US-backed forces hunt ISIS remnants in eastern Syria
TUNIS - With the declared defeat of the Islamic State’s caliphate in eastern Syria, the United States focused on eliminating jihadist remnants to avoid a resurgence that could be more vicious than the group’s initial rise to power.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said US-backed forces, supported by coalition warplanes, were seeking and attacking Islamic State (ISIS) pockets in Syria.
SOHR said coalition air strikes targeted ISIS hideouts near Baghouz. It added that suspected jihadists had been captured in the former ISIS capital of Raqqa.
The US-backed alliance is “tracking down remnants of the terrorist group,” Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spokesman Mustafa Bali said. “There are groups hiding in caves overlooking Baghouz.”
Coalition spokesman Scott Rawlinson told Agence France-Presse (AFP): “The Syrian Democratic Forces continue to deny [ISIS] a physical space and influence in the area and work to deny them the resources they need to return.
“In support of back-clearance operations, the coalition continues to conduct precision strike support in coordination with SDF.”
He said anti-ISIS operations focused on “eroding” the group’s “capacity to regenerate and collaborate.”
US military officials, their Kurdish allies and members of the US Congress appear to agree that the threat ISIS poses is far from being eliminated.
By keeping its forces in the region and adjusting its strategy, Washington is moving to the next phase of the fight and helping the SDF preserve gains it had made.
SDF, with coalition air support, dislodged ISIS fighters from their last redoubt of Baghouz near the Iraqi border on March 23 during a months-long offensive. ISIS reportedly left behind many documents, including lists of names of jihadists, the military units they belonged to and the number of their children and wives.
SDF fighters also found military identification cards seized by jihadists following the battle, as well as copper coins that ISIS used as currency.
ISIS members, who retain a presence in the Syrian Desert and other hideouts, have claimed responsibility for attacks in SDF-held territory despite the setbacks.
On March 25, ISIS fighters killed seven US-backed personnel at a checkpoint in the northern Syria city of Manbij, which is controlled by a local council linked to the SDF. The assault is thought to have heralded a new stage in the battle against the jihadists’ remnants in Syria.
“After the victory over ISIS, we have entered the phase of sleeper cells,” Manbij Military Council spokesman Sherfan Darwish told AFP in March. “These sleeper cells are being activated and carrying out attacks but we will foil their operations.”
Among the remaining fighters in Syria are ISIS members unable to return to their home countries and Syrian citizens with few prospects outside of war. The Pentagon estimated ISIS could have 20,000-30,000 members in Syria and Iraq.
Concerned that fighters could retreat, reform and attempt a violent comeback, the SDF appealed for sustained coalition assistance to help eliminate sleeper cells.
The SDF also reportedly fears a power vacuum following ISIS’s collapse and the partial withdrawal of US forces could be exploited by Turkey, which, despite Washington’s warnings, appears eager to move against the Kurds.
With large areas of eastern Syria turned into ruins during battles against ISIS, the SDF has been charged with restoring order and beginning reconstruction so civilians who fled the violence can return.
The ISIS caliphate, proclaimed in mid-2014 by fugitive leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, began its collapse in 2017 when offensives captured its main urban hubs of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.