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On the frontlines of ISIS' last major pocket

CNN has acquired exclusive video from the frontlines of ISIS' last major territory in Hajin area, in eastern Syria. Nick Paton Walsh has the latest.

Posted: Nov 14, 2018 12:45 AM
Updated: Nov 14, 2018 12:59 AM

Syrian Kurdish forces are resuming the final phase of operations against ISIS, as the terrorist group is pushed back into its last remaining slivers of territory.

The resumption comes as CNN releases remarkable and rare frontline footage of the recent intense fight against ISIS, filmed by Brazilian photographer Gabriel Chaim.

The latest Kurdish push against ISIS follows a lengthy and contentious stand-off with Turkish forces. Turkey, a NATO member, considers the Syrian Kurds -- the US coalition's main ally in the fight against ISIS -- a terrorist group.

Clashes between the Turkish military and the Syrian Kurds -- also known as the SDF when allied with Syrian Arab fighters against ISIS -- have intermittently plagued and delayed the final operations against ISIS. The most recent suspension occurred November 1, but operations restarted Sunday, the SDF said in a statement.

The SDF said operations resumed after "positive calls from our allies to de-escalate and focus the efforts on defeating ISIS, as it would contribute to the stabilization of the area and the benefit of all parties." The US has long been mediating between Ankara and the SDF to lessen tension to the point where the SDF can focus on ISIS.

The past months of the operations, aiming to deny ISIS their last small towns and swathes of inhospitable desert along the Iraqi border and at the far eastern end of the Euphrates river valley in Syria, have been a slower and tougher fight than many expected. The main holdout fighters are thought to be die-hard foreigners and ISIS leadership, taking a last stand.

Photographer Chaim joined the intense fight for the town of Sousa in late October, a period when the SDF fought tooth and nail to take its streets from ISIS. On October 23, four car bombs targeted SDF fighters, though the SDF said three attacks were stopped and the driver of the fourth was captured.

Chaim saw the heavy use of mortars by ISIS to try to push the SDF back, and the intense close-range use of artillery and airstrikes to flush ISIS out of urban positions. At one point in the footage, an Apache attack helicopter hovers over an ISIS target before its cannons destroy it.

He also witnessed the often young and poorly equipped nature of the militia leading this globally important fight. One apparently teenage fighter appears disorientated as he receives treatment following an explosion. Most medical care is done by the light of cellphones and involves just cleaning wounds with saline solution and applying rudimentary dressings.

On October 28, shortly after Chaim left the frontlines, many of the advances were reversed when ISIS took advantage of a sandstorm and counter-attacked, killing dozens of SDF fighters. The fight remains intense, despite the broad perception that ISIS have been defeated in the area.

Chaim also witnessed the difficulties the SDF face when they capture civilians fleeing ISIS-held areas. It is hard to weigh the immediate needs of the people against the possibility that they are ISIS sympathizers.

As one fighter says: "The biggest battle is going to be freeing the people from the ISIS way of thinking. They've been dragged here by ISIS from their former capital, Raqqa, but they still think ISIS will come back one day and give them a caliphate again."

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