Turkey’s decision to launch a military operation targeting America’s Kurdish partners in northern Syria and the Trump administration’s subsequent retreat has allowed ISIS to rebuild itself and boosted its ability to launch attacks abroad, the Pentagon’s Inspector General said in a new report.
The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in the report “that ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of US troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”
“The withdrawal and redeployment of US troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, wrote in an introduction to the report.
Referring to Kurdish-led forces, Fine said that “with SDF and US operations against ISIS in Syria diminished, ISIS was likely to exploit the reduction in counterterrorism pressure to reconstitute its operations in Syria and expand its ability to conduct transnational attacks.”
The report, published Tuesday and covering July 1 to Oct. 25, paints a damaging picture of the fallout from the Trump administration’s decision to pull back from northeastern Syria and Turkey’s attack on America’s Kurdish allies.
The report says that training for the Kurds temporarily stopped, despite the ongoing ISIS threat. It finds that neither Turkey nor its proxy forces are likely to fight the terror group despite Ankara’s public pledges to do so. And it notes that the upheaval in northeastern Syria will make it difficult to address dire humanitarian needs created by the Turkish incursion.
The report comes as Kurdish and US officials indicate the upheaval will likely continue, since the ceasefire negotiated by Vice President Mike Pence and touted by President Donald Trump exists in name only.
The Pentagon did not dispute the report’s findings, saying that they’ve acknowledged ISIS will remain a threat, an assessment shared by the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, an international group of more than 80 countries.
In a joint communique released Nov. 14, coalition ministers said the “achievements and Daesh/ISIS’s enduring defeat are threatened.” Noting that their successes “have come at tremendous sacrifice,” the ministers wrote that the “coalition thus must maintain unity of purpose and cohesiveness in Syria and Iraq.”
The report reveals that because of Turkey’s attack on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the redeployment of US personnel, the US military had to “temporarily” suspend training for the Kurdish-led forces, despite the continued threat posed by ISIS.
Before Turkey’s incursion, US and coalition forces had been training and equipping the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mix of Kurdish and Arab troops, and others to hold territory and conduct counterterrorism operations in northeast Syria.
“US forces were providing training for commando teams, prison guards, counter-IED techniques, and other specialty skills that the SDF lack,” the report said. The US-led coalition had reported that the Kurdish-led forces still needed “additional personnel, training, and equipment to conduct counterinsurgency operations against ISIS.”
Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson told CNN on Tuesday that Syrian Democratic Forces training has resumed. “ISIS fighters are still operating in the region, and unless pressure is maintained, a reemergence of the group and its capabilities remains a very real possibility. We are committed to keeping that from happening,” Robertson said.
The report does say that while training had been suspended, the US continues to arm Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, supplying them with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, shotguns, stipends, ammunition, vehicles and medical supplies.
After initially ordering a near-total US withdrawal from Syria, Trump partially reversed course, agreeing to a Pentagon plan to reposition US troops elsewhere in the country, including a deployment near Deir Ezzor that Trump has said is primarily aimed at securing Syrian oil fields and denying ISIS access to them.
The report leaves open the possibility that the US might keep an anti-ISIS presence in other parts of Syria as well. It cites a senior defense official saying that the Pentagon “is considering retaining a small ground presence in select locations in northeastern Syria that could facilitate more effective operations against ISIS.”
While senior US officials have pointed to the Oct. 26 US Special Forces raid that led to the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as proof the US is continuing to apply pressure on the terror group despite the pullback and Turkey’s incursion, the inspector general report says that the Defense Intelligence Agency believes his death will “have little effect on ISIS’s ability to reconstitute.”
The report said the intelligence agency assesses that ISIS is “postured to withstand al-Baghdadi’s death, and probably will maintain ‘continuity of operations, global cohesion, and at least its current trajectory.’ ”
Over the weekend, the Turkish Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying it was the only member of NATO or the coalition fighting ISIS “toe to toe.” That statement ignored US operations against ISIS, including the mission that killed al-Baghdadi, and US casualties that have been incurred while fighting ISIS.
And the Pentagon report judges it to be an empty claim, finding that the Turkish-commanded militias that compose the majority of Ankara’s invasion forces are unlikely to fight ISIS.
“Syrian opposition forces who joined the Turkish incursion had not carried out any counterterrorism operations against ISIS since the start of the offensive and were unlikely to do so,” the report said, adding that “the DIA said that some of the militias backed by Turkey had previously helped smuggle ISIS fighters across opposition-held territory and probably maintain low-level ties to ISIS because they share a similar, strict interpretation of Sharia law.”
Ceasefire in name only
And while some had hoped that Turkey’s pause in its military operations would allow the Syrian Democratic Forces to refocus on the fight against ISIS, the much touted “ceasefire” the Trump Administration negotiated between Turkey and the Kurds increasingly appears in jeopardy.
Syrian Kurds and US officials say that Turkish-backed groups continue to conduct attacks despite the ceasefire Pence negotiated last month.
Two US defense officials characterized the arrangement as a ceasefire in name only. And a US defense official tells CNN that Turkish-supported militias are still engaging in extensive violence in some places.
While these proxy fighters are no longer being supported by Turkish artillery strikes, US officials say the militias continue to assault positions in northeast Syria.
That upheaval will make it “difficult to address urgent humanitarian needs,” the report said, quoting the State Department. The United Nations estimated that as of Oct. 24, more than 99,000 people remained displaced in northeastern Syria because of Turkey’s incursion.
Yet Trump insisted a few days ago that the ceasefire was working.
“The ceasefire continues to hold,” Trump said last week at a White House news conference with Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I’m a big fan of the President, I have to tell you that. And I know that the ceasefire, while complicated, is moving forward and moving forward at a very rapid clip.”
The Pentagon declined to comment on the status of the ceasefire, referring queries to the State Department, which did not immediately respond.
A US official told CNN that “we continue to engage both the government of Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces to obtain greater clarity on the current situation on the ground.”
The Syrian Defense Forces commander has also accused Turkish-backed militias of continuing their attacks, saying they had targeted an area populated by Christians “on the International Day for Tolerance. This threatens the remaining Christian genocide-survivors near Tal Tamr,” Gen. Mazloum Abdi tweeted Saturday.
Senior US officials have previously said the Turkish-backed militias have been linked to possible war crimes as they have pursued Ankara’s military objectives in northeast Syria, with one senior State Department official calling them “very, very dangerous and in some cases extremist.”
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler and Barbara Starr contributed to this report