Syria's SDF launches endgame battle against 'Islamic State'

The Kurdish-led forces have described the operation as the "decisive battle" to defeat the militant group in Syria. With a looming US withdrawal, pressure is on to uproot IS in its remaining enclave.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Saturday said they had begun the "decisive battle" targeting the last remnants of the "Islamic State" militant group in eastern Syria.

"After saving more than 20,000 civilians from IS-held area and ensuring their safety in nearby camps, the SDF started to move on to the last village remaining under the jihadists' control," SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said in a tweet.

The SDF said it had waited nearly two weeks to allow thousands of civilians to flee the area. But the Kurdish-led alliance of anti-IS fighters noted that there could be hundreds more trapped inside the militant group's enclave.

Read more: As 'Islamic State' crumbles, Syrian Kurds want Germany to take back foreign fighters 

Breaking the caliphate

Since IS rose to prominence in 2014 following a blitzkrieg campaign across Iraq and Syria that culminated in the declaration of a "caliphate" by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, regional forces and global powers have attempted to uproot the militant group.

In 2017, US-backed forces in Iraq and Syria seized on a series of victories against IS to regain control of Iraq's Mosul and Syria's Raqqa, the latter considered the militant group's de facto capital. Since then, ongoing efforts — including those by Syrian regime forces and the Russian military — have significantly reduced IS' capabilities.

On Friday, Major General Christopher Ghika, deputy commander for the anti-IS coalition, said the militant group's remaining territory amounted to "less than one percent of the original caliphate."

Read more: With 'Islamic State' in tatters, al-Qaida renews call for jihad

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where did it come from?

The "Islamic State" (IS) — also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh — is an al-Qaida splinter group with a militant Sunni Islamist ideology. It emerged in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Their goal is to create a worldwide "caliphate." It gained worldwide notoriety in 2014 after a blitzkrieg military campaign that resulted in the capture of Mosul.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it operate?

IS is believed to be operational in more than a dozen countries across the world. It controls territories in Iraq and Syria. However, the group has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria at the height of its expansion in 2014.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Who is fighting back?

The US leads an international coalition of more than 50 countries, including several Arab nations. Russia, Iran and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah, which all support the Syrian government, also fight IS. Regional forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga (above) and US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, fight IS on the ground. The Iraqi army and militia have pushed IS from large parts of the country.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How does it fund itself?

One of IS' main sources of income has been oil and gas. At one point, it controlled an estimated one-third of Syria's oil production. However, US-led airstrikes deliberately targeted oil resources and the Syrian government as well as US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters have retaken most oil wells. Other means of income include taxes, ransom, selling looted antiquities and extortion.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

Where does it carry out attacks?

IS has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks across the globe. The militant group has targeted capitals across the EU, including Berlin, Brussels and Paris. IS leaders have encouraged so-called "lone wolf" attacks, whereby individuals who support IS carry out terrorist acts without the direct involvement of the group.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

What other tactics does it use?

The group uses various tactics to expand its power. IS fighters have looted and destroyed historical artifacts in Syria and Iraq in an attempt at "cultural cleansing." The group has also enslaved thousands of women from religious minority groups, including Yazidis. IS also uses a sophisticated social network to distribute propaganda and recruit sympathizers.

What is the 'Islamic State'?

How has it impacted the region?

IS has further exacerbated the ongoing Syrian conflict. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled their homes, many traveling to Europe in pursuit of refuge. Although it has lost all of its strongholds, the militant group has left extraordinary destruction in its wake. Areas affected by the militant group's rule will likely take years to rebuild.

Withdrawal on the horizon

In December, US President Donald Trump stunned allies when he announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, citing victory over IS. But the move triggered criticism from military officials and prompted then-Defense Secretary James Mattis and anti-IS coalition envoy Brett McGurk to resign.

On Friday, New York-based newspaper The Wall Street Journal reported that the withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops in Syria would take place by the end of April, citing US officials. But the SDF has refused to acknowledge any changes to the current situation.

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"What we know is that so far there is no withdrawal, and the situation on the ground is unchanged," the SDF told Reuters news agency. "There is no discussion to set any date or time ceiling (for a withdrawal)."

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DW News | 20.01.2019

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ls/kl (AFP, Reuters)