ARLINGTON, Va. — ISIS is proving to be a “very elusive enemy” in its remaining strongholds in Syria as forces on the ground battle against omnipresent booby traps and a network of jihadist tunnels, and in Iraq where jihadists are tampering with water supplies.
Via video from Baghdad today, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Sean Ryan was asked why the Syrian Democratic Forces’ Operation Roundup, intended to clear ISIS fighters from the Middle Euphrates River Valley, seemed to be moving at a glacial pace compared to the seizure of ISIS’ capital, Raqqa.
“Raqqa and Mosul, that’s house-to-house fighting, to where this whole area is deserty area, it’s thousands of miles long. So it takes a long time,” Ryan replied. “ISIS has also been using underground tunnels, as we’ve mentioned before. And they are a very elusive enemy, there’s no doubt about. But when they’re underground, it’s very difficult.”
“I think the SDF is making very good ground right now. It just takes a long time,” he added. “And also, you have to remember, ISIS has booby-trapped and IED’d almost every area in there, to where you just can’t go rushing into these areas and clear them. You have to have the equipment and the manpower to do that. And often when you start the clearing, your equipment gets damaged when IEDs go off. So there’s not an, you know, unlimited supply of vehicles that they can use. They have to, you know, get resupplied.”
Ryan said when the SDF asks the coalition for something, “we are usually able to deliver it.”
Asked why U.S. officials have noted for many months that only 2 percent of the original caliphate still is controlled by ISIS, but that 2 percent has not been regained, Ryan replied that “it’s not about the land mass, it’s about taking away ISIS capabilities.”
“It’s not just killing ISIS fighters, it’s taking away their weapons systems, taking away their logistical support and things of that nature. So that’s happening every day,” he said.
Also, he added, “they had planned on this four years ago; they knew that they were probably going to end up in this area.”
“With the tunnels they have underneath and the tunnels that the oil companies left with food and supplies, they’re able to sustain.”
ISIS’ foreign fighters are among the most “intense fighters” right now, Ryan explained, because “basically, they have nowhere to go.”
“I mean, there’s been some people disappearing… but it hasn’t been the foreign terrorist fighters,” he said. “They’re either here to fight to the death, or they’re just going to get killed because they have nowhere to go. They can’t blend in with the rest of the population in Iraq or Syria. So they’re the die-hard fighters that we’re seeing that are trying to live off the land and see this to the end.”
The SDF is seizing many of the foreign fighters, but “has to be methodical in their approach because they are fighting against a very intense enemy.”
In Iraq, Ryan said that “small pockets of ISIS are targeting water supplies, power lines and cell towers” in Kirkuk.
“They’re trying to destroy the water lines to get discontent from the civilians in that area. I mean, it’s a death by a thousand cuts to the population,” he said. “I mean, any way they can get in there and delegitimize the government of Iraq, they will try to do that.”
Iraqi forces are currently conducting Operation Last Warning targeting remaining pockets of ISIS in the Anbar Desert.
Last week, Ryan noted, a joint operation conducted by Iraqi special forces and the Kurdish counterterrorism force arrest of 10 members of the al-Rawi financial network, which helps fund ISIS.