Published: Sun, March 24, 2019
Global News | By Blake Casey

SDF Commander: Time to target sleeper cells following ISIS's territorial defeat

SDF Commander: Time to target sleeper cells following ISIS's territorial defeat

As their commanders on Saturday declared final victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) unfurled their yellow flag atop a bullet-ridden building in celebration.

"Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and %100 territorial defeat of ISIS", he wrote.

The victory declaration sets the stage for President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing most of the 2,000 US troops stationed in northern Syria, as he abruptly announced in December that he would do.

At its height, the Islamic State group ruled a third of both Syria and Iraq, holding millions hostage to its harsh and violent interpretation of Islamic law.

The White House has claimed that all ISIS-held territory in Syria has been '100%' eliminated, Daily Mail reports.

Near it was one of at least 10 discarded explosives belts spotted by AFP reporters in the last strip of land conquered by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Still, the fall of Baghouz is a big milestone in a fight waged against the group for more than four years by numerous local and global forces, some of them sworn enemies.

While ISIS has lost all of its territory, it does not mean all of the fighters have given up.

But Islamic State still has thousands of battle-hardened fighters across several countries, and questions loom over whether the group's territorial loss is an enduring defeat. During the weeks-long siege, an estimate 30,000 men, women and children were evacuated from the pocket, majority IS family members, a mix of Syrians, Iraqis and foreigners.

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Trump in December declared victory over IS, saying the USA had "beaten them badly" as he announced the pullout.

Its territorial rule, which at its height in 2014 stretched across almost a third of both Syria and Iraq, ended with a last stand by several hundred of its militants at a tiny Syrian village on the banks of the Euphrates near the border with Syria.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, told Reuters SDF fighters had captured most of the Baghouz area and clashed overnight with IS militants in more than two positions where they were refusing to surrender. Their wives - many of them from Western countries - and their children are in camps in northern Syria.

In Twitter posts, Kheder's group has said it can not rule out the possibility al-Baghdadi was detained long ago - "especially since many of American airdrops and night operations targeting IS leaders along the Iraqi border have not been disclosed by the coalition".

In a separate statement Saturday, President Donald Trump said the region had been "liberated", but added the United States will remain vigilant.

From its de facto capital of Raqqa, in northern Syria, its leaders plotted spectacular attacks overseas, including the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people. Many remain missing to this day. Controlling territory gave it room to launch attacks around the world.

Mohammed Kheder, co-founder of the Sound and Picture group which documents IS, said the last time al-Baghdadi was spotted in the area was about 15 months ago, citing sources on the ground and the testimony of the people who left the area.

The final battle played out on a hillside near Baghouz.

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