Syria declares victory over Islamic State after years of torturous reign

BEIRUT, Nov 9 (Reuters) - Syria's army declared victory over Islamic State on Thursday, saying its capture of the jihadists' last town in the country marked the collapse of their three-year, hardline reign in the in the region.

The army and its allies are still fighting Islamic State in desert areas near Albu Kamal, the last town the militant group had held in Syria, near the border with Iraq, the army said.

But the capture of the town ends Islamic State's era of territorial rule over the so-called caliphate that it proclaimed in 2014 across Iraq and Syria and in which millions suffered under its hardline, repressive strictures.

Yet after ferocious defensive battles in its most important cities this year, where its fighters bled for every house and street, its final collapse has come with lightning speed.

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A timeline of the battle for Mosul
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A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter looks over as he stands on the top of a humvee in front of an Islamic State militants' position outside the town of Naweran near Mosul, Iraq October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Newly displaced people wait to receive food supplies at a processing center for displaced people In Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises at Islamic State militants' positions in the town of Naweran, near Mosul, Iraq, October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi soldier stands next to a detained man accused of being an Islamic State fighter at a check point in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi father (L) mourns the death of his son, who was killed during clashes in the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, in al-Samah neighborhood, Iraq December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People run in panic after a coalition airstrike hit Islamic State fighters positions in Mosul, Iraq, November 17, 2016. Goran Tomasevic: 'I had been to the Tahrir district of eastern Mosul several times while covering the campaign by Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led air strikes to retake the city from Islamic State militants. Covering battles is tough and in this case, it was difficult to get to the frontline at times, but on this day we managed. When we arrived it seemed calm and quiet. Soon after a car blew up in a suicide bombing in an Islamic State counter-attack to the forces' push into Mosul. There were casualties, children screaming, and several nearby houses were destroyed. There were also clashes. I have covered many conflicts in my career, but what has struck me in Mosul is the number of car bombings. The fighting comes in waves and when things eventually quietened down, I saw a group of civilians making the most of a break in gunfire to come out onto the streets. They were both young and elderly, and felt safe enough to leave their homes with few belongings, walking carefully but calmly towards where I was standing capturing the scenes around me. Suddenly an air strike targeted Islamic State positions a few hundred metres away behind them. It was close and total panic ensued. People were screaming, ducking and running away as the plumes of smoke rose nearby. They quickly ran for whatever shelter they could find. I heard the plane just before the airstrike, and from experience knew I had little time. These things happen fast and you have to act quickly. First you have to make sure you are safe, then stay focused so you can get the shot. You get your lens ready and stay calm. It was one airstrike and residents waited it out before finding other shelter. I eventually moved to another location to continue covering the fighting.' REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "2016 PIX" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of Iraqi rapid response forces holds a flower during battle with Islamic State militants in the Mithaq district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Displaced people, who fled Islamic State militants, cross the bridge in Al-Muthanna neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq, January 15, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
American army personnel gather at the University of Mosul during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A displaced Iraqi boy holds a white flag as his family flees during the battle between Iraqi rapid response forces and Islamic State militants at Tigris river frontline between east and west of Mosul , Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi Special Forces soldier moves through a hole as he searches for Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq February 27, 2017 REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People who are trying to escape from Mosul walk in front of an Islamic State fighter, Iraq February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
A woman gestures as she approaches Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq March 1, 2017 REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi special forces soldier fires at a drone operated by Islamic State militants Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq March 4, 2017. Reuters Photographer Goran Tomasevic: "Both screaming in terror, a father and the young daughter he cradled in his arm fled through the rubble-strewn streets of Wadi Hajar, transformed in a flash into a battleground between Islamic State fighters and Iraqi special forces. They and their neighbours - some wearing rubber sandals, some barefoot - were running from an IS counter-attack in this part of Mosul, dodging gunfire as the militants closed in. When they reached the special forces lines, males were ordered to lift their shirts to prove they weren't suicide bombers. Some had to take off their clothes or show their belts, though not those carrying children. The father was so beside himself, so panicked. It was obvious because he had a short shirt on and was carrying a child that he wasn?t Islamic State. I believe they will both be taken to a refugee camp." REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic SEARCH "TOMASEVIC FATHER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A displaced Iraqi woman reacts as she waits in a street for a truck to carry her to a safe place, as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A displaced Iraqi girl cries before entering Hamam al-Alil camp, as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, south of Mosul, Iraq March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Iraqi rapid response members fire a missile against Islamic State militants during a battle with the militants in Mosul, Iraq, March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from clashes near Mosul's Al-Habda minaret at the Grand Mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate back in 2014, as Iraqi forces battle to drive out Islamic state militants from the western part of Mosul, Iraq, March 17, 2017. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People walk in front of the remains of the University of Mosul, which was burned and destroyed during a battle with Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq, April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Ameen Mukdad, a violinist from Mosul who lived under ISIS's rule for two and a half years where they destroyed his musical instruments, performs at Nabi Yunus shrine in eastern Mosul, Iraq, April 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed
A destroyed room inside an abandoned building is seen in western Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares SEARCH "EMPTY CASARES" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Cartoon characters defaced by Islamic State militants are seen at a children's hospital, in eastern Mosul, Iraq April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A members of the Iraqi Federal Police throws a hand grenade during clashes with the Islamic State fighters in western Mosul, Iraq, April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Displaced Iraqis from Mosul wait to cross the Tigris by boat after the bridge has been temporarily closed, at the village of Thibaniya, south of Mosul, Iraq May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Members of Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) forces look at the positions of Islamic State militants during clashes in western Mosul, Iraq, May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A view of a part of western Mosul, Iraq May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The shadow of a member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division is seen as he opens a steel gate to a room used as a cell for men, inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Debris fly as smoke rises after an artillery attack on the Islamic State militants' positions by the Iraqi Army in the Shifa neighbourhood during clashes in western Mosul, Iraq June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Members of the Iraqi army drop leaflets over the old city of Mosul, Iraq, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi soldier from the 9th Armoured Division gives drops of water to a dehydrated child rescued earlier by soldiers at the frontline, during the ongoing fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants near the Old City in western Mosul, Iraq, June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro SEARCH "DE CASTRO DEHYDRATED" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A destroyed al-Hadba minaret at Grand al-Nuri Mosque (L) is pictured through a hole at the Iraqi-held position at the Old City in Mosul, Iraq June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
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Instead of a battle to the death as they mounted a last stand in the Euphrates valley towns and villages near the border between Iraq and Syria, many fighters surrendered or fled.

