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U.S.-Backed Troops Take Last Remaining ISIS-Controlled Territory. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired March 23, 2019 - 03:00   ET



NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The Syrian Democratic Forces have fully liberated the town of Baghouz, the caliphate's last stronghold.

Ben, you were there for weeks, thinking the end would come, what does it say that ISIS fighters held on for as long as they could, long after many thought that this would be over?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the reason why some jihadis held on may some believed in the twisted ideology of this terrorist organization. More significant I think we should focus on the fact that thousands of them surrendered.

Over the last few weeks, we watched, we had spoken to many of those who gave up, who realized that there was no way they would survive this battle, if they did not put down their arms. So they and tens of thousands of their family members gave up.

But significantly when we spoke to many of them, they said, yes. We lost a battle but the war goes on. One young jihadi told me that God promised the Muslims that, in the end, that they would rule the world. And they continue to hold to that belief.

One woman I spoke to said this is God testing our faith. And those who maintain their faith will become victorious in the end. So the terrorist group as a territorial entity has indeed been defeated. But the ideology is still very much alive.

And my colleague Jomana was speaking just a moment ago about the situation in those camps where many of those families have now relocated. But they didn't leave their ideology behind. They brought it with them. And that will represent a challenge to the world, not just the Syrian Democratic Forces or the people of Iraq but to the world for years to come -- Natalie.

ALLEN: It's interesting; so now the world is sheltering these families in the camps that still believe, as you say, God is just testing them right now but they will prevail.

So the question is, Ben, and I'll ask again, where do they go?

What do you do with the people that surrendered?

The fighters? Their wives, the children?

WEDEMAN: Ironically nobody has an answer to that question, Natalie. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the autonomous administration in this part of the country has repeatedly requested the countries where these people come from, to please take them back because they don't have the facilities to deal with them, to keep them forever.

We are talking about tens of thousands of people. And, on a very practical level, there are concerns in this part of Syria that, at some point, Turkey may invade because of the Turks' enmity with the Kurds in this part of the country.

Therefore the prisons where these jihadis and the camps and their families are being kept may not be secure. And therefore, it is urgent; if you speak to the officials in this part of Syria, they say it's urgent that somehow this problem be addressed.

But it appears the countries of Western Europe, of North America, seem to think it's their problem anymore. But it's clear from speaking with officials here that it is their problem and they have to do something about it. But until now they are not.

ALLEN: Yes, let's talk about that because, of course, Donald Trump has said it is time for American forces to get on out of Syria.

And when that happens, the question is, then what?

What are the thoughts of the Kurds that have been fighting this, with this threat from Turkey, about being just left there?

WEDEMAN: Well, they're concerned and, frankly, confused, Natalie, because of the mixed signals coming out of the White House. In December, President Trump rather precipitously confirmed that the United States would pull out all its forces from Syria. At the time, that caused almost panic about what is going to happen in the aftermath of withdrawal of America and once the Americans leave, the French and the British who have a significant presence here as well would also leave. Since then, there been mixed signals there may be 200, may be 400 U.S. troops remaining in Syria.


WEDEMAN: "The Wall Street Journal" recently reported that 1,000 U.S. troops would stay. At this moment there are 2,000; we see this many of them driving around. The White House denied, the Pentagon denied that 1,000 would stay. But there is confusion because the messages out of Washington are so mixed.

And therefore, what's going to happen to this part of the country. The Kurds in northeastern Syria have made it clear if the Americans are going to abandon them, they're going to reestablish a relationship with the government, with the regime in Damascus, which is a problem with the United States because of Iran's influence in parts of Syria that are ruled by the regime of Damascus. So it's a dilemma and it appears it hasn't been well thought out in

Western capitals about what to do once ISIS is defeated. Do you simply just leave and let things -- the cards fall as they may?

It's not at all clear. So there are uncertainties but there's a lot of joy and happiness that ISIS has been defeated. Morale among the troops of Syrian Democratic Forces are very high now. But that's just today.

ALLEN: Yes, it was a few weeks ago that the Kurds indicated out they were reaching out to Syria because of the unknown with their relationship with Turkey. They are certainly caught in the middle of this, after working so hard to bring ISIS down. It is certainly, as you say, a very confusing situation with not the leadership that they would like to see out of Washington, talking about bringing U.S. forces out.

What other players in the region have a stake in this, Ben, that might be confusing the situation?

WEDEMAN: In addition to Turkey, the big neighbor to the north which traditionally is very hostile to the Kurdish forces in Syria because they feel they are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, which has been waging a war against the Turkish state since 1984.

There is, for instance, Iran, who has very close relations with Damascus and has supported, and along with the Russians, save the regime in Damascus from what appeared to be defeat in 2015. They're very interested in the situation.

And I can tell you just over there, across the Euphrates River, about 300 meters from where I'm standing, is the Syrian regime, the area of Syria controlled by the regime in Damascus. And in that part of regime-controlled Syria, there is a significant military presence of Iran as well.

