On the outskirts of Syria's Manbij, Kurdish-led fighters have dug trenches and US-led coalition personnel patrol from land and sky. Photo: Delil Souleiman | AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — President Donald Trump revealed a decision on whether to pull US troops from Syria will come "very quickly,” while his top general and special envoy in the region see the “the hard part” as still to come with the transition into stabilization.
He told White House reporters on Tuesday that regarding the defeat of ISIS in Syria, "we've almost completed that task." In other parts of his speech he said "we've completed that task."
"As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS," Trump said. "We've completed that task and we'll be making a decision very quickly, in coordination with others in the area, as to what we will do."
Trump's remarks came after convening with CIA head Mike Pompeo, who has been tipped as the next secretary of state, and Ambassador John Bolton, Trump's new national security advisor, and the rest of the National Security Council.
"I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation," he said during the appearance with leaders from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, noting they are coalition partners and "we will not rest until ISIS is gone."
However, the president's special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, argued on Tuesday that "our mission isn't over."
“We are in Syria to fight ISIS, that is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we’re going to complete that mission,” said Brett McGurk, a rare Obama-administration holdover who heads the anti-ISIS portfolio in Iraq and Syria.
He was speaking at a panel on the future of the two countries at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, along with Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command.
McGurk has pushed for more foreign diplomats in Syria. To that effect, the coalition has helped the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) transition into establishing civil and military councils in liberated Syrian cities like Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor.
The SDF is mostly comprised of Kurdish fighters from the YPG (People's Protection Units), although when they pushed further south in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, more Arab fighters have been incorporated into the umbrella anti-ISIS group.
McGurk said Trump's decision last week to freeze $200 million in State Department funds for the coalition wouldn't limit their work in Syria.
“The president has been clear to us that everything we’re doing has to constantly be reviewed and looked at, and especially with every US taxpayer dollar that is being spent,” McGurk said. “We have regular review process and particularly with this $200 million we’re looking at where it can be spent most effectively.”
Votel described the military defeat of ISIS as faster than expected, but wouldn't reveal a timeline for or confirm Trump's stated troop withdrawal.
“In many regards, the military aspect of this has been the easier part of this,” Votel said, “It is the aftermath, the stabilization, it is the bringing back of governance, and everything else to these situations, that is much more challenging in the long run.
“A lot of very good military progress made over the last couple of years, but again the hard part I think is front of us,” Votel said. “We are going to have to look at the ways that we keep pressure on ISIS.”
The US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS says "nearly 100 percent" of the area in Syria which the extremists once militarily held has been liberated. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes between ISIS and coalition-partnered ground forces in Deir ez-Zor province over the weekend.
The coalition self-reported "11 strikes consisting of 12 engagements in Syria and Iraq" between March 23 and 29. Most centered on the Middle Euphrates River Valley, specifically the Syrian border town of al-Boukamal and Iraq's al-Qaim, as well as other places in western Anbar province.
One British and one American soldier were killed in an attack near the northern city of Manbij on Thursday. The Pentagon says they were on a "kill or capture" mission against a known ISIS member.
The US acknowledges a presence of 2,000 forces in Syria, although analysts believe the number is higher, given undisclosed Special Forces missions, and the manipulation of data through troop rotations. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the US has 350 troops in Manbij. The United States is reportedly mulling over a decision to send "dozens" more units to Syria.