WASHINGTON — Grounds efforts against entrenched ISIS forces in Syria have resumed after the major land element of the U.S.-led coalition has returned to action on the front lines.
Offensive ground operations against the remaining ISIS redoubts in the Middle Euphrates River Valley halted on Nov. 1, as members of the Syrian Democratic Forces shifted their focus to the northern border amid tensions with Turkey, according to statements from U.S. Central Command.
It was second time this year that members of the SDF — comprised of Syrian Kurds and Arabs — ceased efforts in eastern Syria to fend on Turkish incursions. Earlier this year, the focus was on Turkey’s capture of Afrin, Syra, near the Turkish border; this time it was near Manbij.
After months of discussion, joint U.S.-Turkish patrols have started joint patrols in Manbij as a way to reduce tensions, the Pentagon said.
This week the SDF grounds forces are back in the efforts to seize the last ground redoubts of ISIS in eastern Syria, Pentagon officials said.
“The fighting never stopped,” U.K. Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, CJTF-OIR deputy commander for strategy and information, told Pentagon reporters on Tuesday.
He said estimates of the remaining ISIS forces are still at between 1,500 and 2,000.
‘We should not be surprised that this is a hard fight,” Ghika said, via a tele-hookup from Baghdad. “These are some of their most hardened fighters. They have nowhere to go. They are being contained. They have had time to construct a series of defense positions, IED belts, underground tunnels, things like that. And so we shouldn’t be surprised that this takes time.”
He said he was aware of the situation on the norther border but that “the fight has not stopped in the MERV.”
The MERV is the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
When many of the SDF forces headed north, ISIS launched a fierce counter-attack whose intensity surprised Pentagon analysts. That counter attack has been quelled, Pentagon officials said.
“I very much welcome the recent announcement by the Syrian Democratic Force that they have resumed ground offensive operations in the area,” Ghika said.
In April, the U.S.-led coalition launched Operation Roundup, designed to reclaim the last land holdings of ISIS in Syria. Phase one consisted of general offensive actions against ISIS, while phase two focused on the liberation of Dashisha, which was completed in mid-July.
Phase three, designed to be the final offensive, is to retake Hajin, Syria, along the Euphrates River, and Abu Kemal, on the border with Iraq, along with surrounding areas.
When phase three will be completed remain unclear, Ghika said.
“I do not look at it in terms of time. I look at it in terms of conditions,” he said. “This is a hard fight. Indeed, we have witnessed some of the most intense fighting since ISIS were defeated in Raqqa and Mosul.”