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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

US commander sees more battles before ISIL is beaten 

Taking away the terrain from ISIL does not mean ISIL is gone. They will operate in smaller cells, they are very savvy and adaptable, said Gen Joseph Votel

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) runs to take cover from sniper shots near the central hospital of Raqa on October 1, 2017. AFP / BULENT KILIC
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) runs to take cover from sniper shots near the central hospital of Raqa on October 1, 2017. AFP / BULENT KILIC

The US military issued a note of caution yesterday that defeating ISIL on the ground does not mean it has been defeated.

US Central Command Commander, Gen Joseph Votel, said: "Taking away the terrain from ISIL does not mean ISIL is gone, they will operate in smaller cells, they are very savvy and adaptable so we should expect that."

While speaking on the presence of ISIL in Syria, it equally applies to Iraq, whose government declared victory over ISIL on Saturday afternoon.

Speaking to a small group of journalists on the side lines of the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain on Saturday, Gen Votel explained that the US is "supporting the Iraqi security forces to make sure they are the legitimate security forces in the area and that they have their own ability to enforce their border controls".

"My assessment of the Iraqi security forces is that they have done a pretty good job, they have come a long way to liberate their country from ISIL, that has not been an easy path but they have prevailed," he said.

However, the popular mobilisation units remain an issue in Iraq.

Gen Votel said: "There is a presence of paramilitary forces, both Shia and Sunni, who at times have played important roles in the security aspects of this, but now as the liberation is complete, it is important for the government of Iraq to take a hard look at their security sector and that they review their forces."

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He said it is crucial to make sure "that all forces are beholden to the government of Iraq, there is a role for them, but what there is not a role for, is forces beholden to another power," in reference to Iran. Gen Votel appeared confident that "the Iraqi forces are moving towards this reassessment. No country can afford to have redundant forces".

As for Syria, Gen Votel was clear that the operations of American troops in Syria were strictly aimed at defeating ISIL and not Al Qaeda affiliates or other armed groups. "We certainly are concerned about Al Qaeda and its affiliated organisations, at least from a US standpoint, but it is not the mission of the coalition," he said.

That coalition includes air support for fighting on the ground and troops presence on the ground. The Pentagon has announced that there are two thousand troops on the ground but does not discuss how long their troops will be deployed in an area.

"We try not to talk about timelines, we try to talk about conditions. A couple of things have to take place," he said. "We have to eliminate the ability of [ISIL] to hold terrain, they use that to govern, tax people, we are on our way to doing that, but it is not complete."

Asked whether there was a deal to allow foreign fighters out of Raqqa, Gen Votel was adamant: "It is not true."

"What did occur is local sheikhs reached out to the local forces and were very concerned about the level of damage and the potential for civilian casualties, what they were keen to do was to allow some of the local fighters and the families with them and get them out of the area," he said.

He insisted: "This was a local solution to a local problem, it did not involve foreign fighters."

According to Gen Votel, the deal involved local fighters who went into an agreement with the Syrian Democratic Forces, who biometrically enrolled and then turned over to local leaders who then took control of them and moved them out of the area. As for foreign fighters, Gen Votel said: "They stayed in Raqqa."

One question that has been raised is about who will hold the ground in Raqqa and other areas liberated from ISIL in Syria. While the Syrian Democratic Forces are in large part Kurdish militants affiliated with the PKK, they also include local Arab fighters.

After providing arms to the SDF, US President Donald Trump informed Turkish President Recep Tayep Erdogan on 25 November that aid to Kurdish militias in Syria would be halted. Addressing aid to the SDF, Gen Votel said: "As the situation stabilises and as they don’t require the level of equipping as the past, we will reduce it, but fighting continues on the ground."

Gen Votel, who has been US Central Command commander since March 2016, said: "The Syrian regime has to make some decision about what they will do there. The Russians have declared operations over with, it is hard for me to understand how they would reach that conclusion.

"We, as the coalition, are still fighting, and we intend to complete the operations that we are undertaking in the middle of the Euphrates valley, and some other areas that will be necessary," he said.

"There are still things that have to be done in Syria. To liberate the areas that ISIL has taken control of, and when that is done, we will have to adjust our operations to counter the residuals effects that are left behind." He explained that "this is a very savvy and adaptable enemy".

Gen Votel repeated that the presence of Iranian and Hizbollah elements in Syria was "not acceptable to use the borders as a means for them to move lethal aid and conduct illegal terrorist activities in the region and that has to be addressed".

He went on to say: "Iran and HIzbollah are looking to capitalise on their investments and remain in the area and that is of concern."

However, he said that their presence in Syria will have to be addressed through "political means... we hope the talks in Geneva will produce an architecture through which some of these issues can be addressed."

Gen Votel would not speak as to whether he expected a military solution to end Hizbollah and Iranian presence in Syria, saying "political and diplomatic means would be needed… difficult discussions" will have to ensue.

He went on to say: "If the parties want to deescalate the situation and establish some level of security, our military efforts on the ground are going to have to be complimented by diplomatic elements as well."

As for the state of ISIL in Syria, Gen Votel said "they have been pressured... but we still do see pockets of fighters."

While he could not give an estimate of the number of ISIL fighters in Syria, Gen Votel said: "It is probably well into the hundreds, but could be much more than that."