The five-year battle to wrest control of much of Syria and northern Iraq from the grip of the Islamic State came to an end this weekend in the small, dusty eastern Syrian village of Baghouz, with U.S.-backed forces liberating that last patch of land under Islamic State control and bringing an end to the group’s dreams of a restored “caliphate” in the Middle East.
Kurdish and Arab militias known as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by American and allied air power, made their final sweep through the remaining pockets of Islamic State resistance in Baghouz on Saturday — the culmination of several weeks of intense fighting for the last Islamic State foothold in Syria.
While analysts caution Islamic State will remain a serious terrorism threat to the U.S. and its allies, its total battlefield defeat stands as a stunning defeat for the terror group, which as its height held sway over a swath of territory from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra westward to the northern Iraqi capital of Mosul.
While Islamic State leaders and fighters remain dangerous, the group no longer has a base to train, to finance operations, to recruit new forces, and to exploit the considerable energy and agricultural resources of the regions it once controlled.
“After five years of fighting, we stand here to declare the physical defeat of ISIS and the end of its public challenge over all human beings,” members of the SDF General Command said in a statement late Saturday. “We affirm that our war against [Islamic State] terrorism will continue until full victory is achieved and the total elimination of its existence.”
SDF officials said the militias lost a total of 11,000 fighters in the battle to subdue Islamic State. The Kurdish Hawar News Agency reported that SDF forces arrested a number of militants found hiding in combat tunnels Sunday in mop-up operations.
In Washington, the Trump White House — which has been forecasting the fall of Baghouz for weeks — praised the fall of the stronghold as a milestone in the fight against the global jihadi organization.
“ISIS’s loss of territory is further evidence of its false narrative, which tries to legitimize a record of savagery,” Mr. Trump said in a statement on Saturday. “While on occasion these cowards will resurface, they have lost all prestige and power. They are losers and will always be losers.”
Top U.S. military commanders and Pentagon officials also praised the operation, but warned the war against Islamic State remained far from over. The fall of Baghouz also shines a brighter spotlight on the fate of some 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria, troops Mr. Trump has said he wants to come home.
“While this is a critical milestone in the fight against ISIS, we understand our work is far from complete,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a statement.
As the fight shifts from the battlefields of Syria and northern Iraq to the counterterrorism fight reminiscent of the wars of the post 9/11 era, the U.S. “will continue to work by, with, and through our partners and allies to enable stabilization efforts, in the region, Mr. Shanahan said.
Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, warned U.S. lawmakers earlier this month that Islamic State’s abandonment of Baghouz was in part “a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities” to continue their fight. Key Islamic State leaders, including founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are believed to be still at large and hiding in the desert areas of Iraq.
Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen said Sunday that liberation of Baghouz was not the death knell for the Islamic State, but a major step in the fight nonetheless.
“I think it is a waypoint in the process of eliminating this threat,” said Gen. Allen, who was also the top U.S. envoy in charge of the anti-Islamic State coalition under the Obama White House. “They have not given up one iota” of their ideology or desire, said Gen. Allen, now president of the Washington-based Brookings Institute, during an interview of CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
SDF commanders on Saturday said their forces would continue clearing operations in and around Baghouz and adjoining Deir-e-Zour for the next few months, rooting out individual pockets of IS resistance in both areas.
The days to come may prove critical.
“If you do not stabilize the population … we face the potential for a [resurgence],” Gen. Allen said Sunday.
But Mr. Trump has already set in motion plans to withdraw the bulk of American troops from the country over the next several months, with plans to leave a small 400 to 600-man force to over see stability operations. The White House only agreed to the small, residual force after severe criticism of the original total withdrawal plan from the Pentagon and U.S. allies with forces in the region.
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