Syrian army, allies, take last ISIS stronghold in Syria

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Syria’s army and its allies captured ISIS‘s last stronghold in Syria on Wednesday, a commander in the alliance said, bringing the self-declared caliphate close to complete downfall.

“The last stronghold of Daesh (ISIS), al Bukamal, is free of the Daesh organization,” said the commander in the military alliance supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

ISIS has been all but destroyed over the past two years. At the height of its power in 2015, it ruled an expanse of Iraq and Syria, eradicating the border, printing money, imposing draconian laws and plotting attacks across the world.

On Wednesday, after a months-long advance through central and eastern Syria, the Syrian army and allied Shi’ite militias encircled and attacked al Bukamal.

Syrian state television declared “al Bukamal is liberated”. But a war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said it was not true that al Bukamal was taken and there was still fighting in the area.

Al Bukamal is located on the border with Iraq on the bank of the Euphrates. During the battle, Hezbollah forces entered Iraq and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces crossed into Syria to help capture the town, the commander said.

ISIS retains control over some areas of desert and villages nearby, as well as a town and some other villages in adjacent areas of Iraq, and in scattered pockets elsewhere in both countries.

Despite its losses, ISIS still has a territorial presence in Libya and elsewhere, and many governments expect it to remain a threat even after it loses the caliphate it declared from Mosul, Iraq, in 2014.

It has already carried out guerrilla operations in both Iraq and in Syria, and has continued to inspire lone militants to attack civilian targets in the West.

In Syria, the end of major operations against ISIS may only prefigure a new phase of the war, as the rival forces which have seized territory from the militants square off.

The Syrian army, alongside Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias, and backed by Iran and Russia, have seized swathes of central and eastern Syria in the advance against ISIS this year.

Russian official media have in recent weeks reported a surge of strategic bombing and cruise missile strikes on ISIS targets in eastern Syria as the army advanced.

A US-backed coalition has supported a rival campaign by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias that have pushed ISIS from much of the country’s north and east.

The Syrian government has sworn to recapture territory held by the SDF, including ISIS’s former capital Raqqa and oil and gas fields east of the Euphrates.

In areas controlled by the SDF in northern Syria, Kurdish-led groups have established autonomy, announcing elections and setting internal policies.

On Tuesday, Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Assad, described the US forces aiding the SDF as illegal invaders. Washington has not spelled out how its military support for the SDF would evolve after ISIS’s defeat.

Shaaban also pointed, in a television interview, to the example of Iraq, where the government retaliated against an autonomous Kurdish region after it held an independence referendum.

Iraqi military officials say small groups of ISIS militants are still entrenched in the town of Rawa and the border desert strip with Syria. Scattered villages near al-Qaim, close to Al Bukamal, are still under militant control in an area called Rummana.

The Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an alliance of militias, earlier on Wednesday denied it had crossed the Syrian border and was attacking al Bukamal.

“Our movements are carried out under orders from the commander in chief of the armed forces and our key objective is to liberate Iraq’s territories from Daesh. We have no orders to cross the borders,” PMF spokesman Ahmed al-Asadi said.

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