The Syrian Democratic Forces launched a new ground offensive last month to wipe out the remaining pockets of ISIS militants in eastern Syria.
The American-backed offensive, dubbed “Operation Roundup,” follows territorial gains by ISIS, which were facilitated by the departure of Kurdish fighters, who were forced to leave the American-led assault last winter to help their compatriots fend off Turkish attacks in northwest Syria.
With help from the Kurds, French commandos, and Iraqi spies, the allied Syrian militias in the past month have successfully cleared ISIS fighters away from the Iraq-Syria border.
American airstrikes, which increased by more than 300% in May, were successful in destroying enemy command posts, bunkers, operatives, equipment, and supply routes. Most targets were located in the Euphrates River Valley in an areas controlled by the Syrian army and its Russian military patrons. On Thursday, Kurdish fighters in northern Syria announced the capture of French jihadist Adrien Guihal.
“Morale among ISIS fighters is sinking,” says British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney. “Frictions are mounting between native and foreign-born ISIS fighters as ISIS’ privileged leadership continues to flee the area, leaving fighters with dwindling resources and low morale.”
Despite its successes, Operation Roundup is far from complete. Defense Sec. Jim Mattis has assured American commanders in Syria they have at least six months left to defeat ISIS, but that might not be enough time.
“The Islamic State has now shifted to guerrilla operations, increasing the likelihood that it will continue to operate in eastern Syria and western Iraq for years,” says Seth Jones, director of a Washington-based think tank on Syrian strategy.
“It is absolutely clear that those final areas are going to be a difficult fight,” insists Maj. Gen. Gedney, who says there are still “too many” militants holding ground in eastern Syria.
There’s also the terrorist group’s ongoing use of social media, which cannot be stopped by even the most complete ground victory.
“ISIS’s online messaging has multiple themes, and if battlefield losses force the group to shift away from messages emphasizing the holding of territory, the group can pivot towards its claim to victimhood,” explains counterterrorism expert Joshua A. Geltzer.
And lastly, American officials still aren’t sure what will happen when ISIS is finally defeated.
“What is the US’s political approach in eastern Syria…who will govern these areas?” asks Jones. “These questions are critical since successful counterterrorism and counterinsurgency campaigns have always required strong, competent governments. Weak, failed states are not a recipe for success.”
Since 2014, ISIS has lost about 98% of the “caliphate” it once controlled in Syria and Iraq – including HQs in Raqqa and Mosul (both liberated in 2017) – and is down from 60,000 fighters to just 3,000.
At its peak, ISIS was pulling in $1-3 million per day (mostly through illegal oil sales). Today, the group earns about $4 million per month.