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U.S.-Backed Forces In Syria Become More Effective Against ISIS


Peace talks about Syria are due to begin today after two weeks of a shaky cease-fire there. But that cease-fire does not apply to the fight against ISIS. In the east of Syria, forces backed by the U.S. and its allies say they are pushing ISIS back, and U.S. officials say those forces are becoming more cohesive and effective. NPR's Alice Fordham has spent the last few days in Syria, and she was able to reach a town recently retaken from ISIS. She joins us now from Syria. Good morning.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, I gather you visited a town that had been retaken from ISIS just recently - a couple of weeks ago - and met some of those U.S.-backed forces. But tell us first what you saw.

FORDHAM: Well, the town is called Shadadi. My initial impression, actually, was that it looked like ISIS had left there without much of a fight in that particular area, which I should also say is a very rural, small town, but it is important because it's strategically located on the highway between the ISIS-held city of Mosul in Iraq and their Syrian stronghold of Raqqah. And they had a tight hold on it for about two years. I met some people there who stayed through the whole period when ISIS was in charge. They were very clear that they were under the group's total control.

MONTAGNE: And they must have had some stories.

FORDHAM: Yes, they did indeed. They appeared very relieved to see the back of ISIS. You know, we'd actually just been standing in the middle of town looking at a sign that ISIS had put up urging women to cover their faces and their hands and their whole bodies. And we were just picking our way through the debris going around a corner. And there were two women sitting outside - a mom and her daughter - wearing colorful clothes and loose headscarves. And the mom was an older woman, and she was just laughing when she met us, showing all these gold teeth. And she seemed exuberant.

MONTAGNE: So it sounds like the town is coming back quite a bit even just since these last couple of weeks since it was retaken.

FORDHAM: Very, very slowly, actually. The people who were there who had stayed under ISIS are kind of hardy souls. Most people had left. And we only saw a very few people on their way back. The fighting does seem to be over for now. Those U.S.-backed forces advanced about 10 miles further down the road, and they said they've now stopped. They're digging a trench. There are still some unexploded bombs being cleared. Water and electricity are yet to be restored. So that could be a factor, but it's still definitely spookily deserted.

MONTAGNE: But then who now is controlling this town of Shadadi?

FORDHAM: Well, this is a very relevant question and it is where things get complicated. So Shadadi is an almost entirely Arab area. Now, the forces that the U.S. backs with airstrikes and with ammunition, they're called the Syrian Democratic Forces, and they're dominated by ethnic Kurds. And there have been concerns that as these Kurdish forces start to retake Arab areas from ISIS, they won't be welcomed because Arab residents might think that the Kurds are trying to expand their area of influence. So the U.S. and others has been trying very hard to incorporate Arab fighters into these forces - Arab fighters and some of the other minorities here.

MONTAGNE: And has that worked?

FORDHAM: Well, I've spoken with commanders here - Arab commanders and others within these anti-ISIS forces, and they insisted that they made sure that there were Arabs on the frontline moving into that Arab area of Shadadi. Now, that may be true but a couple of weeks later, before most people have come back, we only saw Kurdish forces there. They were speaking Kurdish, they were flying the flag of their Kurdish faction and not of these unified Syrian democratic forces. And another thing maybe worth noting, Renee, is that there were few of these forces. I saw maybe a couple dozen inside the town itself. You know, as these anti-ISIS forces are advancing, they're now spread out over a wide area in Syria. And just in the last few days, we've seen ISIS carry out attacks against them in different corners of the country maybe testing these slightly stretched forces.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Alice Fordham is speaking to us from Syria. Thank you very much.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.