US-backed forces holding 2,000 ISIS fighters in Syria

Damascus: US-backed forces in Syria are holding more than 2,000 suspected Islamic State (IS) fighters, US defence officials have said.

The number is at least double the previous estimates and an obstacle to the Donald Trump administration’s plans to withdraw American forces from Syria, Efe news reported on Wednesday.

The new estimate compounds the challenge of relocating the captured Islamic State fighters to their home countries and makes it harder for the US-led coalition to wind down operations in Syria, even after the extremists no longer hold territory.

The development puts a greater burden on Washington, which now may have to help US-allied forces detain the captured IS fighters or prepare them for release.

The US military estimated last year that the American-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were holding 800 foreign fighters from more than 50 countries. The numbers increased by hundreds in the past two weeks, US defence officials said, as SDF members reclaimed territory from Islamic State and took suspected fighters into custody.

The war is in its final days, officials say.

In addition, defence officials revealed another group of at least 1,000 suspected Syrian and Iraqi extremist fighters who were in detention in Syria, a figure they didn’t previously disclose. The actual number of those fighters could be even higher, according to officials.

“I would characterize the number of IS fighters currently in SDF custody as thousands,” Navy Commander Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement, referring to the IS.

President Donald Trump in December said he wanted to remove all of the more than 2,000 US troops from Syria. In January, he shifted course under pressure from American allies and US military and diplomatic officials and agreed to keep hundreds of American troops in place.

The numbers of IS fighters detained by the SDF were likely to continue to shift in coming days as the US-backed forces continue to reclaim land from Islamic State, officials said.

The Kurdish and Arab fighters of the SDF, which the US considers to be the most effective fighting partner against the IS in northern Syria, had agreed to detain the terrorists as they captured them over the last few years, holding them in various camps in northern Syria.