With new losses, the Islamic State group has been driven from more than 96 per cent of the large parts of Iraq and Syria it once held, crushing its goal of establishing a “caliphate” in the region. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military yesterday announced the capture of the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed victory in retaking the town of Qaim on the border, the militants’ last significant urban area in Iraq.
The militants are left fighting for a final stretch inside Syria and desert regions along the Iraq-Syria border. Three years ago, they had defiantly erased that line, knocking down berms marking the frontier. Since then, they have lost infrastructure, resources, supply routes, control over about 8 million people and most importantly administration of a contiguous territory. The extremist group may still prove to be a major challenge for months as it turns to a clandestine insurgency.
Iraqi forces’ last conventional military fight against IS played out in Qaim, on the western edge of Anbar province along the border with Syria. Operations began there in the last week of October. On Friday, Iraq said it now controls the town and the nearby border crossing with Syria. The crossing in the Euphrates River Valley was used by IS to move fighters and supplies between the two countries when the group controlled nearly a third of Iraqi territory.
Brett McGurk, the US envoy for the fight against the Islamic State group, said Thursday the group is now facing “annihilation” with the losses in western Iraq and nearly 96 percent of its territory. He earlier said 6.6 million people have been liberated as the group lost over 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) in the last year.
The Islamic State “has not reclaimed single meter of this ground. Migrant and refugee flows reversed,” McGurk tweeted Thursday.
The Syrian government declared Friday that it has taken full control of Deir el-Zour, where its troops and tens of thousands of civilians have been besieged by IS militants for nearly three years. Gen Ali Mayhoub, spokesman for the Syrian army, called it a strategic victory, noting Deir el-Zour’s location on a crossroads linking Syria’s eastern, northern and central regions, and its role in distributing the province’s oil. Mayhoub said IS militants are now isolated and encircled in the countryside east of the city. Government forces are focused on Boukamal, the last IS urban center in Syria.
Kurdish forces backed by the US also are making a bid for the strategic border town from the other side of the Euphrates, renewing fears of a confrontation between the two forces seeking to control the border area. Raqqa, the IS group’s de-facto capital, fell to Kurdish-led forces on October 17, four months after operations to reclaim it began. The city was the group’s hub of operations, and its capture was a major symbolic blow.
The first city to fall into IS hands, foreign fighters flocked to Raqqa. The US-led coalition estimated that 40,000 fighters from Europe, North Africa and Asia once flowed into IS territory. The group carried out beheadings and other killings in a public square in Raqqa to try to project its ruthless nature. The city also was the center of its media operations, where videos about the benefits of life under IS were produced. Planning for some of the major violence in Europe was traced to Raqqa, including the deadly attacks in Paris in 2015 and in Brussels in 2016.
On October 14, the Syrian government said its troops and allied fighters seized the town of Mayadeen, on the western bank of the Euphrates River. The town had become a refuge for the militant group’s leaders from fighting in Raqqa and Deir el-Zour to the north and Iraq to the east.
Mayadeen was also a major point in the race for control of the oil-rich eastern Deir el-Zour province. Washington has feared advances by Syrian troops and allied fighters toward the Iraqi border could help Iran expand its influence in the region and establish a “Shiite corridor” of land links from Iraq to Lebanon, and all the way to Israel. Iran backs militias fighting alongside the Syrian military.