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U.S.-Backed Forces Declare Defeat Of ISIS 'Caliphate'


U.S.-backed Syrian defense forces announced today they have defeated ISIS holdouts in the town of Baghouz, the last piece of territory held by ISIS. This announcement comes after the Trump administration made a similar claim yesterday. Joining us now from Beirut is NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Ruth, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: What does this apparent defeat of ISIS in that town north - in the north of eastern Syria mean?

SHERLOCK: Well, it marks the end of the so-called ISIS caliphate, the state that they'd been trying to make. You know, this was declared back in 2014. And just to remind everyone, this used to control swaths of Iraq and Syria. At their height, the group ruled over about 8 million people, and they attracted tens of thousands of foreigners. Many people from the West joined them. And this rule was violent. You know, they killed opponents. There were public beheadings. They killed some Western journalists and used their grim videos as propaganda. And they captured thousands of women and children from Iraq's Yazidi minority, too, forced them into slavery. Well, so today, all that is over, and the U.S.-backed SDF is saying that they've taken all of the group's territory. There are still some reports of some sporadic gun battles, but they say this is just rooting out sleeper cells.

SIMON: And it's been a costly fight over the past 4 1/2 years, hasn't it?

SHERLOCK: Extremely so. There's - thousands of Iraqis and Kurdish people have died fighting ISIS. And the cost for civilians is huge, as well. You know, whole cities in Iraq and Syria have been destroyed. And thousands of civilians have been killed, and their livelihoods are destroyed.

So it's going to take billions of dollars to rebuild this area. And while the U.S. initially promised to help with this, those efforts have been cut back. And, now, there's, like, paltry funding for that.

SIMON: Does the end of ISIS's territorial control, the caliphate, mean the end of ISIS?

SHERLOCK: It really does not. U.S. defense officials, including General Joseph Votel, you know, who oversees the fight against ISIS - he says the leaders have dispersed and gone to ground. And the defeat in Baghouz is really a strategic move by ISIS to preserve their capabilities. So while many thousands of fighters remain dispersed across Iraq and Syria - and the group has these footholds still, in Libya and Afghanistan, Yemen and the Philippines. So, you know, the real difference here is between the - you know, bombing a territory and trying to defeat an ideology.

Here, the group still has a lot of support. Its roots go all the way back to the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion in Iraq. And, you know, the difficulty is that thousands of people that left that area still support ISIS. And now they're living in areas that are decimated by war. And the group's ideology kind of has a chance still to grow here. So they're already waging these low-level insurgencies. So I think this is not the last we're going to hear.

SIMON: And this would end without, in a sense, the burden of having to control territory. They might be able to range as what we used to call guerrilla warriors.

SHERLOCK: Absolutely.

SIMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock - thanks very much - speaking with us this morning. Thanks very much for being with us.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.