Military operations against Islamic State in Syria are wrapping up and the last pockets of the jihadists’ self-proclaimed “caliphate” will be flushed out within a month, a top Syrian Democratic Forces commander said.
Mazloum Kobane, commander of the SDF spearheading the battle against ISIS, told AFP that the force’s “special status” should be preserved in any talks with the Damascus government.
“The operation of our forces against ISIS in its last pocket has reached its end and ISIS fighters are now surrounded in one area,” said Kobane.
With backing from the U.S.-led Coalition, the SDF are in the last phase of an operation started on September 10 to defeat ISIS in their Euphrates Valley bastions in eastern Syria.
The SDF are the main ground partner in Syria of the Coalition created in 2014 to fight ISIS.
Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was ordering a full troop pullout from Syria, a move that left the Coalition’s partners feeling betrayed and exposed to Turkish attacks.
“The decision to withdraw was wrong,” Kobane said, as it came “before we finished imposing security and stability in the region.”
The decision left some of the SDF’s forces stranded “in the middle of the road,” he said.
After Trump’s announcement, U.S. officials encouraged the northern Syria administration to try to find a solution with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, senior Syrian Democratic official Ilham Ahmed told The Defense Post in December.
They have since turned to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to guarantee the administration’s survival, but Kobane said negotiations were proving difficult.
On Thursday, Sipan Hemo, commander of the SDF component People’s Protection Units (YPG), said that talks with Assad’s government could begin within days.
Northern Syrian officials presented a road map for an agreement with the government in early January meetings with regime ally Russia.
“Any political agreement should include the special status” of the Syrian Democratic Forces after they fought ISIS “on behalf of all humanity and even the Syrian army,” he said.
“This is our red line and we will not concede this.”
The Kurdish-led alliance “protected northeastern Syria” and liberated these areas, and it has the right to continue protecting the region, Kobane added.
Assad’s government has gained ground against rebels and jihadists with Russian backing since 2015, and now controls almost two-thirds of the country.
It is determined to reassert its authority over oil-rich SDF-held areas, which make up the lion’s share of territory still outside its control.
But after years of marginalization, Kurds in northern Syria are determined to keep some of the autonomy they gained during the eight-year war.
The SDF could “agree to be part of the national army of a future Syria, but only on the condition they keep their special status,” Kobane said.
Damascus has rejected self-rule in northeastern Syria, but the administration’s leaders started talks with the government in a bid to seek some form of decentralization.
“The discussions are ongoing but have not yet reached any positive result,” he said.
The regime “keeps on thinking it can go back to the way it was before 2011 [when Syria’s conflict erupted]. It still hopes it can take military control of the whole region.”
“It needs … to understand that is impossible.”
Eliminating ISIS remnants
“We need a month to eliminate ISIS remnants still in the area,” said Kobane, who spoke to AFP on Thursday near the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah.
ISIS fighters are defending a handful of hamlets near the Iraqi border, the last rump of a “caliphate” which the jihadist organization proclaimed in 2014 and once covered territory the size of Britain.
“I believe that during the next month we will officially announce the end of the military presence on the ground of the so-called caliphate,” Kobane said.
ISIS lost the town of Hajin late last year and the subsequent collapse of its defenses saw the SDF – an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces – conquer one village after another.
Kobane said their battle had been complicated as ISIS shifted its strategy after the SDF ousted the jihadists from their de-facto Syrian capital of Raqqa in 2017.
New tactics include “sleeper cells everywhere, secretly recruiting people again, and carrying out suicide operations, bombings, and assassinations,” he said.
“We expect there will be an increase in the intensity of ISIS operations against our forces after the end of their military presence.”
ISIS has retained a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert and has claimed a series of attacks in SDF-held territory.
“We will shift from large military operations like this one … to precise security operations,” Kobane said.
With reporting from AFP