As the “final battle” against the Islamic State group gets underway expect Donald Trump to announce - again - the “defeat” of the jihadists, but as Foreign Editor David Pratt warns, their threat is far from over

It’s the much talked about “final battle”. A last determined push to retake the few remaining square miles of territory held by the Islamic State (IS) group which when accomplished will doubtless lead some in Washington and elsewhere to declare victory over the jihadists.

There’s no doubt that IS is now a diminished force. At one time their self-proclaimed territorial caliphate stretched across a swathe of Syria and Iraq roughly the size of Britain.

Now, after an almost four and a half year war aimed at pushing IS out of this once-vast stretch of territory, its last remaining die-hard fighters find themselves holed up in an enclave centred around the village of Baghouz on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

Their days there now looked numbered, after the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced at the weekend it had begun the “final battle” to oust the 600 or so jihadist fighters it estimates are making a final stand inside the enclave.

“We will launch an attack to end the Daesh (IS) presence or they will turn themselves in. There are no other options for them. We confirm there are no negotiations and no intention to have negotiations,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali insisted at the weekend. “This battle will be sealed in the coming days,” he added.

The final push comes after a brief ten-day delay to allow an evacuation of as many as 20,000 civilians to be completed. Most of the civilians who have streamed out daily from the enclave have done so through a corridor organised by the SDF.

“We have special units whose job it is to direct civilians to corridors they can cross” to safety, confirmed spokesman Mustafa Bali.

Many of those fleeing are suspected by the authorities of being IS fighters or the wives and children of fighters. Most are escorted to camps where they are screened for ties to the jihadist group.

The assault on Baghouz is being conducted by the SDF’s Kurdish and Arab fighters, backed by US airstrikes and US advisers. At sunrise yesterday eyewitnesses reported US-led coalition airstrikes pummelling the western part of Baghouz sending dark columns of smoke into the sky.

The fighting during the ground assault is expected to be fierce given that IS fighters have burrowed beneath the town, building a network of tunnels that allow them to shift from house to house undetected.

It was a strategy the jihadists deployed during the long battle for Iraq’s second largest city Mosul costing the advancing Iraqi forces dearly in terms of casualties.

As the SDF military net closes around Baghouz and other pockets in the enclave, speculation has also intensified as to just who is among the IS fighters remaining.

Could the group’s founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and possibly even captives and hostages taken by IS like the British journalist John Cantile be trapped within the enclave?

Mr Cantile who was first captured in Syria in 2012, is one of more than 25 foreigners who was held by IS in the Syrian city of Raqqa before it was taken by the SDF in 2017.

While the numbers of those captives or their whereabouts now is unclear, some possibly might have been moved to IS’s last redoubt along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

Certainly hundreds of IS fighters are thought to be in Baghouz, possibly a concentration of its most experienced and battle-hardened fighters and commanders. US officials long believed that this area was home to the IS’s top leadership, including al-Baghdadi, though to date only a handful have emerged, suggesting many may have escaped.

According to an announcement by US officials, the SDF is currently holding some 850 foreign IS fighters who were active in the region.

One recent report based on information from regional intelligence officials indicted that al-Baghdadi might even have survived a coup attempt last month launched by his own foreign fighters in the enclave.

The incident is believed to have taken place on 10 January in a village near Hajin not far from Baghouz. The IS leader is said to have been moved into the desert by fighters loyal to him following a firefight between foreign fighters and al-Baghdadi’s bodyguards. Should the report be accurate it suggests deep rifts within IS’s ranks and indicates how desperate those in the enclave are.

It’s along this same route that al-Baghdadi is said to have fled that those remaining IS fighters in the enclave might choose to escape should they pullout.

But analysts point out that both Syrian regime and Russian forces are active to the south of that area, making such a move a risky proposition in itself.

For the moment though the IS fighters in Baghouz and surrounding areas have their backs to the wall. There seems little doubt now that perhaps in the coming days they will finally be overrun, giving US President Donald Trump his long awaited opportunity- even if it is the second time -to declare that IS has been defeated.

But care needs to be taken with Mr Trump’s assertion when it inevitably comes.

As a more level headed German chancellor Angela Merkel rightly pointed out last Friday, IS has not yet “disappeared” in Syria nor indeed in Iraq.

“The so-called Islamic State has luckily been driven out of it territory but this unfortunately doesn’t mean it has disappeared,” warned Mrs Merkel speaking at the inauguration of the Berlin headquarters of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency BND.

“It is transforming into an asymmetrical warfare force, and this, of course is a threat,” Mrs Merkel added, echoing the views of many within the military and intelligence communities including those in the US, despite Mr Trump’s assertions to the contrary.

Speaking over the last few days Colonel Sean Ryan, a spokesperson for the US-led coalition, called the end of IS’s physical caliphate “truly militarily symbolic”, while himself admitting that the fight is not yet over.

For the moment that assessment pretty much sums up the reality on the ground. Looking ahead however IS’s territorial defeat and shift to an insurgency along with the impending US withdrawal from Syria possibly as early as April, leaves great uncertainty. It also paves the way for IS to return.