Syria de­clares vic­tory over Is­lamic State

Jerusalem Post - - REGIONAL NEWS - By ANGUS MCDOWALL and SARAH DADOUCH

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s army de­clared vic­tory over Is­lamic State on Thurs­day, say­ing its cap­ture of the ji­hadists’ last town in the coun­try marked the col­lapse of their project in the re­gion.

The army and its al­lies are still fight­ing ISIS in desert ar­eas near Albu Ka­mal, the last town the Sunni ter­ror­ist group had held in Syria, near its bor­der with Iraq, the army said.

But the cap­ture of the town ends ISIS’s era of ter­ri­to­rial rule over the so-called caliphate that it pro­claimed in 2014 across Iraq and Syria and in which mil­lions suf­fered un­der its hard-line, re­pres­sive stric­tures.

Yet after fe­ro­cious de­fen­sive bat­tles in its most im­por­tant cities this year, where its fight­ers bled for ev­ery house and street, its fi­nal col­lapse has come with light­ning speed.

In­stead of a bat­tle to the death as they mounted a last stand in the Euphrates val­ley towns and vil­lages near the bor­der be­tween Iraq and Syria, many fight­ers sur­ren­dered or fled.

In Albu Ka­mal, the ji­hadists had fought fiercely, said a com­man­der in the pro-Syr­ian gov­ern­ment mil­i­tary al­liance. But it was cap­tured the same day the as­sault be­gan.

This sealed “the fall of the ter­ror­ist Daesh [ISIS] or­ga­ni­za­tion’s project in the re­gion,” an army state­ment said.

The fate of its last com­man­ders is still un­known – killed by bom­bard­ment or in bat­tle, taken prisoner but uniden­ti­fied, or hun­kered into long-pre­pared hide­outs to plot a new in­sur­gency.

The last ap­pear­ance of Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, who de­clared him­self caliph and heir to Is­lam’s his­toric lead­ers from the great me­dieval mosque in Iraq’s Mo­sul, was made in an au­dio record­ing in Septem­ber.

“Oh Sol­diers of Is­lam in ev­ery lo­ca­tion, in­crease blow after blow, and make the me­dia cen­ters of the in­fi­dels, from where they wage their in­tel­lec­tual wars, among the tar­gets,” he said.

Mo­sul fell to Iraqi forces in July after a nine-month bat­tle. ISIS’s Syr­ian cap­i­tal of Raqqa fell in Oc­to­ber to the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, a US-backed al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab mili­tias, after four months of fight­ing.

But all the forces fight­ing ISIS in Syria and Iraq ex­pect a new phase of guer­rilla war­fare, a tac­tic the ter­ror­ists have al­ready shown them­selves ca­pa­ble of with armed op­er­a­tions in both coun­tries.

West­ern se­cu­rity chiefs have also said its loss of ter­ri­tory does not mean an end to the “lone-wolf” at­tacks with guns, knives or trucks plow­ing into civil­ians that its sup­port­ers have mounted around the world.

As it did after pre­vi­ous set­backs, ISIS’s lead­er­ship may now stay un­der­ground and wait for a new op­por­tu­nity to take ad­van­tage of the chaos in the Mid­dle East.

It might not have long to wait. In Iraq, a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence in the north­ern Kur­dish re­gion has al­ready prompted a ma­jor con­fronta­tion be­tween its au­ton­o­mous gov­ern­ment and Bagh­dad, backed by neigh­bor­ing Iran and Tur­key.

In Syria, it was two ri­val cam­paigns that raced across the coun­try’s east this year, driv­ing back Is­lamic State – the Syr­ian Army backed by Rus­sia, Iran and Shi’ite mili­tias, as well as an al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab mili­tias backed by the United States.

Syr­ian of­fi­cials and a se­nior ad­viser to Iran have in­di­cated the Syr­ian army will now stake its claim to Kur­dish-held ter­ri­tory. Wash­ing­ton has not yet said how it would re­spond to a pro­tracted mil­i­tary cam­paign against its al­lies.

Ag­gra­vat­ing the re­gion’s ten­sions – and rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of tur­moil from which ISIS could ben­e­fit – is a con­test for power be­tween Iran and Saudi Ara­bia.

It has de­vel­oped a re­li­gious edge, pit­ting Shi’ite groups sup­ported by Iran against Sunni ones backed by Saudi Ara­bia, in­fus­ing the re­gion’s wars with sec­tar­ian ha­tred.

A se­nior Ira­nian of­fi­cial this week spoke from Syria’s Aleppo of a “line of re­sis­tance” run­ning from Tehran to Beirut, an im­plicit boast of its re­gion-wide in­flu­ence.

In re­cent days the ri­valry has again es­ca­lated as Riyadh ac­cused Le­banese Hezbol­lah of fir­ing a mis­sile from the ter­ri­tory in Ye­men of an­other Ira­nian ally, the Houthi move­ment.

Hezbol­lah is a crit­i­cal part of the Tehran-backed al­liance help­ing Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. It was Hezbol­lah fight­ers who played the key role in oust­ing ISIS from Albu Ka­mal, a com­man­der in that al­liance told Reuters.

Bagh­dadi’s dec­la­ra­tion of a caliphate in 2014 launched a new era in ji­hadist am­bi­tion. In­stead of al-Qaida’s strat­egy of us­ing ter­ror­ist at­tacks against the West to spur an Is­lamist revo­lu­tion, the new move­ment de­cided to sim­ply es­tab­lish a new state.

It led to a surge in re­cruit­ment to the ji­hadist cause, at­tract­ing thou­sands of young Mus­lims to “im­mi­grate” to a ji­hadist utopia slickly re­al­ized in pro­pa­ganda films.

ISIS’s lead­er­ship ranks in­cluded for­mer Iraqi of­fi­cials who well un­der­stood the run­ning of a state. They is­sued iden­tity doc­u­ments, minted coins and es­tab­lished a moral­ity po­lice force.

Un­like pre­vi­ous ji­hadist move­ments that re­lied on do­na­tions from sym­pa­thiz­ers, ISIS’s ter­ri­to­rial grip gave it com­mand of a real econ­omy. It ex­ported oil and agri­cul­tural pro­duce, levied taxes and traded in stolen an­tiq­ui­ties.

On the bat­tle­field, it adapted its tac­tics, us­ing heavy weaponry cap­tured from its en­e­mies dur­ing its first flush of mil­i­tary suc­cess, adding tanks and ar­tillery to its sui­cide bombers and guer­rilla fight­ers.

It im­pris­oned and tor­tured for­eign­ers, de­mand­ing ran­soms for their re­lease and killing those whose coun­tries would not pay in grotesque films posted on­line.

The num­ber of those treated in this way was as noth­ing to the mul­ti­tude of Syr­i­ans and Iraqis ISIS killed for their be­hav­ior, words, sex­u­al­ity, reli­gion, eth­nic­ity or tribe. Some were burned alive, oth­ers be­headed and some dropped from the roofs of tall build­ings.

Cap­tured women were sold as brides at slave auc­tions. But as ISIS was pushed from ter­ri­tory in re­cent months, there were pic­tures of women pulling off face veils and smok­ing pre­vi­ously banned ci­garettes.

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