New Challenges for US in Syria, Iraq Despite Success Against ISIS

U.S. Army artillery Soldiers respond to a fire mission in support of Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve in order to provide assistance to their Iraqi partners, Nov. 6, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. F. Cordoba)
U.S. Army artillery Soldiers respond to a fire mission in support of Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve in order to provide assistance to their Iraqi partners, Nov. 6, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. F. Cordoba)

The U.S. faces new military and political challenges in Syria and Iraq despite the successes in both countries against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In Syria, the Pentagon's purported plan to give a new mission to the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have decimated ISIS in eastern Syria, brought condemnation from Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

In Iraq, a double suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed at least 38 on Monday underlined the task ahead for the U.S. train, advise and assist mission in preventing the remnants of ISIS from morphing into a hit-and-run terror group that could still attract foreign fighters.

"We anticipate this will take some time," Marine Brig. Gen. James Glynn said of assisting the Iraqi Security Forces in the effort to "root out and destroy the remaining ISIS fighters."

In a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon, Glynn, the deputy commanding general of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR), said ISIS fighters still in Iraq maintain a "cellular structure" and the mission now is "not to allow those elements to form into a network."

Although Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has declared the defeat of ISIS as a combat force in his country, Glynn said he would not describe continuing operations against the group as "counterinsurgency," saying it is "too early to make that kind of assessment. It's just too soon."

Glynn gave no indication the U.S. will consider withdrawing its more than 5,000 troops from Iraq anytime soon. "We must not lose sight of the fact that much work remains," he said.

He was less forthcoming on the new threats and counter-threats coming out of Turkey, Iran and Russia over a reported U.S. plan to create a 30,000-strong security force along the Turkish border from elements of the SDF in Syria's ongoing civil war.

The Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units, is the dominant force in the SDF and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey.

Glynn essentially declined comment on the reported plan. "Border security in the region remains an objective," he said but remained focused on Iraq. "Political comments and changes are not in my lane or area of expertise."

However, another U.S. military spokesman appeared to back away from the border security plan -- at least in the region around the city of Afrin near the Turkish border.

In a statement to Turkey's Anadolu news agency, Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, said the U.S. had no intention of aiding any partnered force in Syria's northern Afrin region.

"The coalition's mission has not changed: to defeat ISIS in designated areas of Iraq and Syria and set conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability," he said.

"We are not operating in Afrin. We are supporting our partners in defeating remaining ISIS pockets along the Middle Euphrates River Valley, specifically in areas north of Abu Kamal, on the eastern side of the Euphrates River," Dillon said.

In an earlier statement that riled Turkey, Iran and Russia, Dillon had said of the SDF, "More Kurds will serve in the areas in northern Syria. More Arabs will serve in areas along the Euphrates River Valley and along the border with Iraq to the south."

In a fiery speech Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, "A country we call an ally [the U.S.] is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders.

"What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it's even born," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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