WASHINGTON, July 20, (Agencies): The Islamic State group is falling “very fast,” US President Donald Trump said Thursday as he visited the Pentagon for a military strategy meeting.
“We’re doing very well against ISIS. ISIS is falling fast, very fast,” Trump said, using another acronym for IS.
Trump’s comments come at the six-month mark of his presidency, for which he campaigned by vowing to quickly defeat IS.
While the strategy to beat the jihadists in Iraq and Syria follows largely that of the Obama administration, Trump has given battlefield commanders more power to call in strikes and make real-time decisions.
IS has suffered a string of setbacks over the past two years, including the loss of their Iraq bastion Mosul earlier this month.
The intense destruction of the city and ongoing operations to retake Raqqa in Syria have led critics to say the Trump administration is paying less attention to protecting civilians.
Trump signed an executive order soon after taking office giving his generals 30 days to come up with a revised plan to wipe the jihadists out.
The review resulted in an “annihilation campaign” against IS, but details are still being discussed and it has been broadened into a wider regional strategy.
Trump’s brief comments actually came after he was asked whether he would be sending troops to Afghanistan, where the US has been since late 2001.
“We’ll see,” he said.
Pentagon officials have said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is considering adding around 4,000 troops to augment the current “train and advise” mission for local forces.
Also attending Thursday’s meeting at the Pentagon were Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Meanwhile, Trump has decided to halt the CIA’s years-long covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the regime of the nation’s president Bashar al-Assad. Russia had long pushed the United States to end the program.
The phasing out of the secret program was reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday. Officials told the newspaper that ending the operation reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia.
The program was a key component begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to relinquish power. But even its supporters have questioned its usefulness since Moscow sent forces in Syria two years later.
Russia long saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. Ending the plan, in addition to appeasing Russian President Vladimir Putin, is also an acknowledgment of the United States’ limited ability to remove Assad from power.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declined to comment on the reported end of the program and said she did not know if it was discussed during a pair of conversations — including one just revealed on Tuesday — that Trump had with Putin at an international summit earlier this month.
The CIA declined comment on the report.
The White House had previously condemned Assad and just three months ago Trump launched dozens of airstrikes against a Syrian air base after the United States accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons on its own people.
After the Trump-Putin meeting, the United States and Russia announced an agreement to back a new cease-fire in southwest Syria, where many of the CIA-supported rebels have worked.
Trump made the decision nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with national security adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, according to the newspaper. And officials told The Washington Post that the move to end the program to arm the anti-Assad rebels was not a condition of the cease-fire.
Elsewhere, some 250 residents of Syria’s Raqqa province are the latest batch to graduate from a brief US training course. They are part of an internal security force to hold and secure areas as they are captured from Islamic State militants.
The graduation ceremony Thursday in the desert town of Ain Issa, north of Raqqa, was attended by a few American trainers who oversee the force and its preparation. Members will man checkpoints, identify IS sleeper cells and detect explosives.
US officials have said the force is expected to reach approximately 3,500 members.
Wissam, a Kurdish resident of Ain Issa who gave only his first name, is one of the trainers. He said so far 800 forces have been trained and deployed around at least five areas in Raqqa province.
In other news, at least 28 Syrian government soldiers and pro-regime fighters were killed Wednesday in a rebel ambush in the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, a monitor said Thursday.
The fighters came under attack by the Army of Islam rebel group as they attempted to advance in the town of Al-Rihan, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Eastern Ghouta region is a major rebel stronghold near the capital, and it has been the frequent target of government military operations.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said rebels opened fire on the government troops as they entered an area where the opposition fighters had planted mines.
He said the ambush was the deadliest incident for government fighters in Eastern Ghouta since February 2016, when 76 regime troops were killed in Tal Sawane.
Eastern Ghouta is in one of the four proposed “de-escalation zones” designated in an agreement reached by government allies Iran and Russia and rebel backer Turkey in May.
But the deal has yet to be fully implemented over disagreements on the monitoring mechanism for the safe zones.
In recent weeks, government warplanes have bombed the Ain Terma area that links Eastern Ghouta to the rebel-held parts of the Damascus neighbourhood of Jobar.
More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since its conflict broke out in March 2011 with anti-government protests.
Turkey on Thursday denied any government link to a report run by the state-run news agency that infuriated Washington by disclosing the locations of US military posts in northern Syria.
Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the Anadolu Agency (AA) had run the story based on its own network of sources, not government information.
AA published a report Monday detailing the 10 US military facilities’ whereabouts and, in some instances, the number of special operations forces working there.
Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said the release of sensitive military information exposes coalition forces to “unnecessary risk” and added that Washington had conveyed these concerns to Turkey.
