U.S.-backed Syrian force said Saturday it has liberated the last bastion of the Islamic State in Syria.
A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, Mustafa Bali, tweeted that “Baghouz is free and the military victory against Daesh has been achieved,” referring to the group by its Arabic acronym.
The SDF pledged to continue the fight against remnants of the terror group.
At its height in 2014, IS ruled over large swaths of Syria and Iraq, boasting dual capitals in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq.
Since then, the U.S.-led international coalition, along with partners on the ground, have rolled back the terror group’s hold.
Last scraps of land
The last territory under IS control, a couple of scraps of land in the northeastern Syrian town of Baghuz, began to slip through the terror group’s grip for good late Thursday into early Friday, after the U.S.-led coalition launched a new wave of airstrikes targeting the remaining IS-held positions.
Both SDF and coalition officials have also been wary that unknown numbers of IS fighters could still be lurking in trenches and in a complex system of caves and tunnels.
The tunnels, which are thought to run for at least two kilometers, helped hide tens of thousands of IS fighters and their families through much of the early part of the SDF offensive. And officials said there are indications certain tunnels may even extend into neighboring Iraq.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said just within the past day or so U.S.-backed forces encountered a group of more than 300 IS fighters in one of the caves and had to call in airpower.
The SDF has been wary of declaring victory over IS in Baghuz, pointing to numerous predications of the terror group’s ultimate demise over the past several months that all proved to be premature.
But U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly predicted IS’ demise, telling reporters Wednesday the caliphate would be “gone by tonight” even though fighting persisted.
Trump’s Declarations of Victory Over IS
“For political reasons, he wants to declare victory,” said Heritage Foundation Middle East analyst Jim Phillips. “I think his statements are aimed at a domestic, American audience.”
As well as that message may be received by Trump’s supporters, however, there are deep-seated concerns that mistaking the collapse of the caliphate with the end of IS could be costly.
The biggest worry: upward of 60,000 people, including more than 5,000 IS fighters, who have surrendered or been captured since the SDF and coalition launched their final assault last month.
“These folks are unrepentant,” the official said. “The seeds for a future caliphate or certainly a persistent clandestine insurgency exist in these large numbers of people who … are looking to reposition for future perpetuation of ISIS in some form or fashion.”
U.S. officials also warn that most of the group’s senior leadership, including self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain at large, commanding at minimum “tens of thousands” of fighters and supporters across Syria and Iraq.
And even in the face of imminent defeat, IS’ true believers remain defiant.
“Those who are bewildered and think that our caliphate is over … we will say that it’s remaining and expanding,” a fighter from Baghuz, identifying himself as Abu al-Harith al-Ansari, said in a video released Thursday and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“The banner has been elevated, and the Ummah, whose sons are racing to martyrdom, does not know defeat,” he said.
VOA’s Fern Robinson, Patsy Widakuswara and VOA Kurdish Service contributed to this report.