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Trump: Syria pullout will not spark ISIS resurgence

February 7, 2019 GMT

President Trump predicted Wednesday that the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria will be “100 percent” liberated within days, while telling a major gathering of allies at the State Department that his planned pullout of U.S. forces from Syria will not undercut the mission of wiping out the terrorist group’s surviving assets.

Speaking to representatives from the 79-nation Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Mr. Trump said he was just awaiting official word on the group’s complete battlefield defeat from U.S. commanders on the ground.

“They’ll be informing us very soon, officially. But it’s 100 percent,” Mr. Trump said during his keynote address to the coalition.

“You cannot do more than we have done militarily” against the terrorist organization, said Mr. Trump, noting that “the ISIS caliphate has been decimated [and] nobody thought it was possible to do it this quickly.”

Mr. Trump’s remarks tracked his State of the Union comments but come at a delicate time. The president’s plans to withdraw troops from Syria and possibly cut by half the U.S. deployment in Afghanistan have many allies fearful that Washington is declaring victory prematurely. U.S. officials said the State Department summit Wednesday was a way to get allies in the region and around the world together to fashion a coordinated message as the battle against the Islamic State enters a new phase.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the gathering that the planned withdrawal “is not a change in the mission” but a change in tactics against a group that still poses a threat. He called on the coalition to increase intelligence-sharing and repatriate and prosecute captured foreign fighters.

“We are ready to come back, in full force, if ISIS re-emerges” in Iraq or elsewhere, Mr. Pompeo said.

The Islamic State has relinquished control of wide swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in the wake of the U.S.-backed offensive against the group beginning in 2015. The terrorist group’s Syrian remnants have dug into positions in a small sliver of territory near the city of Deir el-Zour.

“Their land is gone, and that is a big factor,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday.

But the president acknowledged what many of his top military and intelligence officials have been saying in recent days: that the Islamic State will continue to pose a threat to the U.S. and its allies.

“They [will] re-form, and we know that, but they are having a hard time re-forming” because so many of the Islamic State’s top operatives have been killed or captured, Mr. Trump said.

U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that the Islamic State, even with the loss of its territorial base, still has tens of thousands of supporters in the Middle East as well as active branches in countries such as Afghanistan and the Philippines. Mr. Trump acknowledged that the job remains unfinished.

“You’ll always have people that will be around,” Mr. Trump said. “But we’ll search them out and you’ll search them out and hopefully they won’t be around very long.”

Mr. Trump complicated the mission with a suggestion over the weekend that the U.S. will have an indefinite military presence in Iraq to prevent a resurgence of terrorist threats and to “watch” Iran. But his remarks angered officials in Baghdad, who said the U.S. military is in the country at Iraq’s invitation and that Iraq should not be dragged into other regional fights.

Mr. Pompeo met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim on Wednesday to discuss a new agreement on U.S. forces in Iraq. Critics say President Obama’s hasty withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in Iraq in 2011 created the security vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to flourish three years later.

Continuing threat

The president’s comments about an enduring threat from the Islamic State put him more in line with his top intelligence advisers, who told Congress last week that the Islamic State was far from defeated and continued to present a threat to the U.S. and its allies despite its battlefield losses.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday on counterterrorism, Maj. Gen. James Hecker, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a fresh warning of the danger.

“The concern is if we move our forces out of Syria that that may take some pressure off of the ISIS forces in Syria,” Gen. Hecker said, as reported by The Associated Press. “So our mission is to try to figure out how we can continue to keep the pressure on in Syria without any boots on the ground.”

Mr. Trump previously said the Islamic State had been “decimated” and justified his surprise decision in December to pull U.S. troops out of Syria by saying that “we have won against ISIS.”

The abrupt decision, made without consulting the U.S. commander in the region or America’s Kurdish and Arab allies in Syria, led to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the State Department’s top envoy in the fight against the Islamic State.

The Republican-controlled Senate has approved a resolution opposing what lawmakers called a “precipitous withdrawal” of American forces from Afghanistan and Syria.

A day after his nationally televised address to Congress, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric at the State Department took a more conciliatory tone toward the remaining fight against the Islamic State.

“The struggle against terrorism is a shared fight. We do it together,” he told coalition members.

Mr. Alhakim declined to comment on Iran’s influence or Washington’s plans to extend the U.S. mission in the country, but he said the U.S. and its allies will continue to play a role in defeating the Islamic State.

“Iraq welcomes the efforts of the international coalition in Iraq, which has culminated in the defeat of terrorism,” he said. “Based on that, the government of my country hopes for the international coalition to continue its support. ... The security and peace and stability of Iraq is part of the stability and peace in the world.”