Mil­i­tary vic­tory de­clared over Is­lamic State hold­outs in Syria

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY PHILIP ISSA, ANDREA ROSA AND MAYA ALLERUZZO

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 self-styled caliphate the group carved out in large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

The nearly five-year war that has dev­as­tated cities and towns across north Syria and Iraq ended in Baghouz, a mi­nor 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 the 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 re­main­ing corpses.

“Baghouz is free and the mil­i­tary vic­tory against Daesh has been achieved,” tweeted Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kur­dish-led 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 raged in two coun­tries, 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 hid­ing.

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

Rec­og­niz­ing the dan­ger, the U.S.-led coali­tion in Syria and Iraq said the vic­tory of the SDF does not mean that vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism is over.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Paul LaCam­era, the coali­tion com­man­der, said in a state­ment Saturday that “the end of the so-called phys­i­cal caliphate is a his­toric mil­i­tary ac­com­plish­ment.” But he warned that Is­lamic State fighters “are pre­serv­ing their force and are wait­ing for the right time to re-emerge.”

LaCam­era said the coali­tion will con­tinue work­ing with its part­ners to en­sure the en­dur­ing de­feat of IS.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said the U.S. would re­main vig­i­lant against the Is­lamic State mil­i­tant net­work. He warned prospec­tive re­cruits that they will be “dead” if they join it.

Trump said in a state­ment re­leased Saturday that the group’s loss of all its ter­ri­tory in Iraq and Syria is ev­i­dence of its false nar­ra­tive, and he called the mil­i­tants “losers” who will al­ways be “losers.”

The end of the “caliphate” marks a new phase in Syria’s civil war, now in its ninth year. The coun­try is carved up, with the Ira­nian-and Rus­sian-backed 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 held later Saturday at the nearby al-Omar oil field base, a se­nior U.S. diplo­mat, Wil­liam Roe­buck, said the ter­ri­to­rial de­feat of the Is­lamic State group is a “crit­i­cal mile­stone” that de­liv­ers a crush­ing and strate­gic blow to the ex­trem­ist group. But he stressed it re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant threat.

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

The com­man­der in chief of the SDF, Gen. Ma­zloum Abdi, ap­pealed for con­tin­ued as­sis­tance to his group un­til the full erad­i­ca­tion of the ex­trem­ist group. He spoke at the cer­e­mony dur­ing which fighters marched to a mil­i­tary band.

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 peace­keep­ing force of 200 sol­diers in Syria to en­sure that Turkey will not get into a con­flict with the SDF. Turkey views Kur­dish mem­bers of the SDF as ter­ror­ists.

The Kurds fear be­ing aban­doned by the Amer­i­cans. They are squeezed be­tween a bel­liger­ent Turkey from the north, which re­gards them as a na­tional threat, and Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s forces from the south.

Saturday’s an­nounce­ment came a day af­ter Trump de­clared that Is­lamic State mil­i­tants no longer con­trol any ter­ri­tory in Syria, a vic­tory he had been teas­ing for days.

As­so­ci­ated Press jour­nal­ists in Baghouz on Saturday, how­ever, re­ported hear­ing mor­tars and gun­fire di­rected to­ward a cliff over­look­ing the vil­lage, where U.S.-led coali­tion airstrikes were car­ried out a day ear­lier. SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel said Fri­day there were IS fighters hid­ing in caves near Baghouz and that clear­ing op­er­a­tions were still un­der­way.

The site of IS’s last stand was cen­tered on a tent en­camp­ment in Baghouz where, un­known to the be­sieg­ing SDF forces, thou­sands of civil­ians were holed up. Dur­ing the week­s­long siege, an es­ti­mated 30,000 men, women and chil­dren were evac­u­ated from the pocket, most of them IS fam­ily mem­bers, a mix of Syr­i­ans, Iraqis and for­eign­ers. They were ex­hausted and hun­gry, many of them wounded and trau­ma­tized by the loss of rel­a­tives, but some re­mained die-hard sup­port­ers of the “caliphate.”

On Saturday, jour­nal­ists were taken to the en­camp­ment – a waste­land of wrecked ve­hi­cles, torn tents and scorched trees. A few bod­ies could be seen and a faint smell of rot­ting corpses hung in the air.

Ciya Kobani, an SDF com­man­der, an­nounced the end of the oper­a­tion from the roof of the build­ing with the SDF flag: “We have been vic­to­ri­ous against Daesh.”

MAYA ALLERUZZO AP

A U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fighter stands on a rooftop over­look­ing Baghouz, Syria, on Saturday af­ter the SDF de­clared the area free of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants af­ter months of fighting.

MAYA ALLERUZZO AP

At al-Omar Oil Field base in Syria on Saturday, U.S.-backed Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces stand in for­ma­tion at a cer­e­mony to mark the de­feat of Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in Baghouz.

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