By SARAH EL DEEB and SUSANNAH GEORGE | Associated Press
BEIRUT – With new losses Friday, the Islamic State group has been driven from more than 96 percent of the large parts of Iraq and Syria it once held, crushing its goal of establishing a “caliphate” in the region.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military announced the capture of the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed victory in retaking the town of Qaim on the border, the militants’ last significant urban area in Iraq.
The militants are left fighting for a final stretch inside Syria and desert regions along the Iraq-Syria border. Three years ago, they had defiantly erased that line, knocking down berms marking the frontier.
Since then, they have lost infrastructure, resources, supply routes, control over about 8 million people and — most importantly — administration of a contiguous territory. The extremist group may still prove to be a major challenge for months as it turns to a clandestine insurgency.
What the group lost in the last 11 months, and what is left:
Iraqi forces’ last conventional military fight against IS played out in Qaim, on the western edge of Anbar province along the border with Syria. Operations began there in the last week of October. On Friday, Iraq said it now controls the town and the nearby border crossing with Syria.
The crossing in the Euphrates River Valley was used by IS to move fighters and supplies between the two countries when the group controlled nearly a third of Iraqi territory.
Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the fight against the Islamic State, said Thursday the group is now facing “annihilation” with the losses in western Iraq and nearly 96 percent of its territory. He earlier said 6.6 million people have been liberated as the group lost over 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) in the last year.
The Islamic State “has not reclaimed single meter of this ground. Migrant and refugee flows reversed,” McGurk tweeted Thursday.
The Syrian government declared Friday that it has taken full control of Deir el-Zour, where its troops and tens of thousands of civilians have been besieged by IS militants for nearly three years.
Gen. Ali Mayhoub, spokesman for the Syrian army, called it a strategic victory, noting Deir el-Zour’s location on a crossroads linking Syria’s eastern, northern and central regions, and its role in distributing the province’s oil.
Mayhoub said IS militants are now isolated and encircled in the countryside east of the city. Government forces are focused on Boukamal, the last IS urban center in Syria.
Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. also are making a bid for the strategic border town from the other side of the Euphrates, renewing fears of a confrontation between the two forces seeking to control the border area.
Raqqa, the IS group’s de-facto capital, fell to Kurdish-led forces on Oct. 17, four months after operations to reclaim it began. The city was the group’s hub of operations, and its capture was a major symbolic blow.
The first city to fall into IS hands, foreign fighters flocked to Raqqa. The U.S.-led coalition estimated that 40,000 fighters from Europe, North Africa and Asia once flowed into IS territory.
The group carried out beheadings and other killings in a public square in Raqqa to try to project its ruthless nature. The city also was the center of its media operations, where videos about the benefits of life under IS were produced.
Planning for some of the major violence in Europe was traced to Raqqa, including the deadly attacks in Paris in 2015 and in Brussels in 2016.
On Oct. 14, the Syrian government said its troops and allied fighters seized the town of Mayadeen, on the western bank of the Euphrates River. The town had become a refuge for the militant group’s leaders from fighting in Raqqa and Deir el-Zour to the north and Iraq to the east.
Mayadeen was also a major point in the race for control of the oil-rich eastern Deir el-Zour province. Washington has feared advances by Syrian troops and allied fighters toward the Iraqi border could help Iran expand its influence in the region and establish a “Shiite corridor” of land links from Iraq to Lebanon, and all the way to Israel. Iran backs militias fighting alongside the Syrian military.
The Syrian government had feared that U.S.-backed forces would get to Mayadeen first, but the militants pulled back a few days after the battle began, disappearing into the desert.
It took 20 days to liberate Hawija, depriving IS of its last significant urban area in Iraq.
Iraqi forces fought alongside the Kurdish peshmerga to retake the city in oil-rich Kirkuk province on Oct. 10. Hundreds of IS fighters and their families surrendered to the Kurdish forces.
The fall of the city also eliminated a unifying factor for the peshmerga and the Iraqi military and federal police along with their Shiite militia allies. That opened the way for the tension that followed among the former allies.
The town was liberated by coalition-backed Iraqi forces Aug. 30, ending the IS presence in northern Iraq. Thousands of IS fighters and their families turned themselves over to Iraqi and Kurdish forces as the town fell, the first instance of mass surrenders of IS fighters on the heels of a military victory.
Unlike the nine-month battle for Mosul, the swift military victory in Tal Afar was the first sign of the battlefield losses had weakened IS as a conventional military force, according to the coalition.
Iraqi forces declared victory in Mosul on July 10. While clashes continued between small groups of IS fighters in tunnels under the old city for weeks after, the loss of Mosul effectively broke the back of the caliphate.
Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul was a hub for meetings of the IS leadership. It was the largest city under the militants’ control and was an important site of facilities for making car bombs, smaller explosives and mortar rounds. The militants used civilians as shields to prevent the weapons factories from being targeted by coalition airstrikes.
The fight for Mosul was long and costly, killing thousands of civilians and Iraqi security forces. IS fighters used years of tight control of the city to build defenses that prolonged the battle and caused widespread death and destruction.
WHAT IS LEFT
The Syrian city of Boukamal is the last major urban center in the hands of IS.
The group also is spread along the Syria-Iraq border in villages in the provinces of Hassakeh and Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria.
There also are small IS cells in Iraq’s Nineveh, Anbar and Salahudin provinces, where the central government has lacked strong control for years.
Along this thin line on the border of the two countries, the militants still have a presence in a region running west of the Euphrates River toward the Syrian desert, between Deir el-Zour and Homs provinces. There also is a small IS presence near Damascus.
In a briefing last week, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said small numbers of IS leaders are “attempting to leverage local insurgencies” in Africa and Asia as they lose territory in Iraq and Syria.
The group’s militants and local affiliates in Egypt, Libya, the Sahel area of Africa and the Philippines continue to challenge authorities, carrying out regular attacks.
George reported from Baghdad. Brian Rohan in Cairo contributed.