Washington DC: US President’s Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk said here on Friday (4 August 2017) that in part of Syria and Iraq, ISIS has been kicked out of key terrain that they had held.
At a special briefing, McGurk said: “When ISIS really arrived on the international scene back in 2014, there were 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries around the world pouring into Syria and Iraq. They controlled what was effectively a quasi-state. They were able to mass and maneuver force all around Iraq and Syria, taking entire cities, controlling millions of people under their domain.”
Since that time, McGurk pointed out that the ISIS has lost about 70,000 square kilometers of territory in Iraq and Syria. About 78 percent of the territory they used to hold in Iraq, they can no longer operate in, and about 58 percent of the territory they used to hold in Syria, they can no longer operate in because when the global coalition supports elements on the ground to retake territory from ISIS, they have never been able to reclaim that territory.
McGurk further said:
Almost 5 million people who had been living under ISIS have been liberated by coalition-enabled operations on the ground and are no longer living under ISIS.
A few years ago, migrants and refugees were pouring out of this part of the world. That flow has now been reversed. In Iraq alone, about 2 million people have returned to their homes in areas that have been cleared from ISIS.
Iraqi Security Forces
The coalition against ISIS has trained 100,000 members of the Iraqi Security Forces. They have never lost a battle.
This was an Iraqi Security Force that had almost collapsed. Those forces, those units that we have trained as a coalition have never lost a battle.
In Syria, when it comes to the campaign against ISIS, the coalition against ISIS is working primarily with the Syrian Democratic Forces. That’s a force of now about 50,000 – it’s about half Arab, half Kurd.
Particularly among the Arab – Sunni Arab population, the coalition training classes are full because these people want to get back to their homes and kick ISIS out of their areas.
In a part of Syria, supported by the Turkish forces an area known as the Euphrates Shield zone, the ISIS has been kicked out of key terrain that they had held.
Nearly 30 percent of all the territory that has been retaken from ISIS – about 20,000 square kilometers – has actually happened in the last six months.
Mosul and Raqqa
The campaign against Mosul is now finished and in Raqqa, about 45 percent of it is now cleared.
Initiatives from President Trump
The delegation of tactical authority from the White House, from Washington, down through the chain of command to the commanders on the ground has made a fairly tremendous difference in the ability to actually seize opportunities from ISIS.
Before a military operation, the strategy is to surround the enemy so that foreign fighters in particular cannot escape. Every foreign fighter that made its way into Syria and Iraq, the goal is to make sure that they can never make their way out of Syria and Iraq.
The coalition against ISIS now has 73 members, 69 countries, four international organizations -it is one of the largest coalitions in history. All the members came together in March to talk about the next accelerated phase of the campaign. In that session alone about $2 billion were raised, which really came in critical needs, particularly for the post-Mosul phase and the humanitarian aspect of taking care of the Internally displaced people (IDPs) from Mosul.
There are about 2,000 ISIS fighters left in Raqqa. UN estimates now – there’s about 25,000 civilians on the ground in Raqqa. What’s really happening in Raqqa is similar to what happened in Mosul but on a smaller scale. The ISIS fighters on the ground in Raqqa are using the civilians as their own shields, as their own hostages. They are using snipers to kill civilians who are trying to escape. They’re trying to put suicide bombers in columns of displaced people as they try to get out – the similar tactics seen from this barbaric terrorist organization in other cities.
In the town of Ayn Issa, just north of Raqqa, some of the local commanders who were sensing what was happening with ISIS, told the US military commander, General Steve Townsend, in March that they sense there’s an opportunity to catch ISIS by surprise in the city of Tabqa and at the Tabqa Dam, and there’s an airfield there called the Tabqa Airport. And they said, all we need is we need you to help us get across this body of water – it’s about an 8-kilometer body of water – at night, drop us behind ISIS lines, and then we can take it from there, basically catching ISIS by surprise and seizing these three very strategic areas.
This was very important to close the noose on ISIS because ISIS was using this area to get personnel and equipment in and out of Raqqa. It was pretty audacious. It required us to put these fighters on helicopters, crossing about eight kilometers of water at night. These fighters are incredibly brave. Most of them have never been on a helicopter. It was also very complicated because it was hard to tell exactly what was on the other side of the water because we had never really been that far south.
General Townsend and the commanders approved this operation really within a period of days. It took about six weeks to finish, but the forces that we were talking about it were right. They actually know the local area. They caught ISIS by surprise. They were able to cease Tabqa, Tabqa Dam, and the airport, and we really saw ISIS go into a bit of a reeling effect after that. We saw a lot of their fighters trying to flee and their defenses in Raqqa begin to degrade a little bit. So it was a really critical operation, and it was done because authority’s been delegated down to seize opportunities like that. It was a really important moment in this overall campaign.
