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In Iraq and Syria, What's Left Of ISIS?


And now we turn to NPR's Jane Arraf, who's been covering the fight against ISIS since the group emerged in 2013 in Syria and a year later in Iraq. She joins us from Amman, Jordan.

Jane, thanks so much for talking to us.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So what does a declaration that ISIS is defeated mean?

ARRAF: It essentially means the end of their territorial caliphate. So the caliphate was what they declared an Islamic state when they rolled in. And they took over, like, fully one third of Iraq and large parts of Syria. That was at their height. And at that point, they were able to launch attacks with stolen armored vehicles, dozens of suicide bombers. So that's gone.

They're down to a very small piece of territory in eastern Syria, and that is diminishing fast. So the territory they control is gone, but they are still a threat according to military officials. And they're a threat because they're in that area along the border, in the mountains and because they have sleeper cells that could regenerate.

MARTIN: So what happens to the U.S. forces there now?

ARRAF: So President Trump declared that he was pulling the forces out of Syria. But so far, there hasn't been a big draw-down. There has been a movement of equipment, and that equipment is coming across the border into a big base in Iraq in the western Al Anbar - in the middle of the desert, basically. But it's also the base where there would be, as is expected, a kind of ramped up effort to still fight ISIS but from Iraq, using that base in Iraq across the border.

And the Iraqis are doing a lot of this as well. They've coordinated with the Syrian government. And they now have the permission, approval and ability to launch strikes across the border into Syria. So Syrian withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria is expected to go on, but it's not going on in a big, dramatic way at the moment.

MARTIN: President Trump tweeted that countries have to take back the foreign fighters. Now, what's behind that?

ARRAF: So the issue with these foreign fighters is that the forces that are backed by the U.S. that are now faced with the U.S. withdrawing - and they've been fighting ISIS in Syria. They're mostly Syrian-Kurdish forces. They're saying basically that they can't hold these people. They have about 800 foreign fighters. And these fighters have come from, you know, any number of 120 countries when they flooded into the caliphate when it was still going strong.

So they're saying that they can't really deal with them and that countries should take them back. A lot of countries are reluctant to take them back because once you get these people back, if you get them back, how do you actually prove that they've committed the crimes they're accused of committing? So they're essentially in limbo.

MARTIN: And U.S.-backed Syrian fighters said that there are civilians trapped in the last area of land that they control. What's happening with those people?

ARRAF: Well, ISIS uses civilians as human shields. They did that in Iraq. They did that in Mosul, where thousands of civilians were killed by U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes when ISIS had basically herded them into a small part of Mosul and were keeping them there. In eastern Syria, they're also not letting them go. They're using them as a bargaining chip.

So the civilians are also a problem. It's part of the reason that the fight there has slowed - because all of the forces involved in this fight are trying to minimize civilian casualties. But, as we've seen, thousands and thousands of civilians killed - some estimates up to 12,000 civilians killed in Syria and Iraq. This is a fight - this fight against ISIS that has had a really heavy toll on civilians.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Jane Arraf joining us from Amman, Jordan.

Jane, thank you so much.

ARRAF: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.