ISIS ‘caliphate’ ends in Baghouz, Syria

March 24, 2019

The five-year battle to wrest control of much of Syria and northern Iraq from the grip of the Islamic State came to an end this weekend in the small, dusty eastern Syrian village of Baghouz, with U.S.-backed forces liberating it from ISIS control and bringing an end to the group’s so-called caliphate in the Middle East.

Kurdish and Arab militias under the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by American and allied air power, made their final sweep through the remaining pockets of ISIS resistance in Baghouz on Saturday the culmination of several weeks of intense fighting for the last ISIS foothold in Syria.

While ISIS will remain a serious terrorism threat to the U.S. and its allies, its total battlefield defeat stands as a stunning defeat for the terror group, who at their height of power held sway over the Middle East from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra westward to the northern Iraqi capital of Mosul. ISIS’s blistering campaign across the region was met with equal voracity by the U.S.-led coalition which bloodied and battered the group out of Iraq and back into its Syrian strongholds, eventually retaking those final redoubts over the last two years.

“After five years of fighting, we stand here to declare the physical defeat of ISIS and the end of its public challenge over all human being,” members of the the SDF General Command said in a statement late Saturday. “We affirm that our war against Da’ash terrorism will continue until full victory is achieved and the total elimination of its existence,” they added.

In Washington, the Trump White House praised the victory as a major triumph over the global jihadi organization.

“ISIS’s loss of territory is further evidence of its false narrative, which tries to legitimize a record of savagery,” President Trump said in a statement on Saturday. “While on occasion these cowards will resurface, they have lost all prestige and power. They are losers and will always be losers,” he added.

Top U.S. military commanders and Pentagon officials also praised the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate, but warned the war against ISIS remained far from over.

“While this is a critical milestone in the fight against ISIS, we understand our work is far from complete,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said in a statement.

As the fight shifts from the battlefields of Syria and northern Iraq to the counterterrorism fight reminiscent of the wars of the post 9/11 era, the U.S. “will continue to work by, with, and through our partners and allies to enable stabilization efforts,” in the region, the defense chief said.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, echoed Mr. Shanahan’s calls for Washington’s continued commitment to ensure against an ISIS resurgence in the Middle East.

“While our collective efforts liberated more than seven million civilians from Daesh’s brutality, we recognize the fight is not over,” Gen. Votel said, using the derogatory Arabic term for the Islamic State. “Going forward, the U.S. military remains committed to working closely with our Coalition and regional partners to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS,” Gen. Dunford added in a statement Saturday.

Gen. Votel warned lawmakers earlier this month that ISIS’s defeat in Baghouz was “a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities” to continue their fight.

“This is a serious generational problem that if not handled properly will sow the seeds of future violent extremism,” he told House defense lawmakers at the time. Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen said Sunday that liberation of Baghouz was not the highly-touted death knell for the Islamic State, but a major step in the ongoing fight against the group.

“I think it is a waypoint in the process of eliminating this threat,” said Gen. Allen, who was also the top U.S. envoy in charge of the anti-ISIS coalition under the Obama White House. “They have not given up one iota” of their ideology or desire said the former four-star general, now president of the Washington-based Brookings Institute. “This is still a dangerous and virulent group,” he added during an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation.

SDF commanders on Saturday said their forces would continue clearing operations in and around Baghouz and adjoining Deir-e-Zour for the next few months, rooting out individual pockets of ISIS resistance in both areas.

The biggest challenge facing the nearly 2,000 U.S. forces battling ISIS in Syria will be to ensure local forces can secure the terror group’s former holdings, against an ISIS that has reverted back to a classic insurgency group.

“If you do not stabilize the population . . . we face the potential for a [resurgence],” Gen. Allen said Sunday. Brett McGurk, the White House’s former top envoy in the ISIS fight, reiterated those concerns on Sunday.

“Follow-through with training, pressure on ISIS networks in Iraq [and] Syria, and support for holding thousands of detainee is essential and was always part of the plan,” for a post-Islamic State Syria Mr. McGurk said in a Twitter post, lauding the SDF victory in Baghouz.

But Mr. Trump has already set in motion plans to withdraw all American troops from the country over the next several months, with plans to leave a small 400 to 600-man force to oversee stability operations. The White House only acquiesced to that small, residual force after severe pushback to the administration’s Syria withdrawal plans by the Pentagon and other national security officials.