Despite all of the tensions between the coalition and Russia, an effort was made to find areas where they could find a way to work together, and Syria has exemplified that. This has been particularly true in Tabqa because regime forces – Syrian regime forces are very close to the area that the coalition forces are operating in. There wasan incident on 18 June in which the coalition forces shot down a Syrian jet that violated an agreement that we had on the ground of where they could go and where they could not go.
A number of schools in Tabqa are actually wired to explode, so deminers are being called into the area to clear those schools. About five have already been finished. And everything possible is being done to have as many schools ready in Tabqa for the opening of the school year on 15 September. In terms of school curriculums, teachers, all this, this is the responsibility of the Syrians on the ground and the Iraqis on the ground.
In Raqqa there are about 400 of these critical infrastructure sites that have been identified for immediate demining. About 100 of these sites are really the priorities.
Middle Euphrates Valley
In the Middle Euphrates Valley, some ISIS leaders, as they saw the writing on the wall in Raqqa, tried to flee before the noose was tightened, and they fled to some very small dusty towns in the area of the Euphrates River. A town called Mayadin is one of them and some other very small areas in this – an area called the Middle Euphrates Valley.
When they’re living in small towns and dusty villages, not only is it very different for them – this is not the glamorous, so-called caliphate they expected to find – it’s also a lot easier for the coalition forces to find them. So in the last six weeks alone, about 13 key ISIS leaders and associates have been targeted and eliminated in this area, and that is only going to continue.
A force from the Middle Euphrates Valley is being trained in the little garrison known as Tanf to fight ISIS in the Middle Euphrates Valley. It is a very important mission in terms of our overall counter-ISIS campaign.
Here a little separate from the counter-ISIS campaign, is an ISIS cell. They’re known as the Jaysh Khalid bin Al-Walid. They are an ISIS affiliate. When they move into an area and capture a village, which they did there a few months ago, they do what ISIS does: they capture locals, they do gruesome beheadings, and terrorize the local population. The coalition against ISIS is determined to remove that cell from the southwest.
In the southwest there is a political agreement about a ceasefire, and with that agreement is not just a econfliction line with a ceasefire between the two sides, it also talks about political arrangements in the area, making sure opposition arrangements can actually remain intact. Here there is an actual ceasefire arrangement with the Russians.
The Jordanians are also a critical driver of the process. A ceasefire in the southwest with Jordan and Russia was concluded on 9 July. It was finalized in Hamburg between the US President Trump and Russian President Putin, and it went into effect on 11 July. The results of this have been quite promising thus far and the fighting has largely stopped.
In the last six months of 2017, about 440,000 IDPs in Syria have actually returned to their homes. And 31,000 Syrian refugees, meaning Syrians who fled outside of Syria, have also now returned to their homes.
When it comes to the next phase of the ISIS campaign in Tal Afar, that will probably be the next battle. It’ll happen at a time of the choosing of the Government of Iraq. It is estimated there’s about 1,000 ISIS fighters or so in Tal Afar among 20 to 40,000 civilians. So somewhat similar to Raqqa; a little bit smaller, but it’ll be very difficult. This has been a hub for ISIS for three years, it has been the home for many of their leaders, it has been a place where terrible atrocities were committed against not only Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Yezidis. In this terrible fulcrum of ISIS atrocities, many of them happened in Tal Afar. The Iraqis are committed to liberating the people of Tal Afar, and the US and the Coalition is committed to supporting them at a time of their choosing.
There are about 1,000 ISIS fighters in Hawija. About 50,000 or so civilians in that pocket of territory – 50 to 80,000 if you kind of look at the environs. This will also be a very complex operation and this – similar to Mosul, this will have to involve cooperation between the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Security Forces, and forces local to the area.
That has also been a heartland of ISIS. The US and the coalition against ISIS will support the Iraqi Security Forces as they clear that and restore sovereignty to their border with legitimate Iraqi Security Forces.
What comes after ISIS?
Also in focus is the main border crossing between Iraq and Jordan. It’s about a billion dollars a month commerce route – very important for Jordan and of course very important for Iraq, the Government of Iraq, and also the Anbar province.
Arar border crossing with Saudi Arabia
This is a border crossing that has been closed since 1990. Multiple U.S. administrations have encouraged an opening between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Those doors have remained closed for decades, but a breakthrough has now been achieved. The Iraqis and the Saudis, an initiative that they really launched on their own, a breakthrough between Baghdad and Riyadh, which has now led to an – not only exchanges of visits, but exchanges of key ministers and talking now about opening that key border crossing for the first time since 1990. Again a critical commerce route, and that’s how the post-ISIS situation can come into shape.