- US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces declared the defeat of ISIS on Saturday, after liberating the last area held by the group in Syria.
- The victory came after weeks of intense fighting in eastern Syria and after five years of fighting to retake ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria.
- While the terrorist group’s physical “caliphate” is no more, it lives in offshoot jihadist groups around the world and in the media presence the group established for itself.
Gen. Mazloum Kobani, a commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, announced the “physical defeat” of ISIS on Saturday, hours after the SDF reported the liberation of the terrorist group’s last redoubt in the Syrian village of Baghouz.
“We are proud of what we have accomplished,” said Kobani, whose SDF has been the US’s partner in Syria and borne the brunt of the offensive.
The tent camp where ISIS fighters made their final stand had been bombed to shreds. Scorched remains of vehicles, scraps of tents, and rubble from buildings were scattered across a field riven by abandoned trenches. ISIS’ black flag lay half-buried, while the yellow flag of the SDF flew above a bombed-out building.
The defeat of ISIS in Baghouz comes after weeks of intense fighting and marks the end of a long and bloody campaign to retake the vast swaths of territory that ISIS claimed across Iraq and Syria in 2014.
The months and years ahead are likely to see more operations against ISIS remnants and others emulating the group, but below, you can see what the final days of fighting to eliminate the “caliphate” looked like in eastern Syria.
Baghouz, a tiny village between Iraq in the east and the Euphrates River to the west and south, was ISIS’ last refuge as the remaining members of the terrorist group retreated down the river valley under constant assault from US-led coalition air power and coalition-backed forces on the ground.
By January, thousands of ISIS fighters and others were in the village, surrounded by opposition forces who began their final assault in early February.
Hundreds of civilians fled the area before the assault began. At the outset, SDF officials estimated there were about 1,500 civilians and 500 ISIS fighters in Baghouz.
The Kurdish fighters using artillery and machine guns — backed up by US-led coalition aircraft and US, British, and French special forces — reported little resistance as the operation began, encountering some ISIS fighters who only wanted to surrender.
Fierce resistance by the ISIS fighters who remained — some of the terrorist group’s most battle-hardened and tenacious combatants — slowed the coalition’s advance.
SDF leaders said their forces were met by snipers, mines, improvised explosive devices, and heat-seeking missiles, as well as by women and children who were mixed in among the fighters.
ISIS fighters had also dug a network of tunnels that allowed them to move from house to house without being seen, similar to what the group had done in more heavily built-up areas like the Iraqi city of Mosul, which was liberated in July 2017 after a brutal 10-month campaign.
Nearly 30,000 people fled the Baghouz area between early January and mid-March, about 5,000 of them fighters. The scale of the outflow surprised the SDF. Most of them had been holed up in a sprawling network of caves and tunnels around Baghouz.
Source: Associated Press
The exodus was sparked in part by heavy coalition bombardment. Human Rights Watch found 630 “major damage sites … consistent with the detonation of large, air-dropped munitions” in the area between January 19 and February 20.
In addition to ISIS tactics, which included burning tires and oil on windy days, coalition forces were held up by the weather, including rain that turned the battlefield to mud. SDF officials admitted on March 17 that they were “facing several difficulties regarding the operations.”
Source: Associated Press
Throughout the final offensive, ISIS reportedly used civilians as human shields to slow the coalition advance — a tactic ISIS fighters continued to employ as the coalition squeezed the quarter-square-kilometer parcel of land on which the terrorist group made its final stand.
Source: Business Insider
The SDF declared victory on March 23. “Baghouz is free and the military victory against Daesh has been achieved,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted, referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym.
But SDF and US officials stressed that there is more to be done to ensure the terrorist group’s defeat. William Roebuck, a senior US diplomat, said there was still “much work to do,” and Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the SDF commander-in-chief, requested continued assistance for his forces.
The Kurds who lead the SDF are apprehensive about the post-ISIS period, fearing that the US will withdraw its support. The group is caught between troops from Turkey, which regards Kurds as terrorists and a national threat, to the north and the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to the south.
ISIS fighters continue to hide out in Syria’s remote central desert, while others are still active in Iraq, waging a guerrilla campaign of shootings and kidnappings. The US also believes Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’ leader, is in Iraq. The group has spread farther afield, appearing in North Africa and Afghanistan.
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