U.S.-backed forces are weeks away from liberating all the remaining land held by Islamic State in Syria, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said, though its territorial defeat doesn’t spell the end of the militant group’s ability to carry out attacks.
“I’d say 99.5 percent-plus of the ISIS-controlled territory has been returned to the Syrians,” Shanahan told reporters on Tuesday. “Within a couple weeks it will be 100 percent.” The group is no longer “able to govern” and can’t use Syria as a safe haven because “we’ve eliminated the majority of their leadership,” he said.
A territorial defeat of Islamic State in Syria would fuel further debate about President Donald Trump’s planned troop withdrawal and the future of America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. Trump’s critics have warned that his abrupt decision in December would enable the alliance between Russia, Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to sew up its victory in the eight-year civil war, which has killed an estimated half million people and turned millions more into refugees.
Such a move could also open up the Kurds to attack from Turkish forces in northern Syria, who view the U.S.-allied forces as terrorists.
U.S. goals in Syria have been seen as going beyond defeating Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” to include pushing back on Iranian and Iranian-backed forces. And a territorial defeat doesn’t mean the end of the terrorist group, which five years ago controlled a huge swath of territory across Iraq and Syria.
The annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” issued Tuesday by U.S intelligence agencies says that thousands of Islamic State fighters and supporters remain in Syria and Iraq, and that they will continue to conduct strikes.
The militant group still “commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria,” Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, said in a summary of the conclusions. “It maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses.”
The group is still able to carry out deadly attacks in Syria and Iraq, as “it tries to undermine stabilization efforts and retaliate against its enemies,” Coats said in the report. “We assess that ISIS will seek to exploit Sunni grievances, societal instability, and stretched security forces to regain territory in Iraq and Syria in the long term.”
Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed four Americans and wounded three others earlier this month when they were on patrol in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. Days later, a suicide car bombing in Syria’s northeastern region of Hasakah targeted a U.S. military and Kurdish convoy.
Reflecting its far-flung ambitions, the group also claimed responsibility for bombings at a Catholic church in the southern Philippines that killed at least 20 people and injured more than a hundred over the weekend.
Trump has vowed to continue striking at the terrorists as he pulls U.S. troops from the conflict, and he’s faced pressure from allies including Israel to remain engaged. On a recent trip to Israel and Turkey, National Security Adviser John Bolton indicated there would be no rush to remove troops from a U.S. base in southern Syria known as Al-Tanf.
During a trip this month to Washington, Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with the Kurdish group that fought Islamic State alongside the U.S. , said in an interview that she’s been told by the Americans that they aren’t going to put a deadline on the withdrawal yet. Islamic State cells remain a threat even as they lose territorial control, she said.