President Trump acknowledged that the Islamic State continues to pose a threat even though U.S.-led coalition forces have retaken 99 percent of the territory the group once held.
In a brief appearance before the ministerial meeting of the global counter-ISIS coalition in Washington on Wednesday, Trump said that he expected to announce the capture of the last two towns currently held by ISIS “probably next week,” adding, “I want to wait for the official word...Don't want to say it too early.”
But the president also told Middle Eastern partners that the fight was far from over, in an apparent effort to reassure host nations that the United States isn’t abandoning them. In December, he abruptly ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, and has publicly confirmed his intention to cut down on troops in Afghanistan. Critics say that both proposed draw-downs could open a window for ISIS to regenerate.
“We will be working with you for many years to come,” Trump said during 10 minutes of remarks. “I say that unfortunately, but that’s the way it goes.”
Although ISIS’ territorial gains have been reversed, Trump said, “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. But you will have people that will be around. And we’ll search ’em out and you’ll search ’em out and we’ll find them and hopefully they won’t be around very long.”
The remarks were a reversal of his December contention that “we have defeated ISIS in Syria,” an assertion that drew fierce rebuttals even from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Trump and other senior administration officials have since sought to parse the president’s claim, arguing that the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate had been destroyed, not the group itself.
“Their land is gone. Big factor. Their land is gone,” Trump said Wednesday.
The Trump administration is reportedly negotiating with Iraq to move some of the roughly 2,200 troops in Syria to Iraq so that they can continue striking ISIS from there, although the president’s Sunday statement that that he wants troops in Iraq to “watch Iran” have complicated talks.
Over the last few weeks, U.S. intelligence and defense officials have repeatedly told lawmakers that they fear a precipitous troop withdrawal from Syria could allow ISIS to quickly regenerate. In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week, director of national intelligence Dan Coats said that the group continues to command eight branches, a dozen-plus networks, thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and followers around the world.
“The group will exploit any reduction in [counter-terrorism] pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities, such as media production and external operations,” Coats said in prepared testimony.
On Tuesday, the leader of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “it’s always best” if U.S. forces are with their partners on the ground, rather than operating from distant bases.
“It’s going to be a very difficult situation,” Maj. Gen. Jim Hecker, the Joint Staff’s vice director of operations, told the House Armed Services Committee earlier on Wednesday. “There will be a decrease in the amount of pressure that we will be able to apply."
Trump and senior Pentagon officials insist that that the United States is withdrawing from Syria, but the administration has provided no timeline for the process and has offered contradictory statements. During his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, Trump said only that the United States would be welcoming the troops home. Hours earlier, Votel said the withdrawal is neither time-based nor conditions-based. On Wednesday, a senior administration official told reporters before the ministerial meeting that the U.S. withdrawal from a controversial base on the Syria-Iraq border “has not been scheduled” and “would be conditions-based.”
The withdrawal order, delivered in a tweet, prompted the resignations of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and top counter-ISIS diplomat Brett McGurk.
During the House hearing, Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., asked Owen West, assistant defense secretary for special operations, if he believed Mattis was wrong to disagree with Trump about the withdrawal. West took a short pause.
Then he leaned forward to the mic and said, “No, sir.”