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Kurdish-led forces stomp out final ISIS stronghold in Syria

But that doesn’t mean the group is gone for good.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, wearing camouflage and holding guns, march in parade.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters march in a parade celebrating their defeat of ISIS.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

US-backed forces in Syria declared victory over ISIS on Saturday, drawing a nearly five-year campaign to defeat the terrorist group known for its extremism and violence to a close — kind of.

Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab soldiers backed by the United States, say the “caliphate,” or the ISIS territory that once spanned from western Syria to eastern Iraq, has been eliminated with “100 [percent] territorial defeat.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the Islamic State is gone for good, however.

ISIS forces lost their final stronghold following a weeks-long battle around the small Syrian town of Baghouz, on the banks of the Euphrates River. Thousands of ISIS fighters had retreated to Baghouz after being driven out of the group’s formerly vast territory by the Kurdish-led coalition. The extremist group’s control came to an end on Friday, following a final assault on the group’s last remaining territory, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali announced on Twitter on Saturday.

At its height, ISIS’s entire territory rivaled the size of Portugal, the Wall Street Journal reports, and 7.7 million people were estimated to live under ISIS rule, according to the Pentagon. After a multinational campaign that left an estimated 9,000 to 11,000 civilians dead, the terrorist group’s reach had been scaled back considerably, and Iraq declared victory against the group in late 2017. But as of July 2018, ISIS still had an estimated membership between 20,000 and 30,000 in Syria and Iraq, a UN-monitoring committee reported.

The defeat of ISIS’s last stronghold in Syria marks a significant milestone in the fight against the insurgency group. Still, it is likely too soon to say that the threat of ISIS is entirely eradicated. As the organization lost territory over the last few years, it shifted its focus to guerrilla tactics in the Middle East and encouraging adherents to carry out insurgent attacks in their home countries.

The Islamic State isn’t gone — and neither is US intervention in the region

ISIS’s future may also be dependent on the US troop drawdown in Syria. President Donald Trump first declared victory over ISIS in December, at which point he announced his plan to remove all US troops from Syria in a video published on Twitter. (He re-declared victory Friday, reportedly surprising some of America’s partners on the ground.)

Trump’s vow to bring home all 2,000 US troops in Syria resulted in an immediate, intense backlash. The announcement blindsided US allies abroad, not to mention top congressional leaders from both parties and members of Trump’s administration. Critics expressed concerns that a US drawdown in Syria would not only allow the terror group to make a comeback but also allow the thousands of ISIS-linked fighters to regain power. Vox’s Alex Ward explained this potential ripple effect in the region:

America’s departure could prove deeply problematic for US allies in Syria. That’s because of Turkey, the NATO ally that is trying to eradicate the US-backed Kurdish fighters there. Ankara considers the Kurds near its border a serious terrorist threat, and plans to remove them by launching an all-out military assault. If US troops go, that makes a Turkish attack more likely.

Further complicating the matter is that both France and the UK said they would no longer keep their troops engaged in Syria if the US left. The new decision to keep at least 400 US troops there, though, might compel them to stay.

The Pentagon added to the pressure on Trump to abandon his promises for a full withdrawal when it released a report last month that found, “ISIS remains an active insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria” and it would likely retake the territory if the US leaves. “Absent sustained (counterterrorism) pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory,” the report added.

Even with Saturday’s victory over the ISIS territory, it remains unclear whether Trump will ever be able to follow through. Speaking to reporters in Lebanon on Saturday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US still had unfinished business.

“We still have work to do to make sure that radical Islamic terrorism doesn’t continue to grow,” he said.