ARLINGTON, Va. — The director of the Joint Staff said amid administration talk of pulling U.S. support forces out of Syria that ISIS should still be considered a global problem and the jihadists remaining in what’s left of the physical caliphate are “simply a single manifestation” of the terror group.
“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now,” President Trump told a rally last Friday. “Very soon. Very soon, we’re coming out.”
The White House followed up his comments Wednesday with a statement noting that “the military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end, with ISIS being almost completely destroyed.”
“The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated,” the White House said. “We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans. We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never re-emerges.”
ISIS, which lost Raqqa in October to the Syrian Democratic Forces, has forces remaining in the Middle Euphrates River Valley and in southern Damascus. The SDF news these days is largely centered around Manbij and Afrin, as forces have been pulled up to Kurdish territory in Syria to protect against a Turkish offensive.
At today’s Pentagon press briefing, a reporter asked if the departure of U.S. forces would lead to “a resurgence of ISIS there, either in an ISIS 2.0 scenario or some sort of incarnation of that same activity.”
“A lot of great work’s been done in Syria, very close to reaching an end state against the caliphate,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie. “We think as we go forward, one of the things that we haven’t been given is a timeline, and that’s actually very effective. And that might have been a problem that we saw before in Afghanistan, where we operated against a timeline that was known to the enemy. The president has actually been very good in not giving us a specific timeline, so that’s a tool that we can use to our effect as we move forward.”
“Now I would tell you that looking in the long term, obviously, entities in the region, nations in the region have to have as much interest in the problem in Syria as we do, and probably more, since they’re the ones that are going to be most affected by it,” he added. “So as you look to long-term stabilization, we should actually look to partners and allies in the region that are going to be able to do many of those things…. We’ve always thought that as we reach as we reach finality against ISIS in Syria, we’re going to adjust the level of our presence there. So in that sense, nothing actually has changed.”
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White noted that even though Trump used the words “very soon” in regards to a pullout, “it’s not over, and we are committed to ensuring the defeat of ISIS.”
“We have always said that our mission in Syria is the defeat of ISIS. That is nearly here, but it’s not done. And the activities in northern Syria have distracted the SDF from this fight,” White said. “But we continue to be focused on the defeat of ISIS, and ISIS remains a trans-regional threat, and the 71-nation coalition that’s fighting ISIS is committed to ensuring that we combat violent extremism wherever it is.”
Another reporter asked, “What does the defeat of ISIS actually look like? Would you continue to follow them into Assad-held areas? And why should the Kurds continue to fight ISIS when the White House has signaled a willingness to basically abandon Syria?”
“When we think about ISIS, we shouldn’t just think about the Euphrates River Valley. We need to think that ISIS is a global problem. So we deal with ISIS globally, of which the physical — the remnants of the physical caliphate are simply a single manifestation,” Joint Staff Director McKenzie replied.
“So I think it’s too simple to think about just reaching end state in Syria, but I would go on to say that our definition of success against ISIS would be they are unable to generate successful attacks against the homeland of the United States or against our allies, and they are able to be kept at a — kept below the noise level by a combination of local police and security elements, wherever those localities are globally, not just in the Euphrates River Valley,” the general added.
McKenzie said that “the ideal solution would be for local elements, as well as allies and partners in the region, to assume much of the hold and build responsibilities after the defeat of ISIS is enabled.”