After ISIS ‘defeat,’ what comes next? - analysis

Elimination of last ISIS bastion leads to new challenges as US faces off against Iran, Russia and Turkey in its Syria policy.

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March 24, 2019 18:01
4 minute read.
Tal Afar

A displaced woman from the minority Yazidi sect, who was kidnapped by Islamic State militants of Tal Afar but managed to flee, reacts in Duhok province, northern Iraq, November 24, 2016. . (photo credit: ARI JALAL / REUTERS)

 
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Twelve hours after the US announced the defeat of Islamic State in Syria on Saturday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also declared the “total elimination of the so-called caliphate.”

“We announce today the destruction of the so-called Islamic State organization and the end of its ground control in its last pocket in Baghouz,” SDF general commander Mazloum Abdi told a victory ceremony.

SDF fighters, who besieged Baghouz for weeks while planes pounded from above, paraded in memory of 11,000 comrades killed in years of fighting against Islamic State. A band played the American national anthem.

In a separate statement Saturday, President Donald Trump said the region had been “liberated,” but added the United States will remain vigilant.

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

ISIS has lost 100% of the territory it once held in Syria. This bookends a grueling two months of battle and siege in which a massive humanitarian crises developed as ISIS members sought to surrender in their last bastion.

Two months ago the SDF, backed by the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, had squeezed ISIS into a small area along the Euphrates River in Syria near the town of Baghouz, which is overlooked by an escarpment.

Around 2,000 ISIS members sought to surrender in January. They were loaded onto trucks for transport to a rear area to be checked. The women would go to an IDP camp and the men would mostly be detained on suspicion of being fighters and therefore a potential threat. SDF members breathed a sigh of relief. The last ISIS bastion looked like it would surrender.

But then it turned out that the coalition and the SDF had miscalculated the number of ISIS members in Baghuz. Instead of several thousand, there were almost 30,000 hiding in a massive junkyard of abandoned vehicles, tents and shacks. Many of them were women and children, including hundreds of foreign volunteers from 43 countries in the world, and dozens of Yazidis who had been kidnapped in 2014 and were being held as human shields and slaves.

For two months, the SDF and coalition have alternated between pressuring ISIS and taking in the thousands who surrendered every week. In early March, the SDF announced another final offensive to destroy the group. After some gains, the number of ISIS members seeking to surrender again led to a pause. Finally on March 19 the camp area that ISIS held was taken. Some ISIS members retreated to an area near the river. Over the next few days the coalition and SDF hunted down the last ISIS remnants.

The US has claimed that ISIS was defeated since last December, with US President Donald Trump and the White House making numerous declarations of victory. Now the SDF has followed suit. However the battle against ISIS has come amid the US decision to draw down troops in Syria. The question is now whether the 2,000 American troops will be reduced to 1,000 or as few as 400, as some estimates assert.

Meanwhile, other threats emerging. Iranian officials were in Deir Ezzor last week seeking to pressure the US to leave eastern Syria. Deir Ezzor is on the Euphrates, just across from the area the SDF controls. In addition, Russia has sought to pressure the US to leave an area in Syria called Tanf where there is a large Syrian IDP camp. Turkey also wants the US to leave, threatening to launch an operation against the SDF in an area called Manbij in northern Syria.

As if the major challenges from Turkey, Iran and Russia were not enough for Washington and its partners, the ISIS threat is also far from over. There are thousands of ISIS fighters who have fled to desert areas. There are also tens of thousands of ISIS detainees, including more than 3,000 foreign ISIS members who are straining the SDF’s ability to care for them. The US and the SDF have called on countries to take back their citizens. However, only a few countries have agreed. In Iraq’s Anbar province, which is just across the border from Baghuz, ISIS has been carrying out attacks. All of this uncertainty means that the defeat of ISIS is only a transition to a new phase.

The US calls this new phase “stabilization.” However the decision to draw down US forces in December meant that plans to stabilize eastern Syria, aiding reconstruction, demining, and training local security forces, has been called into question. March 23 may be remembered as the day the US and its SDF partners declared ISIS was eliminated. But it may also be remembered as the day that a new phase of struggles and conflicts began in Syria and Iraq.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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