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Coalition moving to ‘consolidate gains’ against ISIS in Iraq and Syria

As the war against ISIS winds down, the U.S.-led Coalition is preparing for the inevitable insurgency

The U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State is preparing to wage a counterinsurgency and counterterror fight as opposed to a straight military operation. As the battle against ISIS winds down in Iraq and Syria, U.S. commanders and officials have continually said they will continue to support local forces against the remnants of the militant group.

“This is a period of ‘consolidating gains’ as Operation Inherent Resolve transitions from the physical battlefield to the battlefield of ideas,” the Coalition told The Defense Post on Tuesday.

Already more than 95 percent of the territory ISIS once held has been recaptured, and the militants have not taken back control of any of it.

“The Coalition and our partners have restored hope for a better tomorrow here in the Middle East, and will maintain this momentum as Daesh continues to lose its ability to generate conventional threats and looks at other ways to propagate its morally bankrupt ideology,” the Coalition said in an emailed statement.

Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon told The Defense Post in an interview last month that the Coalition is already training the Iraqi Security Forces to identify ISIS threats before they can turn into attacks.

British trainer at Al Asad Airbase, Iraq
A British trainer from 4th Battalion, “The Rifles” with soldiers from 7th Iraqi Army Division during training at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, January 13, 2017. Image: US Army/Sgt. Lisa Soy

According to the Coalition statement, “consolidated gains” means not allowing ISIS to develop into an effective insurgency. It also means provision of security for diplomatic, economic and “informational activity”; increased economic opportunities for local people that provide an alternative to taking up arms; a return to normalcy and self-sufficiency; and, critically, rebuilding key civilian infrastructure, such as homes, cities, schools and places of worship, so people can return to their homes.

Over the weekend, Coalition strikes near Deir Ezzor in Syria destroyed what the Coalition called explosive hazards. A spokesperson told The Defense Post, “while we do not know the specific type of weapon the terrorists had intended to use these explosives for, we are certain that they intended to use them to kill and injure civilians and/or members of the legitimate security forces.”

Dozens of civilians have been injured or killed by booby-traps, mines, and improvised explosive devices that ISIS left throughout Iraq and Syria, especially in Mosul and Raqqa.

Mohammed Abu Adel, the general commander of Manbij Military Council, was injured last week when an IED exploded in his car. Last month, Idris Mohammed, head of the Raqqa Internal Security forces, was killed when stepped on an IED while trying to visit his home in the city.

SDF demining training
A veteran Syrian Democratic Forces soldier teaches a group of recruits about improvised explosive devices during demining training in northern Syria, October 10, 2017. Image: US Army/Staff Sgt. Richard Lutz

The Syrian Democratic Forces, one of the main Coalition partners on the ground, has called for more international assistance for help with demining and reconstruction.

“If the people of Raqqa don’t get help from outside, it could take 10 years time to rebuild it,” Heval Ari, a Danish SDF fighter, told The Defense Post last month.

The State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement is leading the U.S. effort to clear mines and other explosives from areas recaptured from ISIS. A U.S. official acknowledged that clearing mines “will take years if not decades to complete.”

“The aim is to clear as many critical infrastructure sites as possible that would allow for broader stabilization efforts to take place, while simultaneously training a local capacity that could take lead of this effort into the future,” the official told The Defense Post.

The Coalition said on Tuesday that it is also focused on effective, inclusive and representative governance and reconciliation among tribes, sects and ethnic groups in Iraq, as well as “setting conditions for a political settlement in Syria.”

Some progress has been made. In September in Kobani, a northern Syrian city held by Kurds, people voted for leaders of their local communes. That same month, Syrian children in the city of Tabqa returned to school, many in buildings that were held by ISIS only a few months earlier.

A mural in Tabqa promotes education
A mural painted in Tabqa promotes education for many children returning to the city. Image: Better Hope Tabqa/Twitter

A representative for Better Hope for al-Tabqa, a small NGO established by a group of volunteers from the city, told a Defense Post reporter that the group has met with Brett McGurk, the U.S. Special Envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, and other international represnetatives to fund their program to get more children back to school.

“Every activity that reflects the benefits of peace to two nations torn by years of war is a reflection of consolidated gains,” the Coalition said.

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