Losses in Syria, Iraq push IS to the brink
Self-proclaimed caliphate reduced to a pair of border towns
Islamic State (IS)’s self-proclaimed caliphate was all but reduced on Friday to a pair of border towns at the Iraq-Syria frontier, where thousands of fighters were believed to be holding out after losing nearly all other territory in both countries.
Forces in Syria and Iraq backed by regional states and global powers now appear on the cusp of victory over the group, which proclaimed its authority over all Muslims in 2014 when it held about one-third of both countries and ruled over millions.
On the Syrian side, government forces declared victory in Deir al-Zor, the last major city in the country’s eastern desert where the militants still had a presence.
On the Iraqi side, pro-government forces said they had captured the last border post with Syria in the Euphrates valley and entered the nearby town of al-Qaim, the group’s last Iraqi stronghold.
A US-led international coalition which has been bombing IS and supporting ground allies on both sides of the frontier said the militant group now has a few thousand fighters left, mainly holed up at the border in Iraq’s al-Qaim and its sister town of Albu Kamal on the Syrian side.
“We do expect them now to try to flee, but we are cognisant of that and will do all we can to annihilate IS leaders,” spokesperson US Colonel Ryan Dillon said.
He estimated there were 1,500-2,500 fighters left in al-Qaim and 2,0003,000 in Albu Kamal.
But both the Iraqi and Syrian governments and their international backers say they worry that the fighters will still be able to mount guerrilla attacks once they no longer have territory to defend.
“As IS continues to be hunted into these smallest areas... we see them fleeing into the desert and hiding there in an attempt to devolve back into an insurgent terrorist group,” said Dillon. “The idea of IS and the virtual caliphate, that will not be defeated in the near term. There is still going to be an IS threat.”
Driven this year from its two de facto capitals – Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa – IS is pressed into an evershrinking pocket of desert straddling the frontier.