Is ISIS Gone? Syria Prepares for New Islamic State Battle as U.S. Considers Walking Away

The Syrian military has begun preparing for a new offensive against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in one of the final territories outside of government control near the capital city of Damascus.

As insurgents in eastern Ghouta either reconciled with the government or evacuated to shrinking bastions of control elsewhere, some of ISIS's final fighters staged their own violent offensive against both the military and remaining rebels in Damascus's southern countryside last month. The pro-opposition, U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Thursday that the Syrian government and its Russian ally have offered the southwestern towns of Yalda, Babbila and Beit Sahem an ultimatum to hand over weapons or a forced displacement, but that an all-out offensive was already being planned for ISIS-held parts of south Damascus.

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"Regime forces and their allies brought military reinforcements from several units and other elements to the area controlled by the Islamic State organization in most of the neighborhood of Al-Qadam, Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, most of Yarmouk Camp and large parts of the neighborhood of Al-Tadamon, amid mobilization operations by the Islamic State organization in the southern part of the capital Damascus," the monitor said, citing cross-referenced sources.

"Regime forces were preparing to execute a military operation intended to gain control over Yarmouk camp, Al-Tadamon, Al-Qadam and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad and put an end to the existence of the Islamic State organization there," it added.

An ISIS flag is seen near a barricade, which serves as protection from Syrian army snipers, in Yarmouk Street, the main street of Yarmouk camp, Syria, on April 10, 2015. The impoverished Palestinian refugee camp has been the site of bloody clashes between pro-government forces, rebels and jihadis throughout the war. Moayad Zaghmout/Reuters

The state-run Al-Watan newspaper reported Thursday that "things are moving strongly toward a reconciliation agreement" between the Syrian government and the towns of Yalda, Babbila and Beit Sahem as militias opposed to Assad "had begun to go back on their intransigence," citing sources close to the agreements. The sources also mentioned that a "military solution" had been proposed for the areas under ISIS control.

The tiny patch of ISIS territory south of Damascus was one of the final bastions for the jihadis who once claimed half of Iraq and Syria at the height of their self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014. The group originated after ultraconservative Sunni Muslim Iraqi organizations, including Al-Qaeda in Iraq, merged to form a jihadi supergroup in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion. After officially branding itself ISIS in 2013, the group took advantage of the 2011 uprising against Assad to spread and has drawn separate, often competing local and international forces into Syria's ongoing civil war.

The U.S., which backed insurgents fighting to overthrow Assad, began bombing ISIS in 2014 and ultimately abandoned CIA support for an increasingly Islamic fundamentalist Syrian opposition in favor of a mostly Kurdish group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces established in 2015. That same year, Russia entered the conflict on behalf of Assad, helping him and pro-government forces—many of which were Shiite Muslim militias supported directly by Iran—regain control of much of the country.

As the war in Syria turned seven years old last month, ISIS was all but defeated at the hands of separate campaigns by the Russia-backed Syrian military and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic forces. The U.S.-led coalition's ground campaign against ISIS was halted due to Kurdish sympathies being diverted toward blocking a Turkish invasion in the north and the Syrian military's renewed efforts to reclaim territory held by rebels and jihadis in the northwest province of Idlib and east of Damascus, where the final major group, Jaysh al-Islam, was negotiating the exit of the last of its fighters.

A map shows areas of control and Syrian military advances as of March 26. Nearly all of the rebels and jihadis of eastern Ghouta have surrendered, but local authorities reportedly expected to fight for the ISIS-held outskirts south of the capital. Institute for the Study of War/Reuters
A map shows areas of control in Syria as of March 22. The Syrian military has continued to advance against rebels across the country, while ISIS remained confined to even smaller pockets of territory. Institute for the Study of War/Reuters

The U.S. has condemned the Syrian military's campaign in eastern Ghouta, accusing the Syrian government and its allies of targeting civilians and using chemical weapons. Assad has rejected these charges and has demanded the immediate departure of U.S. and Turkish forces, while Russia and Iran—the only foreign forces endorsed by Assad—have also called for the U.S. to leave Syria, where the Pentagon maintained a relatively modest force of about 2,000 troops.

President Donald Trump has recently called for U.S. troops to withdraw, but his advisers have reportedly resisted, saying it was necessary to maintain a presence in order to block Iran's growing influence and wipe out remaining pockets of ISIS in the east. In a statement sent to Newsweek, the U.S.-led coalition said that ISIS has maintained territory in two areas in eastern Syria, "near Hajin, along the Euphrates River, and Dashisha, near the Syria-Iraq border."

"The Coalition, along with our Syrian Democratic Force partners, have contained ISIS in these areas. The Coalition and the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] continue to find opportunities to exploit ISIS weaknesses and conduct strikes against the remaining terrorists," the U.S.-led coalition statement added.