- REUTERS/Reuters TV via Amaq news agency
- Even though ISIS has been declared defeated in Syria by Russia and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad the group’s fighters still have a presence in the country.
- Several convoys have been spotted traveling through Syrian regime territory in recent weeks.
- Thousands of fighters escaped Raqqa in October as part of a secret deal between US-backed forces and ISIS, and an unknown number have snuck over the border into Turkey.
- It is unclear whether fighters are aiming to regroup in Syria, survive while keeping a low profile, or head towards Europe.
ISIS was supposedly defeated in Syria after US-backed forces captured Raqqa, the capital of its self-declared caliphate, last month – but recent reports suggest that there are still pockets of ISIS resistance in the country.
Thousands of fighters have reportedly fled their former holdouts and are fanning out across the country, even flowing into neighboring Turkey.
Army Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led operation in Syria, Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters on Tuesday that pronouncements from Russia and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad about ISIS’s defeat were premature.
“Despite recent claims from Russia that Syria is free from ISIS terror, the SDF are still meeting resistance from ISIS fighters in the region,” he said, using the acronym for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. “ISIS is putting up a stiff defense in remaining territories in the [Middle Euphrates River Valley], likely as a delaying action to allow other elements to displace to Southwest and Northwest Syria to seek sanctuary or continue to fight.”
ISIS fighters are slipping under the radar
While ISIS’s last major urban stronghold Raqqa fell in mid-November, elements of the terrorist group remain along the sparsely-populated Iraq-Syria border region, northeast of the city of Hama in west-central Syria, and in the southwestern corner of the country near the border with Israel, according to the Syrian Civil War map.
- Rodi Said/Reuters
Beyond these areas, there are reports that ISIS fighters remain at large even in areas controlled by the Syrian regime. A press release by the Combined Joint Task Force last week reported that ISIS members were fleeing fighting along the Euphrates River through territory controlled by Assad.
“Despite the present of Russian-backed, pro-Syrian regime forces in the area, Daesh still finds ways to move freely through regime lines and pose a threat,” Brigadier General Jonathan Braga said in the release, using the pejorative Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The press release noted that this was the second times in less than a month that ISIS convoys had been intercepted after traveling throug regime territory.
ISIS fighters had already begun fleeing the group’s territory even before Raqqa was conquered, with many making their way north to Turkey, according to a BuzzFeed report. ISIS members reportedly found plenty of ways to blend in with the rising tide of civilians fleeing the battle against the group, and paid off smugglers at checkpoints that were designed to catch them before they could escape the area.
Among these escapees were a number of senior members of the group, such as internal security officers and regional administrators.
BuzzFeed reports that militants have been flowing out of Syria into Turkey under the noses of US allies for the better part of a year.
- REUTERS/Umit Bektas
As Raqqa fell, ISIS left
In early October, according to the BBC, a deal was negotiated between the SDF and ISIS for thousands of fighters and their families to be evacuated from Raqqa in secret, well before the city had been secured for the US-backed coalition.
“We took out around 4,000 people including women and children,” one of the truck drivers tasked with carrying fighters out of the city told the BBC. “Our vehicle and their vehicles combined. When we entered Raqqa, we thought there were 200 people to collect. In my vehicle alone, I took 112 people.”
The convoy, which also included foreign fighters, transported fighters out of the city eastward into territories then-controlled by ISIS.
The fates and intentions of these fighters, along with the thousands who have now spread across Syria and fled into Turkey, remains unknown. A senior officer in the US Defense Department told BuzzFeed their fight against the group in the region is not over.
“Their near-term goal is survival – to be able to endure and survive,” the official said. “Did the idea of a caliphate die on the battlefield? I think the answer is self-evident. The loss of territory is not synonymous with defeat.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the US-led coalition had declared ISIS defeated in Syria. Only Russia and the Syrian government have declared the group defeated.