WASHINGTON — U.S. and anti-ISIS coalition forces have completed Phase Two of the effort to rid Syria of ISIS remnants and now face what could be the most challenging effort in clearing their last stronghold, a coalition official said Tuesday.
British Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, deputy commander, strategy and support, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve told Pentagon reporters there are at least 1,000 ISIS fighters in Hajin, Syria, along the Euphrates River, and Abu Kemal, on the border with Iraq.
Because of the nature of the terrain, the dense population in an urban area and the fact that ISIS knows this is their last holdout will combine to make the coalition assault very difficult, he said.
“(There is) a hardcore of ISIS fighters who have been digging in and preparing …holding civilians as human shields… and we fully expect to see a high proportion of foreign terrorist who represents the biggest threat to our nations,” Gedney told reporters. “Because it is one of the last areas they hold, the fight to dislodge them will be difficult.”
He spoke to Pentagon reporters via a telelink from Baghdad.
Gedney said the battle for Abu Kemal will be phase three of Operation Roundup, which started in late April. Phase one consisted of general offensive actions against ISIS, while phase two focused on the liberation of Dashisha, which was completed about 10 days ago.
Last week another spokesman for Inherent Resolve, French Brig. Gen. Frederic Parisot, said anti-ISIS forces in Syria have at least three more months of fighting remaining before they can eliminate terrorists from their last stronghold. Parisot said then they expect to confront “a few hundred of them (ISIS members) at least.”
Gedney implored the international community to increase its efforts to help civilians returning to their homes after ISIS has been routed and the areas are securely liberated.
“Military operations will only get us so far,” he said. “It is imperative that the international community gets involved in improving the lives of all Iraqis and Syrians and make sure the conditions that gave rise to ISIS are eliminated.”
Asked about the drop in incidents between Coalition forces and the Russian troops supporting the Syrian government, Gedney said the “routine and very professional dialogue with the Russian” has worked well.
“It has been a less fluid battlement. But most of the reason is the deconfliction is working,” he said.
Between July 23-29, coalition military forces conducted nine strikes, consisting of 11 engagements, in Iraq and Syria, he said.
Gedney said an estimated 105 civilians have been killed as the result of Coalition military action, primarily air strikes. That is up to July 26 and includes 77 deaths reported by Amnesty International in June, he said.
“We make every effort to avoid civilian deaths on the battlefield,” Gedney said. “The brutality of the enemy has made it more difficult to avoid risk… in areas to be liberated. We strive to ensure the safety of the civilians that we are here, fighting to protect.”