U.S. President Donald Trump has said that by next week he will be able to declare the defeat of the extremist group Islamic State’s (IS) “physical caliphate.”
“The United States military, our coalition partners, and the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] have liberated virtually all of the territory previously held by [IS] in Syria and Iraq,” Trump told officials from the 79-member international coalition against the militant group gathered in Washington on February 6.
“We look forward to giving our warriors a warm welcome back home,” the president also said, referring to his withdrawal plans from Syria.
Trump surprised U.S. lawmakers and international allies in December by announcing that he intended to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from the war-torn country.
Critics have said that a vacuum left by the departure of U.S. troops from Syria, where they are assisting the Kurdish-led SDF against the last IS-held areas and other forces, could result in a resurgence of the IS and Al-Qaeda in the country or neighboring Iraq.
Opening the Washington conference earlier in the day, Secretary of Stat Mike Pompeo said that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria was not “the end of America’s fight” against IS, which he said remained a dangerous threat.
Pompeo assured allies that the United States “will continue to lead” the fight against IS militants, but he also called on other countries to recommit to permanently defeating IS.
He also said that the drawdown in U.S. troops in Syria was “essentially a tactical change” and “not a change in the mission.”
“It simply represents a new stage in an old fight,” he added.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pledged that Ankara will work to ensure that IS does not exploit “power vacuums” in Syria and undermine the country’s territorial integrity and neighbors’ national security, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Muhammad Ali al-Hakim called on coalition partners to help expose IS “sleeper cells” in Iraq.
His country will continue to need help to build up its security forces and set in place conditions for internally displaced people to be able to return home, Hakim also said.
On February 5, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, General Joseph Votel, warned that IS “retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources, and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts.”
And a Defense Department watchdog report released on February 4 warned that IS could make a comeback within six to 12 months after the U.S. troops leave Syria and “regain limited territory.”