The Islamic State (ISIS) has fallen. The last of the terror group’s self-styled caliphate, which once stretched over thousands of kilometres and ruled over millions, was declared as defeated after taking a battering over the last eight months.
The US-led coalition forces, which led renewed efforts, declared the defeat of ISIS regime in Syria, after the last leg of the offensive reduced its territory to tents and buildings over just 1.5 square miles in Baghouz, located in the country’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province.
Forwarding the coalition’s cause was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with support from Russia and Iran, who have been engaged in regaining control of Syrian territory from armed rebel groups.
In September 2018, the SDF launched a major offensive in a small area along the Euphrates river to defeat ISIS; that met with a hitch after the US announced it would withdraw its troops from Syria, throwing the entire operation in jeopardy.
Late February, however, the offensive restarted at a pace unlike any of the earlier major battles for Mosul and Raqqa, pointing to the imminent erasure of ISIS from Syria. It has been the most bitter phase, as villages of Baghouz housed the group’s most hardened fighters and leaders.
With nowhere else to run, many decided to fight to the bitter end, leading to massive casualties on both sides. The SDF said Saturday that it had lost 11,000 fighters over the course of the operation.
“Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and 100 per cent territorial defeat of Isis,” said Mustafa Bali, spokesman of the US-backed group, adding, “On this unique day, we commemorate thousands of martyrs whose efforts made the victory possible.”
Here’s what happened in Baghouz
As soon as the coalition launched the offensive, militants began fighting back with snipers, suicide bombs, and booby traps.
Presence of thousands of civilians, many of whom were caught in the crossfire, slowed the final advance; Human Rights Watch expressed concern for the exodus and those held hostages in ISIS holdout.
Subsequently, they were allowed to flee the food and water-strapped caliphate, which was under constant bombardment over the last month. Most of them were surrendering supporters of ISIS, including some 5,000 fighters—many were Iraqi, Russian, and French nationals.
Trapped from the east and the west by advancing SDF and the Syrian regime, and with Russia on the other side of the river, the Guardian reported early in March that the ISIS caliphate was a hellscape of smoke and fire, leaving the fighters with nowhere to go.
In the end, a small band of ISIS fighters, followers, and civilians retreated to the river’s eastern side near the Iraqi border, cornered in a tent camp on the edge of Baghouz. Over the course of a few weeks, coalition forces destroyed the camp—an ignoble end for the caliphate’s citizens who regarded it as a religious paradise.
On the political front
Since September, political considerations included a Turkish threat to launch operations against the SDF in northern Syria in October, causing the operation to stop. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly threatened to cross into Syria to set up a “safe zone”, ostensibly to protect its borders. But the presence of US forces acted as a deterrent to a conflict between the two US allies.
In December, the US announced full withdrawal from Syria, throwing the anti-ISIS operation under the bus. In addition, US President Donald Trump had repeatedly insisted ISIS was defeated. Most recently, while returning from the North Korea summit in Vietnam, he claimed that ISIS is “100% defeated”. The terror group, meanwhile, continued its insurgency despite US’s claims.
In February, the US reversed Trump’s order and decided to leave a “peacekeeping” force of 200 troops in Syria. This was to prevent Iran from filling the vacuum and to deescalate the conflict between SDF and Turkey.
The war on ISIS mobilised some of the world’s most powerful armies, including local forces and allied troops, to form a 79-member coalition targeted against the Islamic State. Ever since 2014, US airpower battered ISIS strongholds, Arab tribes fought alongside Kurdish leftists in northern Syria, Kurdish peshmerga coordinated with the Iraqi army to recapture Mosul, and Russian and US forces shared intelligence.
A turning point, which marked the beginning of the end for ISIS, was the recapture of Kobani, a Kurdish Syrian city on the border with Turkey.
The People’s Protection Units (YPG), notable for its women fighters, put up a fierce resistance in 2015, supported for the first time by the newly formed coalition.
Will Syria write a new history?
