Two military police officers guard in the yard of Aleppo’s oldest Umayyad mosque, Syria (Source: PTI)

Pentagon, Trump Cheer Liberation of ‘Loser’ Islamic State Lands

(Bloomberg) -- The final swath of territory once held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been liberated, the Pentagon said, hours after a largely Kurdish fighting force in Syria claimed victory.

Saturday’s statement by acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan followed one by President Donald Trump. Unlike the president, who’s said for months that victory had been achieved, it was the first time the U.S. military has proclaimed that the terrorist group no longer holds land it called its “caliphate.”

“We are inspired by the battlefield success of the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Shanahan said in the statement. “Today’s SDF announcement that the liberation of the territory once held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria is 100 percent complete confirms that more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria have been cleared of ISIS since January 2017, and the terror group no longer controls populated areas.”

Trump predicted in a statement released by the White House that Islamic State “cowards” would resurface from time to time, adding that “they are losers and will always be losers.”

“We will remain vigilant against ISIS by aligning global counter-terrorism efforts to fight ISIS until it is finally defeated wherever it operates,” the president said.

In December, Trump announced flatly that Islamic State had been defeated and that he was bringing U.S. troops home from Syria, a decision that prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign. The president later acknowledged that Islamic State remained a threat, and his administration said as many as 400 troops would stay.

Earlier Saturday, the SDF announced on its website that its forces “have raised their flag over Baghouz and declare complete military victory over the terrorist Islamic State after six years of war.”

The predominantly Kurdish forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, began an offensive against ISIS in September to gain control of the area. Activists say some 470 civilians have been killed since the attacks started and many others have surrendered.

U.S. commanders have made clear that they still consider Islamic State, also known as ISIS and Daesh, a dangerous threat even though its adherents are now scattered.

“The end of the so-called physical caliphate is a historic military accomplishment that brought together the largest coalition in history, but the fight against Daesh and violent extremism is far from over,” said Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, commanding general of the U.S.-led campaign against the group.

That caution was echoed by Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

“The question now is how will ISIS react? What’s their new strategy now?” he said. “Today, ISIS and all these Jihadi groups will be exporting their military efforts outside the Levant, and they will change tactics from establishing a geographic presence to a more guerrilla warfare, whether in the region or somewhere else.”

Pentagon, Trump Cheer Liberation of ‘Loser’ Islamic State Lands

Islamic State had already lost almost all of the land it once held. The group swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014, conquering large chunks of oil-rich territory before its major strongholds fell at the end of 2017. The U.S.-backed coalition, Iraqi and Syrian government forces, Syrian rebels, Russian airstrikes and Iranian-allied militias have all targeted the group.

The head of U.S. Central Command Joseph Votel, who’s stepping down this month, said the fight against Islamic State is far from over.

Islamic State has made a “calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons, and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge,” Votel told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.”

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