Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Saturday the submission of the last Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stronghold. The collapse of the eastern Syrian city of Baghuz and the raise of the yellow flag by SDF forces marked the official collapse of the ISIS caliphate which plagued the region since 2014.
The coalition SDF forces, mainly led on the ground by Kurdish forces and supported by U.S., British and French armies, recaptured the city of Baghuz on Saturday. Upon the city’s capture, the SDF Spokesperson argued that:
‘Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and 100% territorial defeat of ISIS. On this unique day, we commemorate thousands of martyrs whose efforts made the victory possible.’
Later press statements claimed that SDF forces lost approximately 11.000 men but still the battle against ISIS sleeper cells continues.
The city of Baghuz lies in the easternmost part of the country, on the banks of the Euphrates River. SDF assaulted the city since early February. U.S. air forces bombarded areas of the city while SDF ground army reclaimed parts of the city. Before the last stage of the offensive initiated, western officials calculated the presence of 1.500 civilians and 500ISIS militias remaining garrisoned in the city. These estimations were proven minimal and at the height of last offensive SDF militias also opened up security corridors supervising the exodus of civilians and foreign ISIS fighters from besieged Baghuz. Civilians were used as human shields by remaining forces who found refuge along with their families in the city.
The city was well fortified with scattered ISIS snipers, improvised explosive devices attached to cars and buildings as well as heat-seeking missiles. Underground tunnels facilitated entry and exit from the city until SDF forces captured these points and effectively pinned down remaining ISIS forces within the city’s premises.
The Battle Against ISIS Continues
ISIS may have been eradicated from Syria but has renewed its presence across several parts of the world. Above all the greatest concentration of militias today lies in northwestern Iraq. Besides Iraq, ISIS militias are present in the Afghan-Pakistani border, the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, and the Philippines. The U.S. Central Command Commander General Joseph Votel, who directed operations against remaining ISIS forces claimed on the televised message that:
‘The caliphate still has leaders…fighters…facilitators…resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.’
In northwestern Iraq for example the security situation has considerably worsened a year after ISIS presence was eradicated from the region. ISIS militias have returned to the region and utilise the villages located near the Hamrin mountain range as their interim headquarters. Their advantage rests on the excellent knowledge of the region ever since members of ISIS belonged to the Al Qaeda branch of Iraq back in 2000s.
A senior researcher at the British strategy think tank Chatham House declared that:
‘The risk of ISIS re-emergence is very real. We always need to think about what happened with Al Qaeda in Iraq about a decade ago when it was largely defeated. Reports at the time said there were only about 700 members of the group left. But a few years later we saw ISIS emerge…We need a long-term strategy, a 10-year strategy…to prevent an enabling environment that could lead to their re-emergence.’