U.S.-backed forces claim they’ve routed Islamic State fighters from Raqqa, declaring victory after months of fighting in the terrorist group’s de facto Syrian capital, eroding its ability to launch attacks and delivering a major symbolic loss to the so-called caliphate, experts say.
“This was the last vestige of the caliphate,” said RAND Corp. terror analyst Colin Clarke.
“Clearly it is the loss of physical territory,” Clarke told the Herald, referring to an ISIS realm that once included vast swaths of both Syria and Iraq. “Even more importantly, it is a symbolic loss. What drew these foreign fighters from around the world is the caliphate. It is what al-Qaeda was unable to do: Here ISIS did it.”
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces yesterday celebrated taking control of the northern Syrian city that ISIS controlled and used as its capital for three years — notoriously staging barbaric executions and holding women as purported sex slaves. A major SDF push in recent days won back the city’s hospital and soccer stadium.
“Liberating Raqqa is a triumph for humanity, especially women,” said Ilham Ahmed, a senior member of SDF’s political wing. “It is a salvation for the will to live an honorable life. It is a defeat to the forces of darkness.”
The Pentagon stopped short of declaring total victory in the ISIS stronghold.
Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Army Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters yesterday ISIS is “on the verge of a devastating defeat.”
Ninety percent of Raqqa has been cleared, but an estimated 100 ISIS fighters remain. Mines, IEDs and other booby traps are strewn across the city, Dillon said. Even so, with the coalition marking its third anniversary of pushing back ISIS’ advance, the group is in retreat.
ISIS has lost 87 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, with 6.5 million people liberated from its despotic rule. Oil revenue for the group has been cut by 90 percent. And the coalition has almost entirely staunched the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS, from a high of 1,500 a month.
“Their story of leading a holy cause has proved to be cesspool of brutal lies, torture and oppression,” Dillon said. “ISIS is losing in every way.”
With ISIS retreating from its nerve centers of Mosul in Iraq and now Raqqa in Syria, Clarke said the “terror group as we know it has changed” to be “highly dispersed” and “operating more clandestinely.”
He added: “At the end of the day, they will attempt to regroup somewhere, but it won’t be Iraq or Syria — and not as robust.”
Losing Raqqa means ISIS will no longer have the safe haven to recruit and train fighters and plan attacks, said Boston University professor Michael Corgan.
“They’ll have to adapt to this new circumstance,” Corgan said. “It means they will be less of an existential threat. That’s going to make it harder for ISIS to have a locus. Maybe they’ll go back to Somalia or South Sudan, but that puts them out of reach of the world they are trying to influence.”