US-backed forces launch offensive against final ISIS strongholds in Syria

US-backed forces launch offensive against final ISIS strongholds in Syria
© Getty Images

Forces backed by the United States have launched an offensive to drive ISIS from its final strongholds in northeast Syria, U.S. officials announced Tuesday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the U.S. military and its international coalition, announced Tuesday that it would begin offensive operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

“We continue to stand alongside our partners and ensure the liberation of all terrain held by ISIS terrorists,” Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, commanding general of the Special Operations Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a statement. “This is a key milestone in bringing lasting stability to both Iraq and Syria.”

In a separate statement, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nuaert said that the “days of ISIS controlling territory and terrorizing the people of Syria are coming to an end.”

“The fighting will be difficult, but we and our partners will prevail,” she said.

Operations against ISIS in the Middle Eastern river valley stalled earlier this year after Turkey launched an offensive against Kurdish forces in Afrin, Syria. Many of the Kurdish fighters in the SDF — which make up the bulk of that force — left the fight against ISIS to go bolster fellow Kurds in Afrin.

But the Kurdish fighters have been returning to the SDF since Turkey seized Afrin, Pentagon officials have said.

“We are encouraged by the return of some Syrian Democratic Force partners to the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters last week. “I will not go into details on how many and where there will be a raid, but there are some encouraging signs to see that more combat power is returning to the Middle Euphrates River Valley to really turn it on to the ISIS element, those two locations that finally remain.”

On Tuesday, the SDF promised to end ISIS’s presence in eastern Syria “once and for all.”

“ISIS retains a significant presence near the Iraqi borders from which it seeks to retain safe haven to plan attacks around the world and expand its territory in Syria and Iraq,” Leilwa Abdullah, spokesperson for the campaign, and Ahmad Abu Khawlah, commander of Dayr Az Zawr Military Council, said in a statement. “Over the coming weeks, our heroic forces will liberate these areas, secure the Iraq-Syria border, and end the presence of ISIS in eastern Syria once and for all.”

Pentagon officials have said ISIS has lost about 90 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria. That’s down from a previous assessment that the terrorist group lost 98 percent of its territory — a change Pentagon officials have attributed to ISIS gains in areas that were controlled by forces loyal to the Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The latest offensive comes after President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE promised last month U.S. troops would be coming home “very soon.”

He’s since walked that back, agreeing to leave U.S. troops in Syria until ISIS is defeated and suggesting he’s open to leaving troops there beyond that. 

“I would love to get out; I'd love to bring our incredible warriors back home,” Trump said during a press conference last week with French President Emmanuel Macron. “With that being said, Emmanuel and myself have discussed the fact that we don't want to give Iran open season to the Mediterranean, especially since we really control it to a large extent. We really have controlled it, and we've set control on it.

“So we'll see what happens. But we're going to be coming home relatively soon. We finished — at least, almost — our work with respect to ISIS in Syria, ISIS in Iraq.”

Trump and Macron also spoke about Syria on Monday, according to a brief White House statement on the call.

Tuesday’s statements from the coalition and the State Department suggested some form of enduring presence, as well. The coalition statement said it is committed to “setting the conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability.”

“As the president said in remarks with President Emmanuel Macron of France, we will ensure that there is a strong and lasting footprint in Syria such that ISIS cannot return and populations liberated from ISIS are not exploited by the Assad regime or its Iranian supporters,” Nauert said in her statement.

But she added the United States continues to look for “further fair share contributions in forces, materiel and resources from regional partners and allies to stabilize liberated territories.”

On Monday, asked about previous comments that the United States would regret withdrawing from Syria, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThis week: House Dems voting to hold Barr, Ross in contempt A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Chuck Todd on administration vacancies: 'Is this any way to run a government?' MORE spoke about the need to support the diplomatic process.

 “And what we don't want to do, now that we are on the cusp of winning on the battlefield, in terms of taking down the physical caliphate, the geographic caliphate, we do not want to simply pull out before the diplomats have won the peace,” Mattis told reporters. “So you win the fight and then you win the peace. And so we're going to be working again — I'm meeting with [Special United Nations Envoy for Syria] Staffan de Mistura this afternoon and see where the Geneva process is and what we can do to assist. And obviously it's mostly a diplomatic effort in Geneva, but it has a military element, which says we don't allow the ISIS to come back in the midst of all this.”