So they're also very interested in what's going on in this part of Syria. And, of course, Iran is closely aligned with Hezbollah, which also has its forces in Syria. Another concerned party, of course, is the Israelis, who are constantly watching what's going on here, concern that Iran might station forces very close to the Israeli- occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

So it's a complicated situation and sometimes the messages coming out of Washington indicate or would suggest that they don't quite understand how very complicated the situation on the ground is -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Will wait and see what we hear from Washington as this news is official and we will continue to talk to you, Ben.

We want to bring in from the region our Jomana Karadsheh; she's in Irbil, Iraq.

Jomana just spent two weeks in northern Syria there and can give us more of your impression of what it looks like there, and what the camps, how they're faring and what people talked to you about.

Up until the past two weeks these women were very much dedicated to the ISIS cause and apparently still are.

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, in recent months what was left of that so-called caliphate was struggling in Syria. You have thousands who are making their way out of that last bit of territory especially in --


KARADSHEH: -- the last few weeks, out of that enclave in Baghouz. You see women and children; these are the wives and children of the ISIS fighters. And also there are civilians who have poured into refugee camps in Northern Syria, run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish force.

And we visited some of those camps. Especially, we spent time at a whole camp that's been described as Camp Death by some, because of the number of children, more than 100, especially infants, who have died on the journey, from Baghouz to the camp and then also upon arrival some have lost their lives.

That's an overstretched camp, over capacity and aid groups have said they have reached breaking point. Very little aid is getting in associated with ISIS while the vast majority are not necessarily these foreigners, the wives and children of ISIS fighters.

You have the Iraqi refugees. You have displaced Syrians but, still, the situation is very dire in this camp. The officials we've been speaking to there, the SDF or those who are running the camp or aid groups, they really do not know what comes next.

What they are going to do with the population of these camps, especially, at Al-Hul, where the capacity there is about 20,000- 30,000, and now we're looking at 70,000 people who are stranded in the camp.

They're expanding and the camp but as we mentioned very little aid is reaching it and they're calling on the international community to help, whether to give them more aid or to repatriate their citizens, who are stranded in these camps.

ALLEN: Now 70,000 and at capacity, that is tremendous. You talk about Iraqis in the mix here, others in the mix here. But as far as the ISIS brides -- and you just said just about half an hour ago we were talking -- these are women who came around the world to join ISIS.

Are they, were they surprised that they have not been welcomed back to the countries where they came from?

KARADSHEH: Well, Natalie we visited a couple of these camps. One camp, that main camp in Northern Syria but also Roj camp where the higher profiled ISIS brides are being kept, like British born Shamima Begum. And when we visited that camp, it took days for us to get access there. We were not allowed to speak to anyone. They have quite strict ground rules there.

But we found the women and children that were kept in this area that was called the immigrants section, the foreign women of ISIS and their children, they are separated by a fence by the rest of the population.

And when you walk in, you meet different women from different parts of the world, it is quite surreal. We are talking about women coming from Europe. We met a woman from Ireland and many from Germany, from Holland and France. And then you have North Africans from Morocco, Tunisia, Turkish ISIS wives.

And everyone gives you a different opinion. Some seem to be quite defiant, still saying that the Islamic State, as they call it, will be back and then you also have the others who sounded more like they've repented and they want to go back home but they don't know if their countries will have them back.

They said they are basically cut off from the rest of the world. They don't know about the debate in the West. They don't know what the countries will do with them. They have no access to news and they don't know what will happen next. But so many of them are saying that we hope our countries will take us back.

Even some of these women who were saying the Islamic State will be back, some of them from Turkey, were calling on President Erdogan to take them back.

So as we have heard from officials on the ground, people at the camp, they say their only solution right now is for their countries to take them back because they are worried about keeping these camps open without dealing with the issue of radicalization and just leaving the children there.

ALLEN: Jomana, thank you so much for telling us about this.

We are going back to Ben, who has just arrived in Baghouz. It is been 45 minutes since we have gotten the official word that ISIS has --


ALLEN: -- finally been defeated.

Perhaps you can explain this flag, Ben, on top of this building. You have arrived there Baghouz.

Can you tell us what you have seen?

WEDEMAN: Well, what we are seeing is this is the encampment where ISIS had its final last stand. Behind me it is a wasteland, trenches and tattered tents and wrecked cars and trucks on their sides, houses damaged by what was weeks of bombardment.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, mortar and artillery bombardment, we do not really know what the death toll or casualty figures for this battle was. We do know that thousands of ISIS jihadis have surrendered. That is significant.

Rarely do you have a terrorist situation whose fighters simply give up and, along with them, tens of thousands of people, their wives and children, that are now in camps. This brings to a close what was a very long and difficult war against this terrorist organization which, just a few years ago, I was in Baghdad in September of 2014 when ISIS was on the outskirts of the city. There were concerns that they would cut the road to the airport; diplomats in Baghdad were talking about evacuation plans in the event that ISIS terrorists were able to get inside the city.

