The once huge ISIS “caliphate” has been virtually wiped out. All that’s left in Syria are a few hundred die-hard Islamic State fighters based in two small villages.
The conclusion of the four-and-a-half-year war will add urgency to the question of when and how the United States will pull its forces out of Syria, as ordered, last month, by President Trump.
At its peak, ISIS was estimated to consist of tens of thousands or possibly more than 200,000 fighters.
The decimated force is huddled together in the villages of Marashida and Baghuz Fawqani, on the banks of the Euphrates River, a few miles from the Iraqi border in southeastern Syria.
Liz Sly’s Washington Post story reported that the Syrian Army is on the other side of the river.
The ISIS organization once controlled an area the size of Britain, but is now pinned down by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a dot of land measuring six square miles.
Military officials say it is now only a matter of weeks, or even days, before the villages are overrun and the Islamic State’s vaunted state-building enterprise in Syria and Iraq is brought to an end.
Col. Sean Ryan, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, cautioned that the end of the war on the ground will not halt the threat posed by the Islamic State, which is trying to regroup as an insurgent force in many of the areas where it has lost control.
Although the American military has withdrawn some equipment, no troops have left and no deadline for a pullout has been issued, Ryan said. In the meantime, U.S. troops will focus on training their local partners and stabilizing the area to deter a return of the militants.
The remaining militants include some of the Islamic State’s most senior leaders and “famous terrorists,” according to Zana Amedi, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, (YPG) which is the biggest component of the SDF.
U.S. and Kurdish officials do not believe, however, that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader, is among them.
“He would have to be stupid to stay in the last pocket until the end,” Amedi said. “He would have escaped a long time ago before the situation deteriorated for them so much. He’s not dead, and he’s not in these villages either.”
Any vacuum of authority in the area would offer an opportunity for the Islamic State to reestablish itself in one of the most tribal and restive areas of Syria, Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security, said.
“The end of the caliphate is the beginning of a long job of figuring out how to maintain stability,” he said. “It will be an uphill climb and no foreign actor, not the U.S., not Russia, not Iran and not Turkey, will have an easy time of keeping ISIS out for long.”
President Trump predicted a strong defeat of ISIS. American forces have contributed to that mission with valor and dedication.
We hope they can come home and stay home.