WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Islamic State-held territory in Syria has been “100 percent” eliminated, the White House announced Friday, though officials said sporadic fighting continues on the ground between coalition forces and the group’s holdouts.
The complete fall of the last IS stronghold in Baghouz, Syria, would mark the end of the Islamic State group’s self-declared caliphate, which at its height stretched across large parts of Syria and Iraq. Controlling territory gave the group room to launch attacks around the world.
President Donald Trump said Friday “it’s about time” that the group no longer controlled territory in the region, after a campaign by U.S. and coalition forces that spanned five years and two U.S. presidencies, unleashed more than 100,000 bombs and killed untold numbers of civilians.
U.S. officials familiar with the situation in Syria said again Friday that the Syrian Democratic Forces are still battling the last remaining IS fighters who are holed up in tunnels along the river cliffs in Baghouz and have refused to surrender.
Officials said the SDF has not announced any declaration of victory, and there was no announcement planned for Friday.
According to the officials, the SDF is moving slowly and carefully, and is willing to wait out the IS fighters who are out of food and low on water. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss mission details.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters aboard Air Force One that Trump was briefed about the development by acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
Trump showed reporters a map of Iraq and Syria that indicated the terror group no longer controlled any territory in the region. “Here’s ISIS on Election Day,” he said, linking the coalition progress to his presidency. He pointed to a swath of red signifying the group’s previous territorial hold, and then to one without any red, “Here’s ISIS right now.”
Trump has been teasing the victory for days, most recently Wednesday when he said the milestone would be achieved by that night. But even after Baghouz’s fall, IS maintains a scattered presence and sleeper cells that threaten to continue its insurgency.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking in Jerusalem, said Thursday the U.S.-led coalition had achieved “amazing” results in Syria. But he added, “The threat from radical Islamic terrorism remains.”
If history is a guide, the reconquering of IS-held territory may prove a short-lived victory unless Iraq and Syria fix the problem that gave rise to the extremist movement in the first place: governments that pit one ethnic or sectarian group against another.
The militants have been putting up a desperate fight, their propaganda machine working even on the brink of collapse. The battle for Baghouz has dragged on for weeks and the encampment has proven a major battleground, with tents covering foxholes and underground tunnels.
The siege has also been slowed by the unexpectedly large number of civilians in Baghouz, most of them families of IS members. Over past weeks they have been flowing out, exhausted, hungry and often wounded. The sheer number who emerged — nearly 30,000 since early January, according to Kurdish officials — took the Syrian Democratic Forces by surprise.