The Islamic State group (ISIS) still has roughly 15,000 fighters active across Iraq and Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, told a press briefing in Washington on Thursday.
“In terms of the ISIS numbers. Between Iraq and Syria. And this is only a guesstimate. I would say 15,000 with a standard deviation of significant thousands in either direction,” Jeffrey said, taking questions from reporters.
“It is split between the two. But remember they see this as one front and these people we know travel back and forth south of the Euphrates. They don’t go through the northeast because we have good security there but they do go south of the Euphrates,” he added.
Although ISIS was territorially defeated in Iraq in December 2017 and in Syria in March 2019, the group has continued to launch insurgent attacks against military and civilian targets, exploiting security gaps between rival militaries and militias.
“What we have seen is a persistent, resilient, rural terrorist level of violence generated by these underground cells of ISIS particularly in the area south of Mosul and the Kurdish areas down to Baghdad,” Jeffrey said.
“In Syria, after the defeat of the caliphate, we are working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, our local partner, to go after cells that have been left behind. That activity is going on well. We are seeing a diminution of the remaining limited ISIS capabilities in the northeast of the county.”
“ISIS elements are still very active south of the Euphrates where the Assad regime does not have control and in Idlib which is a major terrorist concern – not just for ISIS,” he added.
Also speaking at the press briefing, Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, said: “The ISIS threat is evolving and our fight is entering a new phase. It’s imperative that the coalition approach the effort to defeat ISIS globally with the same level of urgency and commitment that brought us victory in Syria and Iraq. We owe it to the past victims of ISIS to make sure that there are no future victims of ISIS.”
Jeffrey said the US still wants its coalition partners to make more of a contribution to security and training operations in northeast Syria.
“We haven’t finished our discussions with these countries, but we’re pretty optimistic we will get considerably more than we’ve had in the past,” he said.
Jeffrey said there is still no agreement with Ankara on the size and composition of a safe zone between Turkey and the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria.