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US Vows to Stay in the Lead vs. Islamic State

By Jeff Seldin November 14, 2019

The United States is promising not to abandon the fight to eradicate the Islamic State terror group, while pushing allies to take more responsibility for foreign fighters and for rebuilding Iraq and Syria.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the pledge Thursday at the start of a meeting of the Defeat IS coalition, rejecting criticism that leadership has been lacking since the U.S. first began withdrawing forces from northeastern Syria.

"You all know we must keep taking the fight to ISIS. So do we," Pompeo told ministers from more than 35 countries and organizations.

"We took out [IS leader Abu Bakr al-]Baghdadi and his would-be successor," Pompeo added of raids last month that wiped out the terror group's top two officials. "Ask each of them whether there's a deficit in American leadership."

The defiant tone came with just 31 of the Defeat IS coalition's members in attendance, and U.S. and Western intelligence and defense officials warning the threat from IS, also known as ISIS or Daesh, is rising.

U.S.-backed forces in Syria liberated the last of IS-held territory this past March, putting an end to the terror group's self-declared caliphate. Officials have apprised, however, that IS cells in Iraq and Syria have been engaging in a dangerous insurgency in both Iraq and Syria, emphasizing the terror group has begun to reestablish control in some areas.

"The insurgency is alive and kicking in northwest Iraq for sure," Russell Travers, acting director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, warned last week.

"There are already no-go areas at night," he said, adding, "We see ISIS flags and we see small areas where Sharia is being implemented."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in his opening remarks at Thursday's ministerial, echoed the concerns.

"The fight is not over. ISIS is still a threat," he said. "The situation in northern Syria remains fragile and difficult."

But Pompeo sought to alleviate such fears.

"We're watching this space once occupied by this fraudulent caliphate like a hawk," he told coalition members. "We've repositioned some of our troops in northeast Syria and in the broader region as well, to make sure ISIS will never get a second wind."

Oil fields

On Sunday, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, told ABC's This Week that despite an ongoing withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeastern Syria, the Pentagon planned to leave about 500 to 600 troops to help guard oil fields near Deir Al Zor, in eastern Syria.

Pentagon officials repeatedly have tried to characterize the move as part of a wider effort to prevent IS from regaining momentum and from potentially finding ways to profit from the oil, currently under the control of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

But while hosting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said the main concern was the oil itself.

"We're keeping the oil," he said. "We left troops behind only for the oil."

Imprisoned fighters

Confusion over the oil and over a series of abrupt shifts in stated U.S. policy in Syria has helped to overshadow other worries about IS, including the fate of 10,000 to 15,000 fighters in SDF-run prisons.

That includes an estimated 2,000 IS foreign fighters, many who came from coalition countries.

Pompeo reiterated Thursday the call for countries of origin to take them back.

"Coalition members must take back the thousands of foreign terrorist fighters in custody and impose accountability for the atrocities that they have perpetrated," he said.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have called those foreign fighters one of the greatest mid-term threats, fearful that if they are not repatriated and brought to justice, they likely will find their way back into the ranks of IS in Syria and Iraq.

Pompeo also called on coalition members to help alleviate funding shortfalls for stabilization efforts in Iraq and northeastern Syria.

'Real confusion'

But the extent to which coalition allies will heed such calls following Thursday's summit remains a question.

"Our allies rightly are questioning what is our strategy, what is our operational approach to ISIS, knowing that the administration has essentially changed its position day to day on the whims of President Trump," Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former U.S. defense official, told VOA.

"I think there's real confusion," he said.

State Department Correspondent Cindy Saine contributed to this report.

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