US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized the town of Hajin in eastern Syria after a fierce battle with Daesh militants, local militia sources said this morning.
Hajin is the last major town held by the militants, and was the target of the final phase of “Operation Roundup” that started September, with heavy battles also centring around the Al-Shafah area on the eastern banks of the Euphrates near the Iraqi border.
Yet the battle has proved difficult with so-called Daesh militants fiercely resisting SDF attempts to capture the towns, despite hundreds of Kurdish fighters, including heavy military equipment, sent as reinforcements in recent weeks.
Although the SDF was also supported by fighter jets of the international coalition, strategically positioned minefields placed by Daesh significantly slowed the ground assault, causing the operation to be temporarily halted last month.
According to Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, after Kurdish fighters entered Hajin on Wednesday, Daesh militants are now mostly confined to the edges of the town.
“Fighting on the ground and air strikes are continuing. The mines planted by the jihadists are the main remaining obstacle,” he said.
SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Kobani also said yesterday that at least 5,000 Daesh fighters remain in the pocket of territory east of the Euphrates. This reportedly includes some 2,000 foreign fighters, mostly Arabs and Europeans along with their families.
Earlier this week, US Special Presidential Envoy for Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh Brett McGurk told reporters that the battle against the group’s stronghold would still take a number of months to complete. He also suggested that the US would remain in the area “over a period of years” to ensure the area was stabilised.
“The end of ISIS [Daesh] will be a much more long term endeavour…No one is declaring mission accomplished,” he said in a press briefing. “I think it’s fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring.”
The statement echoed previous comments made by US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who stated in May that Washington will not withdraw its forces from Syria until peace is fully achieved throughout the country. Pentagon officials have also voiced concerns that Daesh “is well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.”
Throughout the operation, human rights groups have criticised the US-led bombing campaign, that has resulted in the deaths of scores of civilians over the past three months; to date, some 324 civilians including 113 children and 72 citizen women have been killed have been killed in the small enclave. Some 1,400 civilians are believed to have fled Hajin in the past week alone, fearing further violence.
In October, some 54 people, including 12 children, were killed in a single strike on a mosque in the town of Al-Susah. The US alleged that the mosque was being used as a base by Daesh operatives; some 22 militants were also killed in the blast. Despite being hit during the weekly Friday congregational prayer, a popular time for civilians, the military claimed it targeted the mosque when only fighters were present.