ARLINGTON, Va. — A British general with the international coalition providing support in the fight against ISIS said the amount of territory liberated in Syria and Iraq is now equivalent to the size of Austria.
Via video link from Baghdad, UK Army Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones, deputy commander for strategy and support in the 30-nation Operation Inherent Resolve, told Pentagon reporters today that Iraqi forces have launched their assault on Tal Afar, west of Mosul on the highway to the Syrian border.
“The liberation of this city, and the remains of Nineveh province, will essentially end ISIS’s military presence in northern Iraq,” said Jones, who added that “they’ve made a really positive start, but we should expect it to be a tough fight.” After that comes routing ISIS from Hawija and the Euphrates river valley leading to the Syrian border.
There are about 2,000 ISIS fighters estimated to be in Tal Afar and between 5,000 and 10,000 left across the river valley.
“The Iraqi security forces have prevailed in the toughest urban battle since World War II. As a result, about 4 million people are able to live their lives, free from Daesh’s tyrannical rule,” he said. “Another million and a half have been liberated in Syria. Daesh are losing on all fronts, and our partners have irresistible momentum.”
Jones met last week with the city councils set up by the Syrian Democratic Forces for Tabqa, which was liberated before the Raqqa offensive began, and Raqqa to facilitate the transition to a post-ISIS government. “We often characterize the situation in northern Syria along sectarian lines, particularly Kurds and Arabs. That’s not how they see it,” the general reported. “…The councils are doing a good job, acting on behalf of the people, channeling assistance to IDPs [internally displaced persons], providing security in liberated areas, and starting the slow process of restoring essential services.”
About 2,500 ISIS fighters remain in Raqqa, the coalition estimates. The SDF, a male and female multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic force led by Kurds, is more than 50,000 strong. The hold force in liberated areas, the Raqqa Internal Security Force, is mostly Arab and protecting their home turf.
Jones said the SDF is making “incremental” progress in tough fighting in ISIS’ declared capital, and about 55 to 60 percent of Raqqa is now under SDF control.
“Daesh are under extraordinary pressure. They are losing on all fronts. They’re losing on the battlefield. They’re losing financially. The flow of foreign fighters has slowed to a trickle,” he said, emphasizing that the ISIS narrative “is being drowned out by voices of moderation” and “that is much more powerful than anything a government can ever do.”
“That is, hopefully, the route to reduce the risk of terror attacks. But as the attacks — as it pertains to attacks coming out of Iraq and Syria, well, what I’d say to you is this: If you’re a fighter right now, in Raqqa, I don’t think you have got the time, the bandwidth or the security to be dreaming up and plotting imaginative attacks to mount against Europe or elsewhere.”
The general added that it’s “well-recognized that a great many fighters and, indeed, some of the Daesh capabilities, have moved on down the Euphrates to other places” and there’s also “a bit of a shift in their balance to other locations.”
Jones says he’s not seen evidence of ISIS trying to recruit in liberated areas.
“When I say ‘recruiting,’ what I actually mean is forced conscription. So, when they were still ‘recruiting,’ in inverted commas, late in the battle of west Mosul, that wasn’t, you know, people walking into a recruiting office, saying, ‘Hey, I buy into your narrative; I’m all up for the fight,'” he explained. “Far from it. That was people facing the ghastly choice of probably being executed then and there, or coming and fighting, you know, frankly, kicking and screaming, for ISIS. That’s what I mean by recruiting.”