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Islamic State group caliphate eliminated, say US-backed Syrian forces

Giuseppe Cacace, AFP | Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather near the village of Baghouz in the countryside of the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor on March 20, 2019.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Saturday that the Islamic State group had been "totally eliminated" in its final stronghold of Baghouz and called on the Syrian government to recognise SDF administration in recaptured areas.

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The US-backed SDF has declared the “total elimination of [the] so-called caliphate”, Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, wrote on Twitter.

Islamic State group-held territory once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

“Baghouz has been liberated," he wrote. "The military victory against Daesh has been accomplished.” Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

“We renew our pledge to continue the war and to pursue their remnants until their complete elimination,” Bali said.

The SDF also called on the Syrian government to recognise the administration set up in areas it controls.

Remaining threat

Although the defeat of the Islamic State group at Baghouz ends its grip over the jihadist quasi-state straddling Syria and Iraq that it declared its own in 2014, the group remains a lingering threat to the region.

Some of its fighters still hold out in Syria’s remote central desert and in Iraqi cities they have slipped into the shadows, staging sudden shootings or kidnappings and awaiting a chance to rise again.

Middle East analyst Jonathan Paris: ‘It's not over’

“A huge step has been taken today," said French President Emmanuel Macron. "A major danger for our country is eliminated."

“But … the struggle against terrorist groups must continue,” he added.

French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said on Twitter that, “The Islamic State no longer has any territory, but it has not disappeared.”

IS group leader in Iraq

The United States believes the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains in Iraq. He stood at the pulpit of the great medieval mosque in Mosul in 2014 to declare himself caliph, sovereign over all Muslims.

Further afield, jihadists in Afghanistan, Nigeria and elsewhere have shown no sign of recanting their allegiance to the Islamic State group, and intelligence services warn its devotees in the West might plot new attacks.

The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, said on Friday the Islamic State group was not yet finished in Syria, adding that it was the Damascus government backed by Russia and Iran that was doing the most to battle the jihadists, and not the United States.

Still, the fall of Baghouz is a big milestone in a fight against the jihadist group that has been waged by numerous local and global forces – some of them sworn enemies – over more than four years.

It also marks a big moment in Syria’s eight-year war, wiping out one of the main fighting factions and leaving Syrian territory to be divided between President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Turkey-backed rebels and the Kurdish-led SDF.

Assad and his Iranian allies have sworn to recapture all of Syria while Turkey has threatened to drive out the SDF, which it sees as a Kurdish terrorist group. Kurdish allies hope the continued presence of US troops in northeast Syria might prevent an all-out Turkish assault on the SDF.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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