- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2019

American warplanes and U.S.-backed Syrian ground forces kicked off a long-awaited assault on the Islamic State’s final stronghold in the country, in what White House officials and coalition commanders anticipate will mark the end of the terror group’s four-year campaign in the Middle East.

U.S. and coalition fighters and bombers hammered buildings suspected of housing members of the group known as ISIS in the village of Baghouz, near the eastern Syrian city of Deir-e-Zour. Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the constellation of Kurdish and Arab paramilitary forces, spearheaded the offensive into the village early Sunday morning.

The offensive, once complete, will mark the complete liberation of Syrian territory held by Islamic State as part of the group’s so-called caliphate, which at its height spanned across Syria and northern Iraq. The final push into Deir-e-Zour coincides with pledges by the Trump administration to have “100 percent” of all Islamic State territory reclaimed by coalition forces.

U.S. military officials and private analysts caution that Islamic State remains a formidable threat, with tens of thousands of fighters in the Middle East and in allied movements around the world. But the terror group that once boasted of a large “caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East now controls virtually no land there.

Despite reports that large numbers of Islamic State fighters are attempting to escape the coalition offensive, intermixed with the roughly 1,500 Syrian civilians fleeing Baghouz, others are digging in for what commanders expect to be a tough fight.

“Urban terrain, high density of explosive hazards in the area, and the presence of displaced persons and others who are attempting to depart the area,” are further complicating the attack, said U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel Sunday.

Nearly 20,000 civilians have already left the embattled village ahead of the coalition offensive, while a 400- to 600-man Islamic State force remain embedded Baghouz, SDF commanders told Reuters.

On Monday, Islamic State fighters launched a mass counteroffensive against coalition troops, deploying rockets, mortars and roadside bombs to stave off the coalition’s advance. American and allied commanders at coalition headquarters in Baghdad say the last Islamic State toehold in eastern Syria should be secured over the next several days.

But there were also signs that the final Islamic State holdouts were putting up an unexpectedly stiff resistance.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Arab and Kurdish forces were advancing very slowly due to land mines and sniper fire, as well as the extremists’ use of tunnels and suicide car bombs, the Associated Press reported Monday. The militants are also using civilians as human shields, the London-based group said.

On Monday, the Observatory said 13 Islamic State militants, including five suicide attackers, were killed as well as six SDF fighters. The Kurdish Hawar news agency also reported heavy fighting in Baghouz, the AP reported.

Mr. Trump has acknowledged that despite the loss of its territory in the Middle East, the Islamic State could continue to menace countries in the region and in the West. “They [will] reform, and we know that, but …hopefully will not be a sought-after occupation,” he said.

Aides say Mr. Trump remains committed to his plan to withdraw the remaining 2,000 American service members deployed to Syria, a decision that helped spark the decision by Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign at the end of 2018. Top U.S. intelligence officials have argued such a move could be premature, warning it would give the group time to reconstitute its forces for future terror attacks.

“This terrorism threat is going to continue for some time,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told Congress earlier this month.

Senate lawmakers approved a non-binding resolution shortly thereafter, opposing the proposed troop withdrawals in Syria as well as Afghanistan, where the White House reportedly is considering plans to withdraw pull 7,000 U.S. troops — or half of the entire American force.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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