US-backed forces encircle last Islamic State positions along Euphrates River in eastern Syria

AMMAN: American-backed forces encircled the last Islamic State-held positions along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria this week after capturing a key town near the border with Iraq, military sources told Syria Direct.

“Islamic State [IS] fighters are now trapped” within a roughly 15-kilometer stretch of territory along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, a commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told Syria Direct on Tuesday from the frontlines with IS near the Iraqi border.

“Their areas are shrinking and their choices are very limited,” he added via WhatsApp.

The commander leads a brigade of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a leading component of the SDF. He asked not to be referred to by name because he is not authorized to speak with the press.

The SDF—a multi-ethnic coalition comprised primarily of Kurdish and Arab fighters—penned in IS fighters along the Euphrates River in eastern Deir e-Zor this past Sunday after capturing the town of Baghouz Tahtani.

A convoy of SDF fighters near al-Baghouz on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Operation Jazirah Storm.

The Syrian Arab Army and allied pro-government militias control the opposite bank of the river to the south.

Baghouz Tahtani is “the main gateway to the Hajin district,” read a statement published on the social media page for the SDF offensive. Hajin is one of three major towns along the Euphrates River over which IS maintains control in addition to roughly a dozen Deir e-Zor countryside villages.

Sunday’s SDF statement called Hajin a “strategic gathering place for the mercenaries of Daesh [IS].”

Abu Ali al-Basri, the director of intelligence and counter-terrorism for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, claimed earlier this month in conversation with a mainstream US media outlet that Hajin was the last known whereabouts of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

SDF operations to encircle and capture IS positions along the Euphrates River come within Operation Jazirah Storm, an anti-IS offensive with the stated goal of “bringing an end to the presence of the terrorist organization Daesh [IS] on the east bank of the Euphrates River.”

The SDF-affiliated Deir e-Zor Military Council announced the launch of the operation in September 2017, Syria Direct reported at the time. But operations ground to a halt in early March with the announcement that SDF fighters would withdraw from frontlines with IS to defend Kurdish-held Afrin canton from a Turkish-backed military operation.

Offensive operations against the remaining IS positions in eastern Syria resumed at the beginning of this month with air and tactical support from the US-led coalition.

SDF fighters on the outskirts of the Deir e-Zor town of al-Baghouz on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Operation Jazirah Storm.

The campaign is being “organized by a joint operations room with the Iraqi military in order to prevent the Islamic State from re-infiltrating Iraq, and to get rid of them once and for all,” Leilawa Abdullah, a spokeswoman for the Deir e-Zor Military Council, told Syria Direct via WhatsApp on Tuesday.

The spokeswoman added that French forces were providing support to the SDF as part of the US-led coalition. In addition to air support, French artillery units have participated in the anti-IS operations that resumed at the beginning of the month, according to social media posts by the US-led coalition's Operation Inherent Resolve.

The US-backed SDF continued offensive operations on Wednesday, launching artillery fire on IS-held town of a-Sousah, southeast of Hajin, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

In addition to the string of towns along the Euphrates River that are the current focus of SDF operations, IS fighters control a swathe of sparsely populated, desert territory immediately to the north, along Syria’s northeastern border with Iraq.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.