Over the last few days, the SDF have been undertaking sweeping operations to clear remnant ISIS militants hiding in tunnels. While some observers warn of a potential ISIS resurgence, the group's final defeat is a positive outcome for the region.
The battle for the town of Baghouz, the last area held by ISIS in Syria, is now over. The defeat signifies the conclusion to ISIS’ territorial control in Syria and the wider region, ending more than four years of the group’s so-called caliphate. While the final defeat of ISIS in Syria has been a long time coming, it embodies a key stage in the group’s overall decline and represents an end to its active campaign of brutality and devastation in areas that it once controlled.
Beginning on January 9th earlier this year, the battle to oust ISIS from Baghouz has been long, tough and arduous. At the time, estimates of the number of militants in Baghouz ranged from thousands to tens of thousands. It was assumed that high-ranking militants – perhaps even ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – had retreated to Baghouz as the group’s wider territory declined day-by-day. The reality was not far off.
Earlier last week, the Spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Kino Gabriel, stated that over 60,000 people had exited the area since the start of operations. To illustrate the scale of the exodus, a pre-war census put the number of people who lived in Baghouz at only 10,000, highlighting how packed Baghouz was by the end of the fighting.
For those in this exodus, many have been transferred to al-Hol camp, built north of the town in April 2016 to accommodate civilians fleeing ISIS. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the number of people residing in the camp has reached 72,000, six times higher than its intended capacity.
Of this number 90% are women and children, many being family members of ISIS militants. Speaking to media in recent weeks, some have expressed regret joining ISIS, feeling disillusionment with the so-called caliphate. But for others, there is less remorse; last Thursday, a female ISIS militant attacked an SDF fighter and took his gun, killing one and injuring several others, highlighting the dangers still posed by some in the camp.
The sheer number of people exiting Baghouz represented a key reason for the SDF’s difficulty to advance. ISIS’ use of civilians as human shields, a tactic it has adopted across the region from Iraq to Libya, also slowed down the SDF’s progress. At one point, the SDF suspended operations due to the density of people left in the town.
But a major breakthrough in the battle came last Tuesday when Gabriel announced that ‘the field of tents’ had come under SDF control, effectively pushing militants towards the Euphrates River. Fighters on the ground stated that the conditions upon their entry resembled an apocalypse: tents strewn across the field, smoke rising from numerous areas, and scenes of dereliction and decay.
Many tents also covered underground tunnels that had allowed the militants to move between sites. Local sources have stated that these tunnels are now being checked for remnant militants, with arrests of militant still being made.
But while the aftermath of conflict remains prevalent, there are still positive stories from the ground. Over the past weeks as the battle raged on, Yazidi women and children – a significant proportion captured from their homes back in 2014 – were rescued and freed by the SDF. Many have now returned to their families and homes across the border in Sinjar, Iraq. “ISIS militants kidnapped us and separated me from my mother,” said Milad Hussein, a young boy captured by ISIS. “I want to go back to my mother and father because I have not seen them in 4 years.”