ARLINGTON, Va. — The U.S.-led coalition assisting local forces with the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq estimates that the Syrian Democratic Forces, which continue an intensive ground campaign against stubborn pockets of jihadists there, hold about 700 foreign fighters.
“And that’s just counting the fighters. I know that there’s been some recent reports out by the SDF saying it’s over 2,300, but they’re including, you know, the women and children,” Col. Sean Ryan told reporters Tuesday via video from Baghdad. “But we’re looking at over seven hundred.”
In April, Defense Secretary James Mattis put the number at “north of 400” while the Trump administration weighed whether or not to send ISIS members captured on the battlefield to Guantanamo Bay and the State Department negotiated with the jihadists’ home countries.
According to Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, the SDF is holding about 400 jihadists’ wives from foreign countries but is having problems getting the home countries to take back the women. The Kurds were successful in getting Sudan to take a jihadist wife and her one-month-old baby.
In the current Operation Roundup in the Middle Euphrates River Valley led by the multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian SDF, their fighters just liberated the towns of Baghuz Fawqani and Ash-Shajalah “as they steadily push north,” Ryan noted.
“As ISIS retreats, they’re employing improvised explosive devices along routes and booby-trapping houses to inflict casualties as the SDF fighters clear through the terrain,” he said. “Additionally, last week ISIS fired a barrage of indirect mortar fire near coalition and partner forces in a likely attempt to distract SDF’s operations in the southern portion of the MERV.”
“As the SDF’s advancement begins to put greater pressure on the last pocket of ISIS resistance, the SDF continues to successfully capture enemy fighters attempting to flee the battlefield.”
The colonel reported that in just the past month alone, the Raqqa Security Forces have destroyed some 500 improvised explosive devices.
The coalition is still giving the static estimate of between 1,000 and 2,000 ISIS fighters estimated to remain in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
“It’s really not the numbers itself. It’s their capabilities. And right now, that’s what the Syrian Democratic Forces are doing. They’re severely limiting their capabilities and denying them terrain. And, of course, they’re also killing a lot of them as well,” Ryan said. “It’s a tough fight right now. But the SDF is doing a very good job, and they’re going to continue to do that.”
Mattis told reporters in Paris on Tuesday that “we are still in a tough fight, make no mistake about it; as ISIS has collapsed inward, in their own way, they have reinforced a center as they’ve been forced into what is now less than 2 percent of their original territory that they held.”
“So it’s going to still be a tough fight. I don’t want anyone to be under any illusions,” he said. “And we’re together in that fight. And we will be successful, but it’s still going to take some time.”