Governments call SDF capture of group’s last remaining stronghold in Syria a ‘milestone’ but warn of remaining threats.
After years of fighting, it was finally time to dance.
As their commanders on Saturday declared final victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) unfurled their yellow flag atop a bullet-ridden building in celebration.
They celebrated the victory with the Dabke, a folk dance, and embracing each other, though with tears in their eyes for the loss of 11,000 fellow fighters killed in the long war against ISIL.
Mazloum Kobani, general commander of the US-backed Kurdish-led forces, appeared on a stage erected at the Omar oilfields near Baghouz – ISIL’s last enclave in eastern Syria and the site of heavy battles in recent weeks – and told the world that it was the efforts of the SDF that led to the defeat of the armed group.
SDF had freed “five million people from terrorism” and “liberated 52,000 square kilometres of Syrian territory”, Kobani said.
“We’re so happy today, we raised the names of our martyrs and didn’t waste their sacrifices,” Smako Shekaki, a Kurdish field SDF commander, told Al Jazeera on the phone.
The SDF is led by the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), but it also includes Arab and Christian brigades and tribal fighters, including members of the Shaitat tribe.
In 2014, hundreds of the tribe’s men were shot or beheaded after being captured by ISIL in eastern Syria.
Ayman Allawi, a Shaitat commander with the SDF, dedicated the victory to the mothers of his slain fellow tribesmen.
“We are so happy, and the fighters are enjoying the taste of victory, as now the atrocities and unfairness of Daesh are over,” he said, using ISIL’s Arabic acronym.
“We have lived bitter days because of them. The happiest are the mothers of the martyrs of 2014.”
Tamim al-Shaiti lost three of his cousins in the killings five years ago.
“We’re all happy for the defeat of Daesh but won’t forget our revenge even after 100 years,” he said from his village in Syria’s eastern Deir Az Zor province. “The blood of our brothers won’t be in vain. We will look for Daesh’s supporters and sleeper cells and bury them.”
The SDF fighters, the main ground ally of Western powers in the fight against ISIL, are now hoping that their military victory will help win them future autonomy within Syria.
Nonetheless, following ISIL’s defeat, there seem to be fears within the SDF that he might again change his mind.
In his speech, Kobani said that while the SDF would continue to ensure stability in the area by targeting ISIL’s sleeper cells in the post-war phase, a dialogue with Damascus leading to a political solution was necessary.
Last week, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad threatened to retake SDF-held areas by force if necessary.
“We call on the central government in Damascus to prefer the process of dialogue and start practical steps to reach a political solution based on the recognition of elected self-administrations in northeast of Syria and acceptance of the special nature of the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Kobani said.
General Kobani also appealed to Turkey to talk and resolve its differences with Syrian Kurds instead of “interfering in Syrian internal affairs”.
Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, said the Kurds were in a difficult position.
“The moment the US leaves, if not before, they’re going to be sandwiched between a hostile Turkey and a hostile Syrian government, with ISIL remnants doing what they can to exploit the chaos,” Lund told Al Jazeera.
“So SDF leaders are trying to preemptively put a new security architecture in place, by asking for some form of autonomy under Syrian government auspices.”
Following the SDF’s declaration of the elimination of ISIL’s self-styled caliphate, which at its peak covered an area across Iraq and Syria roughly equivalent to the size of Britain, a number of international leaders hailed the development but cautioned against remaining dangers.
Analysts and locals – whether Kurd or Arab – echoed the warning, sounding the alarm against losing sight of the threat the group still posed and its potential re-emergence under the right conditions, including taking advantage of regional ethnic rivalries.
Lund, of the Century Foundation, noted that ISIL would look for “power vacuums and exploit every opportunity to stage a comeback”.
Meanwhile, Shekaki, the field commander in Baghouz, struck a chord of unity and said ISIL’s defeat was a victory for all the people in Syria.
“It’s the day when Daesh was defeated by the Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian brothers. It is a day to bring happiness to all of us,” he said.