Major Iraq operations wrapping up, U.S. focuses on aid for northeast Syria

ISIS has received a significant setback in Iraq and Syria, where it once ran a 'caliphate.'

February 6, 2018 15:34
3 minute read.
People cross a makeshift ladder in a village near Raqqa, Syria

People cross a makeshift ladder in a village near Raqqa after a bridge was destroyed in fighting between the US-led coalition and Islamic State, in Raqqa, Syria, June 16, 2017. (photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)

In mid-January the remnants of ISIS made a mistake. They knew that the US-led coalition had intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance watching their every move. “They do things to minimize their signature,” says Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, commander of Special Operations in Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve. “When they are moving in large groups like that they will be intermixed with civilians.”

They know the coalition’s rules of engagement and do what they can to avoid air strikes. But on January 20th 150 ISIS fighters gathered at As-Safah in Syria, near the Iraqi border.

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The coalition was watching. “We watched for several days and they continued to congregate and we were diligent in making sure no civilians were present.” When the coalition was sure, they struck the target. “It shows their poor leadership and they made poor decisions.” Jarrard says its never a pleasant thing to watch loss of life but it is “satisfying to watch an enemy that has been evil and brutal in so many ways” receive a “significant setback.”

ISIS has received a significant setback in Iraq and Syria where it once run a “caliphate.” The coalition says that the extremists are in bad shape. “They are dismantled and they don’t have a strong organizational structure,” says Jarrard. With their foreign fighters dead and treasury exhausted, they are struggling to survive. “This is a testament to the Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces and the 74-member coalition to liberate this physical caliphate….the enemy is on the ropes.” The Iraqi government indicated on Monday that the US was reducing the number of forces in Iraq, although the coalition has not confirmed this.

“The ISF understands that even though we liberated terrain there is a lot of fighting left,” says the general. ISIS and al-Qaida before it have been defeated and then risen from the ashes. The coalition wants to ensure that doesn’t happen. “The ISF continues to build their capabilities every week and they conduct exercises and targeting cycles by themselves and the better they get the better they can maintain pressure.”

Iraq is facing an election in May and the future may depend on how the results turn out. “If the government continues to focus on security and inclusiveness and helping the Sunni population get back on is feet and stabilization and reconstruction I think Iraq is in a good place and trending positively,” says Jarrard. The US will continue to assist but Iraq is a sovereign country and Baghdad takes the lead.

Across the border in northeast Syria the US State Department and US AID are partnering with the coalition to work with local civil councils to build up governance and stabilize the liberated areas. This program is called START forward. The coalition helps provide the stability and security necessary so that reconstruction, which is not a military aim, can proceed. The main areas that Jarrard mentions as a priority are Manbij, Deir Ez-Zor, Tabqa and Raqqa. “That’s more where we are concentrating support right now.”

The reason for this is that other areas where there was fighting in 2014-2016, such as Kobani and the countryside up to Shaddadi, were liberated more than a year ago and have undergone some level of rehabilitation. The civil councils that have been set up in areas liberated from ISIS are “inclusive and are Kurdish and Arab and are working diligently to stabilize and provide key essential services,” says Jarrard. “As you visit there routinely it is amazing over several months how they continue to rebuild and put their lives back together with meager resources and they are resilient people and you wish you could do more for them.”

The key to the future will be international donations. Jarrard describes a concerted effort by the coalition but that a lot is required in terms of financial support for these efforts. There remains a “lot of work” to be done in Syria and that includes “making sure people understand that just because the terrain is liberated there is a lot of work to achieve the lasting defeat of ISIS. We are laser focused to make sure we will do that and there are plenty of opportunities for international support.

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