Two weeks ago, during his remarks on an emergency declaration for the border, Donald Trump said unprompted, “We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate. And that will be announced over the next 24 hours.”
The next day, there was no announcement. Or the day after. Or the day after that. For two weeks, we were left to wonder what the president was talking about. Yesterday, while addressing U.S. troops stationed in Anchorage, Trump followed up.
“We just took over – you know, you kept hearing it was 90 percent, 92 percent – the caliphate in Syria. Now it’s 100 percent. We just took over. A hundred percent caliphate. That means the area of the land. We just have 100 percent, so that’s good.”
As presidential announcements on major international developments go, this was rather odd. Trump delivered these comments during the middle of his 20-minute speech, but there was no accompanying White House announcement. There was also no Pentagon briefing or social-media push to draw additional attention to the news.
Rather, it appeared the president just blurted out a thought.
And that’s unfortunate. Part of the problem is that this isn’t the only metric that matters. It’s important that ISIS has lost territory, of course, but it doesn’t mean that ISIS terrorists have been defeated.
The other part of the problem is that Trump’s claim appears to be wrong.
Let’s take these one at a time. On the first point, Vox had a good piece yesterday noting that ISIS territory is only one piece of a larger puzzle.
Earlier this month, Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads US troops in the Middle East, told CNN that ISIS will still have the ability to terrorize. The group “still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources,” he said. “So our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.”
Trump’s State Department has made similar statements. “Despite the liberation of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS remains a significant terrorist threat,” deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said in a press release on February 4.
According to reports by both the Pentagon and the US intelligence community, ISIS still has thousands of fighters spread across Syria and Iraq. One estimate from last August found that ISIS had as many as 17,100 fighters in Syria, and about 30,000 total between the two countries.
And second, as the New York Times reported overnight, the president’s good news appears to be false.
Over the past month, American forces have been working with Syrian fighters to seize the last square mile of Islamic State territory — the riverside village of Baghuz on the border with Iraq. Taking and holding terrain in any military operation can be a difficult task, especially against extremists who are willing to face death instead of surrender.
The battle was continuing on Thursday when officials with the Syrian Democratic Forces, an American-backed militia of Kurdish and Arab fighters, were told of Mr. Trump’s announcement.
“It’s 100 percent not true,” one senior official with the group said on Thursday afternoon. “The fighting continues.”
Separately, a second official said, “The battle is still going, and there is no truth in that statement.”
I’ll look forward to the White House’s explanation for the apparent fact that Trump lied to American troops about a national security accomplishment.