"Clearly, with the amount of fighters that have left — the SDF had announced 1,700 [fighters] — a lot of those are, and I’ll be very blunt about this as well, the majority of the leadership of these elements are Kurdish. So a lot of the leaders of these elements in the Middle Euphrates River Valley have departed," Dillon said in a phone interview from Baghdad on Thursday. "We’ve been limited now in our ability to conduct intensive operations and really put the pressure" on the Islamic State terror group.
Dillon said while the vast majority of SDF fighters have remained behind to continue battling Daesh, the loss of allied military leaders has taken its toll on anti-terror operations.
"Things have slowed down because of the operations that happened in Afrin," he said.
The spokesman said that most of the newer recruits to the SDF, which was previously a predominantly Kurdish force, are Arab. He added that Arab fighters currently make up the majority of the SDF's forces, while Kurds are now a minority.
In January, the Turkish military launched an offensive to seize control of Afrin from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a group that makes up a major component of the SDF's forces. The SDF has said that 1,700 of its fighters left eastern Syria to battle Turkish forces in Afrin.
Turkey considers the YPG an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Ankara has designated as a terrorist organization.
On Civilians' Return to Raqqa
Local security forces in Syria's Raqqa are preventing civilians from returning because the city is still riddled with scores of booby traps planted by Daesh*, Dillon continued.
"Unfortunately, there are many families who want to come home, who want to return, and many of them are attempting to do so," Dillon said in a phone interview from Baghdad. "But there are Raqqa civil council members and Raqqa Internal Security Forces [RISF] that are… preventing people from going back to their homes, but largely it’s because these areas have not been cleared of these booby traps."
The RISF is a police unit formed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and made up of local volunteers. Its commanders are appointed by the Raqqa Civil Council, a US-backed body created to govern the city.
Dillon said Daesh had peppered the entire city with booby traps and improvised explosive devices, placing them in ovens, baby toys and even Qurans.
The US-led coalition is training local security forces to counter improvised explosive devices and booby traps, while non-governmental organizations are assisting with de-mining efforts, Dillon said.
US-backed forces drove Daesh out of Raqqa in October 2017. The city previously served as the de facto capital of the terrorist group's self-declared caliphate.
*Terror organisation, also known as Daesh, IS, ISIL or ISIS; Banned in Russia and many other countries.