A top US commander has claimed the military campaigns in Iraq and Syria have taken 45,000 enemy combatants off the battlefield and reduced the total number of Islamic State fighters to as few as 15,000.
Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland said both the quality and number of Isis fighters was declining, while warning that it was difficult to determine accurate numbers. Earlier estimates put the number of Islamic State fighters at between 19,000 and 25,000 but US officials say the range is now roughly 15,000 to 20,000.
Saying that “the enemy is in retreat on all fronts”, MacFarland said US-backed local forces in both Iraq and Syria had been gaining ground. The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria had decreased and many people pressed into fighting for the Islamic State group were unwilling or untrained.
“All I know is when we go someplace, it’s easier to go there now than it was a year ago. And the enemy doesn’t put up as much of a fight,” he said in a Pentagon media briefing.
MacFarland said the Syrian Democratic Forces group was within weeks of defeating Isis in Manbij, Syria. The city, he said, was largely in the hands of the SDF and the pockets of enemy resistance were shrinking daily.
“I don’t give it very long before that operation is concluded, and that will deal a decisive blow to the enemy,” he said, while adding there were still a lot of enemy foreign fighters putting up resistance.
MacFarland said thatIraqi forces were in a position to begin to retake the northern city of Mosul but the US still had work to do at the Qayyarah air base in northern Iraq before it could be used as a hub for the battle to retake Mosul.
President Barack Obama authorised the deployment of 560 more US troops to Iraq to help transform the air base into a staging area for the eventual battle to oust Isis from Mosul. The group has held Mosul since June 2014 and has used it as a headquarters.
The US troops will include engineers, logistics personnel, security and communications forces. Some teams of US forces have been in and out of the base to evaluate it and the work that must be done, but officials say large numbers of troops have not yet arrived.
MacFarland cautioned that while there had been successes in both countries, Isis would continue to be a threat.
“Military success in Iraq and Syria will not necessarily mean the end of Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “We can expect the enemy to adapt, to morph into a true insurgent force and terrorist organisation capable of horrific attacks like the one here on July 3 in Baghdad and those others we’ve seen around the world.”