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(Felipe Dana/(Felipe Dana/AP))

About half a decade ago, Islamist militants bulldozed a dusty rampart along the Iraqi-Syrian border. They styled the act as the erasure of a line drawn a century prior by European colonial powers, an artificial boundary that would be smashed under a new theocratic “caliphate” in the Middle East.

At the time, these Islamic State militants held sway across a wide sweep of territory, extending from the environs of Aleppo in the west to Mosul in the east. They exploited the frailties of the Iraqi and Syrian governments and — through brutal violence and coercion — knitted together a new fiefdom amid the region’s conflicts. They administered schools and hospitals, collected taxes and minted their own currency. They also carried out mass executions, enslaved women, and looted and destroyed some of the world’s most treasured ancient sites.

But now, the “caliphate” is nearing its end, squeezed against the very border it thought it could negate. “By last week, there was only one dusty path out of the Islamic State,” wrote my colleague Louisa Loveluck. She was reporting from near the Syrian town of Baghouz, along the Iraqi border, where U.S.-backed forces had cornered what is believed to be the last cohesive remnant of the Islamic State — an estimated 300 fighters cowering in “a hamlet of tents.”

Under relentless coalition bombardment, the group has been driven from its urban strongholds and into the desert over the past two years. On Tuesday, airstrikes targeted the Islamist militants, while trucks dispatched by the Syrian Democratic Forces — a Kurdish-dominated group backed by Washington that has led the fight on the ground against the Islamist militants — waited to evacuate the remaining civilians trapped by the Islamic State. About 42,000 civilians are taking shelter in al-Hol camp in Syria’s northern Hassakeh province, their numbers swollen in recent weeks by those able to flee the Islamist militants.

There are still believed to be hostages trapped among the enfeebled Islamic State, raising fears of civilian casualties in a final offensive. According to a report in the Associated Press, the remaining Islamic State fighters hope to negotiate safe passage out of Baghouz, possibly to Idlib province in northwestern Syria, still home to a number of other Islamist factions.

“The militant group’s most die-hard fighters have seen escape as a betrayal,” wrote Loveluck. “But as the final battle loomed, others chose survival, laying down their guns and skulking out among fleeing civilians, or using middlemen to negotiate surrender.”

But even once this last redoubt falls, there are many struggles ahead. President Trump is adamant that the defeat of the Islamic State will prompt a swift U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Washington lawmakers and senior U.S. military officials are less sure, concerned that the Islamist militants will be able to reorganize in a new security vacuum. They argue for maintaining a military U.S. presence while investing in the war-blighted region’s reconstruction.

“The coalition’s hard-won battlefield gains can only be secured by maintaining a vigilant offensive against the now largely dispersed and disaggregated ISIS that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts,” Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate committee earlier this month.

Questions swirl, too, around the fate of hundreds of foreign Islamic State recruits and fighters, many with European passports, whom the SDF has picked up during its campaigns against the Islamic State. On Twitter, Trump threatened to release all those captured should Europe not swiftly repatriate them. European officials, though, have balked at Trump’s demand, pointing to the difficulties of investigating their alleged crimes while operating with the Islamic State, as well as the risks of their radicalization once they return home.

On Tuesday, the British government indicated it would take another tack: According to British media, it plans to revoke the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a 19-year-old mother and former British schoolgirl recently found in a refugee camp. Begum, who left to join the Islamic State as a 15-year-old with two friends, said she wants to come back home and that she poses no security threat.

Critics warned that the British decision to cancel Begum’s citizenship — a move possible because she is a dual British Bangladeshi national, thanks to her immigrant parents — creates a troubling precedent in the West. “Two classes of citizen are being created: one, senior and inalienable, and the other subordinated, contingent and mutable, for those foreign born or of foreign origin,” tweeted Guardian columnist Nasrine Malik.

For the local populations scarred by Islamic State rule, the problems are all the more grave. Aid groups warn of severe funding shortfalls to help with basic humanitarian needs, as well as assist in reconstruction projects.

On this front, too, the Trump administration has played a conspicuous, if counterproductive, role. According to new revelations in the Wall Street Journal, the White House in 2017 pushed to divert tens of millions of dollars in U.S. funding earmarked to restore basic services in Iraqi cities freed from the Islamic State to support the region’s beleaguered, if tiny, Christian community. The move, conducted against the wishes of career State Department officials, was driven by Vice President Pence, a devout evangelical Christian.

In his own messaging, Trump has shown little in interest in helping rebuild after years of devastating U.S. bombing against Islamic State positions in both Iraq and Syria. With countless bodies still trapped in the rubble of cities such as Raqqa and Mosul, and even as tens of thousands of civilians find themselves caught in the purgatory of Syria’s war, the president has frequently complained about continued American involvement in the conflict and urged other partners in the Middle East and Europe to free him of the burden.

Others are more troubled about the damage done. In a recent essay that may land him an official reprimand, Col. Francois-Regis Legrier, a French officer in charge of artillery operations supporting the SDF, bemoaned the costs of the war.

“We have massively destroyed the infrastructure and given the population a disgusting image of what may be a Western-style liberation,” he wrote. Legrier added that it’s possible the coalition has left “behind the seeds of an imminent resurgence of a new adversary.”

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