WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump declared the end of the ISIS terror group’s self-declared caliphate Friday, March 22, saying the terror group had been “100 percent defeated” a claim that was quickly refuted by U.S.-backed forces on the ground.
Trump made the announcement following a briefing from acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan aboard Air Force One en route to Florida. Trump then showed reporters onboard a map with no ISIS presence in Syria.
“The territorial caliphate has been eliminated in Syria,” added White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
The very last territory under the control of the ISIS—a scrap of land in the northeastern Syrian town of Baghouz—seemed to have slipped through the terror group’s fingers late Thursday into early Friday, after the U.S.-led coalition launched a new wave of airstrikes targeting the remaining ISIS-held positions.
The strikes, according to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, had targeted ISIS terrorists concentrated in two locations along the Euphrates River, on the outskirts of Baghouz, as well as along a cliff that overlooks the town. Witnesses reported at least one strike hit an ISIS ammunition depot, sparking explosions and fires that burned for several hours.
But shortly after Trump’s announcement, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told VOA’s Kurdish service he could not confirm any of it as his troops were still engaged with ISIS inside the terror group’s final positions in Baghouz and that additional airstrikes were being carried out as he spoke.
Even as recently as late Thursday, the U.S.-led coalition said what was left of ISIS was putting up a “hard fight.”
“Daesh is showing that they intend to keep fighting for as long as possible,” the coalition said in a statement to VOA, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group.
The coalition also accused ISIS of continuing to resort to what it described as “gruesome tactics” that included “using children as human shields.”
The airstrikes followed more than two days of clearing operations in Baghouz, where hundreds of ISIS terrorists surrendered earlier this week to U.S.-backed forces.
Sources close to SDF leadership told VOA Thursday that almost all of the area above ground had been cleared, but the U.S.-backed troops were searching for additional ISIS terrorists who may still be lurking in trenches and in a complex system of caves and tunnels.
The tunnels, which are thought to be over a mile long, seemingly helped hide tens of thousands of people, mostly ISIS terrorists and their families, through much of the early part of the SDF offensive.
Officials said some of the tunnels are large enough to accommodate vehicles.
And there are indications certain tunnels even may extend into neighboring Iraq.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said during the clearing operations, U.S.-backed forces encountered a group of more than 300 ISIS terrorists in one of the caves, many of whom were killed in a subsequent airstrike.
The group said those that were not killed were captured or surrendered.
The SDF, as well as U.S. defense officials, have been wary of declaring victory over ISIS in Baghouz, pointing to numerous predications of the terror group’s ultimate demise over the past several months that all proved to be premature.
Just this past Wednesday, Trump told reporters the ISIS so-called caliphate would be “gone by tonight” even though fighting persisted. Still, U.S. and SDF officials remained confident it was only a matter of time.
Yet even in the face of an inevitable defeat, ISIS has remained defiant.
In a video released Thursday, showing scenes from inside Baghouz, a fighter identifying himself as Abu al-Harith al-Ansari mocked U.S. efforts to destroy the terror group.
“The banner has been elevated, and the Ummah, whose sons are racing to martyrdom, does not know defeat,” al-Ansari said, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“Those who are bewildered and think that our caliphate is over … we will say that it’s remaining and expanding, Allah willing, as long as it is on the right path,” he added.
Thousands of SDF troops have massed around Baghouz for weeks, laying siege to the town in an effort to liberate the final ISIS enclave in Syria. Officials said Kurdish special forces from Iraq also had been brought in to help with the operations.
Since then, SDF officials say more than 5,000 IS fighters have surrendered or been captured, while another 1,300 have been killed.
In all, upwards of 30,000 civilians, mostly family members of ISIS terrorists, have fled Baghouz since the offensive began, and 5,000 in just the past week.
Even once an official announcement is made, U.S. defense officials caution that ISIS still has “tens of thousands” of fighters working either as part of sleeper cells or as part of an active, clandestine insurgency.
Additionally, senior officials believe most of the group’s senior leadership, including its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain at large.