Battle to Stamp Out ISIS in Syria Gains New Momentum, but Threats Remain

WASHINGTON — A stalled American-backed floor offensive to wipe out the final pockets of Islamic State militants in japanese Syria has been reignited over the previous month with the return of high Kurdish commanders.

The mission towards the Islamic State additionally has been invigorated by a surge in French commandos, the arrival of Navy fighter jets and a few secret sleuthing by Iraqi spies.

But the marketing campaign could have solely little greater than six months to seek out the few hundred fighters — not sufficient time to extinguish a risk that’s shortly shifting underground.

The new momentum stays imperiled by President Trump’s on-again, off-again threat to withdraw some 2,000 American troops in Syria, together with a whole bunch of Special Operations advisers and commandos.

A drive of allied Kurds and Arabs in Syria’s east has served because the United States’ best battleground ally towards the Islamic State, often known as ISIS. But a spate of Turkish assaults final winter towards different Kurds, in northwest Syria, prompted the Kurdish fighters to peel away from the American-led assault close to the Iraqi border.

Their absence allowed lots of the remaining Islamic State militants to flee and regain territory and renew guerrilla assaults from hide-outs throughout the nation. Trump administration officers mentioned Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and high American commanders now have been given not less than six months to stamp out the Islamic State in Syria’s east.

“The Islamic State has now shifted to guerrilla operations, increasing the likelihood that it will continue to operate in eastern Syria and western Iraq for years,” mentioned Seth G. Jones, the director of the Transnational Threats Project on the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

[Listen to a new audio series following Rukmini Callimachi as she reports on the Islamic State and the fall of Mosul.]

Since the autumn of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital, late final 12 months, allied warplanes have relied primarily on Syrian Kurdish militia to kill remaining insurgents, flush them out of their hide-outs and fortified preventing positions, or pinpoint their areas. That served up targets for allied fighter-bombers.

But these militia fighters and their commanders began leaving japanese Syria in late January to defend different Kurds towards Turkish assaults.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been the mainstay in routing the Islamic State from Raqqa and chasing insurgents fleeing south alongside the Euphrates River Valley to the Iraqi border. Without them, the remaining, much less succesful Syrian Arab militias struggled to include the few hundred fighters that have been left in two predominant pockets.

“Even if we take down these two pieces of real estate, there’s still a threat,” Representative Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican and retired Air Force normal who served in Iraq, mentioned at a current listening to of the House Homeland Security Committee. “They could reassert themselves at any point.”

That standoff started to shift after the Syrian Democratic Forces introduced a brand new floor offensive on May 1, known as Operation Roundup.

Backed by American-led air energy, the allied Syrian militias in the previous three weeks have cleared Islamic State fighters close to the Iraqi-Syrian border, army officers mentioned. American warplanes have attacked Islamic State bunkers and command posts, killed operatives, destroyed buildings and gear, and disrupted provide routes, they mentioned.

In the meantime, Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria on Thursday introduced the seize of the French jihadist Adrien Guihal, referred to as the voice that claimed 2016 assaults in France for the Islamic State.

Fighting has been fierce in a 15-mile swath of the Euphrates River Valley. “Daesh has been using civilians as human shields preventing them from leaving, so it has been hard for us to call coalition airstrikes,” Sherko Hasske, a senior Kurdish commander in cost of the bottom operation, mentioned in a WhatsApp interview, utilizing one other identify for the Islamic State.

The timing of the renewed marketing campaign hinged on a number of elements, together with an rising sense of urgency that the battle was mired down at a pivotal time on the battlefield and as Mr. Trump’s ire towards American army entanglements in Syria boiled over.

Several Kurdish commanders, who present battlefield management and coordination, returned from the failed battle towards the Turks in the northwest. American air commanders, aided by the arrival of fighter jets from the provider Harry S. Truman in the japanese Mediterranean Sea, ramped up strikes towards Islamic State targets, to 44 in the week ending May 24, from solely three in the week ending April 5.

Iraqi warplanes have additionally carried out a number of cross-border strikes towards Islamic State targets in Syria in the previous few weeks. At the identical time, Iraqi spies have infiltrated Islamic State fighter cells in Syria, a senior Iraqi official mentioned, relaying data again to Iraqi forces who’ve stiffened defenses and coordinated efforts with Syrian militias alongside a 30-mile stretch of the Iraq-Syria border.

“They sealed the border with Syria with very highly trained border guards, preventing ISIS terrorists from fleeing the battlefields,” Brig. Gen. Roberto Vannacci of Italy, a deputy commander of the American-led army coalition in Iraq and Syria, advised reporters on the Pentagon final week.

In Senate testimony final month, Mr. Mattis telegraphed the upcoming offensive involving Syrian Kurds and Arabs, Iraqis and different Western allies. “You’ll see a re-energized effort,” Mr. Mattis advised the Armed Services Committee on April 26. “You’ll see increased operations on the Iraq side of the border. And the French have just reinforced us in Syria with special forces, here, in the last two weeks.”

American and Western intelligence and counterterrorism officers say, nevertheless, that the Islamic State’s defeat on the bottom in Syria and Iraq, and a rising shadow warfare towards the group’s branches in West Africa to Afghanistan, has failed to stifle its potential to mobilize a potent international following by way of social media.

“ISIS’s online messaging has multiple themes, and if battlefield losses force the group to shift away from messages emphasizing the holding of territory, the group can pivot toward its claim to victimhood,” Joshua A. Geltzer, a former senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council in the Obama administration, mentioned in congressional testimony final week.

The shifting ways come at a time when the Islamic State has been ready to reclaim some territory, significantly west of the Euphrates River, in space managed by the Syrian military and its Russian army patrons. Islamic State fighters have performed extra assaults on the western facet of the Euphrates towards forces aligned with the federal government of President Bashar al-Assad, American and different western analysts mentioned.

This previous weekend, not less than four Russian soldiers working with Syrian army troops were killed and 5 others wounded in a nighttime assault by Islamic State fighters in japanese Deir al-Zour province.

“We remain concerned that the Syrian regime is either unwilling or unable to deal with that threat,” Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney of Britain, one other deputy commander of the allied operations in Iraq and Syria, advised the BBC final week.

Even if the final militant holdouts are captured or killed, American officers and analysts acknowledged plan to guarantee safety and stability in the area stays elusive.

“What is the U.S.’s political approach in eastern Syria, including around the Middle Euphrates River Valley? Who will govern these areas?” mentioned Mr. Jones of the strategic research heart. “These questions are critical since successful counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns have always required strong, competent governments. Weak, failed states are not a recipe for success.”

Margaret Coker contributed reporting from Baghdad, Karam Shoumali from Berlin and Gardiner Harris from Washington.

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