ISIS is “trying hard to preserve their remaining space” in Syria “by using tactics like burning tires, using innocent civilians as human shields, and dressing up like women,” the spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said today.
Speaking via video from Baghdad, Col. Sean Ryan noted that the Syrian Democratic Forces — the multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian coalition of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and other minority groups who have recaptured most of ISIS’ formerly held caliphate in the country — launched this month the third phase of Operation Roundup, a ground offensive to clear out stubborn ISIS pockets in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
Phase two of the operation ran from June to September.
“Hajin and the surrounding villages are the last remaining territory acquired by ISIS in the coalition’s area of responsibility, and the victory by the Syrian Democratic Forces there will mean that ISIS no longer holds territory,” he said. ISIS fighters remain scattered throughout surrounding areas, though, and outside of the coalition’s area of responsibility.
The U.S. is “confident that the SDF will prevail” in Hajin, Ryan said. The coalition estimates there are about 1,500 to 2,000 ISIS fighters in the city.
“In both Iraq and Syria, the success of our partner forces is creating stability in areas that have not seen peace since the arrival of ISIS more than five years ago. Lives are being rebuilt again because the ISF and the SDF are providing the necessary security for residents to go back home, rebuild their lives and again hope for their future,” he continued. “However, the truth is military stabilization efforts are not enough. Security creates the space for rebuilding. Residents only gain hope for the future when their children can go to school free from harm, women go buy basic necessities in local shops, and when they can go to their jobs that allow them to support their families. Ultimately, the military cannot fight its way to stability.”
Reconstruction in Mosul, Iraq, could run upwards of $100 billion.
Ryan said the Syria op has not included U.S. capture of “any high-value targets that we’re tracking.”
“We have had some individuals give up, and the SDF has them in custody,” he said. “It’s been a very difficult fight so far, a lot of IEDs and booby traps as we expected… but we have not seen any high-value targets to this point.”
Another problem in the Hajin battle is that ISIS enjoys “freedom of movement underneath the ground in their tunnels and of course, you know, they built their own trenches as well.”
“So that’s one of things that the SDF is fighting. So it’s very difficult to come up with an actual number when a lot of folks are underground and, of course, they come out at night,” Ryan explained. “…We’re fighting a very difficult enemy right now. The advance has been slow and methodical.”
If they run into a roadblock, the SDF is “changing their techniques to meet the needs and to destroy ISIS.”
There are currently about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. The strength of the SDF is about 75,000. Ryan would not reveal how many of those SDF fighters are currently engaged in Operation Roundup.