AIN ISSA (Syria) • US-backed militias said they had launched their final assault on Raqqa against some 300 hardcore ISIS extremists mounting a last stand in the group's de facto Syrian capital.
Raqqa was the first big Syrian city to fall to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group as it declared a "caliphate" and rampaged through Syria and Iraq in 2014, becoming an operations centre for attacks abroad and the stage for some of its darkest atrocities.
The city's fall to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) now looks imminent after four months of battle. "The battle will continue until the whole city is clean," said a statement by SDF, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias.
Under a negotiated withdrawal, 275 Syrian ISIS fighters departed Raqqa, leaving behind around 200 to 300 mostly foreign fighters, SDF spokesman Talal Selo told Reuters yesterday.
Almost all civilians in the enclave have been allowed safe passage out as part of the deal, he said.
"We still expect there to be difficult fighting," said Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led international coalition backing the SDF in the war against ISIS.
Mr Mostafa Bali, another SDF spokesman, described the civilians who left with ISIS fighters in the convoy as human shields. The extremists had refused to release them once they left the city as agreed, wanting to take them as far as their destination in eastern Syria to guarantee their own safety, Mr Bali said.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has seen its "caliphate" in the two countries dwindle to the last few pockets in the face of a military onslaught on multiple fronts. Here is a look at the extremist group's triumphs and defeats:
ORIGINS AND RISE
• 2004: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian leading a militant insurgency against US forces in Iraq, pledges allegiance to Osama bin Laden and forms Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
• JUNE 2006: Zarqawi is killed in a US air strike and AQI joins other militant groups to form the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
• APRIL 2013: Former US detainee Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now the AQI leader, says that his group will now be known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and fight for an Islamic state in Syria. Al-Qaeda formally disavows ISIL in early 2014.
• JANUARY 2014: ISIL conquers the city of Raqqa in northern Syria, turning it into its stronghold. The city becomes the scene of some of the group's worst atrocities, including public beheadings, and a hub for planning attacks overseas.
• JUNE 2014: ISIL seizes Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul before sweeping across much of the Sunni Arab heartland bordering autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The group declares a "caliphate" across the territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria, and rebrands itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
• AUGUST 2014: US warplanes strike ISIS positions in northern Iraq in response to an appeal from Baghdad and, in September, an international coalition is formed to defeat the group.
DEFEATS IN IRAQ
• MARCH 2015: Iraq announces the "liberation" of Tikrit after 10 months of ISIS control.
• FEBRUARY 2016: The Sunni town of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, is recaptured.
• JUNE 2016: Iraqi forces recapture Fallujah after 21/2 years.
• JULY THIS YEAR: Iraq announces it has recaptured Mosul some 10 months after 30,000 Iraqi forces backed by US-led air support launched an operation.
• OCTOBER: Iraqi forces claim victory in Hawija, ISIS' last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
LOSSES IN SYRIA
• JANUARY 2015: ISIS is driven out of the Syrian border town of Kobane after more than four months of fighting.
• AUGUST 2016: The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by US air strikes recaptures northern town of Manbij.
• MARCH THIS YEAR: Syrian troops backed by Russian jets recapture the historic city of Palmyra from ISIS.
• OCTOBER: SDF surrounds ISIS fighters in Raqqa following a year-long operation to defeat the militants in their former Syrian capital.
BBC, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES
The agreement was brokered by the Raqqa Civil Council and tribal elders to "minimise civilian casualties", the coalition said last Saturday.
ISIS has been in retreat for two years, losing swathes of territory in both countries and forced back into an ever-diminishing foothold along the Euphrates River valley.
The SDF announced the start of the battle for Raqqa on June 6 after a months-long campaign to isolate the city against the north bank of the Euphrates.
ISIS had captured the city in January 2014, seizing it from rebel factions which had ousted the Syrian army a few months earlier.
As the group became more entrenched in Syria and Iraq leading up to its capture of Mosul in June that year, Raqqa became its most important centre and a hub for attacks abroad. In November 2015, after militants killed more than 130 people in Paris, France launched air strikes on ISIS targets inside Raqqa.
ISIS is now in disarray. In Syria, it does not only face the SDF but a rival one by the Syrian army supported by Russia, Iran and allied Shi'ite militias as well.
A Syrian military source said last Saturday the army had captured the city of al-Mayadin in the Euphrates valley, leaving ISIS with only a few more towns and villages, and areas of the surrounding desert, in Syria.
But the battle for Raqqa has come at great cost to its people. Much of the city has been pulverised by the intense coalition air strikes and by months of street fighting.
And even as ISIS loses ground in the Middle East, analysts have warned that the group is turning its attention to Europe and other countries, and is likely to become more enmeshed with local criminal networks while encouraging lone-wolf attacks.
"The Islamic State's battlefield defeats in Syria and Iraq will almost certainly lead to a greater focus on the group's global operations," London-based Global Risk Insights wrote in a note earlier this month.