U.S.-backed forces raised their flag over the northeastern Syrian town of Baghuz and said the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State terror group was finally dead.
The long-anticipated announcement Saturday by the Syrian Democratic Forces followed several waves of coalition airstrikes that repeatedly lit up the night sky.
The targets were several hundred hardened IS fighters who had been clinging to scraps of land along the Euphrates River and along a mountainous ridge on the outskirts of the town. And by the time the sun began to illuminate littered and broken landscape, their resistance had been broken.
“The Bagoz [sic] village has been fully liberated,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali announced on Twitter. “Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and %100 [sic] territorial defeat of ISIS."
Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and %100 territorial defeat of ISIS. On this unique day, we commemorate thousands of martyrs whose efforts made the victory possible. #SDFDefeatedISIS— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) March 23, 2019
“We congradulate [sic] the world with the elimination of the so called Khalifet [sic]," Bali added.
The announcement came almost 12 hours after a similar declaration by U.S. President Donald Trump, who told reporters travelling with him aboard Air Force One that IS had been “100 percent defeated” following a briefing from Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
“The territorial caliphate has been eliminated in Syria,” added White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
But Trump’s announcement was quickly refuted by U.S. defense officials and the SDF.
Bali told VOA's Kurdish Service Friday that even as the president was speaking, his forces were still engaged with IS fighters in Baghuz and that additional airstrikes were being carried out.
Until now, SDF officials have been wary of declaring victory over IS in Baghuz, pointing to numerous predications of the terror group’s ultimate demise over the past several months that all proved to be premature.
Coalition officials also warned IS was putting up a “hard fight” until the very end, while also resorting to what it described as “gruesome tactics,” including the use of children as human shields.
But the very last territory under IS control began to slip through the terror group’s grip for good late Thursday into early Friday, after the U.S.-led coalition launched a new wave of airstrikes targeting the remaining IS-held positions.
Observers on the ground said the bombardment convinced perhaps a few hundred more IS fighters to surrender, though the rest seemed intent on fighting to the death.
At its height in 2014, IS ruled over large swaths of Syria and Iraq, boasting dual capitals in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq.
Since then, the U.S.-led international coalition, along with partners on the ground, have rolled back the terror group’s hold.
But U.S. defense and intelligence officials have long warned that the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate will not be the end of the fight.
A senior U.S. defense official said recently that most of the group's senior leadership, including self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain at large, commanding at minimum "tens of thousands" of fighters and supporters across Syria and Iraq.
And there are also concerns that IS, which has already been engaged in an active insurgency in parts of Syria and Iraq, has thousands more supporters and sympathizers – including upwards of 60,000 people who have surrendered since the SDF and coalition launched their final assault last month.
“These folks are unrepentant,” the official said. “The seeds for a future caliphate or certainly a persistent clandestine insurgency exist in these large numbers of people who ... are looking to reposition for future perpetuation of ISIS in some form or fashion."
And even in the face of imminent defeat, IS’ true believers remain defiant.
“Those who are bewildered and think that our caliphate is over ... we will say that it’s remaining and expanding,” a fighter from Baghuz, identifying himself as Abu al-Harith al-Ansari, said in a video released Thursday and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“The banner has been elevated, and the Ummah, whose sons are racing to martyrdom, does not know defeat,” he said.
Fern Robinson and VOA's Kurdish Service contributed to this report.