By: Hadley Bjerke, News Editor
The Islamic State’s capital in Syria fell to U.S.-backed forces Tuesday, the most significant defeat for the militant group since it burst onto the world stage three years ago as a seemingly invincible force. The defeat of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Raqqa after a four-month battle with U.S.- backed forces leaves only remnants of the group along the Euphrates River Valley stretching between Iraq and Syria. ISIS fighters have been pushed out of most of their major strongholds in both countries, bringing to a crashing end the group’s ambitious vow to create a powerful “caliphate” it would rule across the Middle East.
The announcement of Raqqa’s liberation was made by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters backed by U.S. air power, advisers and weapons.
What was supposed to be a cataclysmic battle ended relatively quickly as exhausted militants in the northern Syrian city surrendered, attempted to flee or were killed by coalition airstrikes and ground attacks. The defeat in Raqqa doesn’t spell the end of the group, which has transformed itself from an occupying army to a global terror network as it has been ousted from Iraqi and Syrian strongholds. At one time, ISIS controlled large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, ruling over about 11 million people, according to Rand Corp., a think tank. The ability to govern towns and cities made ISIS different than most other militant groups, but it also allowed the U.S.-backed coalition to target them. U.S.-led coalition aircraft targeted the terror group’s warehouses of stolen cash, oil facilities, heavy weapons and armored vehicles and tanks.
ISIS used oil sales, plundered loot and extortion among captive civilians to fund city governments, which provided basic services but imposed strict observance of Muslim customs and dealt brutally with opponents of its rule. Terror groups like al-Qaeda have proved resilient, and ISIS has followed in that pattern by plotting terrorist attacks or urging sympathizers to attack Westerners with everything from bombs and rampaging trucks to knives and axes. ISIS is focusing on countries plagued by civil war or weak central governments to establish new strongholds, including in Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. “We’re all paying close attention to whatever ISIS transforms into next,” Army Col. Pat Work, a U.S. adviser in Iraq, said in an interview.
In Iraq and Syria, where ISIS leaders had exhorted their followers to fight to the death, the militants appear exhausted and demoralized. In the battle for Hawija, a town in northern Iraq, more than 1,000 militants surrendered to Iraqi or Kurdish forces. That is in contrast to the ferocity of earlier ISIS fighters, many of whom were fanatics who would never surrender. However, after U.S.-back Iraqi and Syrian forces killed thousands of those militants, ISIS was forced to recruit new fighters with money or threats of death, and the new soldiers have proven to be less committed to the cause. Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, fell to U.S.-backed Iraqi forces this year after a brutal nine-month battle. The fight for the city was a turning point in the war, shifting the momentum decisively to U.S.-backed forces. More recently, the ISIS militants have struggled to mount an effective defense, and foreign fighters who joined the group’s caliphate crusade fled the battlefield, leaving poorly fed and trained conscripts to fend for themselves.