U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said Thursday he expects the Islamic State's "last stand" will come in an area along the Syria-Iraq border, where U.S. warplanes have been blocking passage of busloads of ISIS fighters and their families.
Following defeats in Mosul and Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq, the remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are retreating to an area in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) between Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, also known as Al Bukamal, and Al Qaim in Iraq, about 23 miles from Abu Kamal, Townsend said in a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon.
Attacking ISIS on the Syrian side with U.S.-partnered Syrian Arab Coalition forces will involve negotiating with Russia to "deconflict" the battlespace with the forces of the Moscow-backed Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but "I'm reasonably confident that we'll be able to work through this," said Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
"We've actually had some practice doing this" in previous operations in February in the Syrian town of Al Bab and in May in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces taking the area around the Tabqa dam in preparation for the ongoing siege of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital, he said.
On Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the last ISIS holdouts in Tal Afar, west of Mosul, had been eliminated and the strategic town near the Syrian border has been fully liberated.
"The joy of victory has been completed and the entire province of Nineveh has come into the hands of our heroic forces," al-Abadi said in a statement. "I declare to you that Tal Afar has joined the liberated Mosul and been returned to the homeland."
In what was likely his last briefing to the Pentagon, Townsend, who will soon be ending his tour as the task force commander, said operations in the MERV are complicated by the presence of busloads of ISIS fighter and their families.
Earlier this week, the fighters, who were ousted from southern Lebanon by Lebanese forces and Hezbollah fighters supporting the Syrian regime, agreed to leave the area under a negotiated settlement.
They were believed to be headed to Al Qaim in buses until U.S. warplanes on Wednesday blew up a bridge and strafed roads in their path.
Townsend stressed that no casualties were inflicted on those in the buses but said airstrikes were conducted on ISIS fighters who came out to meet the buses.
"We have not struck this convoy at all," he said. "No women and children have been harmed on this convoy although I'd like to get after the fighters. We have struck every ISIS fighter and vehicle that has tried to approach that convoy, and we'll continue to do that."
Currently, the bus convoy is stalled near Abu Kamal, he said.
In the wide-ranging briefing, Townsend returned to the whereabouts of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called caliph of ISIS.
As he has previously, the general said he "hasn't a clue" where Baghdadi is, but believes he is still alive and possibly somewhere in the MERV.
"If he's alive out there somewhere, we are looking for him every day. When we find him, I think we will just try to kill him first -- probably not worth all the trouble to try to capture him," Townsend said.
Commenting on his tour as CJTF commander, which has straddled the administrations of former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, Townsend said the campaign against ISIS has been much the same under both presidents.
"Both administrations, I think, were all in on defeating ISIS," he said, and "I think the approach has been similar."
However, "the current administration has empowered the chain of command to make more decisions on their own. I think that's important -- just that alone has effects that reverberate throughout a military organization," Townsend said.
"This has been a remarkable year" that has presented both challenges and rewards, he said.
"ISIS is an evil entity like I've never seen before," Townsend said, and "I would be happy to stay in this fight" to see their ultimate defeat.
He warned that "the world should know that this campaign is not close to being over," and "that's why we've got to stay on this."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.