ARLINGTON, Va. — The final stage of the Syrian Democratic Forces’ operation to clear the last ISIS-held areas east of the Euphrates river promises to be one of the most challenging as the terror group is using civilians as human shields and hardcore foreign fighters are digging in, a coalition spokesman said Tuesday.
UK Army Major Gen. Felix Gedney, deputy commander for strategy and support in Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters via video from Baghdad that the second phase of Operation Roundup, intended to round up ISIS fighters in some of their remaining territory, cleared the northern Jazira region though the SDF — a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other ethnic minority fighters — has to clear liberated areas of improvised explosive devices left by ISIS.
“Meanwhile, planning is ongoing for operations to clear the last remaining pocket of ISIS-held territory east of the Euphrates River in Hajin, in the vicinity of Abu Kamal. This final stage of Op Roundup is likely to be a challenging fight, as it is a densely populated area,” Gedney said. “The Syrian Democratic Forces have enabled some civilian convoys to leave the area, but the indications are that ISIS is stopping civilians from departing in order to hold them as human shields.”
Gedney emphasized “that more needs to be done by the international community” to assist areas liberated from ISIS. “Military operations will only get us so far. Our partners in Iraq and Syria are doing the best they can, but the scope of the problem goes far beyond the limited resources and capabilities that are available to them, particularly in northeast Syria,” he said. “We’ve said it many times before and we must say it again: It is imperative for the international community to get involved in improving the lives of all Iraqis and Syrians, and to make sure that the conditions that gave rise to ISIS are eliminated.
The general reported 105 civilians killed as a result of coalition operations against ISIS, included in the monthly casualty report released last week.
“As we work to minimize the risk to non-combatants, ISIS is doing all it can to maximize the number of innocent civilians killed,” he said. “Holding the coalition accountable for our actions in this war must be informed by facts and understanding. We have said it many times and it bears repeating: we work to make this campaign the most transparent in history, and we plan and execute our operations in order to minimize our impact on the populations that we are fighting to protect.”
The SDF is holding about 600 foreign fighters captured on the battlefield or trying to flee. Gedney said “there’s nothing more that I could tell you about any efforts to repatriate them,” as that’s an issue for the foreign fighters’ home governments.
“What I can tell you, though, is that the Syrian Democratic Forces have done a remarkable job in capturing and continuing to detain these individuals that remain a threat globally, and specifically to our countries,” he said.
Gedney said the coalition doesn’t “expect to encounter Russian or Syrian forces” on the final stage of Operation Roundup. “What we do expect to encounter is a hard core of ISIS fighters who have been digging in and preparing their battle space, holding civilians as human shields, and we fully expect to see a high proportion of foreign terrorist fighters who represent some of the biggest threats to our nations,” he added.
The general said he “can’t go into accurate numbers” of ISIS fighters remaining in the area of the third stage of the operation. “It’s very difficult to assess. We know there are over a thousand there. And to some extent, until we get into the fight, we won’t find out exactly how many there are there.”
“So there are three factors, really, I’d point to, which is why this is going to be a challenging fight: The first is the nature of the terrain and the environment. It’s a densely populated area, more like Mosul or Raqqa than the fight in Dashisha. The second point is the nature of the fight is there. It’s a hard core of fighters. And we know this is one of the lost holdouts of a number of foreign terrorist fighters,” he continued. “And the third point is exactly because it is one of the last areas that they hold that we think the fight to dislodge them from that area is going to be difficult.”
Gedney was asked if forces are likely to find self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in one of the remaining occupied towns. “When we find Baghdadi, the international press will be the first to know that we’ve found him and dealt with him,” he replied.
The general stressed that “we should be in no doubt that the campaign to defeat ISIS is not yet over.”