ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – ISIS will be defeated in its two major strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa within six months, the top US commander in Iraq estimated on Wednesday. The extremist group is struggling as it faces multiple offensives on several fronts from Iraqi, Kurdish, coalition, Syrian regime, Syrian opposition, Russian, and Turkish forces.
“Within the next six months, I think we’ll see both conclude,” said US Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend north of Baghdad on Wednesday, referring to the ongoing Mosul and Raqqa military campaigns.
While ISIS is being hit hard in its two strongholds, it is also facing offensives throughout territory it holds. The enemy is “overwhelmed anywhere that they are,” said Col. John Dorrian, spokesperson for the Combined Joint Taskforce of the global anti-ISIS coalition, briefing reporters on Wednesday.
The coalition carried out 43 airstrikes “consisting of 92 engagements” against ISIS in Iraq and Syria on Tuesday alone.
The multiple offensives are putting a lot of pressure on the group, Dorrian detailed.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared eastern Mosul “liberated” on January 24. The offensive to retake western Mosul, which is surrounded by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, will start “in the next few days,” Townsend said on Wednesday.
ISIS militants who do not surrender in west Mosul “will be killed there,” Dorrian said.
The coalition has continued to hammer ISIS in west Mosul from the air while the Iraqi forces on the ground gear up for the operation, which is expected to be difficult. On Tuesday, they carried out nine airstrikes near Mosul that “engaged six ISIL tactical unit and two ISIL staging areas; destroyed 12 watercraft, eight cranes, seven engineering equipment pieces, five vehicles, four supply caches, two tunnels, two mortar systems, a front-end loader, a weapons cache, a fighting position, a tactical vehicle, a weapons facility, and a VBIED facility; and damaged nine supply routes,” their daily strike report detailed.
In Raqqa, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued to progress in the campaign to isolate the city. They cleared 63 square kilometres on Tuesday, backed by 20 coalition airstrikes during the day.
The SDF are now “11km away from the north side of al-Raqqa,” the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the dominant force within the SDF, stated in a news release on Wednesday. Their forces took control of two strategic hills after intense fighting Tuesday night.
Dorrian said they expect the city to be completely isolated within weeks, at which time a decision will be made with regard to the offensive to enter the city.
In al-Bab, northern Syria, ISIS is in “deep trouble,” Dorrian said, noting the battlespace around the town is complicated. Turkish forces and its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA), who control territory north of the town, gained ground on Wednesday, while simultaneous advances to the south by Syrian regime forces and its allies tightened the noose around al-Bab.
The coalition is providing air support as well, carrying out six air strikes in the al-Bab area on Tuesday.
The coalition is coordinating daily with the Turkish military as well as keeping up regular communication with Russia via their deconfliction line, said Dorrian.
The Syrian Army advanced against ISIS in Deir ez-Zur and Palmyra, state-run SANA reported on Wednesday. In Deir ez-Zur, the air force struck an ISIS gathering. Meanwhile, west of Palmyra the army killed a group of militants and air raids on Palmyra itself killed another 12.
When asked if the Russian and Syrian regime offensives against ISIS was at an unprecedented level, Dorrian cautiously said it would be reasonable to characterize the situation in that way, noting that Russia and Syria had been focused on Aleppo previously.
As ISIS loses on the battleground, they are also losing some of their allure, leading to a drop in recruitment of foreign fighters, Dorrian noted. Not many people want to join the fight because the enemy is being annihilated, he said, detailing that between just 100 and 200 fighters were crossing borders into ISIS territory per month, down from 2,000 a year ago.
“The enemy is in deep trouble because they can’t deal with all the areas they’re being attacked,” said Dorrian.
While ISIS is losing on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, the group is adapting, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman warned the UN Security Council on Tuesday.
“ISIL is adapting in several ways to military pressure – resorting to increasingly covert communication and recruitment methods, including by using the ‘dark web,’ encryption and messengers,” he said, using an alternate acronym for ISIS. He also noted that the group still appears to “have sufficient funds to continue fighting.”
Feltman made his comments while briefing the council on the Secretary General’s fourth report on the global threat of ISIS. The report notes that ISIS is losing territory in Iraq and Syria, and has been ousted from Sirte, Libya, but has continued to gain influence in other regions, including West Africa and Nigeria.
We need to do more, Feltman said. “Ultimately, it is the spread and consolidation of peace, security, development and human rights that will most effectively deprive terrorism of the oxygen it needs to survive.”