ISIS Fighters Move With 'Impunity' in Syrian Regime Territory

FILE -- A fighter of Christian Syriac militia that battles the Islamic State group burns an ISIS flag on the western side of Raqqa, northeast Syria, July 17, 2017. U.S.-backed Syrian fighters fought Islamic State militants in the heart of Raqqa, the extremists' self-styled capital, as scores of civilians fled areas controlled by the group. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
FILE -- A fighter of Christian Syriac militia that battles the Islamic State group burns an ISIS flag on the western side of Raqqa, northeast Syria, July 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The remnants of ISIS forces in Syria have been moving through areas nominally in the control of the Russian-backed regime with "impunity" from attack as they search for a safe haven, a coalition commander charged Wednesday.

"From our point of view, it seems to us that ISIS are moving through regime areas with impunity" in eastern Syria while apparently fleeing to the west in an effort to reach territory controlled by other rebel groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, British Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney said.

In recent weeks, ISIS fighters, or their sympathizers, reportedly have mounted small attacks in the southern neighborhoods of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

"We are seeing the movement of limited numbers of ISIS militants westwards" from eastern Syria near the Iraqi border, said Gedney, the deputy commander for strategy and support for the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve.

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In a video briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad, Gedney said that the free movement of the ISIS fighters was evidence "the regime is either unwilling or unable to defeat [ISIS] within their borders."

While in the regime's areas, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters essentially are immune from attack by the U.S. and its partnered forces, Gedney said.

"We've got no intention to operate in areas that are currently held by the regime," Gedney said. "We can only defeat ISIS in areas our partners control."

In eastern Syria, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have captured Raqqa and pursued ISIS' remnants in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, the fight was not over, Gedney said.

Last week, U.S. and coalition aircraft carried out 23 strikes in eastern Syria against ISIS vehicles, fighting positions and other targets, Gedney said. "Our pursuit of these terrorists is as tenacious and determined as ever," he said.

In Raqqa, which ISIS had called the capital of its "caliphate," the focus was on removing improvised explosive devices left behind by ISIS to allow displaced persons to return, Gedney said.

Despite the coalition's successes in Syria and Iraq this year, there were no plans as yet to begin troop withdrawals, Gedney said.

"Our coalition will remain committed to the mission in Syria" until such time as political leaders decide otherwise, he said.

The situation was similar in Iraq, where the coalition was putting more emphasis on training police and border guards, Gedney said.

"As soon as we can, we will move troops out of theater," he said, but there was no timetable for withdrawals.

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

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