WASHINGTON — Anti-ISIS ground forces continue to squeeze — but have not yet triumphed — over ISIS holdouts in the last piece of terrain the terrorist group holds in eastern Syria.
Pentagon officials said a combination of booby traps, tunnels, fortifications and using civilians as shields have combined to slow the taking of the last remaining streets and land patches now held in the dwindling ISIS caliphate.
When the final capture of the final town — Baghouz near the Iraqi border — will occur is still unknown, officials said.
“I do not have an update today on the MERV as fighting and negotiations continue,” Col Sean Ryan, a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, told TMN in an email Monday night. “I’m hoping we have a clearer picture tomorrow (Tuesday).”
MERV stands for Middle Euphrates River Valley.
On Friday, Ryan issued a statement that said, “ISIS is on the verge of collapse and that the end of the physical caliphate is at hand.”
According to published reports referred to by Ryan, ground elements of the anti-ISIS coalition — the Syrian Democratic Forces — have slowed the assault because civilians remain trapped as human shields.
According to the Associated Press, the ISIS members who are surrounded have requested transit to Idlib in northwest Syria, where another group of ISIS members still controls territory.
As the ground battle nears its apparent end, the issues of when U.S. forces with withdraw moves to the forefront — as well as what to do with an estimated 800 ISIS foreign fighters now held captive by the SDF.
The SDF says it cannot safely hold and care for the prisoners once U.S. forces and support disappears. The Trump administration has not been successful in convincing other nations to take those prisoners who are their natives.
Earlier this month, Gen. Joseph Votel, who head U.S. Central Command, told Congress that an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in the region. He told Congress he had not been consulted on President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the roughly 3,000 U.S. troops in Syria.
Votel told CNN on Friday that ISIS still has the capability to trigger attacks against the U.S. and allies. “They still have this very powerful ideology, so they can inspire,” Votel told CNN.
U.S. and coalition forces carried out 199 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria Jan. 27-Feb. 9, Central Command said.