Despite President Trump’s repeated claims that the Islamic State has been defeated, the militant group remains a deadly threat to minority populations in Syria, causing concern among U.S. lawmakers that recent atrocities are being overlooked.
In July, the Islamic State killed more than 200 people and took more than two dozen hostages in a rampage on Sweida, a city in southwestern Syria inhabited by members of the Druze religious minority. The attack was one of the single-biggest massacres of the Syrian civil war and a reminder of the threat posed by the Islamic State despite its loss of territory.
Last week, a group of Democratic lawmakers urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton to condemn the attack and keep Washington’s focus on ISIS, rather than expanding its mission to curbing Iran’s presence in the country.
“We write to express concerns regarding the administration’s failure to condemn the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attack against the Druze community in Sweida, Syria on July 25, 2018,” the lawmakers, led by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), said in a letter obtained by The Washington Post. “We also are concerned about recent reports that the administration has embraced an expanded mission in Syria beyond the complete defeat of ISIS, which may detract from protecting displaced persons and minority populations from ISIS’s continued terrorist threat.”
A State Department spokesman said the United States is working on a response to the letter but noted that the Trump administration has been “consistent in condemning ISIS and the brutal and despicable tactics it has used.” Without explicitly mentioning the Druze population, the spokesman said, “We stand with all communities that have been victimized by ISIS and will continue to do so.”
Syria’s minority populations are worried that Islamic State militants are regrouping in remote areas of the country after being chased out of their strongholds by U.S.- and Syrian-backed forces. The Druze community had been desperately seeking support from the U.S., Russian and Syrian governments in securing the release of the Druze hostages among those captured by the Islamic State this summer. On Thursday, Syrian state media announced that the Syrian army freed 19 Druze women and children held by the Islamic State since the July attack.
The rescue followed the release of an online video earlier this week purportedly showing the assassination of a Druze woman who had been taken hostage. The extremists threatened to kill more hostages if the Syrian government did not free Islamic State fighters and their family members.
Anger over the protracted hostage crisis and the lack of progress in negotiations had sparked a sit-in outside the Sweida governorate building, according to local reports, and young men had begun taking up arms.
The Islamic State killed two of the hostages as it pressured the Syrian government to bow to its demands. Two other Druze hostages are believed to have died from stress and other health-related issues. Last month, six Druze hostages were released in exchange for 17 wives or relatives of Islamic State members held by the Syrian government, as well as a dozen Bedouin captives taken by Druze fighters in the aftermath of the Islamic State attack on July 25.
Last weekend, a deal collapsed between the Syrian government and the Islamic State to secure the release of seven Druze women and three children in exchange for 35 people related to Islamic State fighters, according to Talal Atrashe, a member of a prominent Druze family in Sweida.
“The Syrian government refused to release 35 ISIS fighters, since the initial deal included only civilians,” Atrashe said.
He said U.S. and Russian officials were involved in the negotiations but disagreed on several issues, including where to move Islamic State fighters who have threatened the Druze community.
Alex Makled, a prominent member for the Druze community in the United States, said Russian officials expressed a willingness to cooperate with U.S. officials in an effort to free the hostages. However, coordination had been difficult as Washington remained uneasy about giving Moscow more room to maneuver in areas bound by a demilitarization agreement, Makled said.
“The refusal of Washington to cooperate or coordinate with the Assad regime or Russia in the battle against ISIS has clearly left a big logistical hole through which ISIS is able to maneuver,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, Trump touted the Islamic State’s defeat as an important reason to vote Republican.
“We’ve defeated ISIS. ISIS is defeated in all of the areas that we fought ISIS, and that would have never happened under President Obama,” Trump told the Associated Press in a recent interview.
In last week’s letter, Pallone and other Democrats argued that declaring the total defeat of the Islamic State risks masking the continued atrocities in Syria carried out by the group.
“We are concerned the administration is conflating ISIS’s loss of territory with its complete defeat while ignoring ISIS’s sustained insurgent presence. This will continue to threaten the safety of displaced and minority populations like the Druze,” said the lawmakers, who include Iraq War veteran Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.