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US foresees ‘bigger’ international coalition against IS

MUNICH: The top Pentagon official said he foresees a “bigger and stronger” American-led international coalition combatting the militant Islamic State (IS) group globally as the US withdraws its troops from Syria.

Pat Shanahan, on his first trip abroad as the acting secretary of defence, made his comment after meeting in Munich with representatives of the dozen or so countries that provide troops in Iraq and Syria.

 

“While the time for US troops on the ground in northeast Syria winds down, the United States remains committed to our coalition’s cause, the permanent defeat of ISIS, both in the Middle East and beyond,” Shanahan said in remarks to reporters.

The US has about 2,000 troops in Syria and about 5,200 in Iraq. President Donald Trump’s decision in December to pull out of Syria angered some allies, confounded US military officials and prompted Jim Mattis to resign as defence secretary.

Gen. Joseph Votel, who as head of US Central Command is overseeing military operations against IS in Syria and Iraq, said last week that he was not consulted before Trump made his decision.

In an interview with CNN , Votel went a step further, saying, “It would not have been my military advice at that particular time … I would not have made that suggestion, frankly.”

CNN quoted him further as saying IS “still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.” Votel is leaving his post shortly.

Shanahan said the United States will “continue to support our local partners’ ability to stand up to the remnants of ISIS,” but he did not explain how that will be done.

A senior defence official, speaking later, said Shanahan did not discuss a timetable for the US withdrawal from Syria, which other officials have said is expected to be completed in April. The coalition partners did not take issue with the US withdrawal, indicating they see it as an irreversible decision, the official said.

The focus of the meeting, on the topic of Syria, was how to avoid a security vacuum once US troops are gone, the official said. No representatives committed to keeping troops there after the US leaves, raising the possibility of clashes between Turkey a US Nato ally and the US-backed Syrian fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which suffered heavy casualties in fighting IS. The Turks view the Kurdish members of the SDF as terrorists and a treat to Turkey.

In his public remarks, Shanahan said that in Syria, IS has lost most of its leadership and resources though he didn’t say it’s lost 100 per cent of its territory.