US Bombs Area Seen as Possible Next Safe Haven for ISIS

Smoke rises from the western side of Mosul following a U.S.-led coalition airstrike, in Abu Saif, outside the western side of Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)
Smoke rises from the western side of Mosul following a U.S.-led coalition airstrike, in Abu Saif, outside the western side of Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

U.S. warplanes over the weekend bombed a Syria-Iraq border area seen as the possible next safe haven for ISIS after the fall of Mosul and Raqqa.

U.S. Central Command on Saturday said airstrikes hit an "improvised weapons factory" in the western Iraqi town of Al-Qaim on the Syrian border in Anbar province. They also hit a gas and oil separation plant in the neighboring Syrian town of Abu Kamal.

Last week, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has moved freely along ancient smuggling routes between the two towns and it is suspected that ISIS leadership fleeing the siege of Mosul has moved into the area.

"We currently don't have presence nor the ability to pressure the area," Townsend said. "In the Euphrates River valley along the Syrian-Iraq border, there's an Iraqi town there, a sizable one called Al-Qaim, and a Syrian town just across the border called Abu Kamal. And the enemy has freedom of movement in there.

"We only have the ability to watch and strike when we see something that is definitely visible from the air to be enemy," he said. "I think anywhere we're not attacking is sort of a safe haven for the enemy and their leaders, and we know they like to go there because they can transit the border with relative ease in the Abu Kamal-Al Qaim area."

Townsend and other U.S. officials have repeatedly said that remnants of ISIS will remain a threat to the region and to the U.S. and its allies after the fall of their strongholds in Mosul in northwestern Iraq and Raqqa in northeastern Syria. U.S. officials have also said that the remaining ISIS threat may require a long-term presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"I have heard Iraqi officials express a desire to have a continued U.S. presence here" after Mosul is retaken, Townsend said. "I think that probably both of our governments, the government of Iraq and the U.S. government, are interested in that, but both -- both those governments have yet to make that decision."

"We're kind of focused on the current fight right now that I still think has a ways to go," he said, "but the governments have expressed an interest in that."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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