Announcement appeared to catch US allies off-guard as SDF spokesman says its fighters clashed overnight with Islamic State militants
The Trump White House has declared that the Islamic State no longer holds any territory inside Syria, but the claim was disputed by Kurdish-led forces on the ground who said clashes were continuing.
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters that the acting defence secretary, Patrick Shanahan, had briefed Donald Trump and that the Pentagon had confirmed that the last vestiges of the Isis “caliphate” had been eliminated.
The announcement from the White House appeared to catch the US’s allies in Syria off-guard. No statement was immediately forthcoming from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been slowly advancing against the militants in their last stronghold of Baghuz on the Euphrates River over the last two months.
A spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said that clashes continued with Isis fighters holed up in trenches and caves. “Heavy fighting continues around mount Baghuz right now to finish off whatever remains of Isis,” Bali tweeted on Friday.
“Our forces are trying to force them to surrender, but so far the clashes are continuing,” Bali said.
Any official victory announcement was supposed to be announced in a ceremony held by the SDF at the operation’s base in the Syrian desert. Senior members of the international coalition against Isis are believed to have visited the base earlier on Friday.
Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said: “I hear the SDF will not make a victory statement until they have combed through the Baghuz pocket and declared it safe. The area is complex and the situation on the ground is still fluid.”
Isis fighters staged a last stand in the fields around the village of Baghuz as the SDF pushed them towards the banks of the Euphrates, and the area is now strewn with debris, weaponry and possible booby traps. It is not known whether all the Isis fighters from the Baghuz battle have been killed or captured, or whether some managed to escape.
The military campaign to drive Isis out of Syria, led by the SDF on the ground and supported by the US and allies in the air, was well under way when Trump took office in 2017, but it was accelerated under his administration, with the fall of one stronghold after other.
The achievement has been trumpeted heavily by Trump. This week he held up maps for the cameras, purporting to show the extent of Isis territory when he entered the White House and now.
Donald Trump holds up a map of Isis locations in Afghanistan as he speaks to the media in Washington DC on 20 March. Photograph: UPI/Barcroft Images
Trump did not personally claim the end of the caliphate but said on Twitter on Friday that Isis was “being beaten badly on every level”.
“There is nothing to admire about them, they will always try to show a glimmer of vicious hope, but they are losers and barely breathing,” he wrote. “Think about that before you destroy your lives and the lives of your family!”
Trump showed reporters a map of Isis-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. “Here’s Isis on election day,” he said, pointing to a swath of red area signifying the group’s previous territorial gains, and then to one without any red: “Here’s Isis right now.”
But a close-up of the map showed that Trump was displaying a depiction of the group’s footprint at a high point in 2014, not election day 2016, by which point the US-backed campaign was well under way.
US military leaders have cautioned, however, that Isis will remain a significant threat in the region, as they switch tactics from holding territory to going underground waiting for the right moment to resurface.
Gen Joseph Votel, the outgoing head of US Central Command, told a congressional committee this month: “Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment but the fight against Isis and violent extremism is far from over.”
Votel said that many Isis fighters had dispersed before the last stand of the caliphate at Baghuz.
“The Isis population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized,” he said.
Hassan Hassan, director of the non-state actors program at Centre for Global Policy, predicted that Isis would eventually make a comeback in Syria, just as the Taliban regained ground after being driven out of Kabul in 2001.
“The Taliban now controls more areas than it ever did since its collapse,” Hassan said. “Years from now, Isis too will steadily be in de facto control of most of the areas it’s lost.”