Things are changing in Syria. As the Syrian government is close to declaring victory, refugees are beginning to return. Meanwhile, a growing number of Arab states have voiced support for Syria’s return to the Arab League; they had suspended the country’s membership in November 2011.
Earlier this month, Syrian MP Hammoudda Sabbagh attended a meeting of Arab states in the Jordanian capital for the first time since the war broke out in 2011.
His Jordanian counterpart, Atef al-Tarawneh, called on all middle-eastern nations “to work towards a political settlement to the Syrian crisis … and for Syria to regain its place” in the Arab world.
What happens next?
However, to suggest that ISIS has been “100% defeated” would be the height of hubris, claim experts. Even though the loss of territory marks a huge military defeat for ISIS, it will not disappear but continue to wreak havoc and death in areas it used to control, once again.
Peace-keeping officials in the region believe that the creation of a constitutional committee will bring true peace to Syria, while the campaign itself, momentous though it is, only be quantified in terms of its success after the nation rebuilds.
For example, constant artillery and air strikes from coalition aircraft on the village of Susa, recently liberated from ISIS stronghold, has left it completely destroyed. The devastating collateral impact of the fierce war on ISIS and the US-led anti-ISIS coalition’s role in it cannot be ruled out.
The coalition launched more than 30,000 air strikes during Operation Inherent Resolve, laying waste to towns and cities in the process; it took responsibility for 1,190 civilian deaths, although the numbers are likely higher.
Mass destruction may have helped the group to gain more followers, many believe.
The bottomline, however, remains that despite the blow in morale to the world’s most powerful jihadist group, ISIS is likely to remain a potent force in both Iraq and Syria. It has, after all, existed longer without territory than with it. So eliminating it geographically is not good enough, as it will morph back from a caliphate into an insurgent group.
Thus, public safety is of paramount priority, as surviving foreign ISIS members seeking to return home can present a major security challenge in the years ahead. Kurdish forces are reportedly switching to counter-terrorism tasks in areas reclaimed from ISIS as we speak.
Timeline of the ISIS caliphate
The militant group has transformed and, according to some sources, regrouped to stage a return to its original structure, before ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared his so-called caliphate in 2014.
ISIS had pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and participated in the Iraqi insurgency following the 2003 invasion of Iraq US-led western forces. In 2014, ISIS fighters swept across northern Syria and Iraq in a blistering offensive that shocked the world, sending the US-funded Iraqi army fleeing. Thousands of Yazidis were massacred, and the UN declared it an act of genocide—the women taken as sex slaves remain unaccounted for even today.
After the group proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate, it further claimed religious, political, and military authority over Muslims worldwide. In a carefully stage-managed address, Bakr called on Muslims around the world to join his holy war.
Thousands of sympathisers and supporters, also known as muhajiireens, played an important role in furthering the group’s influence. They usually served as recruitment tools, glorifying the caliphate on social media, and celebrating violence against perceived enemies of Islam.
In a short span of time, they managed to found a functional proto-state that exported oil, relied on taxes, and carried out extortion and kidnap to sustain itself economically. Murderous rampages and mass graves from Mosul to Raqqa marked the ISIS regime in the region.
Why India should care
ISIS-led insurgencies continue in the far-flung corners of the globe—Nigeria, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, with aspiring branches in Bangladesh, Somalia, and Indonesia.
In India, last December, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) along with the Anti-Terrorism Squad of the Uttar Pradesh Police raided 16 locations, detaining 10 suspects involved in a new Islamic State-inspired module operating out of UP and Delhi.
According to a 2017 report by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the NIA had arrested as many as 103 in connection to cases against ISIS cadres, most of them from UP.
Intelligence agencies have been on tenterhooks about the rising influence of ISIS, tracking its growth on Indian soil. They have also grown more vigilant of ISIS modules cropping up on the radar and kept a close watch on sympathisers, who show a greater propensity for radicalisation by its Sunni jihadist ideologies.
So even if the ISIS caliphate is gone, its violent extremism remains rooted in various corners of the world.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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