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End of IS is 'in sight' after Raqqa fall, Trump says

US President Donald Trump speaks alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) during a Cabinet Meeting at the White House on October 16, 2017
SAUL LOEB (AFP/File)
Trump made no mention of removing Assad from power, a goal pursued unsuccessfully by former president Obama

US President Donald Trump on Saturday said the end of the Islamic State group's "caliphate is in sight" following the fall of its former bastion Raqqa, and a transition can soon begin to set conditions for lasting peace in Syria.

The United States and its allies will support diplomatic negotiations "that end the violence, allow refugees to return safely home, and yield a political transition that honors the will of the Syrian people," he said in a statement.

The declaration came four days after US-backed Kurdish-led forces recaptured Raqqa, the capital of IS's self-proclaimed caliphate and its last major stronghold in Syria.

Trump said the entire city has been liberated from IS control, which he said represented a "critical breakthrough" in the global struggle against the militant group.

Noting his campaign promise to defeat the group, Trump said "that is why, in the first days of my Administration, I issued orders to give our commanders and troops on the ground the full authorities to achieve this mission. As a result, ISIS strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa have fallen."

"With the liberation of ISIS's capital and the vast majority of its territory, the end of the ISIS caliphate is in sight," Trump said, using an alternate acronym for IS.

"We will soon transition into a new phase in which we will support local security forces, de-escalate violence across Syria, and advance the conditions for lasting peace, so that the terrorists cannot return to threaten our collective security again," he said.

AP Photo/Asmaa Waguih

Since capturing it in 2014, IS had used Raqqa as a base for planning and conducting attacks in the west, including the November 13, 2015 suicide bombings and mass shootings in Paris that killed 130 people.

French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian celebrated IS's defeat on Friday and declared "the crimes of the Bataclan have not gone unpunished," referring to the concert venue where IS jihadists massacred 90 concert-goers.

Raqa in ruins

The more than four months of fighting have left Raqqa in ruins, however, and taken a heavy toll in human lives.

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights put the number of dead at more than 3,200, including 1,130 civilians.

A massive reconstruction effort will be needed to make the city habitable again, but it is unclear who will undertake it.

A spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Defense Forces said the city will be handed over to Raqqa's civil council once clearing operations have been completed.

But a French military spokesman said it will be many weeks before civilians can safely return due to "the quantity of explosive devices Daesh left behind."

Trump's statement did not address whether US plans include a commitment to rebuild areas in Syria retaken from IS control.

Also unanswered is how Washington will deal with the Russian-backed forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, now that IS is effectively being cleared from the battlefield.

Assad fate unmentioned

In his statement, Trump made no mention of removing Assad from power as part of a negotiated political solution, a goal pursued unsuccessfully by former president Barack Obama.

So far, the Trump administration has focused on defeating IS, but some analysts warn the accelerated campaign is opening the way for Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers to fill the vacuum.

Trump had already signaled a turn away from that objective earlier this year when he shut down a clandestine CIA program to supply Syrian rebels with arms.

Syrian government forces, meanwhile, are engaged in twin Russian-backed offensives against IS, mopping up the last pockets it still holds in the desert and pushing down the Euphrates Valley towards the Iraqi border in the east.

Earlier Saturday, Syrian troops and militia retook the desert town of Al-Qaryatain, in Homs province, in the latest setback for IS, according to Syrian state media.

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said more than 200 IS fighters had withdrawn during the night into the desert, which stretches all the way to the Iraqi border.

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