ARLINGTON, Va. — The deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve said the amount of territory taken back from the Islamic State last year is roughly equivalent to Wales.
Speaking at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday from Baghdad, British Major Gen. Rupert Jones said the Syrian Democratic Forces — a coalition of male and female fighters from Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian forces and more — have captured nearly 2,500 square miles from ISIS as they close in on the Islamic State’s declared capital, Raqqa.
“Dozens of villages and tens of thousands of people have been liberated from ISIS. The bulks of the fighting has been by Arab forces and many more are being recruited and trained as they march south. The enemy is defending robustly, but the isolation continues at a deliberate pace and the enemy are losing fighters, leaders and resources,” Jones said of the offensive that began Nov. 5.
Coalition airstrikes supporting the SDF have been ramped up, “targeting their leaders and command and control architecture.”
“The enemy is under pressure on all fronts. We continue to target his finances and illicit sale of oil. His ability to communicate messages of hatred and extremism are ever more muted. His ability to recruit fighters has been stifled, and he can no longer move with impunity,” he said. “The conditions are almost set for the liberation of Raqqa and ISIS knows it.”
In Mosul, Jones said the liberated eastern part of the city is springing back to life while Iraqi forces prepare to fight ISIS in the remainder of the city, west of the Tigris.
“In the meantime, the people are extraordinarily resilient and they’re grasping the opportunity to bring some normality back to their lives in East Mosul. Markets and schools are reopening. Bustle and life is returning to the streets,” he said. “And even the simple pleasure of a game of football without ISIS’ rulemaking and oversight is being enjoyed.”
“…More than 46,000 people displaced by fighting in and around Mosul have been able to return to their homes so far. And there are great stories emerging about emotional family reunions as people return to the city. Life in Mosul isn’t going to be easy anytime soon, but this is a good indicator of growing confidence in security and stabilization efforts.”
The general said ISIS has tried to attack east Mosul with “all they have left” — indiscriminate mortar fire and weaponized drones, which he called “a typically inhumane and indiscriminate weapon by Daesh” but “not a game-changer.”
About 750,000 civilians in west Mosul now wait to be liberated. “Be under no illusion: The fight will not be easy,” he noted. “The tight streets and alleyways of the old city will be tough to clear.”
Jones said the Wales-sized area liberated from ISIS last year — “that’s about the size of New Jersey, for you on the other side of the Atlantic” — in Iraq and Syria contained about 2 million residents.
ISIS left their mark on once-occupied cities with damaged infrastructure and booby traps left “in cupboards, in fridges, in schools and in hospitals, all aimed to kill and maim innocent civilians.”
Since Ramadi was liberated a year ago, more than 57,000 pounds of explosives have been cleared from the city. About 80 percent of the population has come home.
In Anbar province, Jones added, more than 1,200 schools have reopened post-ISIS and more than 300,000 children are back in school.
The general said a “huge” amount of ISIS materials have been seized in western Mosul as the terror group is “a very bureaucratic organization” into meticulous record-keeping. “That material is being exploited at this stage both by the Iraqis and by coalition nations. And clearly, it would be speculation at this stage as to what that material might lead to. But I think it’s — in all likelihood, it will point to terror plots.”
In October, after the launch of the Mosul operation but before the SDF began the Raqqa offensive, the U.S. warned that the Syrian phase needed to begin quickly as ISIS was planning “significant external operations” out of their capital.
Jones lauded the SDF and their “fighting spirit” as “the force that looks most likely capable to conduct the liberation of Raqqa.”