Despite the obvious failures of his policy in northern Syria, Donald Trump delivered remarks yesterday celebrating what he perceived as a success. Of particular interest were the president’s comments about escaped ISIS militants.
“I have just spoken to General Mazloum, a wonderful man, the Commander-in-Chief of the SDF Kurds. And he was extremely thankful for what the United States has done. Could not have been more thankful. General Mazloum has assured me that ISIS is under very, very strict lock and key, and the detention facilities are being strongly maintained. There were a few that got out – a small number, relatively speaking – and they’ve been largely recaptured.”
To clarify, Trump was apparently referring to a conversation with Ferhat Abdi Şahin, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes Kurdish militias. Whether he was “extremely thankful” for the United States abandoning our Kurdish allies is unclear.
But of particular interest was Trump’s rhetoric about escaped members of ISIS. The terrorist network was already delighted by the Republican’s policy, since it effectively ended the U.S.-backed offensive against ISIS. Indeed, by any fair measure, ISIS was one of the biggest winners of Trump’s decision.
But with the Kurds confronting a brutal military offensive from the Turks – effectively at Trump’s invitation – some ISIS militants contained by the Kurds were able to escape. To hear the American president tell it, at issue are “a few” individuals who’s been “largely recaptured.”
The evidence, including information from the Trump administration, suggests that’s not quite right.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN yesterday, for example, that the number is “a little bit more than a hundred.” (Esper added that we haven’t seen a big prison break “that we all expected,” which naturally raised questions about the White House’s expectations.) In case this isn’t obvious, “more than a hundred” is greater than “a few.”
What’s more, James Jeffrey, the administration’s special envoy for Syria, said this week, in reference to escaped ISIS members, “We do not know where they are.” This, naturally, further calls into question the president’s “largely recaptured” rhetoric.
Finally, a senior Trump administration official held a press briefing yesterday, and he said he didn’t even know where the 100+ figure came from, seemingly unaware of the assessments shared by Esper and Jeffrey.
All of which suggests (a) Team Trump doesn’t quite have its act together when dealing with the ISIS threat; and (b) the president’s assertions on the subject yesterday are not to be believed.