(CNSNews.com) – President Trump said on Wednesday he expects the military coalition fighting ISIS to formally declare the end of the terrorist group’s hold on territory in Syria and Iraq as soon as next week.
But in comments to representatives of the global anti-ISIS coalition at the State Department, the president also spoke candidly about the risk that those clinging to its violent ideology will continue to pose.
“It should be formally announced, sometime probably next week, that we will have 100 percent of the caliphate,” Trump told the gathering, in reference to the Islamic polity which ISIS declared across large swathes of Syria and Iraq in June 2014.
“But I want to wait for the official word,” he added. “I don’t want to say it too early.”
According to U.S. officials, the remaining territory under the Sunni jihadists’ control comprises a couple of square miles in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) in eastern Syria.
Trump recalled that during his Christmas visit to U.S. troops at an air base in Iraq, he had given generals the “absolute go-ahead” to finish the job.
“I said, ‘Go at it. How long will it take once you get started?’ He said, ‘Sir, one week.’ I said, ‘Where did that come from – one week?’ And he meant it.”
“They’ll be informing us very soon, officially, that it’s 100 percent,” Trump said.
The coalition comprises five international institutions and 74 countries, some 30 of which have contributed troops to the military effort.
Summarizing its successes to date, Trump said the coalition has retaken more than 20,000 square miles of territory from ISIS over the past two years, ejecting the terrorists from Raqqa in Syria – the “capital” of the caliphate – and from Mosul in Iraq.
More than 60 high-value ISIS leaders had been “eliminated,” along with more than 100 other “top ISIS officials,” and “tens of thousands of ISIS fighters are gone.”
More than five million civilians had been freed “from the grip of these bloodthirsty killers,” he added.
“Critically, ISIS also now lacks a significant territorial base from which to launch terrorist attacks against other countries, recruit foreign fighters, and spread havoc across the region,” he said. “Their land is gone.”
‘An active insurgent group’
In December, Trump announced plans to withdraw the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, who have been supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as it mops up remaining elements of ISIS, mostly in the MERV area.
The announcement caused dismay in Congress, with even some Republican allies of the president fretting about the consequences a pullout could have for the campaign against ISIS, for the safety of the SDF allies, and for the goal of countering the Iranian presence in Syria.
The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed legislation including an amendment voicing concern that “the precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Syria (and Afghanistan) “could put at risk hard-won gains” against terrorist groups. A day earlier, all but four Republican senators voted in favor of that amendment.
A recent Department of Defense inspector general quarterly report to Congress added to lawmakers’ worries. It included U.S. Central Command’s assessment that “ISIS remains an active insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria,” and that in the absence of sustained counterterrorism pressure, the group “could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory” in the MERV.
In his remarks Wednesday, Trump did not play down the prospect of an ongoing ISIS insurgency.
“You’re always going to have people; they’ll be around. They’re sick, they’re demented. But you’re going to have them no matter how well we do militarily. You can’t do better than we’ve done, militarily, but you will have people that will be around.”
“And we’ll search them out, and you’ll search them out, and we’ll find them,” he added. “And hopefully, they won’t be around very long.”
“Remnants can be very dangerous,” he said minutes later. “You have to remember that. A remnant can be very dangerous.”
“Rest assured,” Trump told the participants. “We will do what it takes to defeat every ounce and every last person within the ISIS madness, and defend our people from radical Islamic terrorism.”
A declaration by the coalition representatives Wednesday acknowledged that the territorial defeat of ISIS “does not mean our campaign against ISIS is over.”
“Further engagement is needed in Iraq and Syria, where the terrorist group is still resilient. ISIS’ leadership, affiliates, and its supporters view its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria as a setback, not as defeat,” it said.
“In response, ISIS increasingly turns to insurgent tactics to try to destabilize Syria and Iraq. In parallel, ISIS focuses on increasing support to its worldwide branches and networks in order to carry forward the fight from more permissive locations, and on inspiring homegrown terrorists.”