US officials fear ISIS fighters are lying low, not defeated

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

ISIS fighters have lost territory since 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 Defense Department watchdog report released Monday warned of just such a possibility.

ISIS “remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that ‘could likely resurge in Syria’” the report from the inspector general said.

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

The withdrawal will fulfill Trump’s goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that ISIS remains a threat and could regroup. US policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.

Fears that ISIS fighters are making strategic maneuvers ahead of a US pullout could also fuel criticism that Trump is telegraphing his military plans - the same thing he accused President Barack Obama of doing in Afghanistan.

US officials in recent weeks say ISIS has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to fewer than 10 square kilometers of turf in Syria - an area smaller than New York’s Central Park. In late November and December that figure had been estimated at between 400 and 600 square kilometers, according to officials briefed on the matter.

But several defense officials said Monday that many fighters fled to ungoverned spaces and other pockets in the north and in the west and are likely hiding out until they can regroup.

Trump said in a weekend interview that the caliphate is “almost knocked out.”

READ ALSO: US says ISIS to lose last bits of Syria territory ‘in weeks’

“We’re at 99 percent right now, we’ll be at 100,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

US officials say that ISIS fighters hold only several villages in the Middle Euphrates River Valley that amount to significantly less than 10 square kilometers. But, they say they don’t expect that area to be cleared of militants for another several weeks, at best.

Officials say that overall, there are about 2,000 ISIS fighters in Syria.

The Defense Department watchdog report warned that even with the ISIS forces on the run, the group “is still able to coordinate offensives and counter-offensives, as well as operate as a decentralized insurgency.”

The report, which covers October through December 2018, also includes a classified section that was provided to Congress and includes a more detailed Pentagon assessment on the impact of the troops’ withdrawal and the status of ISIS extremists and other foreign fighters in Syria.

According to the report, US Central Command believes that ISIS fighters will continue to conduct “opportunistic attacks” on US troops as they withdraw. And it says, “If Sunni socio-economic, political, and sectarian grievances are not adequately addressed by the national and local governments of Iraq and Syria it is very likely that ISIS will have the opportunity to set conditions for future resurgence and territorial control.”

Central Command said that the ISIS is “regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria,” but unless there is sustained counterterrorism pressure, ISIS extremists “could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory” in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

Despite Trump’s order to withdraw, American officials maintain that the goal remains the “enduring defeat” of ISIS and are moving ahead with a long-planned meeting of top diplomats from the 79-member US-led anti-ISIS coalition this week. The aim of the conference is to recommit the coalition to that aim and ensure that the departure of US troops does not overly complicate that mission.

Trump himself is expected to speak to the gathered foreign ministers at the State Department-hosted conference on Wednesday, and is widely expected to reiterate and expand on his anti-ISIS message from the State of the Union, officials said.