U.S.-backed forces are making “significant progress” against Islamic State fighters in the last sliver of its self-proclaimed caliphate, despite poor weather conditions that have played to the terror group’s advantage.
“I think the characterization of progress within Syria has been that they have been decimated and that we're making significant progress," acting U.S. Defense chief Pat Shanahan told reporters Monday, while on his way to Afghanistan.
The advance by Syrian Democratic Forces against IS in the Syrian town of Baghuz began just days after U.S. President Donald Trump told members of the global coalition to defeat IS that he expected to formally announce the collapse of the caliphate this week.
SDF officials claimed progress against IS positions in a four-square-kilometer area that extends from Baghuz to the Iraqi border.
#SDF have advanced on northern and western axis into Baghuz since 19:00 yesterday evening, capturing 41 positions of ISIS and destroying fortifications. IS counterattack was foiled at 4 am this morning. Heavy fighting is going on inside the last village at the moment.— Mustafa Bali (@mustefabali) February 10, 2019
Yet both SDF and U.S. officials admit the fighting has not been easy. Many of the remaining IS fighters are thought to be among the most committed and battle-hardened the group has to offer.
“The Syrian Democratic Forces continue to slowly and methodically advance, despite poor weather conditions against an entrenched enemy,” coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan told VOA via email Monday.
“ISIS fighters continue to conduct counterattacks,” he added, using an acronym for the terror group.
Despite the poor weather, Ryan said airstrikes are being called in to target IS positions “whenever available.”
Still, there are questions as to how many IS fighters are left.
SDF officials and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimate there are about 3,000 battle-hardened IS jihadists, mostly foreigners, in the region. But previous coalition estimates have put the number of fighters holed up in the Baghuz area at about half that.
But Ryan said progress against IS should not be measured in numbers.
“It is more about downgrading their military and logistical capabilities and not allow them the ability to mass forces,” he said.
WATCH: Syrian refugees
Further complicating efforts to rout IS out of its remaining territory, the SDF has encountered thousands of civilians trying to flee the fighting.
More than 23,000 Syrian civilians and foreign nationals are believed to have fled eastern Syria in the past week, according to local officials and activists.
The displaced residents, mostly women and children, have been placed in the Kurdish al-Hol camp in al-Hasakah governorate, in northeast Syria.
The administrator of the camp, Nabil Hassan, told VOA that many of the women and children from the new wave of displacement this week were foreign nationals and family members of IS.
In a possible attempt to drum up sympathy, IS’s Amaq news agency Monday claimed coalition shelling and airstrikes had killed almost 100 people in the village of Baghuz.
According to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, most of them women and children.
VOA has not been able to verify such claims, and coalition officials have long accused IS of using women and children as human shields.
The latest progress in the effort to destroy the last remnant of the IS caliphate comes as the U.S. continues to prepare to pull some 2,000 troops out of Syria.
Senior U.S. military officials have told U.S. lawmakers the withdrawal could hamper efforts to prevent a resurgence. And last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure allies that despite the anticipated pullout, the U.S. would not abandon efforts to destroy the terror group as a whole.
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan cautioned Monday that IS retains capabilities ranging from "residual pockets to sleeper cells."
He said that he plans to discuss the situation later this week with NATO allies, including the need for support and security operations as the military battle to destroy the terror group in Syria winds down.
Rikar Hussein contributed to this report.