WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump expects coalition forces to announce as early as next week that they have reclaimed all of the territory once held by Islamic State group militants in Iraq and Syria, a major milestone in the ongoing fight there.
“Over the past two years we have retaken 20,000 square miles of land; we have seen victory after victory after victory,” he told representatives from the 79-member global coalition to defeat ISIS during their conference meeting in town on Wednesday. “We have retaken both Mosul and Raqqa. We’ve eliminated more than 60 high-value ISIS leaders.
“Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters are gone. They’re gone.”
The Pentagon official in charge of special operations says former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was not wrong to object to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria.
For weeks, administration and military officials have said that the extremist group has lost nearly all the land it once held, but it still has thousands of fighters entrenched in small areas of Syria.
Trump’s new announcement came just hours after his annual State of the Union address, where he reiterated plans to draw down U.S. forces in the Middle East now that the battle against the ISIS is all but finished.
The news also came a few hours after a top Pentagon planner said he did not understand the strategic thinking behind the Syria withdrawal, and a day after the head of U.S. Central Command said he was not consulted on the military moves before they were announced by the president.
On Wednesday, Trump boasted that only “remnants” of ISIS remain, but he also warned that those individuals could still cause chaos and danger to innocent lives.
“You’re always going to have some people,” he said. “They’re around, they’re sick, they’re demented. But you can’t do better than we have militarily.”
Earlier in the day, senior administration officials said the White House strategy for the region is now to push the final clean-up effort of those malignant forces to regional military forces, with the United States taking a step back to Iraq.
They said the American air base near Al-Tanf will be among the last places that troops leave but would not give a timeline for that withdrawal.
Trump has said he plans to keep a sizeable contingent of American troops at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, to both monitor ISIS fighting and potentially destabilizing activity by Iran. Iraqi officials have not publicly agreed to that plan.
Trump argued for drawing down the number of U.S. troops fighting overseas and boosting up those deployed along the southern U.S. border in his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night.
Congress has expressed significant concern about the draw down plan.
Just before the State of the Union address, the Senate passed a Middle East policy bill urging Trump not to rapidly withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan. House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, repeated on Wednesday that he thinks the move is “a mistake.”
But Trump, who several times in the last few weeks has declared victory over the group, dismissed those concerns and delivered a victory address at the conference.
“Thanks to the coalition here today and our other global partners, the ISIS caliphate has been decimated,” he said. “ISIS can no longer claim widespread ownership over local governments in Syria and Iraq … And we look forward to giving (our troops) a warm welcome home.”
Reporter Joe Gould contributed to this story.