The U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have captured 400 ISIL fighters in northeastern Syria. The fighters had been trying to escape one of the group’s last strongholds, near the village of Baghouz, according to a commander of the Kurdish forces. This latest apprehension follows a recent uptick in surrenders by ISIL fighters this past week after a particularly ferocious assault over the weekend by the SDF. Since this capture, the SDF has been forced to slow its onslaught somewhat, as thousands of civilians still remain in Baghouz, a number far higher than originally anticipated. Before a final assault on ISIL positions, the SDF has expressed the desire to remove all civilians from the area in order to limit casualties in an already devastating conflict. The fall of Baghouz would be a moment of great consequence, effectively marking the end of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” over populated territories.
Still, experts in the conflict have advised caution in proclaiming ISIL defeated. Colonel Sean Ryan, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition backing the SDF, said that the international forces had, “learned not to put any timetables on the last battle.” Further, the military defeat of ISIL may not entail an immediate ideological defeat. On Wednesday, angry civilians being forcibly evacuated from Baghouz chanted, “Islamic State will remain” underscoring the support the group maintains even as defeat looms. Despite this resistance, the evacuation has proceeded. As Adnan Afrin, SDF spokesman and commander reported to CNN“more than 6,000 people have fled or left Baghouz within the past 48 hours and more are expected to arrive to the reception areas.”
This week’s events are certainly an encouraging sign in a conflict that has dragged for years and wrought devastation on an incredible scale across Syria. Baghouz is the last of ISIL’s strongholds in populated regions. Once this refuge falls all that will remain are scattered extremists dispersed across non-populated areas. Further, the SDF has served as a successful model in combatting extremist violence, illustrating the efficacy of international coalitions combined with domestic leadership. Unlike other recent conflicts in the Middle East, actual troops being supplied by Western nations have been limited, and those that are there have been largely oriented along the training of a Kurdish Force. What this entails is a more sustainable path towards stability in Syria. Once ISIL is defeated and the powers of the international coalition withdraw, significant challenges will remain, challenges that will require an effective military. Extremism will persist, particularly among those displaced by the conflict with the Islamic State. A power vacuum would only allow this extremism to fester and prolong suffering in the region.
At the height of its power, around 2015, the Islamic State effectively ruled an area containing an estimated 2.8 to 8 million people across Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. By 2017 the group began to lose control of its territories, notably losing its largest city, Mosul, to the Iraqi army in July of that year. Following this major defeat, ISIL (standing for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), gained no other major territories and continued to lose ground, culminating in this past weeks assault on Baghouz. The Syrian Democratic Forces, which have led the assault on ISIL, are a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, and Syrian militias, led primarily by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF has been aided in its fight by a US-led international coalition since 2015. Support has largely been focused on supplying provisions and weapons, as well as training of SDF forces.
The Islamic State’s grip on Syria is finally nearing its end. Hundreds of fighters have been captured, and further hundreds have surrendered. The SDF has effectively driven ISIL from populated areas, and are preparing to do so for a final time at the village of Baghouz. Once defeated here the self-proclaimed “caliphate” will come to an end, and remaining extremists will exist only in widely dispersed groups. Still, Syria has significant challenges in its future even as fighting ends, as thousands have been displaced during this war and further thousands have been killed.
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