WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria in October has provided ISIS an opening to rebuild itself, giving the terrorist group “time and space” to target the West, according to a Pentagon report released Tuesday.
The Defense Intelligence Agency told the Pentagon’s inspector general that ISIS has taken advantage of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria and Turkey’s subsequent incursion. Trump’s decision prompted strong bipartisan criticism for removing military pressure on ISIS and Kurdish forces that had worked together to roll back gains made by ISIS.
“ISIS exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops to reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad,” the Pentagon’s inspector general said in the report.
The report details the fallout from Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria. His order in early October allowed Turkish forces and paramilitary groups to occupy parts of Syria that had been jointly patrolled by American forces and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. Russian troops have also moved into the region following the U.S. withdrawal.
Now, ISIS, which has mounted or inspired terrorist attacks throughout the world, will have a chance to grow again, the report said.
The Defense Intelligence Agency determined that ISIS is “postured to withstand” the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed by a U.S. raid on Oct. 25. Baghdadi’s death was a “significant blow to ISIS but would likely not end the ISIS threat,” according to the report.
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On Oct. 6, Trump ordered a withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Syria, paving the way for Turkey to press an assault against Kurds whom the Turks consider terrorists.
“The incursion set in motion a series of actions that affected the (U.S.-led) mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including the U.S. relationship with the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, and control of territory in northeastern Syria,” wrote Glenn Fine, the inspector general.
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Fine warned that that “ISIS will likely have the ‘time and space’ to target the West and provide support to its global branches and networks, and in the longer term, ISIS will probably seek to regain control of some Syrian population centers and expand its global footprint.”
The Defense Intelligence Agency also assesses that ISIS operatives are likely to attempt to free prisoners detained in Kurdish-run detainee camps in Syria, according to Fine.
The report shows that military experts believe a U.S. troop presence in Syria is vital to confronting Syria, said Nicholas Heras, an expert on Syria and ISIS at the Center for a New American Security.
“There has been no secret that the Pentagon prefers to remain in Syria with a light footprint U.S. military presence in order to prevent the reemergence of ISIS,” Heras said. “ISIS wants to remain in Syria to maintain its networks of operatives to carry out operations in the Middle East and to coordinate with operatives in Europe. U.S. interests in the region and in Europe are at risk if ISIS reconstitutes itself in Syria.”
Trump modified his order for a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. About 600 American troops remain in the country. One group conducts a training mission in southern Syria, and a force backed by armored vehicles is protecting oil fields from ISIS in the northeast.