US-Backed Forces Declare IS Victory 03/23 10:29
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.
BAGHOUZ, Syria (AP) -- 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
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.
The "caliphate's" end also 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
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
"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 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 weeks-long siege, an estimate 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, 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.
Scattered across the dirt amid empty foxholes and trenches were personal
belongings, blankets, generators, oil barrels, water tanks and satellite
dishes. Cars and motorcycles were turned to rusted, twisted heaps of metal.
There were unused rockets, mortars and grenades, as well as a pile of suicide
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," he declared.
At its height, the Islamic State group ruled a third of both Syria and Iraq,
holding millions hostage to its harsh and violent interpretation of Islamic
law. The group carried out massacres and documented them with slickly produced
videos circulated online. It beheaded foreign journalists and aid workers and
burned alive a captured Jordanian pilot. During a rampage through Iraq's Sinjar
region in 2014, it captured thousands of women and girls from the Yazidi
religious minority and forced them into sexual slavery. Many remain missing to
The group also used its caliphate as a launchpad for attacks around the
globe, including the assaults in Paris in 2015 that killed more than 130 people.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that "a major danger to our country
is now eliminated, yet the threat remains and the fight against terrorist
groups must continue." France has been a member of the coalition fighting the
IS since 2014.
While it imposed its unforgiving interpretation of Islamic law through
public beheadings and crucifixions, the group also carried out the mundane
duties of governance in its territories, including regulating prices at markets
and repairing infrastructure.
Cornered in Baghouz, the group fought fiercely and desperately to hang on to
the last shred of territory it controlled, using thousands of civilians,
including women and children, as human shields. In the final weeks, they
streamed out of Baghouz, bedraggled, angry and hungry, overwhelming Kurdish-run
camps in northern Syria where they are being held.
Aid organizations say more than 100 people have died in the journey from
Baghouz to the al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province, or soon after arriving.