The deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve briefed the media here via videoconference from Baghdad this morning, discussing progress in Syria and Iraq and updating stabilization efforts that set conditions for normality to return once the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is defeated.
Beginning with the counter-ISIS fight in Syria, British Army Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones said the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Arab Coalition continue to pressure and isolate Raqqa.
“Since they started the operations on Nov. 5, they've liberated more than 3,900 square kilometers of territory as they advance from the north-northwest and now northeast of Raqqa … liberating tens of thousands of people from ISIS,” he said.
Arab forces are doing most of the fighting and many more are being recruited and trained as they march south, Jones added, noting that ISIS is defending robustly but they’re losing fighters, leaders and resources.
The coalition continues conducting strikes in support of its partners in Syria, he said, destroying 16 command-and-control facilities and more than 30 supply and logistics nodes that the enemy used to store weapons, ammunition and supplies.
“We're increasing coalition airstrikes against ISIS in and around Raqqa,” Jones said, “targeting their leaders and command -and-control architecture. The enemy is under pressure on all fronts.”
In Bab, to the west of Raqqa, the general said that Turkey and their partner forces are squeezing ISIS out of the city and the coalition continues to support them with air strikes.
“As they advance they're discovering a vast tunnel network beneath the city, a tactic we've seen in other areas the enemy has controlled. Soon we expect to see the city fully liberated after weeks of heavy fighting,” Jones said.
In Iraq, the Iraqi forces continue preparing to liberate western Mosul.
The 16th Iraqi Army Division supported by police and thousands of tribal forces moved into the east side of the city, the general said, to provide security to the population and keep the enemy from reinfiltrating or using sleeper cells.
“The enemy has tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate back into the east of the city and has indiscriminately fired mortars, rockets and artillery into liberated areas on more than 300 occasions in the last week.” Jones said, “with characteristic disdain for human life.”
The general said that tactic and their use of commercial-off-the-shelf drones is all they have left to attack the east “as they await their fate.”
The ISIS use of drones is an increasingly insidious threat in Iraq, he added, noting that they’re used for surveillance but also to drop grenades and other explosive munitions on innocent civilians in east Mosul and elsewhere.
“While this is a typically inhumane and indiscriminate weapon by [ISIS],” Jones said, “it's not a game-changer. We've got technical defenses to mitigate against it.”
ISIS still holds about 750,000 people in western Mosul and must now be dealt with, he added.
“Soon, and at a time of their choosing, the Iraqi security forces will move in to start the liberation of west Mosul,” the general said.
The fight for Mosul will not be easy, he warned. “The tight streets and alleyways of the old city will be tough to clear. But the Iraqi forces have adapted to ISIS's tactics and they will drive back the enemy whose finite resources wane with each passing day.”
After the Battle
Reflecting on what will follow the battle for Mosul, Jones said that in 2016, Iraqi forces retook from ISIS an area the size of New Jersey. This returned freedom to about 2 million Iraqis and Syrians.
But scars will remain long after the battle, the general said.
During their occupation by ISIS, cities like Ramadi and Fallujah suffered major infrastructure damage -- areas were riddled with explosive devices and booby traps were hidden in homes, schools and hospitals, all meant to kill and maim innocent civilians, Jones added.
Since its liberation last year about 26,000 kilograms of explosives have been removed from Ramadi, he said, letting 80 percent of the population to return to their homes. In Fallujah, about 200,000 people have returned and across the whole of Anbar, where ISIS banned education, more than 1,200 schools now are open and more than 300,000 children and 16,000 teachers are back in the classroom, he said, noting that all this follows great efforts of the government of Iraq, the United Nations, and a host of international organizations.
“It's tough, grinding work,” Jones said, “and for the people who've been traumatized by ISIS's campaign of terror, the work can't be done soon enough.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)