WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has stopped projecting when the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition will take the last land held by ISIS in eastern Syria.
Officials on Monday, speaking to TMN on background, said “there is no timetable” for the full capture of Baghouz, the population area in southeastern Syria that is the ISIS redoubt.
One official told TMN on Monday that ISIS now holds less than a square mile of Baghouz.
The effort to retake the last corner of Syria, where Baghouz is located, started last September. It is the third and final phase of Operation Roundup, which was launched last April.
U.S. Central Command initially estimated there were 1,500 civilians and 500 ISIS fighters in the urban area. However, more than 3,000 ISIS fighters have surrendered and more than 10,000 civilians have been evacuated from the war zone enclave, officials from U.S. Central Command confirmed last week.
“We stand by our SDF [Syrian Democratic Force] partners as they fight to liberate that last Daesh [ISIS]-held territory,” Operation Inherent Resolve said in a statement Friday. “We will continue the fight against Daesh’s polluted ideology.”
The OIR also said three ISIS fighters in women’s clothing “detonated suicide vests while mixed with other members of Daesh & their children who were trying to surrender” to the SDF in Baghouz. “The blast resulted in casualties among the SDF & members of Daesh & their children trying to surrender,” OIR said Friday.
Between Feb. 24 and March 9, OIR conducted 99 strikes consisting of 139 engagements against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, according to the OIR website.
The slow grind against ISIS in Baghouz comes as mixed reports surfaced about the size of a U.S. deployment to Syria once the last ISIS land holding is captured.
Pentagon officials have said about 400 troops will remain, down from up to 3,000 in Syria at present. They would be part of an international force of about 1,500, Pentagon officials have said several times.
On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported the Pentagon now plans to keep 1,000 troops in Syria. But That Gen. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, challenged that report.
“A claim reported this evening by a major U.S. newspaper that the U.S. military is developing plans to keep nearly 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria is factually incorrect,” Dunford said in a statement issued Sunday night. “There has been no change to the plan announced in February and we continue to implement the President’s direction to draw down U.S. forces to a residual presence.”
He did say, in the statement, that the U.S has discussed with Turkey some type of security arrangement along the Syrian-Turkish border.
“We continue to conduct detailed military planning with the Turkish General Staff to address Turkish security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border. Planning to date has been productive and we have an initial concept that will be refined in the coming day,” Dunford said in the statement. “We are also conducting planning with other members of the Coalition who have indicated an intent to support the transition phase of operations into Syria.”