Battered ISIS keeps grip on last piece of territory for over a year
Baghdad : “U.S. and Iraqi politicians have been quick to declare victory over the group, using terms like ‘defeated’ and ‘obliterated,’” he wrote in a report issued last month. “The Islamic State is far from obliterated.”
The movement’s propaganda arm continues to broadcast aggressively, at the same pace as during the peak of its power, pursuing a sort of digital caliphate long after its territorial one has mostly disappeared. In the November attack, the group captured at least 30 members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, beheading at least one and disseminating videos of the prisoners through its social media channels.
In 2014, the Islamic State dominated an area in Iraq and Syria the size of Britain. But by November 2017, it was reduced to the pocket around Hajin, which is about the size of Manhattan. American officials described their remaining territory as only about 20 square miles.
On the Iraqi side of the border, the extremists have even managed to set up surprise roadblocks in Diyala Province in eastern Iraq, kidnapping and killing Iraqi government officials and engaging in shootouts with troops, according to military officials. And they have expanded attacks in Kirkuk Province, taking advantage of the withdrawal of Kurdish pesh merga forces from that area.
Markusen said Islamic State attacks in Iraq were more frequent this year than in 2016, up to 75 a month versus 60. And though thousands of its fighters were killed or captured last year, the group still has 20,000 to 30,000 in Iraq and Syria, he said. That is about the number that the Central Intelligence Agency estimated in 2014, when the organization was at its peak.
A fighter who goes by the name of Yehya and says he is an Islamic State member, claimed after being reached by WhatsApp in Syria not to be discouraged by the setbacks.“Do you think the Americans can defeat the caliphate? It’s a war of attrition,” he said. “When the coalition stops the airstrikes, we will return immediately.”
In September, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which now control much of eastern Syria, announced that a “final push” against Islamic State remnants in Hajin was underway.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian Democratic Forces have moved 15,000 fighters into Hajin, backed by 75 trucks carrying armored vehicles. The United States has 2,000 Special Operations forces in eastern Syria and Iraq as well, most of which are believed to be in Syria.
The American-led coalition calls the effort to finish off the extremists in Syria “Operation Roundup,” which formally began in May and continues at a quick tempo. In the week ending Dec. 5, for instance, the military said it had bombed 151 targets, nearly all of them in Syria.
On the ground, however, there have been only incremental changes in the three months of this final push. And in recent days, the Kurdish-led forces were seen digging defensive trenches around some of their positions, fearing another Islamic State advance, according to the Observatory, an independent group that monitors events in Syria using a network of volunteers.
American officials say the final push against the Islamic State is so difficult because the cornered fighters have nothing left to lose — and no other refuge. Although the military estimated that ISIS has only about 2,000 to 2,500 fighters in the Hajin area, General Roberson said they had had plenty of time to build elaborate defenses, including tunnels and booby-traps.
“We never thought it would be a swift fight,” Col. Sean J. Ryan, a spokesman in Baghdad for the American-led coalition, said. “But it’s proven longer and tougher than possibly expected.”
American and Syrian Democratic Forces officials accused the militants of using the remaining civilians in the area — who number about 7,000, according to the United Nations — as human shields and threatening anyone who tries to leave the Hajin pocket. Colonel Ryan said ISIS had also used hospitals and mosques to fight from as well. Concern for civilians, he said, meant “we have to go slowly and methodically.”
In ISIS’ attempted breakout on Nov. 24, it lost 50 fighters, but 79 Syrian Democratic Force fighters were reported killed, along with 30 civilians, allegedly in airstrikes. That was in addition to the 30 or more Syrian Democratic Forces fighters captured, the Observatory said.