DEIR AL-ZOUR, Syria – The rain appears through an overcast sky over the Syrian desert. A graffito on a wall in Arabic reads “The Land of the Levant.” It is crossed out, but you can still make out what it says, in a city that was once held by the Islamic State terror organization.
A straight road full of potholes is the route to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, along which drivers of pick-up trucks and motorcyclists, some armed to the teeth, look at each other when fate brings them together.
Nobody trusts anyone. A week ago, the Islamic State was defeated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an ethnically-mixed militia led by Kurds, in Baghuz, the last area under the radical group’s control in Deir al-Zour, near the Iraqi border.
The victory was announced at a ceremony on March 23 and the celebration continued in Rojava, a Syrian Kurdish region that is not recognized by the Damascus government.
Now, like a phoenix, the feared jihadist group is about to rise from the ashes.
THE WAR IS NOT OVER
The United States-backed SDF launched its last battle in the town of Baghuz, where countless jihadist fighters, along with their families, were besieged for weeks.
Resisting until the end, dying in attacks by the US-led international coalition or surrendering were the options available for the bearded men and their women covered up from head to toe.
In the final days of the last battle, those men and women, with their children, crammed into tents and underground tunnels.
The offensive, which the SDF had to postpone numerous times due to the presence of civilians in the town, has left no bodies in sight.
In the past few days, the Kurdish forces have not allowed journalists to access Baghuz, claiming it was not safe due to landmines planted along the road by extremists.
During this time and far from prying eyes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the anti-jihadist coalition continued to bomb areas in Baghuz, claiming the lives of over 50 radicals.
But Kurdish sources told EFE they did not know anything and the operation was over.
French terror expert Charles Brisard told EFE the defeat of the Islamic State in Baghuz did not put an end to the military operations in the area because many jihadists had fled the fighting and gone to other areas.
Brisard said it was necessary to “neutralize” them in order to move onto “the next phase” in which the SDF forces were to “secure the zones, especially de-mine, before civilians are allowed access” to return to their homes, a process he said would be “long and difficult.”
It was a phase in which the US was expected to be less present after President Donald Trump announced in December the pull-out of 2,000 troops from Syria. The White House reported two months later that it would keep 400 troops there as “peace forces.”
The SDF fears the terrain could be left open for IS to resurface if US forces withdraw.
REVENGE AND FEAR
“Revenge acts could occur because there are sleeping cells, maybe, I do not know, but it could happen,” Abu Hamoud explained to EFE while sitting in a passenger seat of a vehicle that stopped on a road in the Syrian town of Marqadah.
From al-Omar camp, the SDF’s main base in Deir al-Zour, to Marqadah, there is a kind of “triangle of death” comprising small towns where the extremists are still active.
This is the case of Busaira town, where a leader of the Kurdish security units was notified in writing of the transfer of one of his men to the hospital after he was wounded in an attack.
Shortly after, they warned him there had been an explosion, giving no further details.
A group of radicals, whose commander was of Tunisian nationality, was detained in Busaira a few days ago, Kurdish officials told EFE condition of anonymity.
The sources said those extremists were the ones who resisted in the final attacks as part of the offensive in Baghuz.
Youssef Mustafa, a 35-year-old who was expelled from Marqadah in 2017, told EFE: “There are attacks and explosions from time to time, but in general, the situation is much better than before when the IS was in control.”
The jihadists who still swarm the area “could be residents here, and they could also be displaced from other areas,” Mustafa added.
Wearing sportswear and with raindrops on their foreheads, Majed, 12, and Wael, 14, described what it was like to live under IS control.
“We are not afraid, the situation is much better now. Before a group gave us orders and if we did not comply, they would catch us and flog us,” said Wael, whose father was killed three years ago during a bombing attack.
Majed said it was different now because IS used to force him to cut his hair and put on clothes to play soccer.
SDF commander Adnan Afrin said: “There are sleeping cells that are now more active than before the end of the geographical presence of IS.”
“This is the truth we should tell,” Afrin said.
CHILDREN OF THE CALIPHATE
The children who grew under the yoke of IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, have been the most affected by the barbarity.
Kyle Orton, a researcher focusing on Syria, said these children, who grew up playing with weapons and bombs, are the ones who will prolong the life of IS.
“The fact they controlled the territory for four years leaves a great impact, especially on children who have learned ideas and habits difficult to eradicate, even if there was a serious program for de-radicalization, which does not exist,” Orton said.
“Raising children in homes where extremism is normalized is a problem that will stay with us for a long time,” he added.
Joelle Bassoul, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, told EFE: “All children who have lived under the control of the Islamic State have experienced horrible events.”
“They have probably witnessed acts of extreme violence, have lived under siege and bombardments for weeks ... Almost all of them have lost their loved ones,” Bassoul added.
“They have the right to be safe, to learn and to be protected,” she said. “They are not responsible for their parents’ actions and should be forced to pay for those by being deprived of their basic rights.”
These children are the biggest victims of the state of terror that has been erased from the map, a terror that threatens to resurface.