Militant outfit Syrian Democratic Forces claims end of terror group Daesh's hold in eastern Baghouz but says fight against "sleeper cells" on.
US-backed militant group Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Saturday claimed it has captured Daesh's last shred of territory in eastern Syria at Baghouz on Saturday, ending the terrorist group's territorial rule over a self-proclaimed caliphate after years of fighting.
At a victory ceremony near Baghouz, a brass band in red uniforms with gold brocade played the American national anthem in front of a stars and stripes flag and yellow militant banners. SDF militants sat watching.
However, a Reuters journalist at Baghouz said some shooting and mortar fire continued on Saturday morning and an SDF militant warned that the coming phase in the operation, with Daesh sleeper cells plotting mayhem, might be even harder.
TRT World speaks with Ammar Kahf, Executive Director, Omran Centre for Strategic Studies for more.
SDF's own reign of terror
The SDF is dominated by YPG which is the Syrian wing of the PKK, recognised as a terrorist group by the US, Turkey and the EU.
After capturing Raqqa in October 2017, the self-proclaimed capital of Daesh, the US-backed SDF gave hundreds of Daesh militants a safe passage out of the city.
During previous interviews, TRT World reported on the little-known working relationship between Daesh and the YPG, and how the two groups are prone to finding common ground to cope with changing conditions on the ground.
According to Syrian Network for Human Rights, SDF militants have committed various types of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, abductions, enforced-disappearances, and torture.
US support for the SDF has strained ties with NATO ally Turkey.
Since 2016, Ankara has carried out two military operations in northern Syria.
In its more than 30-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK – listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU – has been responsible for the deaths of some 40,000 people, including women and children.
An American envoy to the US-led coalition fighting Daesh called the development a "critical milestone" and the UK Prime Minister Theresa May said the fall of the last bastion held by Daesh in Syria marked "a historic milestone" as she paid tribute to British forces and coalition partners.
Though the apparent defeat of Daesh in Baghouz ends the group's grip over the militant quasi-state straddling Syria and Iraq that it declared in 2014, it remains a threat.
Some of its militants 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.
Further afield, militants in Afghanistan, Nigeria and elsewhere have shown no sign of recanting their allegiance to Daesh, and intelligence services say its devotees in the West might plot new attacks.
Still, the fall of Baghouz is a big milestone in a fight against the militant group waged by numerous local and global forces – some of them sworn enemies – over more than four years.
It also marks a big moment in Syria's eight-year war, wiping out the territory of one of the main contestants, with the rest split between Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad, Turkey-backed opposition fighters, and the US-backed SDF militants.
Assad and his Iranian allies have sworn to recapture all Syria, and Turkey has threatened to drive out the SDF, which it sees as a terrorist group, by force.
The continued presence of US troops in northeast Syria might avert this.
Origin of Daesh
Daesh originated as an al Qaeda faction in Iraq, but it took advantage of Syria's civil war to seize land there and split from its parent organisation.
In 2014, it suddenly grabbed Iraq's Mosul, one of the region's great historic cities, as well as Syria's Raqqa, and swathes of land each side of the border.
It declared an end to modern countries and called on supporters to leave their homes and join a new state it claimed to be erecting, trumpeting its currency, flag, passports and military parades.
Oil production, extortion and stolen antiquities financed its agenda, which included slaughtering some minorities, public slave auctions of captured women, grotesque punishments for minor crimes and the choreographed killing of hostages.
Will the US-backed SDF/YPG release the thousands of Daesh members held in their prisons? pic.twitter.com/nGc55jgDw4— TRT World (@trtworld) December 22, 2018
Road to defeat
Those excesses brought an array of forces against it, forcing it from Mosul and Raqqa in a year of heavy defeats in 2017 and driving it, eventually, down the Euphrates to Baghouz.
Over the past two months some 60,000 people poured out of that dwindling enclave, fleeing SDF bombardment and a shortage of food so severe that some said they were reduced to cooking grass.
Intense air strikes throughout the campaign have levelled entire districts and rights groups have said they killed many civilians, allegations the coalition has often disputed.
Shamima Begum, a British national who joined the Daesh in Syria in 2015, has been stripped of her citizenship pic.twitter.com/eHhhRLr0Wo— TRT World (@trtworld) February 20, 2019
Thousands of the Daesh's unbending supporters also abandoned the enclave while still vowing their allegiance to the so-called caliphate.
At displacement camps in northeast Syria where they were crammed by the SDF, the hardliners, including many foreign women who came to Syria and Iraq to marry militants, had to be kept away from other, often traumatised, residents.
Their fate has befuddled foreign governments, who see them as a security threat and are reluctant to take them back home.