Russia: Syria now 'liberated' from 'Islamic State'
The jihadist group had suffered heavy losses in recent months and lost much of its territory in Syria. The Russian military said "not a single village" remains in IS control.
Russia's defense ministry said on Thursday that the "Islamic State" (IS) group has been eradicated in Syria, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin said the group had suffered a "complete defeat" in the country.
"There is not a single village or district in Syria under the control of ISIL. The territory of Syria has been completely liberated from fighters of this terrorist organization," Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi told reporters. ISIL is an alternative abbreviation for the militant group.
"The Russian armed forces' goal to defeat armed groups of the ISIL terrorist organization in Syria has been accomplished," he said, albeit adding that "separate sabotage bands of ISIL" may still be fighting.
The general also said that Russian forces had in recent days been fighting alongside Kurdish forces near the Syria-Iraq border. Russia had not previously acknowledged cooperating with the Kurds in the Syrian conflict.
Rudskoi's comments followed an earlier statement from Putin, who said: "Operations on the eastern and western banks of the Euphrates have ended with the terrorists' complete defeat."
But the British-based war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday that IS still held around 8 percent of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
War with no end
Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.
Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.
The northern watchman
Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.
The eastern guardian
The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.
The western allies
A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.
Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.
The new jihadists
"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is facing defeat in both countries after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.
The old jihadists
IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.
The Persian shadow
Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.
The US defense department also said it would resume its airstrikes against the group.
Rudskoi said the IS defeat had paved the way for Russia to reduce its military presence in Syria: "With the liquidation of armed bands of the ISIL terrorist group in Syria, the Russian contingent will concentrate its main efforts on providing aid to the Syrian people in rebuilding peace."
Putin had said in November that Russia would start focusing on political reform as part of a "new stage" in the conflict.
Russia began launching airstrikes against various Syrian opposition groups in September 2015 as support for Syria's military. The intervention has helped forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Moscow, regain control over much of the country.
The Syrian conflict began in 2011 and over 340,000 people have been killed.