Since then, I was with Iraqi forces as the retook the cities of Fallujah and Tikrit, Mosul, Ramadi and it has been a very long and difficult battle. Therefore for the Kurds in particular, who bore the brunt of much the massacre, the Yazidi women who were enslaved, the men who were slaughtered if they refused to convert to the twisted version of Islam that ISIS propagated, it is a huge, important, significant day.

But we should temper the excitement of the victory with the realization that ISIS will continue to represent a threat as a terrorist insurgency. That is how ISIS began and that is what they have become again. It remains of threat in this part of Syria, I have been here now 50 days.

And during those 50 days there have been a series of attack. One significant, two suicide car bombings in a town not far from here left 14 people dead outside a hospital. There are frequent hit-and-run attacks and therefore even the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are under no illusion that, even though they have won a battle, that the war, it is not over.

ALLEN: How unfortunate, after all this time, to defeat ISIS and we ran your story just a few moments, about the long road at the height of ISIS and their brutality and what they stand for, how disappointing that you would think, after losing all of their land, they have no physical presence, that they remain undaunted.

What can fight that now?

WEDEMAN: I think that you have to say that there -- ISIS was born and prospered in an environment where they will find followers. Keep in mind, after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, many Iraqis felt, particularly Sunni Muslims, many Sunni Muslims in Iraq, felt they'd lost their predominant position in Iraqi society.

Many Sunni Muslims, Sunni Arab Muslims in Iraq were slaughtered by death squads, Shia- led death squads. So there was an environment where they were looking for any sort of protection, any backing and they found it in ISIS. Many of them live to regret it and many of them died in the process.

But this is the ugly reality. And Syria for instance you have this war that has been going on since March 2011. Many people have lost hope for any real meaningful change, half a million people killed. In the absence of a peaceful resolution, some among the Syrian population --


WEDEMAN: -- went to the extremes. This is what happens with a vacuum, the absence of hope and a decent future for their children. They go to the extreme. If in the aftermath of this battle, there are not solutions in terms of finding, reviving the economy, rebuilding the destruction -- it is amazing how much destruction there is in this area as a result of this war -- if it is not rebuilt, ISIS will find fertile ground again in which to prosper -- Natalie.

ALLEN: That is what I've been thinking about as I see you standing there in the rubble, the ruins. Yet another area of this region that looks like that on the screen.

Ben Wedeman, thank you.

Jomana Karadsheh, same thing.

You have been watching our breaking news; the ISIS caliphate has been defeated, the official word just coming out an hour ago. We will take a break; more coverage after this.




ALLEN: Again, recapping our breaking news out of Syria. U.S.-backed forces are announcing that they have defeated ISIS in Eastern Syria, finally. Syrian Democratic Forces are saying they have fully liberated now the town of Baghouz, ISIS' last stronghold and ISIS fought to the bitter end. It was to have ended weeks ago but not because some ISIS fighters just refused to give up.

But now they are out. Let's go now to Ben Wedeman's story, a look at what comes next after the defeat of ISIS.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): Terror, mass murder, genocide, slavery: in its brief and bloody life, the so-called Islamic State carried out atrocities that stretched around the globe. Its victims, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. From Syria and Iraq to attacks that were either masterminded or inspired in France, Belgium, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, it left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

What made ISIS unique was its maniacal penchant for publicity. In murder, there was no shame. Its unrestrained brutality a weapon to terrify its foes and attract followers from near and far.

It boasted its barbarity with high-production value videos, the beheadings of American journalist James Foley and others, the burning alive -- [03:25:00]

WEDEMAN (voice-over): -- in a cage of Jordanian air force pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, the murder of more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers in the Speicher camp outside Tikrit.

It took equally perverse pleasure and pride in the wanton destruction of archeological treasures and religion shrines. Its persecution of minorities who fell under its sway, Yazidis, Christians and others, knew no bounds.

Anyone or anything that didn't conform with its twisted vision was killed, destroyed or obliterated. And at the head of this monstrosity was Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, who declared himself khalifa or caliph in July 2014.

At its peak, ISIS controlled an area the size of Britain, stretching from Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad, with 10 million people under its rule. Its ambitions, boundless.

Baghdadi promised his followers, "You will conquer Rome and own the world."

It was, however, not to be. Within three years, ISIS was driven from Mosul and its de facto capital, Raqqah. The war against the group left both cities in ruins, killed thousands of civilians and drove millions from their homes.

ISIS as a territorial entity in Iraq and Syria no longer exists. But as an idea, the Islamic State is far from vanquished.

Among those who surrendered we heard vows that ISIS would someday return with a vengeance, many of the men and the women and children still carry with them ISIS' poisonous ideology, now tinged with bitterness and resentment for their final humiliating surrender.

And beyond this small corner of Eastern Syria, groups pledging allegiance to ISIS still-controlled territory in Egypt, Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, the Philippines and elsewhere and its message still drives so-called lone wolves to carry out terror attacks. But the caliphate, the Islamic State, as a refuge for madmen and murderers, is no more -- for now -- Ben Wedeman, CNN, Eastern Syria.


ALLEN: Our breaking news: this pivotal moment in the history of ISIS. We will continue at the top of the hour. I'm Natalie Allen; thanks for watching CNN.