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Nearly 700 Islamic State operatives killed in 2022, US says

The coming year poses a challenge to the US model of fighting IS, as Turkey threatens new incursion into Syria
US troops in Tel Maaruf
US troops patrol near the Hori rehabilitation centre for children of suspected Islamic State group fighters, in the town of Tel Maaruf in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province, on December 15, 2022 (AFP)

US forces killed almost 700 suspected Islamic State fighters in 2022 across Syria and Iraq, underscoring how operations against IS continue, despite the group's loss of physical territory and Washington's renewed focus on its rivalry with Russia and China.

In Syria, the US conducted 108 joint operations and 14 independently against IS, while in Iraq it conducted 191 partnered operations. Together, 374 IS operatives were detained, US Central Command said in a statement released on Thursday.

"The emerging, reliable and steady ability of our Iraqi and Syrian partner forces to conduct unilateral operations to capture and kill ISIS leaders allows us to maintain steady pressure on the ISIS network,” Major-General Matt McFarlane, the top commander of the task force overseeing these operations, said in the statement, using an alternative acronym for the group.

General Michael "Erik" Kurilla, the top US commander in the Middle East, broke down the US campaign against IS into three categories: targeting IS leaders and fighters in the region, detaining them, and combating the radicalisation of children.

'ISIS army' 

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The US has had success working with local partners to kill and arrest IS operatives. In 2022, the US killed a succession of the group's leaders in Syria in both ground raids and drone strikes.

But a January 2022 prison breakout in al-Hasakah, Syria, by IS members, underscored the challenge of guarding the group's arrested members. The breakout led to days of fighting and more than 420 IS operatives and 120 local forces killed.

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"There is a literal 'ISIS army' in detention in Iraq and Syria. There are, today, more than 10,000 ISIS leaders and fighters in detention facilities throughout Syria and more than 20,000 ISIS leaders and fighters in detention facilities in Iraq," the statement said.

Besides the prisons, northeast Syria is home to the sprawling al-Roj and al-Hol camps, where tens of thousands of people live, mainly the wives and children of IS operatives.

Kurilla said the camps house "the potential next generation of ISIS", noting there were more than 25,000 children in the al-Hol camp alone: "These children in the camp are prime targets for ISIS radicalization."

"The international community must work together to remove these children from this environment by repatriating them to their countries or communities of origin while improving conditions in the camp," he added.

Uptick in attacks

The US model for fighting IS in the region faces new challenges going into 2023, as Turkey threatens a new incursion into Syria targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main US partner against IS.

Turkey views the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged a decades-long war for greater autonomy for Kurds living in southeast Turkey. The US considers the group, known as the PKK, a terrorist organisation, but differentiates them from the SDF.

Despite the loss of its physical "caliphate", IS continues to operate. In Iraq, the group is believed to be behind a string of attacks in December that left at least 14 soldiers and police officers and 11 civilians dead.

Syria has also seen an uptick in violence. 

On Friday, Syria's state news agency Sana said 10 were killed in a "terrorist attack" that targeted three buses transporting workers from an oil field in Deir Ezzor.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights suggested that "cells of the Islamic State group" carried out the assault.

Separately, six Kurdish fighters were killed during an IS assault on a prison in Raqqa, Syria. On Thursday, the SDF said it had begun an offensive against the group.

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