Islamic State fighters in Syria should not expect any relief from the pounding of U.S. and coalition airstrikes, at least for now.
The assurance Thursday from the Pentagon was one of the few details to emerge from defense officials just one day after U.S. President Donald Trump declared victory against the IS’s self-declared caliphate and announced U.S. forces in Syria would be coming home.
The decision, which surprised many U.S. defense officials, diplomats and lawmakers, rattled U.S. allies on the ground and left many asking questions about what would come next.
No speculation on ‘future operations’
But for now, the air campaign against IS will go on, even if the scope and intensity of the airstrikes remained murky.
“As long as there are U.S. troops on the ground, we will conduct air and artillery strikes in support of our forces,” a U.S. defense official told VOA, declining to clarify whether any strikes would be carried out in support of partners like the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“We will not speculate on future operations,” the official added.
In recent weeks, the U.S.-led coalition has nearly tripled the number of airstrikes it has carried out against IS positions in and around the town of Hajin, where approximately 2,000 veteran IS fighters have been mounting a last stand in what has been the group’s final stronghold.
That aerial bombardment has allowed the SDF, a mix of Kurdish and Arab fighters, to make inroads into Hajin after weeks of difficult fighting, though U.S. officials and SDF leaders warned it would likely be months before the entire area could be freed from IS control.
But as the first of about 2,000 U.S. troops, along with diplomats and intelligence officials, started pulling out of Syria, the resolve of the SDF fighters began to waiver.
A source close to SDF officials on the ground in Syria told VOA on Wednesday that while many of the group’s Kurdish fighters were still actively fighting IS, they were prepared to withdraw from the front lines once the last of the U.S. troops had gone.
Many of them, the source said, expected to head north, to join Kurdish fighters preparing for an incursion by Turkish forces, who see them not as an ally in the fight against IS, but rather as terrorists in their own right.
Such talk seems to be gaining momentum, according to human rights groups that have been following the conflict in Syria.
SDF leadership was prepared to “withdraw all their fighters from the fronts with the Islamic State organization and move them to the front lines with the Turkish forces and the factions operating under their commands,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday.
The group also said SDF commanders had “seriously discussed the release of thousands of members of the Islamic State organization,” many of them taken into custody as the SDF evicted IS from large swaths of Syria.
U.S. officials have put the number of captured IS foreign fighters at about 700, and for months have urged various governments to take them back so they could face justice in their countries of origin. But SDF officials say there are more than 1,000 fighters from 31 countries in custody, along with more than 2,000 women and children.
Sources familiar with the situation told VOA that the SDF also would consider turning them over to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if such a deal could be struck.
Additionally, other U.S. allies have chafed at Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria, some publicly contradicting on social media the U.S. president’s declaration that IS was defeated.
“Daesh are being pushed further back into the shadows,” British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said, using the Arabic acronym for IS, in a statement tweeted by the Ministry of Defense.
“Make no mistake, though,” he added. “Much hard work still lies ahead to ensure we win the war.”
The response from a NATO official was more muted.
“We have taken note of the U.S. decision,” an official told VOA, noting the alliance does not have any forces in Syria but has been working to bolster the capacity of forces in neighboring Iraq to counter IS.
In the face of questions and criticism, President Trump defended his decision in a series of tweets Thursday.
The tweets prompted a harsh reaction from South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, often seen as a supporter of the president. He disagreed with Trump’s assertion that U.S. foes were “not happy about the U.S. leaving.”
“They’re ecstatic,” Graham said. “This is a big gift to them, and this is a devastating decision for our allies.”
During a news conference Thursday in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed the U.S. decision to pull out of Syria.
“Is the presence of American forces [in Syria] necessary? I think not,” he said. “Let us not forget that their presence, the presence of your [American] forces, is not legitimate.”
VOA’s Wayne Lee contributed to this report.