WASHINGTON — The sudden departure of most U.S. troops from northeastern Syria in early October has strengthened the Islamic State terrorist group in that country, despite the U.S. military’s recent killing of the group’s leader, according to a new Pentagon assessment.
The terror group, also known as ISIS, is reconstituting its forces and readying new plans for terrorist attacks in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal and Turkey’s subsequent invasion of Syria, and other forces in the area are unlikely to prioritize counterterrorism as the U.S. military did, according to an intelligence report summarized in a Pentagon audit published Tuesday.
The audit was produced by Glenn Fine, the Defense Department inspector general, who is the lead IG for overseeing U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq.
Fine’s assessment stands in contrast to President Donald Trump’s recent tweets and statements depicting the situation in Syria as improved.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., issued a statement Tuesday saying the new intelligence assessment “confirms many of our worst fears: that the president’s precipitous withdrawal of troops from northern Syria has given ISIS a lifeline.”
U.S. troops pulled back from the Syria-Turkey border in early October. Fewer than 1,000 of them remain and are either guarding oil fields in the north or stationed at a southern outpost called At Tanf.
The Defense Intelligence Agency told Fine that ISIS is “likely to exploit the reduction in counterterrorism pressure to reconstitute its operations in Syria and expand its ability to conduct transnational attacks,” he wrote. “The DIA also stated that absent counterterrorism pressure, ISIS would likely have more freedom to build clandestine networks.”
The intelligence agency also told Fine that ISIS “probably will attempt to free” ISIS members detained in prisons in Syria. The terrorist group will likely have the “time and space” to target the West and provide support to its global branches and networks, Fine wrote.
In the longer term, he said, ISIS will probably seek to “regain control of some Syrian population centers and expand its global footprint.”
The death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Oct. 26 “would likely have little effect on the ability of ISIS to reconstitute,” Fine’s report said.
The report also found that at least 215,000 people have been displaced from their homes by Turkey’s invasion in early October.
Fine reports publicly on the situation in Iraq and Syria on a quarterly basis. The reports reflect his views as well as those of the inspectors general for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the White House earlier this month, Trump said to Erdogan, “I want to thank the president for the job they’ve done” in Syria, referring to the Turkish troops.
“It’s time for us not to be worried about other people’s borders. I want to worry about our borders,” Trump said.