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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Pentagon exaggerates ISIS foreign fighter estimates

Analysts say Washington is overplaying the strength of ISIS to justify an American presence in Syria

Claims by a US general that 100 foreign fighters a month still travel to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS are likely overplayed in order to justify a continued American presence in Syria, an analyst says. But the group still remains a potent force capable of fierce resistance defending its last redoubt in the Syrian desert.

Speaking at a conference at a military facility in Maryland, the Pentagon’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford said groups like ISIS “remain resilient, determined and adaptable”.

“It’s the flow of foreign fighters, the ability to move resources, and the ideology that allows these groups to operate,” Gen Dunford said on Tuesday.

While at its peak, ISIS attracted roughly 1500 foreigner to its ranks a month, Gen Dunford warned against complacency in the fight against violent extremism, estimating that 100 foreigners were still joining the group monthly.

This figure seemed artificially high, said Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Today, the only part of Syria controlled by ISIS is a remote desert area along the eastern border with Iraq without major population centres. Its distance from the Turkish border would complicate attempts by foreign fighters to smuggle themselves in, says Mr Al-Tamimi. Getting through Iraqi airports or border crossings would be equally as difficult.

The aim of Gen Dunford overplaying the number of foreign fighters joining ISIS was likely to justify the US’ continuing presence in Syria, argues Mr Al-Tamimi. “The fight against ISIS is its official reason to remain there. It would be much harder for the US to explain its presence as an official counter-Iran mission”.

The US, as well as its regional ally Israel, fears that Iran’s influence on Syria will be permanently bolstered thanks to its support of the government of Bashar Al Assad during the civil war.

For the past month, ISIS has been resisting a fierce attack led by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against its last significant stronghold near the Iraqi border, around the town of Hajin.

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But the SDF’s efforts have been recently slowed down due to bad weather, which offer ISIS fighters cover from aerial surveillance.

“Daesh is benefiting a lot from weather factors, including sandstorms. They've helped it take cover from reconnaissance aircraft and other monitoring mechanisms," a top SDF commander, Redur Khalil, said on Tuesday, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. As a result, the battle will take “much longer than expected”.

The SDF, which estimates that some 3,000 ISIS fighters remain the area, has lost over 200 fighters over the past month, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) war monitor yesterday. More than 300 ISIS fighters were reportedly killed.

The UN has warned of the “devastating impact” of the violence on at least 10,000 civilians. ISIS reportedly abducted hundreds of them last week in Hajin, where it is also thought to be holding dozens of women hostages from Sweida for the past three months.

Additionally, the SOHR reported yesterday that shelling by the SDF and the international coalition killed seven civilians.

The SDF’s latest setback highlights ISIS’ resilience in Syria, particularly in the remote desert area which stretches from the southern volcanic, uninhabited region east of Sweida, where ISIS is currently fighting the Syrian army, to the Iraqi border and then north to Turkey.