"There's some fighters left but they're few. Small numbers is all I can say," said a Syrian army commander of the remaining militants near Albu Kamal. "Some were killed and some ran away. They went towards eastern or northern villages."

In Albu Kamal, the jihadists had fought fiercely, said a commander in the pro-Syrian government military alliance. But it was captured the same day the assault began.

This sealed "the fall of the terrorist Daesh organization's project in the region," an army statement said, using an Arabic term for Islamic State.

The fate of its last commanders is still unknown -- killed by bombardment or in battle, taken prisoner but unidentified, or hunkered into long-prepared hideouts to plot a new insurgency.

The last appearance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who declared himself caliph and heir to Islam's historic leaders from the great medieval mosque in Iraq's Mosul, was made in an audio recording in September.

"Oh Soldiers of Islam in every location, increase blow after blow, and make the media centers of the infidels, from where they wage their intellectual wars, among the targets," he said.

Mosul fell to Iraqi forces in July after a nine-month battle. Islamic State's Syrian capital of Raqqa fell in October to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, after four months of fighting.

But all the forces fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq expect a new phase of guerrilla warfare, a tactic the militants have already shown themselves capable of with armed operations in both countries.

Western security chiefs have also said its loss of territory does not mean an end to the "lone-wolf" attacks with guns, knives or trucks plowing into civilians that its supporters have mounted around the world.

