Washington- America will not cede leadership of the fight against Daesh, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday, as he tried to allay fears that President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria could imperil gains against the militants there and neighbouring Iraq.
Trump’s announcement in December shocked US allies and led to the resignations of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and the top US envoy to the anti-Daesh coalition, Brett McGurk.
While the withdrawal would fulfil a Trump goal, US military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing Daesh remains a threat and could regroup. US policy had been to keep troops in place until the extremists are completely eradicated. Fears that Daesh fighters are making a strategic manoeuvre to lay low ahead of the US pullout has fuelled criticism that Trump telegraphed his military plans - the same thing he accused President Barack Obama of doing in Afghanistan.
Pompeo told foreign ministers and senior officials from the 79-member, US-led coalition that the planned withdrawal “is not a change in the mission” but a change in tactics against a group that should still be considered a menace. Daesh has lost more than 99 per cent of the territory it once held in the two countries.
“America will continue to lead in giving those who would destroy us no quarter,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo called on the coalition to increase intelligence-sharing, repatriate and prosecute captured foreign fighters and accelerate stabilisation efforts so Daesh remnants cannot reconstitute in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere. He said the fight is entering a new stage where those allied against IS must confront a “decentralised jihad” with more than military force.
Pompeo mentioned the suicide bombing claimed by Daesh that killed four Americans - two service members, a Pentagon civilian and a US contractor - in the northern Syrian town of Manbij last month. Manbij was liberated from Daesh control in 2016.
The conference started hours after Trump, in his State of the Union address, lauded what he said was the near-complete victory over Daesh. He also reaffirmed his determination to pull out the roughly 2,000 US troops from Syria. He had said in December that the pullout would proceed quickly.
Trump planned to speak to the coalition later Wednesday. He was expected to urge partners to step up efforts to ensure the defeat of Daesh is permanent.
US officials in recent weeks say Daesh has lost 99.5 per cent of its territory and is holding on to fewer than 5 square kilometers in Syria, or less than 2 square miles, in the villages of the Middle Euphrates River Valley, where the bulk of the fighters are concentrated.
But defence officials believe many fighters have fled to ungoverned spaces and other pockets in the north and west, and are likely hiding out until they can regroup.
A Defence Department watchdog report warned this week that even with the Daesh forces on the run, the group “is still able to coordinate offensives and counter-offensives, as well as operate as a decentralised insurgency.”