Mattis: US forces will not pursue ISIS fighters into Syrian territory held by Assad regime
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 29, 2017
WASHINGTON – The U.S. military will not attack Islamic State fighters who have escaped Syrian territory seized by American-backed forces to land controlled by President Bashar Assad’s regime, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday.
Despite the long-stated goal of the U.S-led, anti-ISIS coalition to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Mattis said the United States would observe its commitment to Russia and Syria to keep its forces, including warplanes, east of the Euphrates River. ISIS militants who have escaped toward central Syria will be left for Russian or Syrian government forces to attack.
“It’s not a big issue,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “They’ll have to be hunted down. But I seriously doubt that Assad sees this is a positive on his side either.”
Mattis and other coalition officials have declined to estimate publicly the number of ISIS fighters who have fled from the middle Euphrates River valley in recent months. However, the defense secretary said he had seen no indications those groups posed a serious threat.
U.S. forces will continue to monitor the groups, Mattis said, not ruling out attacking them if they grow in size, launch major attacks or are allowed to reorganize.
“There’s only a safe haven if people make a decision to give them one,” he said of Assad’s regime.
U.S. officials have expressed doubts for years about Assad’s military capabilities, describing his forces as small and weak, enabling ISIS to take root in Syria and grow into a worldwide threat.
Nonetheless, Mattis said he was confident they would handle the remnants of ISIS in the region west of the Euphrates River.
The United States now estimates there are less than 1,000 ISIS fighters remaining in Iraq and Syria, a force that at its height reached about 40,000. The bulk of ISIS’ remaining forces are in a small section of territory along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, where U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces continue to battle them.
Mattis said the war would go on until the final 2 percent of the roughly 34,000 square miles ISIS once held across Iraq and Syria is cleared.
“We are in the process of crushing the life out of the caliphate,” he said.
When the war against ISIS concludes, it will not indicate the end of the U.S. military’s mission in Syria. The mission for about 2,000 American troops there is likely to shift in early 2018, Mattis said. U.S. troops will focus on stability operations after more than two years of training, advising and assisting SDF forces to battle ISIS.
Mattis said the mission will be to ensure ISIS or a group like it cannot return to the region. That includes training local police forces to handle small groups of militants. It also means providing security and logistics operations for American diplomats who Mattis expects to flow into eastern Syria in the coming months.
Diplomats are expected to oversee projects to restore services to areas impacted by the brutal fighting, such as ISIS’ former capital Raqqa and the neighboring town of Tabqa, the site of a key dam, Mattis said. Diplomats will also help with the distribution of international monetary aid, he added.
“It’s an attempt to move toward normalcy,” Mattis said. “That takes a lot of support. It’s terribly dangerous … so, the military would move them around [and] make certain they are protected.”