Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria following Donald Trump’s order for U.S. forces to pull back aided Islamic State and damaged ties with Kurdish-led militias, according to a new assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency.
The DIA’s assessment, part of a quarterly report, concluded that Islamic State “exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops to reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad.” The report was released Tuesday by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
The report’s preparation was delayed beyond its scheduled Sept. 30 deadline, according to Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine, due to the “significant developments” last month that resulted in the drawdown of U.S. troops. Since then, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said about 500 to 600 of 1,000 American forces will remain in Syria, some at a base in the south of the country and others in northern oil fields.
Trump’s abrupt decision to begin withdrawing forces, following an early October phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, drew bipartisan criticism for abandoning Kurdish allies the U.S. has counted on to fight Islamic State and for giving an implicit approval of Turkey’s offensive into the region. Turkey views the Kurdish-led forces in Syria as terrorists.
Administration officials, including Esper, say the U.S. was getting troops out of harm’s way ahead of an inevitable offensive by Turkey in northern Syria. Pentagon officials called Turkey’s incursion unnecessary and irresponsible, saying it created challenges for the campaign to defeat Islamic State
Nevertheless, a wide range of bipartisan critics of the withdrawal, including the Pentagon’s former commander for Middle East operations, Joseph Votel, and the former envoy to the Defeat-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, have slammed the U.S. decision as having effectively provided a green-light to Turkey’s operation.
The DIA report added that Islamic State is “postured to withstand” the recent death of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and probably will maintain “continuity of operations, global cohesion, and at least its current trajectory.” Absent U.S. “counterterrorism pressure, ISIS will likely have the ‘time and space’ to target the West and provide support to its global networks and branches,” DIA said.
Syrian and Russian forces that moved into northeastern Syria “are unlikely to prioritize fighting ISIS,” the intelligence agency said. It said that the forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “had not conducted operations against ISIS in the areas that they had moved into, and that these forces probably prioritize limiting Turkey’s incursion into Syria over counterterrorism operations against ISIS.” ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State.
In Iraq, U.S. commanders told the Pentagon inspector general that Islamic State continued last quarter “to solidify and expand its command and control structures, although it had not increased its capabilities in areas where the Coalition was actively conducting operations against.”
Commanders also added that “ISIS combat power remains in restricted terrain and unpopulated areas where there is little to no local security presence.”
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