As ‘last man standing’ battle for final Islamic State enclave in Syria nears its end, what comes next?

Syrians who fled battles in eastern Deir e-Zor arrive at SDF territory on January 26, 2019. Delil Souleiman/AFP.

AMMAN: Once a smattering of dusty farming villages along a remote, Islamic State-held bend of the Euphrates River, one corner of rural eastern Deir e-Zor province is now the heart of a last-stand battle to drive out the hardline group from its final Syrian foothold.

About five kilometers west of the Syrian-Iraqi border, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are battling what remains of a so-called “caliphate” that, at its height, stretched from Mosul to the farmlands of rural Aleppo. The Kurdish-majority force is backed by US-led coalition airstrikes that rights groups meanwhile say are increasingly going unaccounted for amid reports of escalating civilian casualties.

Thousands of displaced Syrians, many of them coated in dust and carrying few possessions, have streamed out of the embattled pocket in recent days—along with scores of IS fighters hoping to conceal themselves among the streams of fleeing civilians. Some of the militants are reportedly surrendering themselves over to the SDF.   

The fight against the Islamic State has taken years—and this week’s fighting is ostensibly the final leg of a wider military campaign that has seen the hardline Islamist group’s now decimated self-proclaimed “capital,” Raqqa, fall to the SDF as thousands of Syrians have been either killed or displaced by the fighting.

The last battle of that gruelling campaign could supposedly reach its end “within the next month,” an SDF commander told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity this week because he was not authorized to speak with the press.

Just how many IS fighters remain in this encircled pocket remains unclear, although most are believed to be foreigners, the commander added. Rumors also appeared in local media that IS’ self-styled leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in hiding in the embattled enclave, though sources on the ground were not able to confirm or provide details.

“Those who remain are the most stringent and extreme, and they refuse the idea of negotiations or discussions,” the SDF commander said.

“There’s nothing in store for them except fighting until the last man is standing.”

US withdrawal

Centered on the villages of Baghouz Fawqani and al-Marashida, the fight to remove IS has taken on ever more urgency in recent weeks after a shock announcement by US President Donald Trump in late December that American forces would withdraw altogether from Syria within a 30-day timeline—a point that reportedly left US allies on the ground blindsided.

That announcement has only been more confused by mixed messages from the president himself, as well as different branches of the US administration seemingly trying to backtrack on the surprise shift in policy.

“Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving...because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us [sic],” Trump wrote in a Twitter post last month, despite having claimed the previous day that US forces had successfully “defeated” IS in Syria.

A coalition statement earlier this month said US forces had already begun withdrawing military equipment from Syria. Officials have previously declined to comment on withdrawals of troops.

According to Washington DC-based foreign policy analyst Melissa Dalton, the US-led coalition is “seeking to expedite” a battleground defeat of IS in and around Hajin “before [the] US force presence—and the intelligence, operational and logistics capabilities currently in place—change.”

Caught in the middle are Hajin’s civilians, under increasingly heavy fire as coalition forces ramp up airstrikes and artillery bombardments.

Scores of civilians have been killed in the onslaught since September, according to conflict monitors and local media outlets.

“The coalition has so far conceded just three civilian harm events for the [eastern Euphrates enclave] since May 2018, which does not reflect what affected communities are reporting,” Chris Woods, founder of the UK-based monitoring group Airwars, told Syria Direct via email over the weekend.

“Locals themselves have reported more than 130 alleged incidents in the same time period, with claims of up to 1,500 non-combatants killed by US-led actions,” he said, adding that recent coalition statements had failed to provide locations of airstrikes, which would help hold it accountable for civilian casualties.

A spokesperson for the US-led coalition meanwhile claimed changes in reported data were due to “operational security purposes.”

But even as the SDF appear on the cusp of defeating IS in Syria, it remains unclear what comes next.

Displaced families may have little to return to once the fighting stops, with significant material damage to civilian infrastructure—including housing—caused by the US-backed anti-IS campaign that could hamper the region for years to come.  

Thousands of former foreign IS fighters, their spouses and children remain in legal limbo within SDF prisons and detention camps across the country’s northeast, while the group maintains a potent network of sympathizers and sleeper cells.

“IS insurgent networks and ideology will persist in this region even after the US withdrawal—absent [any] stabilization and governance initiatives,” analyst Dalton told Syria Direct.

According to Nicholas Heras, a DC-based analyst, "IS has already moved to an insurgency."

"There are real concerns over the extent to which IS will be able to frustrate [US-backed] efforts to build a local hold force in its wake."

At IS’ peak in 2014, the hardline group occupied a vast swathe of territory stretching across Syria and Iraq roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom.

Today, IS controls less than one percent of its former territory and has largely retreated into resurgency tactics.

Sleeper cells have already carried out attacks recent weeks, including a suicide bombing in northern Syria’s Manbij that killed four US citizens and injured dozens of other people, and another attack on a joint US-SDF convoy in northeastern Syria.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman. Follow Mohammad on Twitter: @mohamma59717689.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut. Follow Madeline on Twitter: @MEdwardsJO.