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Final Assault On Last ISIS Stronghold Doesn't Mean It Will Disappear Immediately


The Islamic State once controlled a territory the size of Great Britain. Today what is left of its forces are under siege in the small town of Baghouz in the southeast of Syria. With them is an unknown number of civilians who are unable to leave or who have chosen to stay. NPR's Tom Bowman joins us from the Pentagon with the latest. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So what is the latest? It seems like we have been hearing for months that the final battle with ISIS was imminent. Is this it?

BOWMAN: Well, this appears to be it. But somebody told me over the weekend we expect the caliphate to be no more. But there is a last remaining area. It's less than 2 square miles, but there's estimated 500 or so fighters there very much dug in, in bunkers and tunnels. They also have vehicle bombs, fighters in suicide vests. And just this morning, the American-led rebel fighters said they killed dozens of these ISIS fighters but also took some casualties on their own. And there've been American airstrikes.

But the U.S. says they're trying to be careful because there are also some 2,000 or so civilians - mostly ISIS family members - women and children still in this village area. So that means you have to kind of work your way in on the ground, building to building - very, very tough fighting. So it could be a few days, but some people say it could be a week or more - or two weeks.

KELLY: Well, look ahead with me. Assuming that the city does fall at some point - days, weeks, whenever it actually comes - what will it mean for Syria? What's the significance?

BOWMAN: Well, then it's even more complex, Mary Louise, because then you move on to what's called stabilization. You have to bring back water, sewer, electricity to some of these areas that you've basically destroyed. Also, you have many thousands of ISIS fighters who are filtered back into the population.

I was in Syria last fall, and there were reports of these fighters mounting bombings and assassinations of local leaders in areas that were cleared. So the next step, after Baghouz is taken, is to train local security forces to police these areas. General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, talked about this back in December. Let's listen.


JOE DUNFORD: We estimate, for example, about 35 to 40,000 local forces have to be trained and equipped in order to provide stability. We're probably somewhere along the line of 20 percent through the training of those forces. But with regard to stabilization, we still have a long way to go. And so I'd be reluctant to affix a time.

BOWMAN: Of course, just two weeks after General Dunford made those comments, the president said all U.S. troops would leave. He has since reversed that. And now about 400 of the estimated 2,000 Americans will remain. And also, the U.S. is talking with France and Britain about staying there as well. They have smaller numbers of troops helping out. So - but I'm told this stabilization effort will take at least many months if not longer.

KELLY: And just in the moments we have left, Tom, to circle you back to the question I asked you first, whether this is the final battle. You said, you know, when it comes to the caliphate, at some point that will be no more - but on another level, certainly not the end of ISIS.

BOWMAN: Absolutely not. ISIS retains a following in both Syria and neighboring Iraq. Ideology is still attractive to many. And even some of the women coming out with their kids, Mary Louise, from Baghouz and these other areas, they say they still want to fight for ISIS.

KELLY: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, reporting there from the Pentagon. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.