PARIS, Oct 2, (Agencies): The US-led military alliance battling the Islamic State group faces “a tough fight” to oust the jihadists from their last holdouts in Syria, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday. While the extremists have lost almost all of the self-declared “caliphate” they held across Iraq and Syria four years ago, Mattis warned that destroying the group completely was “still going to take some time”.
“Make no mistake about it, as ISIS has collapsed inward, in their own way they have reinforced the centre as they’ve been forced into what is now less than two percent of their original territory,” Mattis told reporters in Paris. “So it’s going to still be a tough fight, I don’t want anyone to be under any illusions,” he added.
“We will be successful but it’s still going to take some time.” Last month the military chief of France, which has troops in the US alliance fighting IS, estimated the jihadists would lose their last Syrian territory by January.
Francois Lecointre predicted “the end of the physical caliphate of DAESH before the end of the year, probably late autumn”, using another name for IS. IS has lost all of its urban centres in Iraq and late last month US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters launched a fresh operation to oust the group from its last holdouts in southeast Syria.
The number of US diplomats in Syria has doubled as Islamic State fighters near a military defeat, Mattis said on Tuesday.
The US-led coalition, along with local partners, has largely cleared the militant group from Iraq and Syria but remains concerned about its resurgence. “Our diplomats there on the ground have been doubled in number. As we see the military operations becoming less, we will see the diplomatic effort now able to take (root)” Mattis said. He did not give a specific number. A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mattis was referring to State Department employees, including diplomats and personnel involved in humanitarian assistance, and the increase was recent. The United States does not have an embassy in Syria.
In a sign of the threat still posed by the militant group, security forces in northern Syria’s Raqqa said on Sunday they had uncovered an Islamic State sleeper cell which was plotting large attacks across the devastated city. Raqqa served as the de facto capital of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate until it was retaken by the Kurdish- led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia alliance last October.
In June, the SDF imposed a three-day curfew in Raqqa and declared a state of emergency, saying Islamic State militants had infiltrated the city and were planning a bombing campaign. “We are still in a tough fight, make no mistake about it,” Mattis said. He said troops would work after the defeat of Islamic State to ensure that the militant group did not return.
Russia has held the balance of power in Syria, both on the battlefield and in the UN-led peace talks, for the past two years. It has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recover huge amounts of lost territory without persuading him to agree to any political reforms. But nine rounds of talks, most of them in Geneva, have failed to bring the warring sides together to end a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.
The United States has said it will pursue “a strategy of isolation”, including sanctions, with its allies if Assad holds up a political process aimed at ending Syria’s seven-year-old war. Turkey will strengthen its observation points in Syria’s northwest and work with Russia against radical groups, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday. Speaking to members of his AK Party in parliament, Erdogan also said that Turkey will hold a summit with Russia, Germany and France in October or November to discuss Syria, adding that Turkey will continue to seek a solution with the Syrian people, not the Russian-backed Syrian government. Syria’s foreign minister said in remarks broadcast Tuesday that the Iranian ballistic missile attack on militants in eastern Syria the previous day was part of “legitimate” cooperation between the two countries to combat terrorism.