In a historic moment, ignored by much of Western media, Russian military officials have announced the complete and utter defeat of ISIS in Syria. The Russian General Staff issued a statement Wednesday declaring that all territories previously under terrorist control were liberated in a final push by the Syrian Army this week, and with the support of Russian forces.
“All terrorist units of ISIS on Syrian soil have been destroyed, and the territory is liberated,” Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov said in comments translated and published by RT. “Therefore, as of today, there’s no territory controlled by ISIS in Syria,” he added. The announcement came during an annual briefing for foreign military attaches, and incidentally on the same day President Trump gave an extremely controversial televised address wherein he gave official US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thus it could mean that the demise of one problem could give rise to another in an increasingly volatile and explosive Middle East environment.
The rapid collapse of ISIS – which once controlled an area the size of Britain stretching from the edges of Aleppo to Mosul in Iraq, and down to Ramadi and Fallujah – began in earnest in early September when the Syrian Army breached ISIS lines around Deir Ezzor city, after which the city was fully liberated by early November. As ISIS retreated in the Deir Ezzor countryside, it lost its previous Syrian capital of Raqqa in mid-October to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which also struck a deal to allow the quick exit of ISIS terrorists to other parts of Syria and region, according to a report by the BBC.
The Syrian Army this week continued its momentum in Deir Ezzor province, liberating the villages of Jalaa, Ramadi and Buq in rapid succession, while Russian bombers reportedly carried out massive strikes on remaining ISIS positions near al-Sayyal. Other locations were liberated in quick succession according to reports, including Khutaytah, ‘Abbas, Masra’at Shamr, Qit’ah, Mujawwadah, Jabal Nusuriyah, Tal Bani, and Tal Khinzir.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin was briefed by his military staff on Wednesday, he acknowledged the end of the bulk of anti-ISIS military operations while also saying, “Naturally, there might be some spots of resistance, but the military work has been largely completed in the area and at the time. Completed with a full victory, I repeat, with a victory and defeat of the terrorists.” Putin further said that the political negotiation process over the future of Syria put in place by a Russia-Iran-Turkey agreement reached in Sochi last month must now become the focus, which may include future Syrian presidential elections. He cautioned, however, that this potential peace process will be “a very big and lengthy job.”
Today’s remarks followed an earlier address by Putin to a major gathering of Orthodox church leaders from around the world on Monday – an event hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin told the Christian leaders that Syria’s ancient Christian heartland had been fully liberated: “The situation in this country [Syria] is gradually changing. The Syrian armed forces, supported by the Russian military, have liberated from terrorists almost the whole territory of the country, including historic Christian regions,” he said. Prior to the war, the Christian population in Syria was about 2 million, according to estimates.
Indeed as early as March of 2012 the official Vatican news agency, Agenzia Fides, published a report citing “an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” by anti-government fighters in Homs based on Syrian Orthodox church sources a report which made world headlines at the time. It was further widely reported in international press that 90% of the large Christian population of central Syria had been forcibly expelled and their homes confiscated by anti-Assad fighters.
Though the West had defended the insurgency as comprised of “moderate” Free Syrian Army fighters, this pattern of religious and ethnic cleansing became familiar throughout much of the rest of Syria as jihadists made gains in the midst of the war. When ISIS initially emerged on the Syrian battlefield in 2013 it routinely fought directly under and in coordination with US-backed FSA command structures – and later, in 2014, entire FSA groups would defect en mass to the Islamic State, taking their US/UK and Gulf-supplied weapons and communications gear with them – all of which allowed for the Islamic State’s shockingly rapid growth.
But when Russia militarily intervened in Syria in 2015 at the invitation of Damascus, the momentum changed dramatically in favor of the Syrian government, which painstakingly gained back territory over the following two years.
At the gathering of church leaders this week, Putin further stated that future stability in Syria was dependent on more than just military gains, but on refugees feeling secure enough to return to their homes, especially religious minorities which make up the pluralist fabric of Syrian society: “Over the past few years the Russian state alongside with the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as other religious organizations has provided humanitarian aid to Syria. It’s very important that the peaceful life is established as soon as possible, that the people can return to their homes, begin to rebuild the temples and churches,” Putin stressed.
Though Russian statements on Syria this week focused on declaring victory over ISIS, it is unclear what might be in store for al-Qaeda held Idlib in the coming months. Russia and other international powers have long weighed military options to dislodge the northwestern province from Hayat Ta?rir al-Sham (AQ in Syria) control, but with a highly concentrated civilian population, there are no easy options.