Now What? Congress Quiet after ISIS Territorial Defeat

From left, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., confer before a hearing on the Pentagon budget, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 14, 2019.

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From left, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., confer before a hearing on the Pentagon budget, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 14, 2019.

The relative silence in Washington is a testament to the ambiguous nature of Saturday’s victory.

President Trump had a very good weekend.

The Pentagon, the White House and U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria all agreed that what the president has incorrectly claimed for months is now true: the Islamic State’s physical territory has been completely liberated.

But on Friday, something else happened: Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and submitted his report to Attorney General William Barr, who said Mueller found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

On Capitol Hill, Saturday’s victory against ISIS barely registered. Neither the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., or the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., issued a statement. Only one of the major Sunday shows addressed the topic.

With all of the oxygen taken up by the culmination of the most politically-divisive drama of the Trump presidency — the Mueller report — the defeat of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” was a blip in a busy weekend. Although lawmakers were in an uproar when Trump first announced the U.S. withdrawal from Syria in December, erroneously claiming then that ISIS had been “defeated,” the true defeat had been well-telegraphed by the time reality on the ground caught up with president on Saturday. By Tuesday, when Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan appeared before the House Armed Services Committee to discuss the 2020 budget, the topic barely came up.

But the relative silence in Washington is also a testament to the ambiguous nature of Saturday’s victory. The war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was an almost five-year fight carried across two administrations, one that cost thousands of lives of civilians and fighters of the U.S.-led Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground, including Americans. International allies conducted tens of thousands of air strikes. At the height of its powers, ISIS controlled territory roughly the size of Great Britain. But by Tuesday, White House and senior Pentagon leaders still acknowledged that the fight against ISIS is not yet over, warning that the organization has merely gone to ground and is waiting for the right time to reemerge. Outside analysts suggest that the hardest part of the fight is only just beginning: addressing the underlying conditions that contributed to the rise of ISIS in the first place.

“We will remain vigilant against ISIS by aligning global counterterrorism efforts to fight ISIS until it is finally defeated wherever it operates,” Trump said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our partners and allies to totally crush Radical Islamic Terrorists.”

ISIS’s perceived leader, Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains at large. Experts believe the group still has access to hundreds of millions of dollars. “The group’s leadership and foot soldiers see this as a setback, not a defeat,” Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation earlier this month, speaking specifically about the defeat of the group’s territory. “They’re actively working to continue the fight from ISIS’s worldwide branches and networks.”

Pentagon officials and U.S. military leaders are likely to continue to face questions from Capitol Hill about Trump’s plans to prevent the group from reconstituting. Trump’s recent decision to allow a small group of U.S. troops to remain in Syria has granted a small victory to senior Pentagon leaders and created a pocket of flexibility for them to navigate the controversial U.S. withdrawal that sparked the protest resignation of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Roughly 400 troops will remain split between northeast Syria and a remote outpost in southern Syria near the border with Iraq and Jordan — with thousands more throughout the region and in neighboring Iraq, Jordan, and nearby Kuwait — but the exact number of troops to remain appears fluid, and it remains unclear whether U.S. allies will stay to help stabilize Syria once the U.S. pullout begins. Pentagon officials have faced pointed questions about the withdrawal from irate lawmakers who passed legislation opposing it.

The Trump administration is also trying to navigate the tense situation between two allies who consider themselves mortal enemies — Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

Moreover, administration officials must determine what to do with roughly 7,000 ISIS fighters currently in custody of the SDF. The SDF has called for an international tribunal to prosecute the hundreds of foreign fighters captured during the fight, including many from Western countries. The U.S., concerned that the SDF cannot continue to hold those fighters indefinitely, has been pushing other countries to repatriate and try their own fighters — with limited success.

“We don’t have other options,” Abdulkerim Umer, a foreign affairs official with the group, told the Associated Press. “No one wanted to take the responsibility [of repatriating their nationals]. We can’t put up with this burden alone.”

The detainee issue has reignited debate over the use of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Four prominent Republican senators are urging Trump to send the most high-value captured fighters to Gitmo, which has seen no new prisoners since 2008. When the president’s special envoy to the war, Amb. Jim Jeffrey, was asked if reopening Guantamo was an option yet, he said other countries should be able to handle the need. “If they put the effort into it, they can deal with it.”

Critics of the withdrawal are concerned that the U.S. will find itself forced to return to Syria, citing the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, after Iraqi officials declined to continue the U.S. military presence there.

“The president is right to want to bring them home, but they were overseeing the essential next phase of this, which is the stabilization of the population,” said retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who led the Afghanistan War, on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday.

“Are we prepared to go back and fight again? We’ve been in Iraq now twice because once we came out too early, and the second time we went back because we didn’t finish the job.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, waited until Monday to issue a statement. He praised the Trump administration’s handling of the war but invoked that same “premature withdrawal” from Iraq as a warning.

“The fight against ISIS is not over,” Thornberry said. “Its terrorists have spread across the globe, and it continues to try to inspire further acts of violence through the Internet. We must continue to stay engaged with our partners in order to completely defeat the organization and the ideology.”

At his State Department press briefing on Monday, Jeffrey opened by saying, “This is obviously, for those of us who have worked on the Middle East and worked on Syria and worked on the efforts to defeat ISIS, a great day, a great weekend, with the victory over the last ISIS territorial caliphate positions along the Euphrates in Syria.”

Then, he added, “This is not the end of the fight against ISIS. That will go on, but it will be a different kind of fight.”

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