Children living in eastern Syria recently emerged from their homes to find Islamic State fighters gone for the first time in more than four years. They had finally been liberated from control by the extremists. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their US-led anti-ISIS coalition partners are in a multi-phase offensive designed to clear ISIS remnants from eastern Syria.
In a discussion with The Jerusalem Post, Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign to defeat ISIS that began in 2014, described the recent battles. The fighting against ISIS is done by the SDF, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters from eastern Syria that has been fighting ISIS for years and liberated Raqqa last fall. Although ISIS lost its capital and other major cities last year in Iraq and Syria, it continued to hold on to desert areas. It has now taken the better part of another year to clear ISIS from the remaining 2% of the land area it once held.
In recent months the SDF have been fighting ISIS in villages and hamlets in the Syrian Jazeera Desert, a desolate area near the border with Iraq. While the SDF does most of the fighting, the US and other coalition members advise and assist in the battle. This includes air strikes and sometimes artillery strikes as support on the ground. The difficulty is finding the enemy.
"They are going back to the areas in Dashisha to clear IEDs [improvised explosive devices]," says Ryan. "One issue we found is that ISIS had robust tunnels and some left by oil companies to store supplies, and ISIS fighters were living in the tunnels with food and water."
You could drive over the tunnels and never know they were there. So, the war has greatly shifted from what it looked like last year, a more conventional battle against an enemy that held ground, to hunting down ISIS fighters who hide among civilians and come out at night from caves and tunnels. In July, the SDF completed the second phase of what was dubbed "Operation Roundup," the clearing of ISIS from eastern Syria. Now they want to take a small patch of land that ISIS holds near the Euphrates valley.
The Americans, because the American military likes acronyms and lingo, dub this area the "MERV" or Middle Euphrates River Valley. It is densely populated, a traditional highway for merchants and goods flowing down the Euphrates to Iraq and back up into Syria towards Deir al-Zor and Turkey. It is festooned with IEDs, and ISIS has prevented civilians from leaving in some cases, using them as human shields. The major town in this area is Hajin, about 20 km. from the Iraq border on the winding Euphrates. There are patchworks of farms here, and on the other side of the river is the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian partners.
Ryan estimates that ISIS has lost around 2,000 sq.km. over the last months, and has been reduced to holding just a few hundred square kilometers.
"ISIS is not holding valuable territory and they are out in the desert. Some say they regained territory. What they do is go out to desert areas and set up base camps. I wouldn't call that vital. This last phase is a tough fight, the fighters left are do-ordie terrorists and they will stay until the end."
There may be around 1,000- 1,500 ISIS fighters left. With fewer enemy fighters, the coalition has been hard-pressed to find targets to strike. Last year its daily strike reports were long and detailed, today they are published covering a week at a time. From July 23-29, the coalition carried out only nine strikes. They hit lines of communication and several ISIS vehicles in Syria.
This is in line with the description of how the coalition has taken a more advisory role since the heavy fighting ended. Mainly the US is doing what's called ISR – Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance. This illustrates how competent the SDF have become at running a war. Many of them received some training from the coalition.
"We have taken a lot of people out of their norm. They weren't soldiers by trade, they had to become soldiers. They took to that very well," says Ryan. "ISIS is a very difficult enemy to fight, they [the SDF] have done very well adapting with their tactics and they do a very good job."
Phase III of Operation Roundup is supposed to be the last phase of ridding eastern Syria of ISIS. But it's not the end of the conflict. ISIS members have escaped and returned to civilian areas. Some smuggled themselves across borders to neighboring states or to the regime-controlled areas of western Syria.
"There will always be pockets here and there, but intelligence- wise, a lot of the residents are letting local authorities know if ISIS is in the area, and they may think they can blend in to the community, but they can't," says Ryan. In the MERV, the Coalition is expecting to encounter foreign ISIS fighters, many of whom were not able to flee and return home or cross borders.
"ISIS is low on supplies and food. They do still have ammo and IEDs. The SVBIEDs [car bombs] will become a choice of weapon. They want to create spectacular events to seem relevant," says Ryan. That means the SDF may encounter smaller groups of ISIS seeking to spread havoc or terror. But the arc of progress is clear, and it trends toward defeating the extremists after four long years of war in which they have controlled the Euphrates valley area and used it to menace Iraq and Syria.
Seth Frantzman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and Opinion Editor for the Jeruslalem Post.