Report

U.S.-led Coalition Set to Launch Final Fight Against ISIS in Syria

The jihadi group has lost nearly all its territory but is still seen as a threat.

A firing line of Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers take aim and fire at targets during a marksmanship training exercise to prepare for Operation Roundup, an SDF-led campaign to clear the last Islamic State strongholds, near Shaddadi, Syria, on May 27. (Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster/U.S. Army)
A firing line of Syrian Democratic Forces soldiers take aim and fire at targets during a marksmanship training exercise to prepare for Operation Roundup, an SDF-led campaign to clear the last Islamic State strongholds, near Shaddadi, Syria, on May 27. (Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster/U.S. Army)

The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State for the past four years is closing in on the last pocket of militants in eastern Syria and is expecting the battle to flush them out to be a tough one, according to a top officer involved in the campaign.

More than 1,000 Islamic State fighters are holed up in the city of Hajin in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, including a number foreign fighters, said British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, who is the deputy commander for strategy and support for the U.S.-lead campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

“What we do expect to encounter is a hard core of ISIS fighters who have been digging in and preparing their battlespace,” Gedney told reporters at the Pentagon this week.

“Because it is one of the last areas that they hold … we think the fight to dislodge them from that area is going to be difficult,” he said.

Gedney said the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian Kurds and Arab fighters, had enabled some civilian convoys to leave Hajin. But Islamic State fighters are believed to be preventing other people from getting out in order to use them as human shields, he said.

The SDF has been driving the battle against the Islamic State on the ground and will lead the offensive on Hajin. The United States will mainly provide air support.

Gedney did not think coalition troops would encounter Russian or Syrian forces during the final battle. The two parties generally use the Euphrates River as a dividing line—the coalition operates east of the river, while Russian and Syrian forces operate to the west. The two sides communicate regularly on  a “deconfliction line,” a dedicated telephone that rings in the coalition’s headquarters in Qatar.

Experts say the battle of Hajin could mark the end of the coalition’s mission in Syria, if not the elimination of the Islamic State altogether.

The group has lost 99.5 percent of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria. At its peak in 2014, the Islamic State proto-state included 34,000 square miles of land, according to Will Todman, an associate fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East program.

The U.S. and coalition partners launched the campaign against the Islamic State in late 2014. It took three years to oust the group from Raqqa, the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

Estimates of the number of casualties in the coalition’s war against the group vary widely. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the U.K., at least 3,250 people have been killed, among them 1,130 civilians, but other groups say the total is higher.

Todman said Hajin is the last remaining Islamic State stronghold east of the Euphrates but a few pockets of the group remain west of the river, surrounded by Syrian regime-held territory.

However, there is evidence that the militant group has effectively moved underground and is operating freely at night, according to Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center of Strategic and International Studies and the deputy director of the group’s international security program.

Some number of fighters are thought to have shaved their beards and tried to blend in with the civilian population.

“In terms of how the coalition is framing the current fight against ISIS, from a purely operational sense [Hajin] is probably one of the last bastions,” Dalton said. But the Islamic State has the networks to easily regenerate elsewhere, she said. “We have not seen the last of them.”

Todman noted that recent suicide bombings in other parts of Syria show the group is still capable of carrying out devastating attacks.

With the fighting now ebbing, the Syrian Democratic Forces are clearing explosive devices from many areas, while U.S. Army troops in the region have focused on restoring water, electricity, and other essential services.

Gedney, the British general, said civilian agencies will lead the stabilization effort but the military coalition will continue to provide security in areas the Islamic State has evacuated.

U.S. President Donald Trump has voiced skepticism about America’s involvement in rebuilding areas previously held by the Islamic State. Earlier this year, he ordered the State Department to freeze some $200 million in funds earmarked for recovery efforts in Syria.

“Only after that stabilization takes place will we have assured a lasting defeat of ISIS,” Gedney said.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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