It is June 2015. From Raqqah, the de facto capital of IS, its territory stretches hundreds of kilometers in every direction. To traverse everything it had captured in its battles against the factions that stood in its path, it would take almost a full day. You could spend more than a week walking its roads from end-to-end. A city of close to a million people was under its tight grasp. While there had been defeats to the north, the expansion of the pseudo-state seemed unstoppable to many.
Three years on, IS controls 30 square kilometers.
The failure to break the YPG in Kobani was an omen of things to come. Within months, the dominos fell. Tal Abyad fell, the SDF was created, the cantons connected, and the Turkish border sealed. Raqqah, Mayadin, al-Qa’im, Abu Kamal. Every administrative center they set up, captured by enemies once at the brink of defeat. And now, as winter neared in 2018, the SDF was on the doorstep of the “capital” the remnants of IS had declared, in Hajin, a town of less than 30,000.
Before the Battle
Following the capture of Abu Kamal, IS was limited to a small strip of land on one bank of the Euphrates. The fight against the group became less of a priority. The SDF sent the HXP, their conscripted force, and the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, an Arab-majority militia, to the front. YPG/J fighters, the primary fighters of the coalition, were few. Over the course of the next several months, very little progress was made on either side of the frontline.
Missiles fired. Buildings taken and re-taken. Airstrikes hit. No matter how many bullets flew, or how much gunpowder detonated, nothing substantial changed hands. The SDF inched forward with attrition, but the front remained largely static.
Things changed from good, to bad, to worse for the SDF when September arrived. The main phase of Operation Jazirah Storm was announced. At first, the SDF made gains against IS in and around their last remaining urban centers. The SDF area bordering Iraq was further reinforced, capturing Baghuz Fawqani and entering Susah. These gains however were soon reversed, to disastrous effect. Sandstorms provided IS cover from airstrikes, morale fell, and strategic missteps led to position after position being overrun. By the end of the month, the small gains the SDF had made were reversed. While IS now controlled parts of the Iraqi-Syrian border for the first time in close to a year.
In response, the SDF and its US-led partners changed course. YPG/J fighters raised their numbers. SDF special forces entered the fight. The renewed push to reach Hajin began on November 11, but would come to great cost. As November came to a close, the SDF engaged in the deadliest battle since its creation in Bahrah. Approximately 92 SDF and 61 IS fighters died in the fighting. 51 civilians, including 19 children, also died in the crossfire and from airstrikes by the US Air Force.
The Coalition denied all claims of civilian casualties. As the offensive continued, they would continue to claim there were no civilian casualties. They would later claim some of the strikes were from other forces in the region, with no supporting evidence. Up to 161 civilians were reported killed during the renewed offensive towards Hajin.
Finally, on December 3, it was reported just after midday that the SDF had broken into the town of Hajin.
Initial news out of the town was spotty, filled with unconfirmed reports. Some of them even said the SDF had captured half the town before nightfall. As the sun rose on the next day, the picture started to clear. The SDF’s entrance to the town was slow and steady. Any large advance was halted by heavily-mined buildings and streets and close air support from jets above, clearing the way. At a point, 13 warplanes were flying over the small town at one time. As the battle reached mid-week, fighting was still concentrated near the entrance, with much of it around the local hospital. The SDF had at this point established a civilian corridor, and hundreds had exited the fighting through it so far.
On December 7, Syrian state media reported that the hospital in Hajin had been destroyed by an airstrike. This was later disproved by reports of gunfire still coming from the building. It was further cemented by video from the Coalition from the 9th, two days after the report, showing IS still inside the building. A day later, the hospital was captured, barely intact. Rigged explosives and heavy fighting had collapsed some of the floors.
After the capture of Hajin hospital, IS defenses began to rapidly collapse, and with it, their fervor increased. A last-ditch effort to potentially drive the SDF from the town. Two heavily-armored SVBIEDs were thrown at their forces near the hospital. Surprisingly, they did not injure any SDF fighters, nor the Kurdistan24 journalists who were embedded with them.
By December 13, it became clear that IS had all but collapsed in Hajin. The SDF flag had been raised in the bazaar in the center of town, and airstrikes had progressed to the east of Hajin near the exit. Multiple vehicles rigged to explode slowed down the group’s advance, but to no real avail. As night fell, unconfirmed reports of Hajin’s complete capture began to circulate, but nothing could be verified.
As the sun rose on the 14th, it became clear that the SDF had completely captured Hajin.
After the Battle
The success of the town’s capture was celebrated by the group’s supporters. This however, was muted by the video and imagery emerging from the city following its capture.
Buildings collapsed, roads torn up by gunfire, rubble dotting the landscape. The massive amount of US airstrikes had shredded the small city in the process, a fate that had befallen IS capitals like Raqqa before it. The idea of reconstruction is still a question that will hover over authorities as the residents of Hajin seek to return.
What’s next after Hajin for IS is a harder question than in previous times. After Raqqah, IS had moved on to the nearest major urban center down the river. While Mayadin and Abu Kamal were by no means impenetrable, they were highly defensible and proved difficult to capture. IS has re-grouped in Susah, according to the latest reports, but it’s wholly unknown how long even that will last. Susah was a town that was nearly captured by the SDF in its initial push.
What is far more likely is that this is IS’ last gasp before their return to the desert. Their home after the Surge, it may become their home once again. Back to finding shade from the harsh Anbari sun, eating reptiles that were too slow to escape a fighter’s hands, and plotting their return to power.
It is important for any observer to not be so hasty as to call this the demise of IS. We saw similar stories from American press outlets during the end of the Iraq War. Many said that the US had won, and that it was only a matter of time before al-Qaida in Iraq was totally defeated.
IS learned from its mistakes after the Surge. There’s no reason not to believe it won’t learn from its mistakes in Syria.