US to Allies: Prepare for ‘New Stage’ in Fight Against Islamic State
07 February 2019, 03:50
The United States is seeking to reassure allies it is not abandoning them or their efforts to destroy the Islamic State terror group despite an imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, VOA reports.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the 79-member global coalition to defeat IS Wednesday in Washington, saying that while the “nature of the fight is changing,” U.S. goals remain the same.
“It simply represents a new stage in an old fight,” Pompeo said in remarks to open the conference.
“The drawdown of troops is essentially a tactical change. It is not a change in the mission,” he added. “The fight is one that we will continue to wage alongside of you.”
U.S. President Donald Trump surprised many of Washington’s allies and partners, and even some of his own military commanders, when he declared victory over IS in December and announced some 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria would be coming home.
Since then, the White House and other top U.S. officials have sought to clarify that while the terror group’s self-declared caliphate is on the verge of complete territorial collapse, the U.S. understands the fight against the group itself is not over.
In his State of the Union address late Tuesday night, Trump praised progress in the fight against IS, but reiterated his call to pull U.S. troops from Syria.
“We have liberated virtually all of the territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty monsters,” Trump told a joint session of Congress. “Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”
But exactly when U.S. troops will ultimately leave Syria is unclear.
Defense officials confirm that while some equipment already has been moved out of Syria, plans for withdrawing U.S. forces are still being formulated with the help of allies and partners on the ground, like the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel, told lawmakers during a hearing Tuesday the pullout will be “deliberate.”
“I am not under pressure to be out by a specific date and I’ve not had any specific conditions put upon me,” Votel said, adding the U.S. and its partners must maintain pressure on IS cells in Syria and beyond.
“They have the capability of coming back together if we don’t,” he said.
U.S. military and intelligence officials estimate IS still has 1,000 to 1,500 fighters holding onto a silver of territory in Syria’s Middle Euphrates River Valley. And while the fighting there is expected to be wrapped up in a number of weeks, as many as another 30,000 IS fighters and supporters are dispersed across Syria and Iraq. Some are part of active insurgencies and others are part of sleeper cells, waiting for the right time to activate.
Just last month, IS claimed responsibility for a failed suicide attack on a U.S. convoy in northern Syria and another attack in the Syrian town of Manbij, which killed four Americans and 15 other people.
Iraqi officials have voiced concern about a series of attacks there, carried out by small groups of IS fighters, some as young as 16 years old.
“I call on all countries of the world to help Iraq fight sleeper cells of Daesh and to help Iraq restore its stability,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hakim told the conference Wednesday, using the Arabic acronym for the terror group.
Although Iraq declared victory over IS more than a year ago, the country’s security forces continue to battle pockets of resistance across the country, sometimes with the help of coalition airstrikes.
There are additional concerns about Baghdad’s struggles to rebuild areas that had been under IS control.
Coalition officials say there is a $350 million shortfall in reconstruction funds for Iraq. And Wednesday, Pompeo called on members to “put our money where our mouth is.”
Pompeo told coalition members to be ready for more requests for help.
“We ask that our coalition partners seriously and rapidly consider requests that will enable our efforts to continue,” he said. “Those requests are likely to come very soon.”
But while Iraq’s foreign minister asked for more help, he also warned the U.S. and other countries must heed “the basic principles on which the global coalition has been there, including most importantly the complete respect of the territorial integrity of Iraq and for all operations to take place with the knowledge of the government.”
The comment is the latest from Iraqi officials following an interview Trump gave CBS News this past Sunday, in which he said he wanted U.S. troops stationed in Iraq to “watch Iran.”
U.S. officials have repeatedly warned of Iran’s destabilizing activities in Syria and across the Middle East, but officials from Baghdad maintain the U.S. military presence in Iraq is the result of an agreement to combat terrorism, and that keeping an eye on Tehran is not part of the deal.