ARLINGTON, Va. — The seven-and-a-half week-long operation by the Syrian Democratic Forces within Raqqa to oust the Islamic State out of their declared capital has resulted thus far in about 45 percent of the city being cleared of ISIS, the U.S. military said Thursday.
In a video briefing from Baghdad, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said the SDF, a force consisting of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and other minority groups including Yazidis and Circassians, have cleared about 9 square miles of terrain over the past week “as they fought against stiff, sporadic resistance from ISIS entrenched in the city.”
“Currently, the distance between the east and west SDF axes is less than a half a mile. And once they link up, the SDF will have full control of southern Raqqa. And south of the Euphrates River, the SDF continue to isolate Raqqa and reinforce their positions,” Dillon said.
The SDF began the Wrath of Euphrates operation in November, clearing wide swaths of territory on the way to Raqqa, their final objective.
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Fewer than 2,000 ISIS fighters remain inside Raqqa, the military estimates. In areas other than Raqqa, 5,000 to 10,000 ISIS fighters are estimated to remain in the middle Euphrates River valley.
Another thousand jihadists are estimated to be around the Iraqi border town of Al-Qaim, and fewer than a thousand remain in Tal Afar, west of Mosul.
“It’s fair to say that the fight in Raqqa is more similar to the fight in East Mosul than in West Mosul,” Dillon described. “You know, the infrastructure and the spacing of the buildings — you don’t have quite the congested and very tight confines of the old city of West Mosul like you do in Raqqa, at least not at that magnitude. You know, obviously Raqqa is much smaller than Mosul as well.”
“But there still are a lot of those challenges that the Iraqi Security Forces faced in Mosul, with the vehicle-borne IEDs, with the use of the human element and the population to shield and that ISIS is using that we saw in Mosul that we are seeing in Raqqa,” he said. “I would also, you know, take account of how quickly that the Syrian Democratic Forces were able to make it immediately into the city, but there have been some stiff resistance since making it to, like, the ancient wall area as we’ve gotten closer into the city center.”
Dillon also said that the coalition of 73 worldwide partners aiming to crush ISIS’s propaganda operation that reaches into all corners of the globe saw “a 92 percent decrease in global shares of ISIS video content on Twitter” in May. “ISIS’s online supporters are dwindling, with counter-ISIS content outnumbering pro-ISIS content across the world,” he said. “In April, ISIS propaganda production dropped to its lowest point in over six months, a 75 percent reduction in ISIS’s monthly output in 2016.”
Faced with repeated suspensions and content removals on mainstream social media sites, ISIS supporters have increasingly moved to the Telegram messaging app and the dark web.
“Whether or not they are going to go further underground, I can just tell you that, you know, if we are able to reduce their ability to inspire and to recruit other, you know, people who want to join their ranks, then that is success,” he said.
“If they go underground, that means there are fewer people that they can reach. But as far as the specifics of that and how to address it, I would again, you know, like the others, refer you to our colleagues up in London who are really taking that global threat of ISIS, you know, propaganda and are weaving it throughout the entire world to defeat ISIS propaganda efforts.”