U.S. mission against Islamic State in Syria stalls
Washington — The drama of U.S. and allied missile strikes on Syria has obscured a sobering fact: The U.S.-led campaign to eliminate the Islamic State from Syria has stalled.
The U.S. has 2,000 troops in Syria assisting Arab and Kurdish fighters against IS, even as President Donald Trump resists deeper U.S. involvement and is eager to withdraw completely in coming months. Trump wants “other people” to deal with Syria, whose civil war has spawned the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II in terms of refugees.
It’s unclear whether Trump will go ahead with a total U.S. withdrawal while IS retains even a small presence in Syria.
Since January, when Trump asserted in his State of the Union address that “very close to 100 percent” of IS territory in Syria and Iraq had been liberated, progress toward extinguishing the extremists’ caliphate, or self-proclaimed state, has ground to a halt and shows no sign of restarting. U.S. warplanes continue to periodically bomb remaining pockets of IS in eastern Syria, but ground operations by U.S. partner forces have slowed.
“We’ve halted forward progress and are essentially attempting to avoid losing territory we’ve gained to date,” said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. She sees two potential solutions: send additional U.S. combat power to eastern Syria to take on IS more directly, or resolve a diplomatic dispute with Turkey that has largely sidelined the main U.S. military partner in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Now that Trump has upped the ante by attacking Syria directly for the second time in just over a year, Cafarella said in an interview this week, it is possible that Syria and its two main international supporters — Russia and Iran — will retaliate militarily against American forces and their Kurdish and Arab partners in eastern Syria “in an attempt to compel an American withdrawal by raising the cost of continued American involvement.”
The U.S. began bombing IS in Syria in September 2014 and deployed an initial contingent of 50 special operations troops the following year. The anti-IS campaign gained momentum in 2016 and made its biggest gains during Trump’s first year in office.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition against IS refused this week to say how many IS fighters remain. Col. Ryan Dillon said they are holed up mainly in two places in eastern Syria. He said they are in and around the town of Hajin on the Euphrates River north of Bukamal and in Dashisha near the city of Deir el-Zour. They are “contained” in these areas, he asserted, suggesting they are not in immediate danger of being ousted.
The Trump administration has been saying in recent months that 98 percent of IS territory has been liberated, suggesting the campaign was close to final victoryBut on April 3 the Army general overseeing the campaign, Joseph Votel said “well over 90 percent” of the caliphate had been retaken.