Along two sharp curves of the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria, the Islamic State is fighting to hold on to the last speck of the vast territory it once controlled, The New York Times reports.
At its height, the group enforced its brutal version of Islamic rule over more than 60,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq. It is now squeezed into two villages occupying six square miles. There, its foot soldiers have been engaged in heavy clashes with the American-backed and Kurdish-led militia Syrian Democratic Forces who are battling to take back the turf, according to a spokesman for the militia and observers in the area.
While some of the extremists are fighting to the end, local officials say the militants have been surrendering by the dozens, repeating a pattern observed in other cities shortly before the group was overrun, the Times notes.
Even with the end of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq within view, Western officials caution that this is not the end of the violent threat posed by the group. It has continued carrying out devastating attacks as it reverts to its insurgent roots, including a suicide bombing that killed four Americans in Manbij last week.
“I think this is the end of a phase, and the beginning of a subsequent fight,” said Col. Sean Ryan, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the American-backed coalition fighting the group. “Now they will resume smaller attacks. Everyone needs to remain vigilant.”
The Islamic State’s ambitions have always been global, and its affiliates in Afghanistan, West Africa, the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere have been growing, experts say. And just inside Syria and Iraq, the group still has between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters, according to separate estimates by the Pentagon inspector general, the United Nations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While many fighters have been killed since those estimates were calculated late last year, analysts say that large numbers have simply melted into the population, the news outlet adds.
The two villages still held by the group – Marashidah and Baghuz Fawqani – represent the final 0.01 percent of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq. They sit inside the hook created by two bends in the Euphrates, and the terrain is lush near the river and then increasingly desiccated farther out.
After months of grueling war that has claimed the lives of thousands of fighters in Syria, the Kurdish-led militia has recently made significant inroads. Some officials are optimistically declaring that the last two villages will fall in a matter of days, while others estimate the final battles, which come as the United States prepares to withdraw 2,000 troops in the coming months, could take as long as three weeks.