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Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division stand outside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division stands inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A coffee mug is seen on a table at a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A steel gate leads to a section of a compound used as prison for men inside a building abandoned by Islamic State militants in July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division searches through a desk inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Clothing left behind by Islamic State militants is seen on the floor in a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Rotten food is seen on a kitchen table inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The photo of an unidentified girl is seen on a desk inside a compound used as prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mattresses of prisoners are seen inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Documents and envelopes are scattered inside an office, at a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Damaged surveillance monitors are seen in the control room in a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Materials for making self-made bombs are seen on the floor inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The shadow of a member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division is seen in a room used as a cell for men, inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division holds a self-made bomb found inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Members of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division inspect the cables of the surveillance system inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division inspects a room used as a cell for women inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in the July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
The shadow of a member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division is seen as he opens a steel gate to a room used as a cell for men, inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
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MIDDLE EAST CHAOS

As it did after previous setbacks, Islamic State's leadership may now stay underground and wait for a new opportunity to take advantage of the chaos in the Middle East.

It might not have long to wait. In Iraq, a referendum on independence in the northern Kurdish region has already prompted a major confrontation between its autonomous government and Baghdad, backed by neighboring Iran and Turkey.

In Syria, two rival campaigns raced across the country's east this year driving back Islamic State -- the Syrian army backed by Russia, Iran and Shi'ite militias, and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States.

Syrian officials and a senior advisor to Iran have indicated the Syrian army will now stake its claim to Kurdish-held territory. Washington has not yet said how it would respond to a protracted military campaign against its allies.

Aggravating tensions -- and raising the possibility of turmoil from which Islamic State could benefit -- is a contest for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

It has developed a religious edge, pitting Shi'ite groups supported by Iran against Sunni ones backed by Saudi Arabia, infusing the region's wars with sectarian hatred.

A senior Iranian official this week spoke from Syria's Aleppo of a "line of resistance" running from Tehran to Beirut, an implicit boast of its region-wide influence.

In recent days the rivalry has again escalated as Riyadh accused Lebanese Hezbollah of firing a missile from the territory in Yemen of another Iranian ally, the Houthi movement.

Hezbollah is a critical part of the Tehran-backed alliance helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah fighters played the key role in ousting Islamic State from Albu Kamal, a commander in that alliance told Reuters.

ISLAMIC STATE'S FALLEN 'STATE'

Baghdadi's declaration of a caliphate in 2014 launched a new era in jihadist ambition. Instead of al Qaeda's strategy of using militant attacks against the West to spur an Islamist revolution, the new movement decided to simply establish a new state.

It led to a surge in recruitment to the jihadist cause, attracting thousands of young Muslims to "immigrate" to a militant utopia slickly realized in propaganda films.

Islamic State's leadership ranks included former Iraqi officials who well understood the running of a state. They issued identity documents, minted coins and established a morality police force.

Unlike previous jihadist movements that relied on donations from sympathizers, Islamic State's territorial grip gave it command of a real economy. It exported oil and agricultural produce, levied taxes and traded in stolen antiquities.

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A fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces inspects a bunker of the Islamic State militants under the stadium in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A view of a jail cell of the Islamic State militants under the stadium in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces inspect a bunker of the Islamic State militants under the stadium in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces inspect a jail cell of the Islamic State militants under the stadium in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A view of a jail cell of the Islamic State militants under the stadium in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A view of a bunker of Islamic State militants under the stadium in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
A view of a bunker of the Islamic State militants under the stadium in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces take a selfie at the stadium after it was retaken from the Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces walk at the stadium in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
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On the battlefield, it adapted its tactics, using heavy weaponry captured from its enemies during its first flush of military success, adding tanks and artillery to its suicide bombers and guerrilla fighters.

It imprisoned and tortured foreigners, demanding ransoms for their release and killing those whose countries would not pay in grotesque films posted online.

The number of those treated in this way was as nothing to the multitude of Syrians and Iraqis Islamic State killed for their behavior, words, sexuality, religion, ethnicity or tribe. Some were burned alive, others beheaded and some dropped from the roofs of tall buildings.

Captured women were sold as brides at slave auctions. But as Islamic State was pushed from territory in recent months, there were pictures of women pulling off face veils and smoking previously banned cigarettes.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall, Sarah Dadouch and Lisa Barrington; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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