful news that his wife had been killed in an explosion. His kids are injured with burns to their faces. So he came to Iraq. We followed him there, you know, next door to Syria where he was lobbying U.S. officials to try to help, trying to locate these children who are somewhere in Syria.

Now it's been confirmed by - well, now multiple sources tell us - but I should say that it's not yet fully confirmed - that these two children and a half sister they now have are actually alive and still in Baghouz. Of course, the offensive on Baghouz has just started again, so this is really every parent's nightmare. What he is hearing is that the kids are there; they're being bombarded. But they're with a family who doesn't want to leave.

GREENE: Wow. So this father might be watching U.S.-backed forces basically try to take out territory where his children might be still holed up somewhere.

SHERLOCK: Yeah. I mean, it's awful. I'm waking up every day to panicked messages from him overnight saying, you know, they're bombing again; my kids are there. What can we do? What could we do? And it's just extremely difficult. Kurdish forces, the U.S.-backed forces on the ground, say, you know, if they could get confirmation that the children were there, they would try to find a way to let them leave safely. But communications are very hard. And as I say, what we're hearing is that this family doesn't want to leave.

GREENE: Are U.S. forces doing things to try and protect civilians who might still be in this - on this land?

SHERLOCK: Well, they say that they're taking every precaution possible. But of course, you know, there was a lull in the offensive for several days. And an estimated 12,000 people came out in that - during that lull. Some of them were families of ISIS fighters; some of them were ISIS fighters who surrendered. But now the rhetoric has really upped. And they're saying, you know, it's time to take back this piece of territory; anyone who wanted to surrender has had the chance. So really, the focus is on pounding the area.

We're seeing - from last night, there were lots of videos showing intense artillery airstrikes on this place. It's just a few piece - few hundred yards wide. And you know, you can actually kind of look out across it - it's such a small area - with binoculars. Reporters there are seeing ISIS flags on what's left of the buildings. There's a collection of squalid tents. But people are hiding out in tunnels and caves, we're hearing.

GREENE: Wow. I mean, it just - it speaks - this moment speaks so much to the larger story. I mean, if this family who might be holding these children want to stick it out and want to remain committed to ISIS and the ideology and they're not going anywhere, I mean, it just creates an impossible situation.

SHERLOCK: Exactly, for this father - and also, it's a broader lesson that, you know, it's very difficult to bomb an ideology into oblivion. A lot of the people that have been coming out of this area in recent weeks, you know, remain faithful to ISIS and especially because they've been bombed by, you know, a U.S.-backed force that they see them as the enemy now. And they've been saying that they're going to still support the group and raise their children in the beliefs of the group. So whilst, you know, ultimately this territory probably will be taken back, the broader question of ISIS as existing in its ideology continues.

GREENE: NPR's Ruth Sherlock - Ruth, thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

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