Middle East

IS 'caliphate' on the brink of defeat in Syria

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Islamic State's "caliphate", proclaimed in 2014, is on the brink of defeat in Syria, with its last pocket of Baghouz under fire, but the threat persists.

US-backed fighters in Syria are poised to capture Islamic State's last, tiny enclave on the Euphrates, the battle commander says, bringing its self-declared caliphate to the brink of total defeat.

Jiya Furat said on Saturday the Syrian Democratic Forces had cornered the remaining militants in a neighbourhood of Baghouz village near the Iraqi border, under fire from all sides.

"In the coming few days, in a very short time, we will spread the good tidings to the world of the military end of Daesh," he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

He was speaking after US President Donald Trump said on Friday there would be "great announcements" about Syria over the next 24 hours.

Trump has sworn to pull US forces from Syria after IS's territorial defeat, raising questions over the fate of Washington's Kurdish allies and Turkish involvement in northeast Syria.

As the SDF advanced under heavy US airstrikes in recent days, a stream of civilians fled the few square miles of hamlets and farmland that remain within IS's 'caliphate', along with defeated jihadists trying to escape unnoticed.

Though IS fighters still hold out in a pocket of central Syria's remote desert, and have gone underground as sleeper cells in Iraqi cities, able to launch new attacks, their territorial rule is, for now, almost over.

The final push against IS in Syria has begun, with the group losing all of its so-called caliphate.
The final push against IS in Syria.
AP

It ends a project launched from the great medieval mosque of Mosul in northern Iraq in 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seized advantage of regional chaos to proclaim himself caliph, suzerain over all Muslim people and land.

Most of the fighters left in Baghouz are foreigners, the SDF has said, among the thousands drawn by Baghdadi's promise of a new jihadist utopia straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border and expunging national borders.

All that remains, said Furat, is an encircled pocket about 700 metres square.

"Thousands of civilians are still trapped there as human shields," he said.

Spokesman Mustafa Bali said the SDF had caught several militants trying to flee among the civilians. Others had handed themselves over.

Their fate, and that of their families, has befuddled foreign governments, with few ready to repatriate citizens who pledged allegiance to a group sworn to their destruction, but who might be hard to legally prosecute. The SDF does not want to hold them indefinitely.

The fate of Baghdadi is also a mystery. He has led the group since 2010, when it was still an underground al-Qaeda offshoot in Iraq.

Its capacity then for strategic retreats in hard times, followed by rebounds when circumstances changed, has prompted numerous warnings that IS's defeat has not ended the threat it poses to the region.

On Friday US Army General Joseph Votel, who oversees US forces in the Middle East as head of Central Command, said the end of the territorial caliphate would lead to a more dispersed, harder-to-detect network of fighters waging gurrilla warfare.

That should require continued help from Washington, he said.

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