In the desert between Iraq and Syria, mostly Kurdish forces have seized the last remaining pocket of the Islamic State’s once sprawling dominion. But while the terrorists may have capitulated for now, many have gone underground to plan the next deadly phase.
The long brown cloak gave the man an antiquated look. His unkempt hair stood out from his head and his face was framed by an unruly beard. He slowly crept up the narrow mountain trail, and when he took a step with both crutches and moved his left leg forward, his right thigh swung slightly in the same direction. The man plodded along like this until he saw a stretch of path in the distance that was so steep it would have to be climbed.
He stood still for a while, let his crutches fall to the side and dropped down to the ground. He sat in the dust for a few minutes while bag-toting women, wounded adults and children shuffled past. Finally, he struggled to get up, grabbed his crutches and trudged at a snail’s pace until finally disappearing in the crowd that had gathered at the base of the cliff.
If the end of Islamic State (IS) could be distilled into one scene, one individual and just a few minutes, it would be this one-legged man on one of the last days in March when people could still leave Baghouz, the final IS stronghold. His body maimed and exhausted, still he was apparently unwilling to become a martyr. At that moment, nothing seemed to remain of the brute strength and willingness to embrace death that for so long had characterized the so-called caliphate’s most faithful acolytes. Just a cripple bent on survival.
The “Baghouz camp,” the part of this village at the edge of eastern Syria where tens of thousands of extremists had entrenched themselves, is a hellish place. Every few days, when the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) managed to make another modest advance and the fighting lulled for a moment, the Kurdish militias would allow a few journalists inside. There were no more people, but a smell still lingered from the months they had spent huddled together in trenches and burrows. Clothing, cookware and stuffed animals lay strewn among spent magazines, a partially filled children’s notebook with spelling exercises and discarded explosive belts. Occasionally the air reeked with the stench of a forgotten corpse.
Historic Victory, Historic Defeat
A week and a half after the one-legged man dragged himself up the steep rocky slope, IS’ “caliphate” was defeated. On March 23, Kurdish-led SDF, backed primarily by American fighter jets and British and French special forces, captured the last few hundred square meters of the village of Baghouz in a godforsaken corner of eastern Syria.
The fact that IS fighters continued to shoot from tunnels in the nearby rocky massif as the liberators conducted the official flag-raising ceremony, and the fact that Kurdish press officers had been promising since early February that victory was only “a few days” away, made it easy to lose sight of the historical significance of what was taking place.