On Jan. 23, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reported that the small town of Al-Baghuz Fawqani in Deir ez-Zour, the last retreat of the Islamic State in Syria, had been captured and ISIS was surrounded and under fire in nearby Al-Marashidah. (See attached map.)
Still, the next day, the Islamists broke the siege with a string of suicide attacks, and recaptured parts of the towns under international coalition air raids.
Then, on Feb. 7, The SDF captured Al-Marashidah. Now, ISIS was besieged in Baghuz.
On Feb. 9, the SDF with coalition support launched what was supposed to be the final assault to take Baghuz and stamp out the Islamic State’s last territorial stronghold. Although they struck a mosque used as the terrorists’ command and control center,1,000 to 1,500 terrorists and their “emirs” are still holding out in Baghuz and apparently ready to fight to the death unless a deal can be struck for their relocation, such as the transactions negotiated in Jarablus, Raqqa and Dabiq.
It is strongly suspected that their fervor and refusal to surrender are down to the presence of top leaders, including possibly the “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has not been seen or heard from since his last audio appearance in August. This suspicion is fueled by Iraqi intelligence from informants inside the town. If he is indeed holed up there, he will be rallying his men to fight to the end for the last ISIS stronghold on Syrian soil.
The only deal so far is for ISIS to allow civilians, fighters’ wives and children, the wounded and those willing to throw in the towel, to leave the beleaguered town. The refugees report that food and medicine are running low in Baghuz. By letting the civilians go, the fighters have more food to ration out. These fighters have plenty of experience in digging tunnels for underground shelters, from which the leaders and commanders can wait out an SDF offensive to capture the town.
Iraqi security forces are now fully prepared to shut down any ISIS resurgence in their country. The days of laxity and lack of organization, which enabled the Islamists to conquer large tracts of their county, are over. A strong Iraqi counterterrorism unit, Intelligence service, army and Federal Police, are all on guard for any signs of ISIS rebounding.
This could happen, they believe, even if Baghdadi is killed. A new leader could take his place after the organization regains its footing. Therefore, can ISIS be considered finished after it is finally defeated and eclipsed in Syria and Iraq? The wives and children coming out of Baghuz don’t think so. The women are defiant, proud of their lost husbands and continue to spew Islamist slogans. One of these, “Baqiya,” meaning “remaining,” is frequently heard to express faith in the eventual victory of their menfolk. Baghdadi’s ideology lives on. More than 2,000 offspring of ISIS families are detained in camps and prevented from reuniting with their parents or reaching the countries from which they left to join ISIS. They were brought up as Young Islamists and thoroughly brainwashed in the caliphate’s violent tenets.