'Total Elimination'

ISIS Defeated at Final Shred of Territory, U.S.-backed Syrian Forces Announce

The Syrian Democratic Forces announced victory and an end to the 'caliphate' that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters pose for a photo on a rooftop after declaring the area free of Islamic State militants, Baghouz, Syria, March 23, 2019.
Maya Alleruzzo,AP

Islamic State has been defeated at its final shred of territory of Baghouz in Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Saturday, declaring the end of its self-declared "caliphate" that once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria. 

"Baghouz has been liberated. The military victory against Daesh [ISIS] has been accomplished," Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, wrote on Twitter.

The SDF declared the "total elimination of (the) so-called caliphate", Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, wrote on Twitter. 

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SDF said it would continue its military and security campaigns against jihadist sleeper cells. 

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At a televised ceremony, its general command called on the Syrian government, which has sworn to retake the whole country, to recognise the autonomous administration that runs areas the SDF controls in northeast Syria. 

It also called on Turkey, which regards the SDF as a terrorist organisation and has staged incursions into Syria against it, to leave Syrian territory, especially the mostly Kurdish region of Afrin. 

The SDF has been battling to capture Baghouz at the Iraqi border for weeks. 

U.S. President Donald Trump was quick to announce the group's defeat, days before this announcement. He showed a before-and-after map to reporters to demonstrate the extent of jihadist losses during his presidency. He has said several times in recent weeks that Islamic State had lost all its land even though fierce battles persisted.

Two hours before Trump gave a statement declaring the group's territorial rule over, a Reuters journalist heard two air strikes and saw smoke at Baghouz, where Islamic State fighters have been waging a last stand. 

Though the defeat of Islamic State at Baghouz ends the group's grip over the jihadist quasi-state straddling Syria and Iraq that it declared in 2014, it remains a threat. 

Some of its fighters still hold out in Syria's remote central desert and in Iraqi cities they have slipped into the shadows, staging sudden shootings or kidnappings and awaiting a chance to rise again. 

The United States believes the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is in Iraq. He stood at the pulpit of the great medieval mosque in Mosul in 2014 to declare himself caliph, sovereign over all Muslims. 

Timeline

This timeline chronicles the lightning rise, cruel reign and gradual fall of Islamic State. 

* 2004-11 - In the chaos following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, an al Qaeda offshoot sets up there, changing its name in 2006 to Islamic State in Iraq. 

* 2011 - After Syria's crisis begins, the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sends operatives there to set up a Syrian subsidiary. Baghdadi follows in 2013, breaking with al Qaeda and renaming his group "The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant". 

* 2014 - Its sudden success starts with the seizure of Fallujah in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria at the turn of the year. The jihadists take Mosul and Tikrit in June and overrun the border with Syria. At Mosul's great Mosque, Baghdadi renames the group Islamic State (IS) and declares a caliphate. 

So begins a reign of terror. In Iraq, ISIS slaughters thousands of Yazidis in Sinjar and forces more than 7,000 women and girls into sexual slavery. In Syria, it massacres hundreds of members of the Sheitaat tribe. ISIS beheads Western hostages in grotesquely choreographed films. 

In September, the United States builds a coalition against ISIS and starts air strikes to stop its momentum, helping the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia turn the militants back from Kobani on the border with Turkey. 

* 2015 - Militants in Paris attack a satirical newspaper and a kosher supermarket, the bloody start to a wave of attacks that ISIS claims around the world. Militants in Libya behead Christians and pledge allegiance to IS, followed by groups in other countries, but they stay operationally independent. 

In May, ISIS takes Ramadi in Iraq and the ancient desert town of Palmyra in Syria, but by the end of the year it is on the back foot in both countries. 

* 2016 - Iraq takes back Fallujah in June, the first town ISIS had captured during its initial blaze of success. In August, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG, takes Manbij in Syria. 

Alarmed by the Kurdish advances near its own frontier, Turkey launches an offensive into Syria against both ISIS and the YPG. Enmity between Turkey and the YPG will continue to complicate operations against IS. 

* 2017 - Islamic State suffers a year of catastrophic defeats. In June it loses Mosul to Iraqi forces after months of fighting and Baghdad declares the end of the caliphate. In September the Syrian army races eastwards backed by Russia and Iran to relieve Deir al-Zor and re-extend state control at the Euphrates River. In October, the SDF drives ISIS from Raqqa. 

* 2018 - The Syrian government retakes ISIS enclaves in Yarmouk, south of Damascus, and on the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The SDF advances further down the Euphrates and Iraqi forces take the rest of the border region. The United States vows to withdraw troops. 

* 2019 - ISIS fighters are defeated at their last enclave on the Euphrates at the village of Baghouz, the SDF says. The SDF declares the "caliphate" eliminated.