Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, April 26, 2018.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, April 26, 2018. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – American troops will be key in a soon-to-be re-energized campaign against remaining Islamic State fighters in Syria, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senators Thursday on Capitol Hill, pledging the United States was not preparing to pull its forces from the war-torn country.

“This is an ongoing fight right now,” Mattis told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We’re continuing the fight, and we’re going to expand it with more regional support.”

Shaheen and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Mattis to explain recent comments by President Donald Trump indicating the commander in chief was considering the removal of about 2,000 American troops in Syria serving as advisers to Kurdish-Arab forces battling ISIS.

“We want to come home, we’ll be coming home but we want to leave a strong and lasting footprint and that was a big part of our discussion,” Trump said Tuesday during a news conference at the White House alongside French President Emmanuel Macron. He added later: “So, we’ll see what happens. But we’re going to be coming home relatively soon.”

Mattis told the senators that any removal of American forces would be based on conditions on the battlefield and not a timeline demanded by the president.

Graham, long a proponent for greater American intervention in Syria, asked Mattis whether he supported pulling all American troops out of Syria once ISIS is completely destroyed. The senator compared such a departure to the United States withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which officials have said contributed to the rise of ISIS across Syria and Iraq.

“I’m confident that we would probably regret it,” Mattis said.

The defense secretary indicated American forces would be needed to train local Syrian forces properly to hold the territory the U.S.-backed coalition has liberated from ISIS. Those forces are maturing, but much more training would be needed to ensure ISIS or another group like it did not reemerge in the area, he said.

Additionally, operations against ISIS, which have largely stalled in recent months, should surge in the coming days, Mattis told Shaheen. The French have added special forces to the fight and some Middle Eastern nations will soon increase their contributions, he said. Mattis did not elaborate on what that additional support would include.

American intelligence officials estimate ISIS retains more than 1,000 fighters in eastern Syria. The militants, who once controlled huge swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq, are now confined to two small towns in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, about 2 percent of the land that it once occupied, Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign, said Tuesday. Those villages – Hajin and Dashisha – are surrounded by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, he said. But offensive operations against ISIS have been slow moving since February, as some Kurdish SDF fighters have fled north where Turkish-backed militants have targeted Kurdish groups near Syria’s border with Turkey.

Pentagon officials have said some Kurdish fighters have returned to the Middle Euphrates River Valley recently, likely a factor in the optimism Mattis expressed Thursday. The officials, including Dillon, have never indicated how many Kurds fled the fight nor how many have since returned. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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