U.S. Backs Kurds And Arabs In Push To Oust ISIS Remnants From Syria

Oct 6, 2018
Originally published on October 6, 2018 10:50 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now a look at the fight to force ISIS from the last little bit of land the group still holds. ISIS is down to just about 2 percent of the territory it once controlled. In northeast Syria, U.S. forces are supporting local Kurds and Arabs to rout them from that 2 percent. Still, the mission is deadly and difficult. NPR's Tom Bowman was embedded with U.S. military advisers there.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The drive to Camp Omar is littered with the telltale signs of war - buildings pockmarked with bullet holes, a charred carcass of a bus. And as we turn into the camp where local forces are stationed and trained by Americans, there's the twisted steel skeleton of an oil refinery hit with U.S. airstrikes so ISIS couldn't sell the oil.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: Dozens of soldiers from the Syrian Democratic Forces are in formation as they get a pep talk from an American officer, Major General Patrick Roberson. He oversees U.S. Special Forces advising local troops.

PATRICK ROBERSON: We all expect you to use your training to get after Daesh.

BOWMAN: Daesh, another name for ISIS - as the troops head off...

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: (Foreign language spoken).

BOWMAN: ...Roberson talks with General Chiya. He's the local officer leading Kurdish and Arab forces.

ROBERSON: And most of your folks are training. Is that right?

CHIYA: (Foreign language spoken).

ROBERSON: Yeah.

BOWMAN: Chiya says the final assault began nearly a month ago. And it won't be over anytime soon. That's because ISIS has seeded the entire area with roadside bombs. It's been the top cause of casualties among his forces. Here he is speaking to reporters.

CHIYA: (Through interpreter) We're combating IEDs and car bombs. ISIS is also using tunnels between the trees.

BOWMAN: Chiya and other officers say only hardened ISIS fighters are left, at least several thousand, including many foreign fighters.

CHIYA: (Through interpreter) Russians, Azerbaijanis, Algerians, Tunisians and Europeans.

BOWMAN: And Chiya's final objective is the town of Hajin. ISIS has dug in there, creating berms, tunnels and fighting positions inside homes and buildings. Hundreds of civilians already had been killed during the past two years by U.S. airstrikes supporting local forces, the Pentagon says. A human rights group puts it at thousands. U.S. officers say they take pains to make sure a target is legitimate and no innocents are nearby. So one of Chiya's concerns - separating the fighters from the civilians. Local forces have secured a path out so civilians can flee the battle area to a secure camp. He says 150 families are in the camp, but it's dangerous for others to leave the city of about 30,000.

CHIYA: (Through interpreter) ISIS doesn't let people leave. They're mortaring them. People are really suffering.

BOWMAN: It's uncertain how many more families can flee before the final assault.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRACTICE SHOTS)

BOWMAN: His troops run through target practice. One of them is Ahmed Hamid Abdul Hamid. He's 25. For two years, he's fought ISIS up and down the Euphrates River. He was wounded by a sniper a few months back but says gunfire is not the real threat.

AHMED HAMID ABDUL HAMID: (Through interpreter) The difficulty is facing a lot of mines. There was a lot of friends I lost due to mines and IEDs.

BOWMAN: "About 15 to 20 friends lost," he says. So how long will it take to defeat ISIS?

HAMID: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He says, "I can't tell how long. But it will take awhile."

BOWMAN: Roberson cautions that even when ISIS loses all its territory, the terrorist group will still be a threat.

ROBERSON: They've transformed. They have sleeper cells, these entities that have transitioned into what looks like normal civil society. So people are worried about it. It's not a huge issue right now, but it's a concern. I think it's something that we're going to have to deal with.

BOWMAN: Just last week, a sleeper cell was rolled up in the city of Raqqa, the former ISIS de facto capital just north of here, a city where they were defeated last October.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, northeast Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUSTIN O'HALLORAN'S "AN ENDING, A BEGINNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.