ISIS not defeated says Trump military experts

ISIS not defeated says Trump military experts

US President Donald Trump is expected to declare near-total triumph over the Islamic State group in Syria in his State of the Union address today, but US defence officials are increasingly fearful that the militants are simply biding their time until the Americans leave the battlefield as planned.

ISIS militants have lost territory since Mr Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was pulling US forces out, but military officials warn the fighters could regroup within six months to a year after the Americans leave, a Defence Department watchdog report released on Monday warned.

The Islamic State group “remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that ‘could likely resurge in Syria’ absent continued counter-terrorism pressure,” the report from the inspector general said.

The top commander of US forces in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, told a Senate committee on Tuesday that of the 55,000 square kilometres of territory that IS once held, it now controls less than 31 square kilometres.

“It is important to understand that even though this territory has been reclaimed, the fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed,” Gen. Votel, commander of US Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Gen. Votel said there are now between 1,000 and 1,500 IS fighters in the small area they still control in the southern part of the Euphrates River Valley near the Iraqi border.

The remainder, he said, have “dispersed” and “gone to ground,” suggesting they retain the potential to return.

Mr Trump’s decision to leave Syria, which he initially said would be rapid but later slowed down, shocked US allies led to the resignations of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and the top envoy to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk.

Gen. Votel said that he was “not consulted” about the withdrawal of troops from Syria, and military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that IS remains a threat and could regroup.

US policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.

But Mr Trump said in a weekend interview that the caliphate is “almost knocked out.” “We’re at 99 per cent right now, we’ll be at 100,” he said on CBS’ Face the Nation.

It comes as the British government announced that photojournalist John Cantlie might still be alive more than six years after his abduction in northwestern Syria.

Britain’s Security Minister Ben Wallace told journalists on Tuesday that officials think Mr Cantlie is being held by Islamic State operatives, but he did not reveal what intelligence information supported the government’s belief that Cantlie still is alive.

Cantlie was kidnapped by the Islamic State group in November 2012 along with American journalist James Foley, who was eventually beheaded by the extremists.

Before he was taken hostage, Cantlie worked for several top British publications, but Wallace said the British government’s policy is not to pay ransoms for hostages.

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