US President Donald Trump has declared his intention to wind down his country’s 2,000 troops in Syria, but a report issued Monday warned the extremist group could then make a comeback within six to 12 months.
The report by the inspector general of the Department of Defence comes days before the US hosts a ministerial meeting of the global coalition fighting Islamic State in Washington.
The report warned that Islamic State continues to attract dozens of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq each month, and maintains a flow of external donations.
Islamic State is “regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria.” In both Syria and Iraq, local forces remain heavily reliant on support from the US-led coalition, the report said.
While singling out the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as “tenacious fighters,” the inspector general noted the threat of a Turkish invasion against these US-backed forces, as Ankara views them to be linked to Turkish separatists.
The SDF’s war against Islamic State in Syria continues. Islamic State, also known as ISIS, maintains some 2,000 fighters in eastern Syria where it has established strong defensive positions and will likely fight on until the last man.
“Challenges to completely defeating ISIS in Iraq include the group’s rural strength, its tunnels and safe houses, the continued trickle of
foreign fighters, the difficulty in securing the Iraq-Syria border, and the lack of stability in Sunni areas,” the report said.
The report noted, on the positive side, that this year’s Shiite pilgrimages were conducted without major terrorist attacks by Islamic State – an extremist Sunni group.
Trump’s decision to wind-down in Syria sparked the resignation of his former defence secretary Jim Mattis and has raised serious doubts about the prospects for the Syrian Kurds going ahead.
“Withdrawing without a plan is not good for US interests or the interests of the American people,” said Ilham Ahmed, a Kurdish political leader who was visiting Washington. She said the alliance of Turkey, Russia and Iran would then get to decide Syria’s fate.
She warned about the Kurds potentially being “abandoned” in Syria after years of frontline fighting alongside US forces.
The report by the inspector general described Russia, the main backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as a “destabilizing force.”
Human rights groups have long warned about the heavy casualties from Russia’s air campaign and also sharply criticized Turkey for displacing Kurds in areas it has taken control of in northern Syria, while relocating ethnic Turks and Arabs to those zones.
Separately, the US called on nations around the world to take back their citizens who fought for Islamic State and are currently being held by the SDF in Syria.
Hundreds of fighters from dozens of countries are in SDF custody, according to the US State Department.
“The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin,” a statement said.
The SDF has long said there are problems with holding these fighters.