Deir-ez-Zor Province, SYRIA — The Islamic State remains highly active in northeastern Syria despite recent claims by US President Donald Trump that the Islamist terror group has been defeated, according to local commanders fighting on the ground.
"ISIS has hundreds of fighters around Hajin and along the Euphrates...and these are the most dedicated, the most experienced of the ISIS fighters in Syria, " Havel Ronnie, a top commander in Deir-ez-Zor province explains.
He adds, "And among the locals tribes and villages ISIS also has many more active supporters as well.”
The jihadist group’s presence in Syria has been severely diminished since they were driven out of Raqqa, their de-facto capital, in late 2017 by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a predominantly Kurdish and Arab alliance fighting for a secular democratic state.
Following the SDF victory there, the coalition then launched operation "Jazira storm" in mid-2018 against the terrorist group – aimed at liberating Hajin, Susah, and other ISIS controlled villages along the Euphrates in eastern Syria.
However, the battle here, in Deir-ez-Zor province, has been particularly difficult.
"Those here are the worst of the worst, they are the ones, who have survived Kobani, Raqqa and other battles, " Havel Ronnie, who is heading up the operation explains.
"And they have had five years to prepare so they have dug many tunnels and planted many IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices]," he adds.
An amalgamation of Kurds and local anti-ISIS tribes backed by the Americans – the SDF has recently dealt a blow to the jihadists by succeeding in capturing the town of Hajin from ISIS.
However, according to Marwan Qamishli, the media spokesperson for the operation, this came at a heavy cost.
"In our new strategy - we [the SDF] decided to attack Hajin directly," Qamishli told The Media Line. "The fighting was intense - like nothing before - we liberated the town, but there are still clashes going on nearby."
This, according to the spokesman, is contrary to President Trump’s recent claim about the defeat of ISIS in Syria.
"He [President Trump] says ISIS has been defeated, but that is not true," Marwan counters. “Around Hajin they still control a lot of territory… they are very active in Northern Syria and we are facing and fighting them every day."
According to Havel Ronnie, even if the terror group loses its territory along the Euphrates, it will still pose a threat.
"Many of these [villagers] here [in Deir-ez-Zor] lived under ISIS a long time and it is hard to know what is in their mind," the commander states, adding, “you have to remember ISIS is not like other groups - it is an ideology - it is Islamic fascism - and that cannot be defeated on the battlefield alone."
President Trump has also called for the withdrawal of all US troops in Syria, something his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, citied as a key reason for his resignation from the administration.
As of now, though, the SDF has seen no departure by the Americans.
"At the moment nothing has changed - we are still receiving support from the coalition - including American air strikes," Qamishlo reports.
“However, Trump’s announcement has created a lot of confusion, not just with us, but also with other coalition members, as we are not sure [yet] when, how or if, the Americans are going to leave."
If the 2,000 so Americans stationed in Syria do leave it would have serious implications for finding the remaining ISIS fighters and their supporters inside of Syria.
According to Qamishlo, "ISIS has not been defeated, and I think the Pentagon with all their military, air and intelligence resources know this. [And] even if ISIS looses its territory they [ISIS] still have sleeper cells that can [continue to] attack…so vigilance is still needed.”
Indeed, the SDF believes that dealing with both ISIS fighters still on the battlefield and their supporters is a generational battle.
"This battle will continue for years if not decades," Havel Ronnie, the alliance’s senior military commander opines. And even if it is defeated here [in Hajin], it is not the end. ISIS is an ideology and can recruit more supporters.” For more stories, go to www.themedialine.org
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