Despite a Pentagon report stating otherwise, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that ISIS is less of a threat now than it was prior to military intervention in Iraq and Syria. On a “CBS This Morning” broadcast, Pompeo cautioned that we shouldn’t take the report wholly on face value, but rather look at the overall threat that ISIS continues to pose. In March, U.S. President Donald Trump boldly proclaimed the ISIS caliphate was defeated. 

ISIS Defeated? 

“We just took over, you know, you kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent, the caliphate in Syria, now it’s 100 percent. We just took over 100 percent caliphate, that means the area of the land we’re just have 100 percent, so that’s good,” Trump told U.S. troops at a military base in Alaska. 

Trump credited his administration solely with the supposed accomplishment, even displaying two different maps of ISIS-held territory. One was from the election night in 2016 and the other was from March. Judging from the maps of red ISIS pockets, one might have concluded that the U.S. and its allies had indeed routed the terrorist group, but the reality was not quite as a spectacular, according to the Pentagon report.

“Despite losing its territorial ‘caliphate,’ the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was re-surging in Syria,” the report stated. 

Critically, the report put the blame on the withdrawal of U.S. forces which handicapped American-backed Syrian troops. Not only did the removal of American troops hinder the training of the Syrian military, but it also mean a sudden gap in intelligence operations which might have helped ISIS spread its ideology and recruit more fighters from a camp that hosts displaced Syrians. 

The damning report portrays the Trump administration’s Middle East strategy as a failed one and even ill-advised. In Syria, 3,000 troops at one time were assisting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in its fight to regain its country from the grips of ISIS. While that number may seem low, it was a sufficient amount to serve as support for the SDF. Trump, however, had other plans for how to manage U.S. involvement and during his campaign, he pledged to remove all U.S. troops from Syria. After he announced a victory against ISIS, he amended his plans by deciding to keep 200 troops there as a deterrent against a possible resurgence. That idea did not seem to work as evidenced by the Pentagon’s report. 

Resurgent and Spreading 

“It’s complicated,” Pompeo said about a possible ISIS resurgence. “There’s certainly places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago. But the caliphate is gone and their capacity to conduct external attacks has been made much more difficult.”

Pompeo’s spin on the report might bear some truth to it; after all, years of sustained U.S.-backed fighting would naturally set ISIS’s strength back, but his admission that it could be more powerful in some areas of the region is not an overwhelming endorsement of Trump’s strategy. While Pompeo is focused more on the threat capacity and general risk of the group, the Pentagon’s report gave a more wholesome analysis of the situation and none of it was particularly flattering. The fact that Pompeo could find a way to spin any positive news from it is a testament to his loyalty to the administration. With an upcoming election year, having Trump look like a success against ISIS would resonate well with voters and he would appear to have fulfilled a campaign pledge.

Another part of Pompeo’s defense of Trump’s strategy was that ISIS’s capability to coordinate attacks outside of Syria was reduced. While that might make sense because it effectively lost its centralized command network, the reverse has actually proven to be true. Just a few days before Pompeo’s interview, ISIS took responsibility for a suicide attack at a wedding in Kabul, Afghanistan. 63 were killed and nearly 200 more were injured. 

ISIS continues to boast an incredibly strong affiliate network, especially across Africa and South Asia. These related groups that are linked to the Syrian ISIS could prove to be an even greater threat than the Syrian component as they are spread out and have the ability to strike virtually anywhere. Instead of fighting a contained threat in Syria, the U.S. has to contend with increased terror cells elsewhere. 

Pompeo’s defense of the Pentagon report was perhaps the best of all possible responses to a ferocious condemnation of the Trump Administration’s policy in Syria. There simply was very little positive news from those pages and seizing upon the one good morsel was realistically his only option. While Pompeo’s stance is still that the U.S. is winning the war against ISIS, it handing over the reins completely to SDF and withdrawing remaining U.S. forces could prove to be an unspoken admission of defeat in the near future, but Trump and Pompeo will surely find a way to spin it as a victory.  

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