The Pentagon's Inspector General issued a sobering report based on the Defense Department's own assessments Monday, calling Islamic State fighters a "battle-hardened" force capable of regaining territory in Syria if the U.S. lets up pressure by withdrawing.
The report called into question President Donald Trump's Syria withdrawal plan and raised doubts about the ability of U.S.-backed local forces and Turkey to fill the vacuum that would be left by the pullout of the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops now in Syria.
Citing DoD responses to questions submitted by the IG after Trump's Dec. 19 withdrawal announcement, the report said that "the effort to defeat ISIS continues as ISIS remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that 'could likely resurge in Syria' without counterterrorism pressure."
The report also said that "DoD provided only limited responses and was not able to answer a number of questions, including whether or not Turkish forces, Syrian regime forces, or [the U.S.-backed] Syrian Democratic Forces have the capability and intent to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS in Syria."
On CBS-TV's "Face the Nation" program Sunday, Trump repeated his assertions that ISIS is a spent force on the verge of total defeat.
He did not give a timetable for the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, but said that some of the U.S. troops working with the SDF would eventually move into Iraq to monitor any ISIS resurgence and "ultimately some will be coming home."
In another sign of growing concern about the Syria withdrawal, the Republican-controlled Senate last week voted 68-23 on an amendment warning against a "precipitous withdrawal." The amendment was attached to a broader bill on Mideast policy that has yet to pass.
The IG's report warned that ISIS might conduct terror attacks on U.S. troops as they pull out and claim to have defeated the U.S. once they're gone.
Citing input from U.S. Central Command, the combatant command for the region, the report said, "ISIS may conduct opportunistic attacks on US personnel as they withdraw but will leverage the event as a 'victory' in its media."
Possibly the most salient point in the report is that ISIS remains an active threat, despite losing the seat of its "caliphate" in Raqqa, and continues to have the ability to replenish stocks and recruit foreign fighters.
"ISIS is regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria, but absent sustained [counterterrorism] pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory," the report states.
In addition, "DoD reported that ISIS remains active in rural Iraq and continues to conduct [improvised explosive device] attacks, assassinations, and to resort to robbery and money laundering to raise funds," the IG's report said.
The DoD also stated that "it will take 'years, if not decades' until the Iraqi Security Forces are capable of securing the 'enduring defeat' of ISIS without coalition support," according to the report.
In his "Face The Nation" interview, Trump said that keeping troops in Iraq to work out of Al Asad Air Base would help in monitoring emerging threats from Iran.
"I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch. We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq [Al Asad]," he said. "It's perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up" and ending U.S. involvement in Iraq.
On Syria, Trump said, "We'll come back if we have to" following the withdrawal. "We have very fast airplanes; we have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly, and I'm not leaving."
He added, "We have a base in Iraq, and the base is a fantastic edifice. I mean, I was there recently [before Christmas], and I couldn't believe the money that was spent on these massive runways. And these -- I've rarely seen anything like it."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.