Foreign ministers to meet in US on IS amid Syria pullout

Foreign ministers to meet in US on IS amid Syria pullout
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host a day of meetings on February 6 of the 79-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
4 min read
30 January, 2019
Trump announced the US will withdraw its forces from Syria [Getty]
Foreign ministers from around the world will meet in Washington next week to coordinate the fight against the Islamic State militant group after President Donald Trump's controversial decision to pull out of Syria, the State Department said on Tuesday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host a day of meetings on February 6 of the 79-member Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, which the United States assembled in 2014 as the extremists seized vast stretches of Syria and Iraq.

"The United States is determined to prevent a resurgence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq after the withdrawal of US forces from Syria takes place, and remains committed to working with the Global Coalition to continue to destroy ISIS remnants and thwart its global ambitions," the State Department said in a statement, using an alternative acronym for the militant group.

"As ISIS is defeated on the battlefield, the coalition will continue its stabilisation efforts to facilitate the safe and voluntary return home of those who have been displaced by the violence."

Trump, a longstanding skeptic on US foreign involvements, said in December that he was withdrawing the 2,000-strong US force from Syria and declared the defeat of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or IS.

Aides have since walked back the timeline but said that the pullout will happen.

The US envoy instrumental in building the coalition, Brett McGurk, resigned in protest over Trump's decision and voiced fears for Syria's future.

European nations, which have faced a wave of attacks by sympathisers of the extremist ideology, have voiced concern about Trump's orders, which came just as the movement had lost nearly all of its land in Syria.

Turkey has been the most supportive of the US withdrawal and has threatened to smash Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State movement, although the Trump administration has warned Ankara against an attack.

The coalition last met at the level of ministers in July in Brussels.

‘Potent threat’

On Tuesday, a top US intelligence official said the Islamic State group maintains a force of thousands of fighters who pose a potent threat in the Middle East as its leaders continue to encourage attacks on the West.

"ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses," Coats said in a new report to Congress, using an alternate name for the group.

He added that the jihadists, who once held vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq but are now reduced to a shrinking enclave of around four square kilometres, would exploit any reduction in counter-terror operations to stage a comeback.

"The group will exploit any reduction in CT pressure to strengthen its clandestine presence and accelerate rebuilding key capabilities, such as media production and external operations. 

"ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States."

The stark warning by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats came even as acting Pentagon chief, Patrick Shanahan announced that IS was poised to lose all its remaining holdout areas in Syria "within a couple of weeks" and the risk of terrorism had been "significantly mitigated."

Speaking to Pentagon reporters a short while later, Shanahan said more than 99.5 percent of the territory the jihadists once held has been recaptured and "within a couple of weeks it will be a hundred percent."

"The way I would probably characterise the military operations that we've conducted in Syria is that the risk of terrorism and mass migration has been significantly mitigated," he added - offering what appeared to be a more optimistic assessment than Coats' report.

IS fighters first swept into Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, taking control of nearly a third of the country. At the height of the group's power its self-proclaimed caliphate stretched from the edges of Aleppo in Syria to just north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

With its physical caliphate largely destroyed, IS is transforming from a "proto-state" to a covert "terrorist" network.

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