US planes zero in on last Daesh pockets in Syria

Jim Mattis, U.S. secretary of defense, watches as U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, signs the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2018 in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. The NDAA authorizes $626 billion of the base budget resources for the Department of Defense and the national security programs of the Department of Energy, providing an additional $66 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar: Secretive drones and surveillance jets are boring down on an estimated 3,000 remaining Daesh terrorists, who are hiding in Syria along a short stretch of the Euphrates River and surrounding deserts, as the US military campaign against the extremist group enters its final phase.

But the focus on a 15-square-mile enclave near the Iraqi border is complicated by skies congested with Russian, Syrian and Iranian aircraft as rival forces converge on that last main pocket of Islamic State militants in Syria.

“It drives up the complexity of the problem,” Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, air commander for Syria and Iraq, said of the increasingly risky airspace and near collisions, in an interview at his headquarters at this sprawling airbase outside Doha.

With names like Joint Stars and Rivet Joint, the US spy planes are trying to track the last Daesh terrorists and top leaders, eavesdrop on their furtive conversations, and steer attack jets and ground forces to kill or capture them.

The three-year US campaign has largely achieved its goal of reclaiming territory in Syria and Iraq, and Daesh’s so-called “caliphate”, appears all but gone. Still, senior military commanders and counterterrorism specialists caution that the organisation remains a dangerously resilient force in Iraq and Syria, and a potent global movement through its call to arms to followers on social media.

“As they lose the caliphate’s physical terrain, they’ll adapt guerrilla tactics,” General Joseph L. Votel, head of US Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, said in an interview during a regional security conference in Bahrain. “ISIS [Daesh] has been beat up pretty bad. But this is a different kind of organisation so we don’t know what they might try to add. They’ve been very adaptive.”

Echoing earlier comments by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Votel said US forces will remain in eastern Syria, alongside their Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies, as long as needed to defeat Daesh. “What we don’t want to do is leave a mess,” Votel said, something “worse than what we found.”

Here at Al Udeid, home to some 10,000 US and other allied troops, commanders are running the air wars not only in Iraq and Syria, but also the campaign in Afghanistan that is expected to increase sharply in the coming months under President Donald Trump’s more aggressive strategy for combating the Taliban, Daesh and other extremist groups there.

For now, though, the bulk of the 300 combat aircraft under Harrigian’s command are concentrating on Daesh. “Job One still is to get to the military defeat of ISIS [Daesh],” Harrigian said. “We need to make sure we stay focused on that.”

At the peak of its power three years ago, Daesh controlled a swath of territory in Syria and Iraq as big as Kentucky. Now that area has dwindled to half the size of Manhattan and is shrinking fast.

The hunt for the final Daesh terrorists and operatives draws on an aerial armada of combat aircraft based in several Gulf countries — Jordan and Turkey — as well as the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, newly arrived in the Gulf.

Warplanes are working with Syrian Kurdish and Arab militia on the ground to track down Daesh terrorists, some of whom have disappeared in Sunni enclaves along the Euphrates River near the Iraq-Syria border. Others have made a dash across deserts west — through Syrian army lines — and south into Iraq’s Anbar province to avoid capture, or worse.

The United States has doubled the bounty, to $25 million (Dh91.75 million), for information leading to the death or capture of the elusive leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

Russia and the United States back separate ground offensives against Daesh in eastern Syria, both of which are advancing in the oil-rich Deir Al Zor province bordering Iraq.

The assaults are converging on Daesh holdouts from opposite sides of the Euphrates, which bisects the province. Syrian army troops backed by Russian air power and Iranian militia are advancing along the western side of the river; Syrian Arab and Kurdish fighters, supported by US warplanes and Special Operations advisers, are pushing along the eastern river banks.

US Reaper drones armed with intelligence collected from U-2 and other spy planes are hunting Daesh terrorists, alongside Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers. A-10 attack planes, armed with laser-guided rockets and a 30-millimeter cannon, have provided effective air cover for advancing Syrian Kurdish and Arab militias.

Other US warplanes have dropped 500-pound and 250-pound bombs, often timed to detonate split seconds after impact to minimise civilian casualties, air planners said.

“We’re piling up a lot of aeroplanes in a very small piece of sky,” said Col. Jeff Hogan, deputy commander of the air operations centre at Al Udeid. He said the concentration of unarmed reconnaissance planes, armed fighters and attack planes — all warily eyeing Russian and Syrian jets nearby — were converging over Al Bu Kamal and Al Qaim, towns just across from each other on the Syrian and Iraqi borders.

At the height of the air campaign in Raqqa, Syria, over the summer, US and allied warplanes dropped nearly 200 bombs and missiles each day on Daesh targets. Now, the warplanes are stalking their prey more selectively, dropping one-tenth of that over a weekend — and sometimes less, said military officials at Al Udeid.

“We’re focused very hard on not letting ISIS [Daesh] escape,” said Hogan, 44, from Olympia, Washington. “We’ve got to annihilate them.”

Sometimes the bombs find high-ranking targets. Abu Faysal, a senior Daesh leader, and his deputy, Abu Qudamah Al Iraqi, were killed in a December 1 air strike in the Middle Euphrates River region, the Central Command said in a statement.

Others have slipped away, across the border into Turkey or in a mad dash through Syrian army lines and desert to areas south of Damascus, the Syrian capital, Colonel Ryan Dillon, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said last week.

“As the [so-called} caliphate is squeezed, these remaining fighters would bleed off into surrounding countryside and Sunni strongholds,” said Nicholas J. Rasmussen, who this past week stepped down as head of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Rasmussen warned that even with its leaders on the run, Daesh remains a deadly worldwide force still capable of directing, enabling and inspiring terrorist attacks.

“We continue to see key individuals with a focus on external operations trying to advance plotting and planning both locally and abroad,” Rasmussen, who served as the country’s top counterterrorism official for three years, said in an interview. “Now, more often what we worry about are threats that emerge from individuals acting on their own, not waiting for guidance.”

That would include the suspects who carried out the recent terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan and the New York City subway. Even as Daesh loses ground in Iraq and Syria, its affiliates in Libya, West Africa, the Philippines, and Sinai, remain persistent threats and have even attracted some new fighters, despite suffering setbacks in recent months.

“ISIS [Daesh] became a brand,” Brett McGurk, the special US envoy for the global coalition to defeat the extremist group, said this past week in Washington. “This is going to go on for some time.”

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