As the Syrian Democratic Forces make a final push against die-hard fighters in the eastern town of Baghouz, it is clear that ISIS's days as a military force and proto-state are over. However, it would be a mistake to consider the group defeated. Glenn A Fine, principal deputy inspector general of the US Department of Defence, stated in a recent report that "ISIS remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that 'could likely resurge in Syria' [in the absence of] continued counterterrorism pressure". The group also has the potential to change tactics, splinter and morph into new and dangerous iterations.
The threat that ISIS continues to pose is illustrated by the high percentage of foreigners fleeing Baghouz. If ISIS's ideology was enough to compel such a large number of people to move thousands of kilometres to join its so-called caliphate, it is inevitable that many sympathisers will remain both in Syria and beyond. As detailed in The National's special report yesterday, SDF fighters even seized "pistols, hand grenades, laptops and other suspicious items" from women seeking to enter the displacement camps north of the town. There is also the question of what to do with those foreign nationals who made the journey to join ISIS. The SDF currently holds 850. It has called for them to be repatriated and tried in their home countries. However, many nations are reluctant to do this. Some, such as the UK and US, have stripped individuals of citizenship. France, meanwhile, has insisted that 13 of its nationals be transferred by the SDF to face trial in Iraq.
ISIS has also bequeathed a horrific legacy to the vast areas of territory it once so brutally dominated. The scars of its atrocities are deep and lasting. Collective memory will be haunted by its barbarism for decades to come. Meanwhile, for minority groups such as the Yazidis – against which ISIS perpetrated a campaign of genocide, enslavement, sexual abuse and indoctrination – life will never be the same. Take, for example, the teenage Yazidi boy fleeing Barghouz who heartbreakingly revealed that he no longer had any idea where his family was.
Meanwhile, even though President Bashar Al Assad’s grip on the country is tightening, Syria’s eight-year war is not yet over. UN special envoy Geir Pedersen has recently spoken of his intention to broaden the narrow focus on drafting a new constitution that consumed his predecessor Staffan de Mistura’s final months in the post. He has highlighted the need for diplomatic solutions and the importance of “building trust and confidence” between the Assad regime and the opposition, in order to finally put an end to this conflict. For the sake of the Syrian people we can only hope his plan succeeds.