Trump, touting gains over IS, focuses on Syria exit

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Article Summary
Speaking to diplomats attending a ministerial meeting of the 79-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS today, President Trump said a formal announcement would come next week that 100% of the terror group's territory had been liberated.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, addressing diplomats from some 70 countries at the State Department today, said he expected a formal announcement on the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State, IS or ISIS, possibly as early as next week.

“It should be formally announced sometime probably next week that we will have [liberated] 100% of the caliphate,” Trump told diplomats attending a ministerial meeting of the 79-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. “You can’t do better than we’ve done, militarily.”

While US officials have scrambled to reassure partners and allies that US commitment to the goals of fighting terrorism and countering Iran haven’t changed since Trump’s surprise announcement in December of a US withdrawal from Syria, Trump’s message remains firmly focused on extracting the United States from the long wars he inherited.

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said in his State of the Union address Tuesday.

“Now, countries in the region and across our coalition step up their commitments, and we continue to destroy the remnants [of IS] … We look forward to giving our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome back home,” Trump said.

Trump continued that theme of bringing the troops home in his address to foreign ministers and ambassadors today, in his second visit to the State Department since taking office. But praising the US military and also coalition partner militaries, Trump acknowledged that even with the territorial defeat of IS, remnants of the group would still exist and pose a continued threat, including the risk posed by returning foreign fighters and in cyberspace.

“Our military has been incredible. And your militaries have been incredible,” Trump said. “It's an honor to work with you. We will be working with you for many years to come … unfortunately, but that is the way it goes.”

That the threat posed by IS is not over after its territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria is a point coalition ministers made in a joint statement following today’s consultations.

“The territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria will mark a significant milestone in the war against ISIS, but does not mean our campaign against ISIS is over,” the coalition ministers said in a 10-point joint statement this afternoon. “Further engagement is needed in Iraq and Syria, where the terrorist group is still resilient. ISIS’s leadership, affiliates, and its supporters view its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria as a setback, not as defeat.”

US officials, meanwhile, stress even with the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, US goals for Syria remain unchanged.

“US strategic goals for Syria haven’t changed,” a senior State Department official, speaking to journalists not for attribution, said Monday. “Our top three priorities — which are mutually reinforced — continue to be to secure an enduring defeat of ISIS, to see the exit of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria, and to reach a political settlement of the conflicts. … So a withdrawal of US forces from northeast Syria is the change in the way we employ our military means under our broader strategy. It’s not a change in the strategy.”

US officials still seem to be in partial denial that Trump remains focused on the exits, said Turkey expert Aaron Stein.

“It’s all done backwards,” Stein, director of Middle East programs at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Al-Monitor. “They are retroactively justifying leaving and can’t just let go of the fact that nothing that they want to happen will happen."

“We are leaving,” Stein said. US Syria and counter-IS envoy Jim Jeffrey "is trying to get an agreement with the Turks, but we haven’t settled on key details, and Ankara and the [Syrian Democratic Forces] reject key elements of the proposal.”

The majority of US forces are currently expected to have left Syria by the end of April, expert and regional sources said they understood from the latest consultations with US counterparts.

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Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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