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World U.S.-backed coalition begins final push to retake last Islamic State territory in Syria

A Syrian rebel fighter from the recently-formed "National Liberation Front" takes part in military training at an unknown location in the northern countryside of the Idlib province, on Sept. 11, 2018.

AAREF WATAD/AFP/Getty Images

The last vestige of Islamic State territory in Syria came under attack, as members of a U.S.-backed coalition said Tuesday that they had begun a final push to oust the militants from Hajin, the remaining sliver of territory under the group’s control in the region where it was born.

The assault is the final chapter of a war that began more than four years ago after the Islamic State group seized enormous tracts of land in Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led militia that has been fighting the Islamic State in Syria with the United States and its allies, said in a statement that its forces had launched an offensive on the area from four sides Monday evening.

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The caliphate put the Islamic State on the map both physically and politically, filling its coffers and swelling its ranks both there and abroad, where adherents committed attacks in its name.

Even if it is defeated in Hajin, however, the Islamic State is likely to remain a powerful terrorist force.

Hajin does not look like much: On a bend of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, it appears to have only a few major streets and just one public hospital. An estimated 60,000 people are believed to be living there and in a smattering of neighboring villages.

The Syrian Democratic Forces is nevertheless preparing for a slog: between two and three months, according to one senior official with the militia.

Given Hajin’s size, that may seem a surprisingly long time. Islamic State-held cities with populations one and a half to three times larger, including Sinjar and Tal Afar in Iraq, fell in days.

The difference is that in those battles, the jihadis made a strategic retreat, choosing to abandon their positions to consolidate and regroup. This time, retreat is not an option.

“We expect a long and hard fight,” said Col. Sean J. Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad. “These are the die-hard fighters with nowhere else to go.”

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In its remaining slip of land, the Islamic State has dug tunnels. Its fighters, aerial surveillance indicates, have mined the circumference of their last redoubt, laying explosive devices on the roads leading into the area.

And to facilitate escape, they have buried large quantities of cash in berms of sand and hidden weapons and ammunition in caves and underground passages, strategically positioning resources in the desert, analysts say.

The tunnels allow the militants to move from house to house, undetected from the air. Some passageways connect outposts to their military bases, said one resident reached by telephone who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

Because they know the coalition is trying to minimize civilian casualties, the militants have trapped people in the town, monitoring the roads and posting snipers, one resident said.

The forces fighting the jihadis on the ground are a mix of Kurdish and Arab militias that have been working closely with an international coalition led by the United States to push back the jihadis.

The statement announcing the start of the campaign said that the coalition was providing air support for surveillance and to identify and hit targets. It was also coordinating with Iraqi artillery units to strike fixed Islamic State positions, the statement said.

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Once in control of territory equivalent to the size of Britain, the Islamic State is down to its last 200 square miles, according to Ryan. The group has lost all but 1 per cent of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, and its caliphate appears about to be erased in the region where it was born, though it continues to grow in outposts in Asia and Africa.

It has taken more than four years, over 29,000 airstrikes and thousands of soldiers’ lives for the U.S.-led coalition to reclaim the group’s land holdings in Iraq and Syria. But the Islamic State remains a potent force.

Data collected by the U.S. Department of Defense and the United Nations indicate that the group has as many fighters now as it did in 2014 – the height of the caliphate – with 20,000 to 31,500 members in Iraq and Syria alone, and thousands more spread across the numerous other countries where it has implanted itself. If those figures are accurate, they match what the CIA estimated as the group’s strength four years ago, when it ruled over a population of 12 million.

Senior officials at the Pentagon and in the White House say the real number is far lower. But a third report, to be published soon by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, confirms the higher estimate, concluding that the Islamic State still has as many as 25,000 fighters.

The territory the militants held at the peak of their power allowed them to generate billions of dollars in revenue by taxing the people under their rule and their commerce, turning the Islamic State into the world’s richest terrorist group. That allowed them to provide salaries to their fighters and stipends to their families, as well as public services ranging from marriage and birth certificates to garbage collection.

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The refuge they enjoyed allowed them to experiment and to innovate. They taught themselves how to manufacture weapons on an industrial scale, they launched their own drone program, and they refined a method of online recruitment. They were able to guide terrorist plots from afar as if by remote control.

But driving the militants from their territory alone will not be enough to bring about their long-term defeat, officials and analysts say. The Islamic State remains capable of wreaking damage around the world simply by inspiring adherents to take up a gun, a bomb or even a car. And in Iraq and Syria, the group has reverted to an insurgency.

