“It should be formally announced, sometime probably next week, that we will have 100 percent of the caliphate,” Trump said, referring to the territory in Iraq and Syria controlled by the militants. “But I want to wait for the official word. I don’t want to say it too early.”
Trump addressed diplomats from more than 70 countries meeting at the State Department to discuss how to proceed against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq now that the group’s militants have been pushed out of all but a sliver of the self-proclaimed caliphate they ruled brutally.
The meeting is the coalition’s first get-together since Trump’s sudden announcement on Twitter in December that the Syria mission was over because, he contended, the Islamic State had been defeated and the mandate for the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops had run its course. Officials in his administration immediately tried to walk back the statement, and the Senate rebuked the withdrawal.
Trump on Wednesday listed what he described as military accomplishments against the militants over his two years in office and took credit for reversing the group’s advances.
“Now, you’re always going to have people. They’ll be around. They’re sick. They’re demented. But you’re going to have them, no matter how well we do militarily. You can’t do better than we’ve done militarily,” Trump said. “But you will have people that will be around, and we’ll search them out, and you’ll search them out, and we’ll find them.”
Trump said that “only two years ago,” when he took office, the Islamic State “had a vast amount of territory in Syria and Iraq . . . and it was a mess. It was a lot.”
But with the exception of the city of Mosul, the majority of the populated territory seized by the militants in Iraq in 2014 had been retaken under the Obama administration. In Mosul, operations in the east side of the city were well underway, with western Mosul finally retaken by the summer of 2017.
“One of my very first acts” as president, Trump said, was to ask the Pentagon to “show me a plan to defeat ISIS.” Although he described the resultant strategy as a “new approach,” the plan he adopted largely mirrored the one already underway in Syria. Trump, as he noted in his remarks, accelerated planned operations by broadening the authority of U.S. field commanders on the ground and increasing the level of assistance given to Syrian Kurdish allies.
He campaigned on bringing U.S. forces home from what he called unending wars, calling the Middle East hopeless.
“We look forward to giving our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome back home,” Trump said Wednesday. “Rest assured, we will do what it takes to defeat every ounce and every last person within the ISIS madness and defend our people from radical Islamic terrorism.”
The meeting at the State Department brought together a coalition of allies, many of which are at odds with the United States, or each other, on several issues. Most of the European countries oppose the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which they consider essential to their national security. Turkey and Saudi Arabia disagree over an investigation into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are all enforcing an economic blockade on Qatar.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier Wednesday that the Islamic State remains a menace in Syria and Iraq and that the United States will continue to lead efforts to defeat it even after withdrawing troops from Syria.
“The fight is one that we will continue to wage alongside of you,” he said in opening remarks at the meeting on the Islamic State. “The drawdown of American troops is essentially a tactical change. It is not a change in the mission. It does not change the structure, the design or authorities on which the campaign has been based. It simply represents a new stage in an old fight.”
Pompeo played down the impact of the U.S. withdrawal as he urged nations to contribute money to restabilizing territory liberated from the militant group. In Iraq alone, there is a $350 million shortfall of what’s needed to allow the return of the nation’s citizens.
Despite the planned Syria withdrawal, Pompeo said, “Our mission is unwavering, but we need your help to accomplish it.” He asked coalition partners to “seriously and rapidly consider requests that will enable our efforts to continue,” requests he said would come “very soon.” He did not specify what the United States would ask for. In addition to money to pay for stabilization in areas cleared of the Islamic State, the administration has hinted it might request foreign troops from Arab allies.
One option for the Arabs could be to patrol a “safe zone” along Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey that is being negotiated by Washington and Ankara. In a briefing early Wednesday with reporters, a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing diplomacy, said: “I don’t think we’re prepared to comment on what make up an international force in that safe zone because those conversations haven’t been concluded yet.”
Turkey, which has threatened to attack Syrian Kurdish forces that are U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State, has said its military forces would patrol the area, an option that the administration is believed to have rejected.
A joint U.S.-Turkey statement released following talks in Washington on Tuesday makes no mention of safe zones or Kurdish fighters. Asked whether the U.S. withdrawal would go ahead even if those talks fail, the official was noncommittal.
“I think the president’s direction is clear that when the territorial caliphate of ISIS is destroyed, that is the mission of the American troops in northeast Syria, and he will want them to come home,” the official said. “I wouldn’t want to predict failure given the success of our recent discussions with the Turks. So I think we’ll remain optimistic that creating this safe zone is in both of our best interests and that we’ll be able to get there.”
Despite the militant group’s massive territorial loss, the U.S. military worries that the Islamic State’s defeat is not final and that the group could rise again in a year or less.
It “remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that could likely resurge in Syria absent continued counterterrorism pressure,” said a report from the Pentagon’s inspector general Monday.
And Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, warned Tuesday of just such a resurgence.
“The coalition’s hard-won battlefield gains can only be secured by maintaining a vigilant offensive against the now largely dispersed and disaggregated ISIS that retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts,” he told a Senate committee.
The senior administration official indicated that Trump’s withdrawal order will not immediately apply to all 2,000 U.S. military forces in Syria. A U.S. garrison in Tanf, in southern Syria on the border with Jordan, “would be the last place that we would withdraw from,” the official said, “and I think that’s something that has not been scheduled; it would be conditions-based.”
Senior aides to the president, including national security adviser John Bolton, have argued that the Tanf garrison is important because it lies along a main east-west highway that would enable Iranian forces in Syria to travel more easily between Tehran and Beirut.