BAGHUZ (Syria) • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) so-called caliphate has been defeated, a United States-backed force said yesterday, ending the militant group's unprecedented rule across a proto-state which challenged international borders and drew foot soldiers from around the world.
At its peak, ISIS controlled a swathe of Syria and Iraq that was almost the size of Britain. By the end, its fighters were trapped against the base of a cliff near the east Syrian hamlet of Baghuz, and mounting a desperate final stand.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) hoisted their yellow flag atop a bullet-riddled building there yesterday, and proclaimed the "total elimination" of ISIS' so-called caliphate.
"We commemorate thousands of martyrs whose efforts made the victory possible," wrote SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on his Twitter account.
At a victory ceremony near Baghuz, a brass band in red uniforms with gold brocade played the American national anthem in front of a stars and stripes flag and yellow militia banners.
"Those who lasted the longest were mostly foreigners ... Tunisians, Moroccans, Egyptians," said 21-year-old Kurdish fighter Hisham Harun.
Around him, the former Islamist encampment was littered with bullet-riddled truck carcasses, discarded suicide belts and the torn tents where the caliphate's remaining families sheltered for weeks.
Although the announcement marked a landmark victory, ISIS remains a potent threat across Syria and Iraq.
A journalist at Baghuz said some shooting and mortar fire continued yesterday morning and an SDF commander warned that the upcoming phase in the struggle, with Islamist sleeper cells plotting mayhem, might be even harder.
US military officials have also warned that President Donald Trump's planned troop withdrawal - the shape of which remains unclear - has the potential to create a security vacuum within which ISIS could regroup.
For the US President, victory against ISIS marks the fulfilment of a campaign promise and as the battle slowly headed towards its conclusion, Mr Trump had repeatedly declared the group defeated.
Standing on the White House lawn on Thursday, he held up "before and after" maps of the extremist group's territory.
"This was on election night in 2016," he said, referring to a swathe of land that was coloured in red to mark what once had been the caliphate. "When I took over, it was a mess."
Western militaries were confounded by the sheer number of civilians packed inside Baghuz until the very end, and their presence had slowed fighting to a snail's pace. More than 50,000 people trudged out of the hamlet as other cadres fought to the death.
The civilians face an uncertain future. Many are packed across displacement camps that they are not allowed to leave. Although thousands of them are foreigners, Western governments show little appetite to repatriate citizens who joined the caliphate. The SDF said they cannot host them indefinitely.
At the displacement camps in north-eastern Syria, the hardliners - including many foreign women who came to Syria and Iraq to marry Islamists - had to be kept away from other, often traumatised, residents.
In one recent video, several women attacked the camera as they howled and chanted in defiance. "We are the women of the Islamic State," they cried.
ISIS released a video of its own from inside that squalid, shell-pounded enclave, showing its remaining fighters still shooting at the SDF warriors as smoke billowed overhead.
It was an attempt to shape the narrative of its defeat, portraying it as a heroic last stand against overwhelming odds and a call to arms for future extremists.
But in Baghuz in recent weeks, long lines of abject, surrendering fighters sat or squatted in a desolate landscape, their dream of world domination in tatters.
WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Rise and fall of an Islamist power
2004-11: In the chaos following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda offshoot sets up there, changing its name in 2006 to Islamic State in Iraq.
2011: After Syria's civil war begins, the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sends operatives there to set up a Syrian subsidiary. Baghdadi follows in 2013, breaking with Al-Qaeda and renaming his group The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
2014: Its sudden success starts with the seizure of Fallujah in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria at the turn of the year. The extremists take Mosul and Tikrit in June and overrun the border with Syria. At Mosul's Great Mosque, Baghdadi renames the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and declares a caliphate. So begins a reign of terror. In September, the United States builds a coalition against ISIS and starts air strikes to stop its momentum.
2015: Militants in Paris attack a satirical newspaper and a kosher supermarket, the bloody start of a wave of attacks that ISIS claims around the world. In May, ISIS takes Ramadi in Iraq and the ancient desert town of Palmyra in Syria, but by the end of the year, it is on the back foot in both countries as Russia also enters the theatre of war.
2016: Iraq takes back Fallujah in June, the first town ISIS had captured during its initial blaze of success. In August, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG, takes Manbij in Syria. Alarmed by the Kurdish advances near its own frontier, Turkey launches an offensive into Syria against both ISIS and the YPG.
2017: ISIS suffers a year of catastrophic defeats. In June, it loses Mosul to Iraqi forces after months of fighting and Baghdad declares the end of the caliphate. In October, the SDF drives ISIS from Raqqa.
2018: The Syrian government retakes ISIS enclaves in Yarmouk, south of Damascus, and on the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The SDF advances farther down the Euphrates and Iraqi forces take the rest of the border region. The US vows to withdraw troops.
2019: ISIS fighters are defeated at their last enclave on the Euphrates at the village of Baghuz, the SDF says. The SDF declares the caliphate eliminated.