The publication came at a time of growing tensions between Ankara and Washington in northern Syria, where US forces work with a Kurdish militia Turkey classifies as a terror group.
“Anadolu Agency wrote this news based on its own network of sources,” Kalin told reporters in Ankara in televised comments.
“There is no question here that this is information which has been given by our government.”
He said the government had only found out about the story after it was published.
“It is absolutely out of the question that we would want to put in danger the soldiers and personnel of our allies wherever it is — in Syria or Iraq or elsewhere,” he said.
AA said the bases — two airfields and eight military outposts — are being used to support the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as an affiliate of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
AA said one post in the town of Ayn Issah in Raqa province — where US and Kurdish forces are seeking to oust jihadists — housed around 200 US soldiers and 75 French special forces troops.
The US military says it has raised concerns with Ankara over the publication of what Turkey’s state-run news agency says is a map of US military posts in Syria.
Anadolu Agency published a map Wednesday showing 10 locations where it says US troops are located. The posts span a stretch of northern Syria controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces that the US supports but Turkey considers terrorists.
The US doesn’t disclose where US-led coalition forces in Syria are, for security reasons. The Pentagon says it can’t independently determine where Anadolu got the information. But spokesman Eric Pahon says the US would be “very concerned if officials from a NATO ally would purposefully endanger our forces by releasing sensitive information.”
Pahon says that can disrupt efforts to defeat the Islamic State group.
The Israeli military on Wednesday promoted a comprehensive aid program to Syrian civilians harmed by their country’s civil war, marking a significant broadening of its involvement in a conflict of which it has tried to steer clear.
In a tour of the volatile frontier, the military unveiled “Operation Good Neighbor,” which it says has provided tons of food, medicine, clothing and infrastructure over the past year.
Israel has largely stayed out of Syria’s six-year war, wary of being drawn into the fighting. It has carried out occasional airstrikes on suspected weapons shipments to Hezbollah, a bitter enemy that is fighting alongside Syrian government forces, and has responded to occasional spillover fire.
At the same time, it has quietly provided humanitarian assistance — treating some 4,000 civilians, including 900 children. That effort has been expanded significantly over the past year to include aiding not only wounded civilians but also ill children needing life-saving medical care. The military says it has provided 450,000 liters of fuel, more than 360 tons of food and 600 meters of pipes to repair ruined water infrastructure. It’s currently building a field hospital on the frontier with advanced medical equipment.
Col. Noam Fink, the chief medical officer of the northern command, said the aid was essential since some 70 percent of Syrian doctors had fled and the country’s medical infrastructure had been destroyed.
“We just cannot stand aside and ignore this,” he said.
Syria’s civil war has killed more than 400,000 people. More than 11 million people, nearly half of Syria’s population, have been driven from their homes by the war since 2011, including 5 million who fled abroad as refugees.
Though Fink insisted the operation was motivated purely by humanitarian concerns, he acknowledged that the goodwill it had created could ease tensions down the road and that the “international language of medicine” could lead to a more peaceful future.
The image of Syrians bonding with their Israeli benefactors would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.
Israel and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad are bitter enemies, and contact across the hostile lines of the divided Golan Heights were virtually nonexistent. Israel captured part of the Golan, a strategic plateau overlooking northern Israel, from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war.
The outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011 has radically altered the area. The Syrian side of the Golan is now divided between government troops and a host of rebel groups. Russian, Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces have all entered the fighting to offer support to Assad’s forces.
Syria’s neighbors suspect Iran is pursuing a broader agenda, including carving out a land route that would create a territorial continuum from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon. That has raised concern in Israel over a recent cease-fire in southern Syria brokered by the US and Russia.
Israeli military officials said they have noticed a drop in fighting since the deal was agreed, but that violence was still rampant among the various rebel groups who control about 85 percent of the province bordering Israel.
Those living alongside the Israeli frontier are trapped among the warring parties with few options to escape. Even so, word has gotten around that Israel — their country’s longtime enemy — has become an unlikely source of assistance.
“The only thing they know about Israel is the stories,” said Col. Barak Hiram, the commander of the regional brigade along the border. “If they decided that the only safe place to run to is the Israeli border, you can imagine how rough it is.”
To assuage their fears, he said the Syrians were welcomed with breakfast and the children greeted by Arabic-speaking clowns. Crates full of beans, wheat, sugar and oil were stacked at a nearby base, ready to be dispatched, alongside incubators, respirators, baby food and diapers.
Hiram said Israel insisted on treating only civilians and had not come into contact with Islamic State and other jihadi militants. To date, no one has interrupted the operations or opened fire deliberately at the Israeli troops in the field.