Trump touts gains against ISIS, glosses over Syria withdrawal
Posted February 6, 2019 4:10 p.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2019 3:01 a.m. EST
CNN — President Donald Trump praised the US and its allies for progress made in the fight against ISIS in a speech that failed to discuss the diplomatic and policy implications of his sudden decision to pull US troops from Syria.
In remarks to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS ministerial at the State Department Wednesday, the US President touted the territorial gains made against the terror group.
"The United States military, our coalition partners and the Syrian Democratic Forces have liberated virtually all of the territory previously held by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It should be formally announced sometime probably next week that we will have 100% of the caliphate," he said before cautioning that he wants "to wait for the official word."
There is now a proposed plan for the President to possibly make an announcement next week from the White House that the coalition has regained 100% of the territory ISIS once controlled inside Syria, several defense officials say. The timing of the announcement depends on when and if the military tells the White House that the last bit of the very southern tip of Middle Euphrates River Valley is no longer in ISIS' hands.
The President's speech at the State Department focused heavily on the military victories against ISIS.
"Our military has been incredible. And your militaries have been incredible. So it's an honor to work with you," Trump said toward the end of his remarks.
"We have secured one battlefield and we've had victory after victory after victory and retaken both Mosul and Raqqa," Trump said. He claimed that forces had "eliminated almost every one of" the 60 top ISIS officials and "more than 100 other top ISIS officials have been eliminated and tens of thousands of ISIS fighters are gone."
But Trump did not mention Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the elusive ISIS leader. Two different sources in different government agencies say the working assumption remains that he is alive given there is no evidence he is dead. And while US officials say they do not know where he is specifically, the informal assessment is they are skeptical he is in one of the remaining areas under ISIS control. The US doesn't have specific intelligence to prove where he is, but the assessment is he likely left the area a long time ago, given the levels of fighting and lack of areas in which he could hide.
Trump told the audience of representatives from the 79 members of the coalition that the US "(looks) forward to giving our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome back home" -- his most direct reference to his announcement in December that the US would pull its forces from Syria. That unexpected announcement prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and the special presidential envoy to the global coalition, Brett McGurk. The conditions and logistics of the US withdrawal remain under negotiation. A senior administration official suggested Wednesday that the US could maintain a presence at the Al Tanf military base.
"In terms of the drawdown plan, Al-Tanf would be the last place that we would withdraw from, and I think that is something that has not been scheduled," the official said. "It would be conditions-based."
Trump told the coalition partners in the audience that "rest assured we will do what it takes to defeat every ounce and every last person within the ISIS madness and defend our people from radical Islamic terrorism." He called the fight against terrorism a shared one.
"The struggle against terrorism is a shared fight. We do it together," Trump said. "Everyone must do their part and contribute their fair share."
Trump specifically praised Germany, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their financial commitments to the fight against ISIS.
The President's scant mention of the US withdrawal from Syria did not address the prospect of a political solution to the conflict, despite a joint statement just hours earlier stressing the necessity of diplomacy to ending the years-long civil war.
"There is no military solution for Syria and no alternative to a political solution, thus there is a concerted need for diplomacy and international political will to end the Syrian conflict and alleviate the continued suffering of the Syrian people," said the statement from the Syria small group, which is composed of Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and the US.
"We are determined to focus our efforts and move forward with a political solution consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254," it said.
The senior administration official, asked about the potential role for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the political process, said, "It's very hard for us to envision a future of Syria in which Bashar al-Assad can play a responsible role."
"Certainly it would be desirable for him to completely change his governing style, allow for free and fair elections, remove malignant foreign influence from Syria and govern in a way that is beneficial to all Syrians -- that would be great. We see no indication that would be the case," the official said. They said they would continue to withhold reconstruction funds from the Assad regime unless there were "significant concessions" from him.
In remarks at the opening of the ministerial, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke more extensively on the topic of withdrawal, saying it was merely a "tactical change." He said, "President Trump's announcement that US troops will be withdrawing from Syria is not the end of America's fight."
"The fight is one that we will continue to wage alongside of you," Pompeo said.