Former US defense secretary Jim Mattis has warned that the resurgence of the Islamic State is an “absolute given” unless the US manages to keep pressure on the group despite a planned pullback of troops northern Syria to make room for a Turkish offensive against Kurds there.
“We have got to keep the pressure on ISIS so they don’t recover,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press, in a preview of an interview to be aired later Sunday.
“We may want a war over; we may even declare it over. You can pull your troops out as President Obama learned the hard way out of Iraq, but the ‘enemy gets the vote’, we say in the military. And in this case, if we don’t keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge. It’s absolutely a given that they will come back,” he said.
The White House said last week said the US would be removing troops from Kurdish areas of northern Syria, allowing Turkish forces to launch a ground and air assault on America’s former Kurdish allies.
The decision by US President Donald Trump’s decision drew swift bipartisan criticism that he was endangering regional stability and risking the lives of Syrian Kurds who brought down the Islamic State group in Syria. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, was the main US ally in the fight and lost 11,000 fighters in the nearly five-year battle against IS.
On Saturday night, Trump told a rally that he was an “island of one” when it came to removing US forces.
Trump said the US cannot fight “endless wars.”
“We have to bring our great heroes, our great soldiers, we have to bring them home. It’s time. It’s time,” Trump said in a lengthy and wide-ranging address to the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of social conservative activists.
He portrayed the Middle East as a hopeless cause, despite years of American military involvement and financial investment.
“It’s less safe now. It’s less secure, less stable and they fight,” he said. “That’s what they do. They fight.”
Kurdish fighters are holding about 10,000 IS fighters, including some 2,000 foreigners. It is unclear what will happen to the prisoners should the Kurd forces be pushed back. The SDF has warned that the Turkish incursion could allow IS to regroup.
A Kurdish police force in northern Syria said a car bomb exploded early Saturday outside a prison where IS members are being held in the northeastern city of Hassakeh. It was not immediately clear if there were any serious injuries or deaths.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned Trump in a phone call Saturday that Turkey’s military action in northern Syria could lead to a resurgence of IS activity.
Macron “reiterated the need to make the Turkish offensive stop immediately,” his office said in a statement Saturday.
Israeli officials have also raised some alarms over the move, both in support of the Kurds and over fears that the US withdrawal will help Iran and the Islamic State.
Mattis resigned from the Trump administration in December after Trump announced a first time that he would pull troops out of Syria, though the decision was later rescinded for a more limited pullout amid intense pressure.
In his resignation letter, Mattis emphasized the importance of standing up for US allies — an implicit criticism of the president’s decision on the Syria decision.
On Friday, Mattis’s successor Mark Esper said that the US was not abandoning its allies.
“We have not abandoned the Kurds. Let me be clear about that,” the defense secretary told reporters. “We have not abandoned them. Nobody green-lighted this operation by Turkey — just the opposite. We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation.”
He spoke shortly before American forces came under Turkish artillery fire at a small outpost in northeastern Syria. No Americans were hurt, and the Turks insist the Americans were not targeted. But the strike shows how swiftly the conflict is descending into turmoil.
Esper’s remarks appeared aimed at strengthening the Trump administration’s argument that it did all it could to stop the Turks and, failing that, was left with no reasonable option but to pull some US troops away from the border. It’s unclear how far the Turks will take their offensive, how badly the Kurds will be hit and whether US forces will be compelled to withdraw entirely in coming days.
The Turkish military aims to clear Syrian border towns of Kurdish fighters’ presence, saying they are a national security threat. Since Wednesday, Turkish troops and Syrian opposition fighters backed by Ankara have been advancing under the cover of airstrikes and artillery shelling.
The UN has estimated the number of displaced at 100,000 since Wednesday, saying that markets, schools and clinics also were closed. Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk in northeastern Syria.