The SDF continues to make gains against the last enclave of ISIS militants in Syria. The group recently captured the villages of Mozan, Safafinah and Baghuz Fawqani and are now pushing towards its last stronghold of Marashidah.
After 18 consecutive weeks of fighting, the territorial presence of ISIS in Syria seems to be on its last legs. Since capturing the group’s last and most recent “capital” of Hajin, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) made rapid progress against the militants. The most recent gains include the villages of Mozan, Safafinah, Shajilah and Baghuz Fawqani.
By all accounts, it has not been an easy battle. Using increment weather and their expertise in guerrilla fighting to their advantage, ISIS militants turned back a number of gains made by the SDF over the course of the recent battles. The most significant such gains came near the end of 2018, when ISIS briefly regained its foothold on the Iraqi Border. All of these, however, were the final gasps of a force that is now, by all accounts, spent. Once Hajin was captured, the group entered a state of freefall.
This is easily apparent in the number of people fleeing the group’s remaining territories. Civilians, mostly women and children, numbering in the thousands have fled the ISIS pocket since the fall of Hajin. 1,500 people alone make up the most recent batch of escapees. In addition, some 60 militants, mostly foreigners, have surrendered to the SDF.
At present, the group only controls the villages of Marashidah, with the status of Shajilah and Baghuz Fawqani contested amidst on-going ISIS counterattacks. Despite the defections, SDF reports that ISIS resistance in Marashidah has been organised and well-coordinated, suggesting that the core leaders of the group, including its Emni security force, may be present.
The fall of Marashidah will be a major step towards eliminating ISIS. However, challenges lie ahead. The group maintains a presence in the Syrian Desert from which it can launch insurgent attacks. Sleeper cells will be another challenge, especially given the fact that they remain capable of launching assassinations. Beyond that, the group’s ideology and source of legitimacy will need to be countered through effective governance, reconstruction and reconciliation.