US-Backed Force Claims Control of Last ISIS-Held Town in Syria

This frame grab from video released October 17, 2017, and provided by Hawar News Agency, a Syrian Kurdish activist-run media group, shows a fighter from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces firing his weapon during clashes with Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria. (Hawar News Agency via AP)
This frame grab from video released October 17, 2017, and provided by Hawar News Agency, a Syrian Kurdish activist-run media group, shows a fighter from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces firing his weapon during clashes with Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria. (Hawar News Agency via AP)

The U.S.-backed and -trained Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claimed over the weekend to have taken the small town of Hajin on the Syria-Iraq border in heavy fighting, ousting the Islamic State from its last urban enclave in Syria.

"There are still villages to be taken, but Hajin was the most important as it was the base for commanders from where they directed military operations," SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali told The Associated Press.

There was no immediate confirmation from the U.S. military, but Army Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), said in a statement Saturday that the months-long operation to take Hajin was "going very well," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in London, reported that the mostly Syrian Kurdish SDF forces now "control the entire town of Hajin," but fighting continues on the outskirts.

The advance on Hajin was backed by stepped-up U.S. airstrikes and cross-border artillery fire from a firebase in Iraq, U.S. military officials said.

On Saturday, CJTF-OIR confirmed that a U.S. airstrike had destroyed a mosque in Hajin that had been used by ISIS as a command center.

In a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon last Tuesday, Army Col. Jonathan Byron, commander of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment and deputy commander of Joint Operations Command-Iraq, said that U.S., French and Iraqi artillery units at Iraqi Firebase Shaham just across the border had trained what he called "intense fire" on ISIS targets around Hajin in support of the SDF.

Byron said that troops from Bravo Battery, 3rd Cavalry Regiment -- part of Task Force Rifles -- were using M777 towed 155mm howitzers.

If confirmed, the taking of Hajin would mark a major milestone in the U.S. effort to inflict a lasting defeat on ISIS despite the ever-shifting military and political cross-currents of Syria's civil war and new threats against the SDF -- and potentially U.S. troops -- coming from NATO ally Turkey.

Last Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who fears the creation of a Kurdish mini-state in northeastern Syria, said his forces would begin military operations "within days" against what he called "terrorists" east of the Euphrates River.

Erdogan's threat followed on the move ordered late last month by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to set up U.S. military observation posts east of the Euphrates at several points near the Turkish-Syrian border.

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

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