Since September 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces had been on a campaign to wrest territorial control from the Islamic State terror group in eastern Syria. The SDF's advances were supported by American, British and French forces from the CJTF-OIR Coalition via close air support, French and American artillery, and American special forces advice and oversight. The SDF launched its third and final phase of their campaign in September 2018, gradually capturing the remaining ISIL pocket of territory straddling the Euphrates river near the Iraq-Syria border. By 1 February 2019, ISIL was reduced to four square kilometers of territory, boxed in against the river with the SDF advancing from the northwest, Syrian government forces blocking river crossings, and Iraqi forces deployed to prevent cross-border infiltrations. The massive exodus of civilians complicated advances, with the SDF pausing its advance for almost 10 days prior to the battle. Within the 10 days preceding the battle, over 20,000 civilians fled the enclave.
The SDF stated that a number of foreign hostages, including missing British journalist John Cantlie and the kidnapped Italian Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, were possibly being held in the enclave.
On 9 February 2019, France's Defense minister Florence Parly visited Firebase Saham, a joint French-U.S. artillery fire support base near Al-Qa'im, Iraq, that supported the SDF's anti-ISIL campaign. Meeting with French forces there, Parly told them not to be distracted and that France "is determined to complete this fight against those who have struck her," referring to terror attacks in France in recent years conducted by ISIL loyalists.