American special operators teamed with Arab fighters in Syria are poised to take a key town north of the Islamic State stronghold in Raqqah. If they succeed it would be an important blow to the Islamic insurgency and assist the government of Iraq in taking back its second largest city.
Since late June, jets from the United States, France, and Australia have been pounding ISIS positions in the city of Manbij, a key northern crossroads town north of the ISIS-held town of Raqqah in Syria. Kurdish and Syrian-Arab fighters who make up the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, are squeezing hundreds of ISIS fighters in the town, said to be a key transit point for bootleg oil and illicit arms for the terrorist group.
"I've been extraordinarily pleased with the performance of our partner forces, the Syrian-Arab coalition, in particular," said Central Command chief Army Gen. Joseph Votel during a press conference at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
"This has been a very difficult fight. This is an area that the Islamic State is trying to hold onto," he added.
Pentagon chief Ash Carter said the campaign in Manbij is part of an effort to squeeze ISIS into Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Defense officials have hinted that a full-on assault on Iraq's second largest city is imminent, with regional leaders meeting July 20 at Andrews to flesh out a post-takeover plan.
"In play after play, town after town, from every direction and in every domain, our campaign has accelerated further, squeezing ISIL and rolling it back towards Raqqah and Mosul," Carter said. "By isolating these two cities, we're effectively setting the stage to collapse ISIL's control over them."
Al Jazeera reports that ISIS has lost nearly 500 fighters in Manbij as SDF fighters with American help have squeezed the terrorist enclave. The SDF has suffered less than 100 dead.
The success in Manbij comes as an opposition watchdog group claimed a U.S.-led airstrike on the town killed 56 civilians July 19. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report, the dead include 11 children.
Carter said the anti-ISIS coalition, dubbed Operation Inherent Resolve, is looking into the allegations.
"We're aware of reports of civilian casualties that may be related to recent coalition airstrikes near Manbij city in Syria," Carter said. "We'll investigate these reports and continue to do all we can to protect civilians from harm."
A Peshmerga soldier fires at a target from his foxhole during a live-fire exercise near Erbil, Iraq, Feb. 8, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jessica Hurst/Released)
Votel added that Kurdish and Syrian-Arab parters are working to keep the 70,000 civilians in Manbij out of harms way.
"What I've been most impressed with is the deliberateness and the discipline with which our partner forces have conducted themselves," Votel said. "They are moving slowly, they are moving very deliberately, mostly because they're concerned about the civilians that still remain in the city."
"And I think that that speaks very highly of their values and it speaks very highly of what they're about here. We've picked the right partners for this operation," he said.