Kurdish-led forces pronounced the death of the Islamic State group’s nearly five-year-old “caliphate” Saturday after flushing out diehard jihadists from their very last bastion in eastern Syria.
Fighters of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces raised their yellow flag in Baghouz, the remote riverside village where diehard jihadists of a variety of nationalities made a desperate, dramatic last stand. The SDF’s victory capped a deadly six-month operation against the final remnants of the caliphate which once stretched across a vast swathe of Iraq and Syria, and held seven million people in its sway.
Saturday’s announcement will go down as a symbolic date in a war that changed the face of the region and spurred a spate of global terror attacks. “Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and 100 percent territorial defeat of ISIS,” spokesman Mustefa Bali said in a statement, using another acronym for IS.
In Al-Omar, an oil field used as the main SDF staging base for the final phase of the assault, fighters in their best fatigues laid down their weapons and broke into song and dance.
A military band played anthems, including the Star Spangled Banner, as a ceremony attended by Kurdish top brass and officials got under way. The state proclaimed in mid-2014 by fugitive IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi started collapsing in 2017 when parallel offensives in Iraq and Syria wrested back its main hubs Mosul and Raqa.
The nearly five years of fighting against the most brutal jihadist group in modern history has left thousand-year-old cities in ruins and populations homeless. Early US estimates put the numbers of IS fighters at around 40,000, many of them foreigners.
But the territory administered by the remnants of IS continued to shrink month after month and in September 2018 the SDF launched a final offensive on the last dregs of the “caliphate” in its Euphrates Valley strongholds.
US President Donald Trump, whose country has led an international miliary coalition against IS since September 2014, jumped the gun on announcing the end of jihadist territorial rule on multiple occasions.
SDF fighters last week expelled the last IS fighters who refused to surrender from an encampment on the edge of Baghouz and have since been hunting down a few survivors hiding on the reedy banks of the Euphrates. “Those who lasted the longest were mostly foreigners... Tunisians, Moroccans, Egyptians,” Hisham Harun, a 21-year-old Kurdish fighter, told AFP shortly after the SDF’s yellow flag was raised.
Around him, the former jihadist encampment was littered with bullet-riddled truck carcasses, discarded suicide belts and the torn tents where the caliphate’s last families sheltered for weeks.
The bodies of suspected IS fighters could be seen but it was unclear what happened to the few jihadists who were still putting up a fight as late as Friday afternoon.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 750 SDF fighters and around twice as many jihadists were killed in the last few months of the Euphrates offensive.
Kurdish officers and aid groups were flummoxed by the number of people who had remained holed up in the last IS redoubt of Baghouz, a small village even few Syrians had ever heard of until this year.
As SDF forces pummelled IS positions and US warplanes dropped huge payloads on the riverside village, tens of thousands of people fled over a rocky hill and trudged through the plains in biblical scenes.
For weeks, the ghostly figures of the caliphate’s last denizens hobbled out of the besieged village, famished, often wounded but sometimes still defiantly proclaiming their support for IS.
The Kurdish-led force and foreign intelligence have screened more than 60,000 people since January, around 10 percent of them jihadists turning themselves in.
Most of the people evacuated from the smouldering ruins of Baghouz in recent days were relatives of IS members who now fill overcrowded camps further north in Syria’s Kurdish-controlled region. The biggest of them, Al-Hol, is struggling to host 74,000 people, including at least 25,000 school-aged children.
Among them are thousands of foreigners from France, Russia, Belgium and 40-plus countries that are in most cases unwilling to take them back. “The needs are huge and the camp is overwhelmed,” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday upon returning from a five-day visit to Syria.
French President Emmanuel Macron hailed the fall of Baghouz saying “a significant threat to our country” has been “eliminated”.
But while the SDF taking Baghouz marks the end of the IS “caliphate”, the jihadists still retain a presence in eastern Syria’s vast Badia desert. They also have hideouts in parts of Iraq as well as sleeper cells capable of carrying out the kind of deadly guerrilla insurgency that accompanied the rise of the Islamic State group.
IS fighters who escaped the shrinking rump of the “caliphate” in time and reorganised their group are already re-establishing their former sanctuaries in Iraq.
Even the Pentagon has warned in a recent report that the absence of sustained counterterrorism pressure on IS would allow the jihadists to reclaim some territorial control within months.