“The easy part is done, which is removing ISIS from the cities it controlled,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, using an alternative name for the Islamic State. “Now comes the hard part.”

Politicians looking to score a public relations victory have taken to describing the Islamic State as defeated, even decimated. President Donald Trump has gone so far as to use the phrase “absolutely obliterated.”

But analysts who have been studying the group since it implanted itself in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003 point out that in the 15 years since then, the Islamic State held significant amounts of territory for only the last four. They argue that the group, which went through four name changes before dubbing itself the Islamic State in 2014, will now revert to the organization it was before the caliphate.

“We look at that as the defining period of the Islamic State, but the caliphate itself was an outlier,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior fellow at the Soufan Center, a New York-based research group on security threats and the author of a report on the group.

Long before it declared a caliphate, the Islamic State was a formidable threat. Now it will simply go back to its roots, analysts say.

“All we have succeeded in doing is returning to ISIS 1.0,” Knights said. “We just turned the clock back.”

The group’s territorial ambitions were clear from the start. As early as 2006, the militants renamed themselves the “Islamic State of Iraq” – even though they held almost no land. Yet throughout its first decade of existence, the stateless group caused enormous harm, carrying out back-to-back suicide attacks and killing countless civilians as well as thousands of coalition force members.

The organization was finally brought to the verge of defeat in 2011, after a concerted counterinsurgency operation. As U.S. troops drew down from Iraq, the group was estimated to have no more than 700 fighters.

But just three years later, the group came roaring back. It seized one of Iraq’s biggest cities, Mosul, with a population of about 1.5 million, as well as Tal Afar, Sinjar, Falluja, Ramadi and numerous smaller localities in between. In Syria, it claimed the city of Raqqa, with a population of more than 200,000.

Now that is down to just Hajin, but even as that city is about to slip through the group’s grasp, experts are sounding a note of caution.

Analysts tracking the Islamic State have used three types of data points to measure the group’s potency: the size of the territory under its control, its troop strength, and the number and frequency of attacks.

If Hajin is retaken, the first of these indicators will be near zero. But the other two are another matter.

“Hajin is the last holdout of territory,” said Brett McGurk, the White House special representative in the fight against the Islamic State. While the fall of Hajin would represent the end of its physical caliphate, he said, “we have always said this will not be the end of ISIS.”

The remaining Islamic State fighters may now be scattered, but they are numerous – and still pose a threat.

“The estimates we have for Iraq and Syria are a sizable number,” said Seth G. Jones, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and author of the forthcoming study that estimates the group’s troop strength to be 25,000. “That’s important, because what it shows is that the cell structure is in place. They don’t control territory, but they have the ability to surge forces.”

The Islamic State also remains well positioned to inspire attacks outside the Middle East, from small-scale assaults like the killing of four cyclists in Tajikistan this year to the truck attack in Nice, France, in 2016 in which more than 80 people lost their lives.

In Iraq and Syria, even with its territory greatly diminished, the Islamic State has persisted. Months after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “final victory” over the group in 2017, three Iraqi provinces have witnessed an uptick in violence.

Still, the violence there is less devastating than it once was. The group once routinely hit Baghdad with attacks that could kill more than 150 people at a time. Now it tends to carry out smaller suicide attacks, hit-and-runs, ambushes and targeted executions, especially of village chiefs, who are known as moktars.

Knights, who tracks these low-level assassinations, estimates that more than three moktars are killed or wounded every week in Iraq, undermining official declarations that the militants have been vanquished.

“That means that 14 times a month, the most important person in the village is killed or seriously injured by ISIS,” he said. “Under those circumstances, do those people feel like they have been liberated? Stopping this type of targeted violence is the real challenge and it’s much harder than clearing cities of ISIS fighters.”

Throughout cleared areas, Islamic State members are believed to have melted back into the population. They move and hide in cells made up of a handful of fighters, and occupy a network of safe houses, analysts say. In Syria, some believe these fighters are awaiting the departure of U.S. forces before attempting a rebound.

If they do, they will pose a different type of threat.

The forces that drove the Islamic State from its lands were equipped to liberate occupied cities, not fight a dispersed, clandestine force. Their vehicles and weapons were designed for engaging the enemy frontally in heavy combat, not for rooting out individual fighters in hiding.

“It’s evolved back into an insurgent movement far faster than security forces can evolve into a counterinsurgency,” Knights said.

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