Nearly 5 years later, vic­tory over IS

U.S.-backed forces re­port­edly lib­er­ated the last pocket of ter­ri­tory held by IS in Syria.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Philip Issa, An­drea Rosa and Maya Alleruzzo

BAGHOUZ, Syria — U.S.backed forces de­clared mil­i­tary vic­tory over the Is­lamic State group in Syria on Sat­ur­day af­ter lib­er­at­ing the last pocket of ter­ri­tory held by the mil­i­tants, mark­ing the end of a bru­tal self­styled caliphate the group carved out in large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

The war that has dev­as­tated cities and towns across north Syria and Iraq ended in Baghouz, a bor­der vil­lage where the cornered mil­i­tants made their last stand, un­der a gru­el­ing siege for weeks.

On Sat­ur­day, the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces raised their bright yel­low ban­ner from a shell-pocked house where mil­i­tants once flew their no­to­ri­ous black flag. Be­low it stretched a field shat­tered by the bat­tle, pit­ted by trenches and bomb craters and lit­tered with scorched tents, twisted wreck­age of burned out ve­hi­cles, un­spent ex­plo­sives and few corpses.

“Baghouz is free and the mil­i­tary vic­tory against Daesh has been achieved,” tweeted Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kur­dish­led SDF, re­fer­ring to IS by its Ara­bic acro­nym.

The fall of Baghouz brings to a close a nearly 5-year global cam­paign against the Is­lamic State group that spanned two U.S. pres­i­den­cies and saw a U.S.led coali­tion un­leash more than 100,000 strikes. The cam­paign has left a trail of destruc­tion in cities in Iraq and Syria, likely killed tens of thou­sands and drove hun­dreds of thou­sands from their homes.

The cam­paign put an end to the mil­i­tants’ proto-state, which at its height four years ago was the size of Bri­tain and home to some 8 mil­lion peo­ple. But the ex­trem­ist group still main­tains a scat­tered pres­ence and sleeper cells across Syria and Iraq. It’s not known whether the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, is still alive or where he might be.

IS af­fil­i­ates in Egypt’s Si­nai Penin­sula, Afghanistan and other coun­tries con­tinue to pose a threat, and the group’s ide­ol­ogy has in­spired so­called lone-wolf at­tacks that had lit­tle if any con­nec­tion to its lead­er­ship.

The end of the so-called caliphate also marks a new phase in Syria’s civil war, now in its ninth year. The coun­try is carved up, with the Ira­nian- and Rus­sian­backed gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad con­trol­ling the west, cen­ter and south, the U.S.-backed Kur­dish-led forces hold­ing the north and east, and Turk­ish al­lies con­trol­ling a pocket in the north. The fear now is of new con­flict among those play­ers.

At a cer­e­mony at the nearby al-Omar oil field base, se­nior U.S. diplo­mat Wil­liam Roe­buck said the ter­ri­to­rial de­feat of the Is­lamic State is a “crit­i­cal mile­stone” that de­liv­ers a crush­ing and strate­gic blow. But he stressed the group re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant threat.

“We still have much work to do to achieve an en­dur­ing de­feat of IS,” he said.

The vic­tory dec­la­ra­tion sets the stage for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to be­gin with­draw­ing most of the 2,000 U.S. troops sta­tioned in north­ern Syria, as he abruptly an­nounced in De­cem­ber that he would do. Trump, how­ever, later agreed to leave a small force of 200 sol­diers in Syria to en­sure Turkey will not get into a con­flict with the SDF. Turkey views Kur­dish SDF mem­bers as ter­ror­ists.

MAYA ALLERUZZO/AP

The U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces say the Is­lamic State has been de­feated.

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