The operation to take Islamic State’s last stronghold in eastern Syria looks close to an end.
For weeks, the besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al-Zor province, has been the site of intense fighting. The inevitable showdown in Deir Al-Zor has been brewing for months. Nearly a year ago, reports from the ground indicated that groups of ISIS troops and their commanders were retreating to a string of towns in the eastern province. Now, that showdown is coming to a close.
Already at the beginning of this month, it became apparent that days were numbered for the last hold-out of Islamic State in Syria. Their situation grew desperate, with fighters unleashing car bombs against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leading the assault on Baghouz, a last-ditch effort to stave off defeat. Less than two weeks ago, Islamic State militants, along with the women and children of their families, began surrendering in the hundreds to U.S.-backed forces. According to SDF officials, as the fighting intensified, over 1,000 jihadists and their families would surrender collectively in one fell swoop.
The SDF recently captured one of the last encampments in Baghouz where the jihadists had been mounting a last defense of the tiny enclave. The diehard fighters who decided to remain were pushed into a small sliver of land at the Euphrates riverside.
Mop-up operations have reportedly already begun, with U.S. combat engineers and other specialists sweeping captured territory for mines, other booby-trapped explosives, and the inevitable suicide-bent militants. Concerns run high that some fighters still lurk in the trenches dug all around the former ISIS stronghold, as well as in a complex network of caves and tunnels around the city which some officials said could run for more than two kilometers. “A group of Daesh in Baghouz still fight back and hold their families as human shields,” said Zana Amedi, an official with the YPG militia of Kurds that spearheaded the SDF offensive.
While Baghouz has been taken for all intents and purposes, jihadists are still assessed to be a potent security threat in the general region, with a foothold in remote areas and widely expected to escalate a wave of guerrilla attacks.
In all, however, this does look like the defeat of ISIS for which the U.S. has been striving for over the past seven years. To put this into perspective, Baghouz was the final patch of a large, populated Islamic State territory, a self-declared “caliphate” that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.
On Wednesday, President Trump took the opportunity to show the world pictorially just how far the U.S. and its allies have come in the effort against ISIS over the past two years alone.