Written by Eric Schmitt
US troops have resumed large-scale counterterrorism missions against the Islamic State group in northern Syria, military officials say, nearly two months after President Donald Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw US troops opened the way for a bloody Turkish cross-border offensive.
The new operations show that despite Trump’s earlier demand for a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria, the president still has some 500 troops in the country, many of them in combat, for the foreseeable future.
“Over the next days and weeks, the pace will pick back up against remnants of ISIS,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of the military’s Central Command, told reporters on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue security conference in Bahrain on Saturday, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.
US-backed operations against Islamic State fighters in the area had effectively ground to a halt despite warnings from intelligence analysts that the group’s militants were regrouping and still posed a threat even after their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed during a US raid on Oct. 26.
The resumption of extensive counterterrorism operations capped a tumultuous two months in which many of the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria flew or drove out of the country under Trump’s withdrawal order in early October. Separately, several hundred other troops, some with armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles, arrived in Syria from Iraq and Kuwait under a subsequent order from Trump to protect Syria’s eastern oil fields from the Islamic State, as well as from the Syrian government and its Russian partners.
U.S. commandos and their Syrian Kurdish partners conducted some low-level missions after the withdrawal order. But McKenzie said that since Americans and Kurds had regrouped in a much smaller area east of the Euphrates River and into Syria’s far northeast along the border with Iraq, they could resume bigger missions against the Islamic State.
This past Friday, U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Syrian Kurdish fighters — the same local allies the Trump administration abandoned to fend for themselves against the Turkish advance last month — reunited to conduct what the Pentagon said was a large-scale mission to kill and capture Islamic State fighters in Deir el-Zour province, about 120 miles south of the Turkish border.
The operation on Friday in Deir el-Zour against several Islamic State compounds killed or wounded “multiple” Islamic State fighters and resulted in the capture of more than a dozen others, according to a statement from the U.S. military coalition in Baghdad, which oversees the operations in Syria.
“What we’re talking about are the pockets of people who represent the wreckage that followed in the wake of the caliphate,” McKenzie said in describing what was left of the Islamic State’s religious state that at its peak was the size of Britain. “They still have the power to injure, still have the power to cause violence.”
Indeed, just last week the Defense Intelligence Agency warned in an inspector general’s report that with U.S. and Syrian Kurdish operations diminished, the Islamic State would most likely exploit the reduction in counterterrorism pressure to regroup in Syria and expand its ability to conduct transnational attacks. These concerns have spurred U.S. commanders to rush to resume their missions with the Syrian Kurds.
The intelligence agency said that the death of al-Baghdadi would probably have “little effect” on the Islamic State’s ability to regroup.
Trump had first declared victory in the fight against the Islamic State in late 2018, and ordered a full withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground. The military reduced the number to 1,000 — but quietly continued fighting the Islamic State, in particular working with Syrian Kurds.
After Trump ordered the withdrawal of the 1,000 troops in October, Vice President Mike Pence reached a deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey that accepted a Turkish military presence in a broad part of northern Syria in exchange for a cease-fire. The deal amounted to a near-total victory for Erdogan, as thousands of Syrian Kurds were forced to flee south, often battling with ill-disciplined Turkish proxy forces as they went.
The United States considers the Syrian Kurds a pivotal partner in the fight on the ground against the Islamic State, but Turkey views them as terrorists, a distinction that has repeatedly put Washington in a difficult position.
Syrian Kurds who counted the United States as a friend and an ally accused Washington of betrayal immediately after the withdrawal from the border and the Turkish offensive. Army Green Berets who had fought alongside the Kurds and praised them for their valor said they felt ashamed at how the United States had treated the Kurds.
McKenzie insisted that relations between the two sides were now “pretty good.” He did not say, however, how long U.S. troops would stay in northern Syria. “We don’t have an end date,” he said twice during an interview with reporters Saturday.
With a mercurial president who has twice in 10 months ordered all U.S. troops out of Syria immediately — only to reverse himself twice after aides implored him to reconsider — other senior commanders say the Pentagon has to be ready for another no-notice message on Twitter that U.S. troops are leaving, oil or not.
It was a message that Pence, on an unannounced pre-Thanksgiving visit to Iraq, repeated Saturday even as he sought to reinforce the administration’s support for the Kurds and the mission of protecting the oil fields.
“President Trump is always going to look for opportunities to bring our troops home and to take these men and women out of harm’s way,” Pence said.
The immediate fight may be on again against the Islamic State, but McKenzie said that protecting the oil fields might ultimately draw a larger challenge from Syrian army troops west of the Euphrates.
“I’d expect at some point the regime will come forward to that ground,” McKenzie said before the security conference.
The last time pro-Syrian government forces threatened U.S. troops near the oil fields, in February 2018, the United States unleashed an artillery and aerial bombardment that left 200 to 300 of the attacking fighters dead. Most of that U.S. air power is still nearby.
At the security conference, several top European and Middle Eastern officials urged their counterparts to continue applying unrelenting pressure on the Islamic State, which is also called Daesh, in northern Syria.
“ISIS leaders have been killed and territory reclaimed, but the profound crisis of governance that made Daesh’s emergence possible is still there,” said France’s minister of armed forces, Florence Parly. “France’s aircraft will continue to strike relentlessly, and French forces will continue to train and equip partner forces.”
Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s minister of foreign affairs, added that the Islamic State also posed “an ideological challenge with which we are also having to deal and which, frankly, only us in the region can take the lead in this fight.”
“We need to expose terrorists for the thugs that they are,” he added.