The final battle to clear Islamic State fighters east of the Euphrates River Valley in Syria will likely be a hard fight in a densely populated area, posing an increased risk of civilian casualties, according to a senior leader for Operation Inherent Resolve.
U.S. and coalition forces are preparing to support Syrian Democratic forces in what is believed will be the third and final stage of Operation Round Up, a battle aimed at rooting out "more than 1,000" entrenched fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as well as many foreign fighters that have joined ISIS, British Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, deputy commander of Strategy and Support for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
"This final state of Operation Round Up is likely to be a challenging fight as it is a densely populated area," Gedney said, adding that coalition leaders expect to encounter "a hard corps of ISIS fighters that have been digging in to prepare their battlespace, holding civilians as human shields, and we fully expect to see a high proportion of foreign terrorist fighters who represent some of the biggest threats to our nations."
Preventing civilian casualties in coalition airstrikes supporting the ground fight against ISIS has been extremely challenging, Gedney said, who also briefed reporters about the latest monthly civilian casualty report published July 26.
"This report confirms the tragic deaths of 105 civilians as a result of coalition operations against ISIS," he said. "The coalition makes every effort to avoid civilian deaths on the battlefield and to minimize the impact of our operations on civilian populations and infrastructures. But the reality of the fight against ISIS and the brutality of this enemy has made it impossible to avoid a risk to the civilian population."
It's one of the realities of the war against ISIS that takes its toll on all coalition members, Gedney said.
"I speak on behalf of all coalition service members -- from privates to our most senior leaders -- when I say that such tragic occurrences are deeply felt throughout our ranks," he said.
Ultimately, it is ISIS that is responsible for the suffering that civilians have had to endure under their "tyrannical rule," Gedney added.
"When faced by the superiority of the [Iraqi Security Forces] and the SDF, ISIS has exploited the innocent, the unarmed and the weak as a means to slow down the forces determined and capable to defeat them," he said, stressing that the coalition believes many civilians are trapped inside this last pocket of ISIS-held territory that is more like Mosul or Raqqa than the fights that occurred in the first two phases of Round Up.
"The Syrian Democratic Forces have enabled some civilian convoys to leave the area, but the indications are that ISIS is stopping civilians from departing in order to hold them as human shields," Gedney said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.