ARLINGTON, Va. — ISIS fighters have tunneled into a large swath of territory in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, popping up in small groups and presenting challenges to forces trying to wipe out the terror group in Syria, a coalition spokesman said today.
Col. Sean Ryan of Operation Inherent Resolve said via video link today that ISIS cleanup operations also continue in Iraq, where more than 400 new Counter Terrorism Service soldiers and 20 new sharpshooters have completed training as Iraq builds up its capability to keep ISIS from returning with a vengeance.
The Syrian Democratic Forces — the multiethnic, multisectarian coalition that ousted ISIS from Raqqa — are on their 50th day of Operation Roundup, and recently intercepted $1.4 million in drugs intended to fund ISIS. The U.S.-led coalition is supporting the SDF operation with airstrikes as needed.
Ryan said it’s unknown how many ISIS fighters are still in the region.
“You have to understand that the area that they’re fighting in is desert area, is very large, so we know that they’re fighting in pockets from three to five fighters, basically,” he said. “They’ve dug tunnels, they know the terrain very well and some of them, you know, can blend in if there’s a town around as well.”
“So we don’t have an exact number, but that’s why we’re pressing on with Operation Roundup — the whole goal is for the SDF to press forward, to clear the area, and that way we can find all the tunnels and, sooner or later, the fighters will have to come up… that’s why the [Iraqi security forces] has a border patrol, so if they do come out and try to cross the border, then they will be killed then.”
Ryan said officials are “less concerned about the number of fighters and more concerned about their capability to continue their actions and be terrorists.”
On whether self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to be alive, Ryan replied, “We don’t have that information; of course, there’s always rumors swirling that he is in that area, and if he is, you know, we’ll probably find him. But I can tell you we’re less concerned about one individual and really more into trying to dismantle ISIS’ logistics, their finance and their means of fighting, because that’s what’s going to end it in the long run.”
ISIS is assessed to still be “a threat throughout the entire region, and the world, for all that matter,” he said.
“What we don’t want is to have the SDF go too fast, where we miss some tunnels or we miss some of the terrorists hiding,” Ryan explained. “So they’re having a methodical approach right now. That way, when they roll through, they destroy any ISIS terrorists that they see. And it’s taking a while, but we’d rather stabilize that area and know that it’s safe so the ISIS fighters could not come back in.”
The SDF said Sunday that they liberated the town of Dashisha, near the border with Iraq.