It’s been a few months since Donald Trump declared that he was withdrawing all U.S. military forces out of Syria – a policy the president has since altered several times. During a brief Q&A with reporters yesterday, Trump fielded a question on the subject, which he answered with a visual aide.
Q: Have you reversed your policy on Syria?
TRUMP: No, no. We’re – in Syria, we’re leaving 200 people there and 200 people in another place in Syria, closer to Israel, for a period of time. I brought this out for you because this is a map of – everything in the red – this was on Election Night in 2016. Everything red is ISIS. When I took it over, it was a mess. Now, on the bottom, that’s the exact same. There is no red. In fact, there’s actually a tiny spot, which will be gone by tonight.
For now, let’s focus specifically on those last few words: ISIS-controlled territory, the president said, “will be gone by tonight.”
A few hours later, at an event in Ohio, Trump repeated the line, telling his audience, “Let me tell you about ISIS. They’re not doing so well. You know, we took over the caliphate. You’ll see it tonight.”
So, what happened last night?
It’s difficult to say with certainty, but there’s been no announcement from the White House or administration officials about any kind of breakthrough. In fact, the New York Times published a report pointing in the opposite direction.
In Syria, officials with the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near the last pocket of extremist-controlled territory said on Wednesday that a group of Islamic State fighters still controlled a sliver of land along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, where they were holed up with women and children.
As long as that area was still under the Islamic State’s control, “it would be weird to expect an announcement in the next day,” said a Syrian Democratic Forces official, who was not authorized to respond to Mr. Trump’s comments and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It wouldn’t be the first time someone used the word “weird” to describe Trump’s rhetoric.
But what’s especially notable about all of this is the familiarity of the circumstances. The Washington Post ran an informative piece yesterday, noting just how many times the Republican president has said the demise of the ISIS “caliphate” has either happened or is imminent. It’s a remarkably long list, covering 13 days between Jan. 30 and yesterday.
In each instance, Trump’s rhetoric turned out to be wrong.
It’s worth emphasizing that, one of these days, his boast will probably turn out to be correct: ISIS really has lost most of its territory, and sooner or later, it’ll likely forfeit the limited amount of land it’s clinging to.
And while that will be an encouraging development, it will also be a piece of a larger puzzle. ISIS will exist as a terrorist network whether it controls significant land masses or not. So long as it has thousands of fighters, and inspires allied militants, the threat will remain real.
That doesn’t make for great chest-thumping presidential rhetoric, and it’s not even clear if Trump understands these nuances. In the meantime, in this White House, it seems the end of ISIS’s caliphate will always be a day away.
Update: Asked today about what remains of ISIS-controlled territory, the Pentagon didn’t want to talk about it.