WASHINGTON — This time, it was true.
The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition routed the last ISIS fighters from the eastern Syrian town of Baghouz over the weekend, flushing out enemy foes in tunnels, disarming car bombs and raising triumphant flags atop battered buildings.
“Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and 100% territorial defeat of ISIS,” Mustafa Bali, spokesperson for the SDF ground forces, said in a tweet on Saturday.
The taking of the last sliver of Baghouz marks the end of a concentrated, focused and studied multi-year offensives against ISIS that started 10 months ago.
The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, continues to elude capture or killing. Pentagon officials have said he is believed to be still alive.
The completion of the land offensive marks a personal military achievement for Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command. He leaves that post on Thursday.
“The meticulous approach to the campaign was a multi-year effort conducted in a complex environment led by our Iraqi and Syrian partners, and supported by the U.S.-led multi-national Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve,” Votel said in a statement to reporters on Saturday. “While our collective efforts liberated more than seven million civilians from (ISIS)’s brutality, we recognize the fight is not over. We remain committed to continuing our efforts to pursue and destroy remnants of (ISIS), which are attempting to live on as an insurgency. We will continue our collective fight to bring about the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
Votel posted the statement in English, Arabic, Russian and Farsi.
President Donald Trump had repeatedly declared the end of the ISIS land caliphate, only to be contradicted by events on the ground — if not actual U.S. military officials. Such was the case again on Wednesday, when he announced the ground efforts were complete even as SDF continued to press against the last ISIS holdouts.
The Pentagon formally announced the capture of Baghouz in an email to Pentagon reporters at 2:18 p.m. EDT on Saturday.
“While this is a critical milestone in the fight against ISIS, we understand our work is far from complete,” Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, said in the statement. As the (ISIS) campaign in northeast Syria transitions from liberating territory to enabling local security and preventing resurgent ISIS networks, we will continue to work by, with, and through our partners and allies to enable stabilization efforts.”
Shanahan himself did not declare all the territory wrested from ISIS, nor did Coalition officials. Instead, he credited the SDF statement for his announcement.
“We are inspired by the battlefield success of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),” Shanahan said. “Today’s (Saturday) SDF announcement that the liberation of the territory once held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria is 100 percent complete confirms that more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria have been cleared of ISIS since January 2017 and the terror group no longer controls populated areas.”
Actually, at its high point, ISIS controlled 34,000 square miles in eastern Syria and western Iraq, a land mass the size of Great Britain and flush with oil.
Pentagon officials and others have said that ISIS remains a potent insurgency, with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 armed loyalists in the region. ISIS also has nefarious sects in Afghanistan and throughout Africa.
“We will continue our work with the Global Coalition to deny ISIS safe haven anywhere in the world,” Shanahan said. “We remain committed to ISIS’s enduring defeat and we are confident that we will prevail.”