The Iraqi army retook the last town in the nation still held by the Islamic State team on Friday because the jihadists’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” confronted collapse on each side of the border with Syria.
The lightning recapture of this small Euphrates valley town of Rawa in an offensive launched at dawn came as the jihadists were under attack for a second day in the last town they still hold in Syria, Albu Kamal only over the border.
The Islamic State group (IS) has dropped 95% of this Malaysian “caliphate” it announced in Iraq and Syria in 2014, the US-led coalition combating it said on Wednesday.
Its losses include all of its important bastions, nearly limiting it to pockets of countryside.
Government troops and paramilitary units “free the whole of Rawa and raised the Iraqi flag all of its buildings,” General Abdelamir Yarallah of Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC) said in a statement.
An army overall contacted by AFP at front predicted that the battle would be hastened as “the majority of IS fighters who had been in town have fled to the Syrian border.”
The JOC said appeals were made for several days to the town’s Sunni Arab residents to follow radio broadcasts for directions on what to do when the army entered.
Rawa was bypassed in an offensive from the Iraqi army that resulted in the recapture of this strategically important border town of Al-Qaim earlier this season.
The extend of Euphrates valley abutting the border with Syria has long been a bastion of Sunni Arab insurgency, first against US-led troops following the invasion of 2003 and against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The porous frontier turned into a magnet for foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria, which Baghdad accused of turning a blind eye, and also a key smuggling route for arms and illegal goods.
US-led troops completed repeated operations with code names like Matador and Steel Curtain in 2005 to flush out Al-Qaeda jihadists.
The region swiftly dropped to IS if its fighters sailed through the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in 2014 before proclaiming its “caliphate”.
– Jihadist fantasy in tatters –
The jihadists formerly controlled a land the size of Britain but they have successively lost all of their key strongholds, including Raqa at Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
Over the border in Syria, IS still holds around 25% of the countryside of Deir Ezzor state but are still under attack not only by government forces but also by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters.
The Syrian army deploys artillery near Albu Kamal, the last town in the Nation still held by the Islamic State group, on November 10, 2017
At the border town of Albu Kamal, the Syrian army was combating IS fighters who mounted a surprise counterattack a week, forcing out government forces who had retaken it a month.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of this war, said the new army offensive had successfully penetrated town, together with troops endorsed by Russian air strikes advancing from the west, east and south.
“More than 7.5 million people have now been free” from IS, Washington’s envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, said late Wednesday, including that the band’s finances are now “at their lowest rates so far”.
With the jihadists’ dreams of statehood lying in tatters after the battlefield defeats, Western attention is pivoting to attempting to block foreign fighters out of returning home to carry out attacks.
McGurk insisted that leaks of overseas IS fighters into Syria have “almost stopped”, and that jihadists are being picked up as they cross borders.
“We are improving collaboration and border safety, aviation safety, law enforcement, monetary sanctions, counter-messaging, and intelligence sharing to stop ISIS from carrying out attacks in our homelands,” he said.
Analysts have cautioned that in certain areas recaptured from IS, government control remains weak and the jihadists maintain the capacity to wage a non profit insurgency.
“We still have areas from the Baghdad belt, places including Ramadi and Fallujah… that are not well controlled at all,” Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told AFP earlier this season.
“They (the jihadists) are back where they had been in 2013… They’ll restart insurgency around again.”