(CNSNews.com) – As the various parties engaged in the Syrian conflict mull the looming departure of U.S. forces, the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq announced airstrikes were continuing to degrade a terrorist group that “presents a very real threat to the long-term stability in this region.”
The Christmas Day statement from Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) contrasted with President Trump’s assertions last week that ISIS has been defeated, thereby justifying the withdrawal of the 2,000 American troops in Syria.
It said coalition airstrikes and coordinated fire had continued through last week (Dec. 16-22) in support of its partner forces fighting against ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
The taskforce said the attacks had destroyed ISIS logistics facilities and staging areas, degrading the terrorists’ ability to maneuver, and that precision strikes on financial centers had dealt a significant blow to its ability to finance terror activities.
In addition, several hundred ISIS fighters had been “removed … from the battlefield.”
“ISIS presents a very real threat to the long-term stability in this region and our mission remains the same, the enduring defeat of ISIS,” the statement quoted CJTF-OIR deputy commander strategy and information Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika – a British officer – as saying.
The coalition described the fighting zone as “the last remaining stronghold ISIS has in the region,” where its partners on the ground were “rooting out” the terrorists’ fighting positions.
The Middle Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria is the area where U.S. troops – who first began entering the country in 2015 – have been supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as it mops up ISIS remnants.
The SDF comprises Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters along with some Arab and Turkmen factions.
U.S. support for them in the fight against ISIS has angered Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who opposes the presence of a Kurdish-held region near Turkey’s border. Erdogan views the YPG as terrorists due to their affiliation to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a separatist campaign against the Turkish state for three decades.
Trump last Wednesday confirmed that he was pulling out all 2,000 U.S. troops now, saying that ISIS has been defeated in Syria.
Turkey’s presidential aide claims that Erdogan during an “historic” Dec. 14 phone call persuaded Trump to withdraw the troops. The White House late last week disputed the accuracy of other reports containing similar claims about that Trump-Erdogan phone conversation.
Trump’s announcement shook some key Republican lawmakers, and was followed by the resignations in turn of Defense Secretary James Mattis and the U.S. special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, who has maintained close ties with the SDF allies.
Just a week earlier, McGurk had said at the State Department that “it would be reckless if we were just to say, well, the physical caliphate [declared by ISIS across parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014] is defeated, so we can just leave now.”
In a series of tweets over the weekend and early this week, Trump defended the withdrawal decision, dismissed the criticism, and slammed reporting about it as “fake.”
“ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains,” he said Saturday.
On Sunday, Trump described the pullout of U.S. troops from Syria, which he said he had just discussed by phone with Erdogan, as “slow & highly coordinated.”
In another tweet Sunday, the president said Erdogan had assured him he would “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria.”
Meanwhile there are indications that the SDF, looking for support in the face of an anticipated assault by Turkish forces in the area of Manbij – a Syrian town which the SDF liberated earlier from ISIS – may seek the help of a resurgent Assad regime.
That would mark another turn in a convoluted conflict that has drawn in, to varying degrees, Russia, Iran and its Shi’ite proxies including Hezbollah, Turkey, the U.S. and its Western and Arab coalition allies, Israel, and rebel groups including Kurdish factions, Arab nationalists and Salafi jihadists.