A video screen grab shows a July 11, 2016, precision air strike near Manbij, Syria, that targeted Islamic State fighters.

A video screen grab shows a July 11, 2016, precision air strike near Manbij, Syria, that targeted Islamic State fighters. (Defense Department)

WASHINGTON — U.S.-backed fighters have nearly cleared all Islamic State militants from Manbij, a key northern Syrian city, after months of brutal fighting, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland said Wednesday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces control the vast majority of Manbij, and it should fall completely to the group of Kurdish and Arab fighters within “a week or weeks,” said MacFarland, the top commander of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State group coalition. Local humanitarian groups in Syria estimate the Islamic State group controls about 10 percent of the city that it had held for about two years.

“The enemy resistance is getting weaker by the day,” the general said. “Manbij must be pretty important to the enemy because there are a lot of foreign fighters there and they have not cut and run. They are fighting pretty hard in that city.”

The operation has been seen as a proving ground for the Syrian Democratic Forces, MacFarland said. The force has established itself as capable of playing a key role in the eventual fight to reclaim Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s de facto Syrian capital.

The United States has provided some arms and training to the force, which successfully captured a large swatch of land in northeastern Syria before mounting its attack on Manbij.

“They have gone a really long way to ensuring us that they can be the defeat mechanism for the enemy in Syria, at least around Raqqa,” said MacFarland, who will turn over command of the coalition later this month to Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend. “They have the wherewithal, the capacity, and the will to close with and defeat the enemy in a dense, urban fight, and they’re doing a very good job of it.”

The SDF have been backed by hundreds of coalition airstrikes since launching the assault on Manbij on May 31. To date, more than 2,000 Islamic State fighters have been killed in and around the city, MacFarland said.

Manbij sits on a major supply route running from Raqqa to the outside world through Turkey. The city also has been a key training location for militants fighting in Syria and Iraq and for others charged with conducting terrorist operations outside of those countries.

For the SDF, it will serve as a staging and preparation area for the attacks on Raqqa, about 80 miles southeast of Manbij.

MacFarland expects the battle to clear the Islamic State group from Raqqa, which is likely at least several months away, to look much like the Manbij fight. The presence of thousands of civilians have complicated the mission, and it has been slowed at times by the militants’ effective use of explosives and snipers.

At least a dozen SDF fighters have been killed in the battle and hundreds more have been wounded, MacFarland said.

“Raqqa will resemble Manbij in many respects,” the general said. “We’ll look at it closely, we’ll study it, and we’ll apply those lessons going forward to make sure we have the right capabilities, force levels and shaping efforts around the operation to ensure success in Raqqa.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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