Al-Baghuz Fawqani, sometimes referred to as Baghuz, is a small city of about ten thousand people near the Iraqi border which had been, since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, under the control of the Islamic State.
That was, until the 23rd of March, 2019. The US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared a final victory after a more than a month long offensive. The SDF alliance began their final assault in the beginning of February, but was forced to slow down due to the vast amount of civilians fleeing the besieged town, as thousands of women and children, many of whom were foreign nationals, fled to the Kurdish-ran camps.
Baghuz was the last jihadist stronghold in Syria, and its fall marks the end of Islamic State-controlled territories in the country. But what does this mean for ISIS, and is the Islamic State really defeated?
The Rise and Fall of ISIS
The Islamic State, a self-proclaimed caliphate that once controlled an area of nearly 90,000 square kilometres, with a population estimated between 2.8 to 8 million people, at its peak, boasted an army of about 100,000 men. But what exactly is it?
It grew out of Al-Qaeda as a result of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. When the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad escalated into a full-on civil war in 2011, the Islamic State seized the opportunity. By 2014, it already controlled huge areas of land in both Iraq and Syria. In July 2014, the self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed in Mosul that the Islamic State would “conquer Rome and control the world”.
But the self-proclaimed caliphate peaked in 2015; since then, successive attacks have liberated areas formerly under the jihadists’ control. Mosul, the biggest city of the pseudo-state and the spiritual heart of the Islamic State, was recaptured in July 2017, and the de facto capital, Raqqa, was liberated by the SDF in October of the same year. By December, the Islamic State was defeated in Iraq, according to the Iraqi government. Slowly, the Islamic State was losing every piece of territory it acquired over the last five years. Finally, an offensive was launched as part of the Deir ez-Zor on the last stand of the Islamic State, Baghuz.
A New Kind of Threat
With the fall of Baghuz, the Islamic State’s territorial ambitions are as good as gone. But that does not mean that it no longer poses a threat towards the stability of the region.
A factor that must be taken into consideration is that the siege was more difficult than anticipated: US intelligence estimated that the jihadist fighters in and around the town were around 2,000, while, in the aftermath of the battle, the SDF disclosed that the number of dead enemy combatants was around 12,000 people, with 500 captive or detained. In addition, 72,000 civilians fled the area, which more than ten times the amount that the humanitarian aid providers were awaiting.
The US military believe that of the 100,000 jihadists operating in the area since the start of the Syrian Civil War, 70,000 were killed. But that still leaves about 30,000 fighters, now on liberated territory. However, US officials disagree on this figure, believing it to be larger than the actual numbers.
Experts fear that the Islamic State in Syria could follow the example of the Taliban, as it has begun to do in Iraq, where, despite controlling no territory at all, they have reoriented themselves as a rural insurgency, effectively deploying guerrilla methods such as assassinations and bombings instead of trying to gain land.
Don’t Let Your Guard Down
Even though the Islamic State’s revival seems to be faster in Iraq than in Syria, officials and analysts alike are cautious in their predictions.
According to a Pentagon report, “ISIS is regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria, but absent sustained [counterterrorism] pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria […] and regain limited territory”.
Operation Inherent Resolve and other Overseas Contingency Operations: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress
“ISIS remains an active insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria. If […] grievances are not adequately addressed […] it is very likely that ISIS will have the opportunity to set conditions for future resurgence and territorial control. Currently, ISIS is regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria, but absent sustained [counterterrorism] pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory “
US President Trump’s potential withdrawal of troops from Syria could fuel the rise of the Islamic State, by providing it with a security vacuum in which to regroup. This would mirror what some experts believe to have happened in Iraq, where the departure of American troops lead to the swift recovery of remnants of the Al-Qaeda insurgency that eventually formed the Islamic State.
Despite this unprecedented victory, now is not the time to, as they say, “quit while we’re ahead”. We must continue, we must persevere until peace and stability can be fully restored to the region, all the while not permitting the creation of a power vacuum and still pressing down on the remnants of the Islamic State, because it is not fully defeated, yet.
Loveluck, Louisa and Sly, Liz; “The ‘caliphate’ is no more. But the Islamic State isn’t finished yet.”; The Washington Post; 23 Mar. 2019; https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the-islamic-states-caliphate-has-been-defeated-us-backed-forces-say/2019/03/23/04263d74-36f8-11e9-8375-e3dcf6b68558_story.html?utm_term=.fc1ac9427ebb
“Islamic State group defeated as final territory lost, US-backed forces say”; BBC; 23 Mar. 2019; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47678157
Berman, Eli and Shapiro, Jacob; “Why ISIL Will Fail on Its Own”; Politico; 29 Nov. 2015; https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/11/why-isil-will-fail-on-its-own-213401
“Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve and Other Overseas Contingency Operations, Quarterly Report to the United States Congress”; Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of State; 04 Feb. 2019; https://www.stateoig.gov/system/files/fy2019_lig_oirreport.pdf