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Last Major ISIS Bastion In Syria Under U.S.-backed Assault

The final Islamic State stronghold in the country’s east is likely to fall, but experts warn that ISIS will most certainly live on

A major offensive launched by U.S.-backed Syrian forces in the country’s east will likely lead to the downfall of Islamic State’s last major stronghold, but will not spell the end of the extremist group, analysts believe.

Backed by the U.S. coalition, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an assault on the last remaining pockets of Islamic State (ISIS) territory in the villages near the city of Deir ez-Zor and the eastern bank of the Euphrates River where the terrorist group’s leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, are believed to be hiding.

The SDF, made up of Kurdish and Arab militias, is engaged in intense clashes with thousands of ISIS fighters near Hajin and other nearby villages as they increase pressure on the extremist group by pushing deeper into ISIS-held territory. The U.S. coalition has been supporting the offensive via air attacks and artillery strikes.

“The American military support to SDF in fighting Daesh [the Arabic term for ISIS] is quite extensive,” Professor Ofra Bengio, the head of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told The Media Line. “However, the big question mark is for how long the Americans will continue this support and if they will not turn the Kurds into a bargaining chip with Russia and Turkey.”

The conquest of Hajin and nearby villages near the Iraqi border would mark an important victory in the ongoing fight against ISIS in Syria.

“[Hajin] is the last major urban center that ISIS still controls and it’s quite large,” Owen Holdaway, a freelance journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, told The Media Line. “Many of its leaders and foreign fighters are still based there so it’s their last major pocket.

“The Americans seem to have been upping their coalition attacks so it should probably fall,” he continued, but added that “this probably won’t mean the end of ISIS because the group still control areas in Syria’s eastern desert and in Iraq as well.”

The extremist group will simply revert to being “a sleeper cell organization with hit-and-run tactics,” he argued, adding that several villages in the desert near Hajin remain strongly supportive of ISIS.

Dr. Bengio, who heads the Kurdish Studies Program at Tel Aviv University, agreed with Holdaway that Daesh is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

“I do not think that this is the end of the group either ideologically or militarily,” Bengio posited, noting that while Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had declared victory against the group last December, ISIS continues to carry out terrorist attacks in Iraq sporadically. Such attacks would likely occur in Syria even if Syrian forces manage to retake the group’s last urban center.

Despite losing most of its territory, ISIS continues to attack both Iraqi and Syrian forces on a regular basis. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that as part of the coalition’s current assault on ISIS positions, it had witnessed increasing artillery shelling from French forces in the area over the past week.

It said that Islamic State is relying on a network of underground tunnels to repel and inflict heavy casualties on SDF forces.

“Thirty men and about 100 women with their children have surrendered to the SDF and the international coalition in the vicinity of the enclave which is controlled by the ‘Islamic State’ organization,” the watchdog group wrote.

Though this current assault will likely not spell the end of ISIS, it would mark a significant blow to the group and its territorial ambitions, which at its peak in 2014 controlled vast swathes of land in Syria and Iraq.