MUNICH — With the U.S. due to announce the Islamic State group is destroyed and its troops withdrawing from Syria, it is looking for allies to step in and help stabilize the region, Sen. Lindsey Graham said Friday.
Speaking at the 2019 Munich Security Conference, Graham told the assembly of world leaders that the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, “would be coming to some of you in this room, and he will be asking for a contribution of forces to stabilize the region, post destruction of the caliphate.”
Graham called for a lean, joint military presence to enforce a safe zone that would protect American-backed Kurdish forces in Syria from Turkey, watch for the reemergence of ISIS and buy time for a Syria peace process in Geneva.
He echoed President Donald Trump’s recent announcements that ISIS — through the work of a multinational coalition — is all but defeated. The militant group holds only “a couple of kilometers and one town,” Graham said.
During a White House event earlier in the day, Trump said: “We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate, and that will be announced over the next 24 hours."
Ahead of that announcement, Graham said in Munich: “The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is dead. It has been destroyed.” He congratulated Trump for “pouring on the gas in the last month or so. To every nation who’s contributed to this effort, God bless you.”
It’s unclear whether Graham was speaking for him or not about follow-on forces. The South Carolina Republican and Senate Foreign Relations Committee member is a confidant of Trump and an influential voice on U.S. foreign policy.
“I am hoping that President Trump will be coming to you and you will say, ‘yes,’ and in return the capability we have that’s unique to the United States will still be in the fight,” he said.
The request, in any case, may be a tough sell weeks after Trump defended his controversial decision to withdraw U.S. troops, describing Syria as “sand and death.” The request also follows Trump’s repeated rhetoric questioning the value of alliances and hammering NATO allies over burden-sharing.
Graham, after offering assurances the U.S. remains committed to NATO, made a multipronged pitch: that ISIS grew from America’s premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 into “a common problem,” and that the group killed Syrians, Canadian troops and inspired murderous attacks around the globe.
“All of us have suffered from letting the caliphate be created. Now it is destroyed,” Graham said of the militant group. “I told the president: ‘If you leave Syria, why will it be any better for you?’ ”
If allies do not act, Graham said, Turkey will deal with the threat it perceives from Kurdish People’s Protection Units. The YPG, as the units are collectively known, are the strongest element in the Syrian Defense Forces, which are a coalition of forces the U.S. has backed in its counter-ISIS campaign.
“If we do not have a game plan, Turkey will go into Syria and deal with the YPG threat,” Graham said. “We owe it to Turkey, an ally, to fix this problem. We owe it to the SDF not to leave and let another war come that would destroy them. Who will help us in the future if we do that?”
The path for a safe zone, however, is unclear. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar reportedly said it would not be “suitable or sufficient” for countries from an international coalition against ISIS to secure the safe zone along 440 kilometers of border territory east of the Euphrates river.
Akar, who is also in Munich, said only Turkish forces should deploy in the planned safe zone in northeast Syria, according to the state-owned Anadolu news agency.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.