PARIS: Daesh will have been driven from all the territory it once controlled as a self-declared “caliphate” before the end of the year, French military chief Francois Lecointre said on Thursday.
The terrorists, who conquered vast stretches of Iraq and Syria in 2014, have lost all but a pocket of land in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province between the Euphrates river and Iraqi border, though they remain present in the Syrian desert.
Lecointre predicted “the end of the physical caliphate of Daesh before the end of the year, probably late autumn.”
France is part of the US-led coalition that has been fighting Daesh since 2014 and is now supporting Kurdish and Arab fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces as they battle to oust the terrorists from their last holdout.
“Once the physical caliphate has fallen … we will pose the question of how to reconfigure Operation Inherent Resolve,” Lecointre said of the coalition.
Speaking to reporters, the general pledged to downscale the French troop contingent — currently more than 1,000-strong — “as soon as I can.”
Lecointre also said his forces were prepared to carry out strikes on Syrian targets if chemical weapons were used in an expected regime offensive to retake the northern province of Idlib.
Russia, an ally of President Bashar Assad, resumed airstrikes against insurgents in Idlib on Tuesday after weeks of bombardment and shelling by pro-regime Syrian forces in an apparent prelude to a full-scale offensive against the last major enclave held by fighters.
“We are ready to strike if chemical weapons were used again,” said Lecointre.
“They can be carried out at national level but it’s in our interest to do it with as many partners as possible.”
In April, France, the US and Britain launched more than 100 missiles at pro-regime targets in retaliation for a suspected poison gas attack.
The prospect of an offensive on Idlib alarms aid agencies. The UN has said about half of the 3 million people living in opposition-held areas of the northwest have already been displaced. It estimates some 10,000 terrorists are in the area.
Idlib’s fate now appears likely to rest on a summit on Friday in Tehran between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran — a meeting that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said would make the situation “clearer.”
While the US and its allies have warned of a blood bath, they have made clear they would only intervene should they deem that chemical weapons have been used.
A French military source said the indications were that Russia and its allies wanted to wrap up the Idlib offensive by the end of the year.
The source said Paris believed the US would maintain its military presence in Kurdish-controlled northwestern regions of Syria given that Washington wanted to limit Iran’s influence in Syria.