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FactCheck: Has the US really defeated ISIS in Syria?

Donald Trump claims the terrorist group have been defeated in the war-torn country – but is he right?

Factcheck

THIS WEEK, DONALD Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, ending the military’s four-year influence in the war-torn country.

It followed the US President’s claim that ISIS had been “defeated” in Syria, and prompted criticism from military observers around the world, with US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigning in protest at the decision last night.

So has the terrorist group actually been defeated in Syria?

The claim

Hours before announcing the withdrawal of 2,000 US military forces from Syria on Wednesday evening, Trump took to Twitter to claim victory over ISIS.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he posted.

Trump ISIS Source: Twitter/@realDonaldTrump

In a video message also posted on Twitter on Wednesday, Trump hailed the US troops as heroes because of how they had vanquished the terrorist group.

“They are great heroes of the world because they fought for us, but they’ve killed ISIS who hurts [sic] the world, and we’re proud to have done it,” he said.

Is ISIS still active in Syria?

At its height in 2015, ISIS controlled an area in Iraq and Syria with a population of around six million people with the backing of tens of thousands of fighters.

Since then, however, the group has lost more than 90% of the territory it used to control across the two countries, with just a fraction of the number of combatants.

But despite these losses, some have warned that the group still presents a threat.

In August, the Voice of America quoted Pentagon figures which claimed that up to 14,500 ISIS fighters may still have been active in Syria, of which only 4,000 to 6,000 were “in the US military’s areas of operation in northeastern Syria”.

Other ISIS analysts have suggested that the group could still have up to 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, the same number the CIA estimated the group had at the start of 2014.

Whatever the exact figure, concerns have already been raised over Trump’s decision to remove US troops from Syria.

Paul Adams, BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, says: “The dream of a caliphate, an Islamic state, is over. But the group can still do damage. Their leader is out there, despite numerous reports of his death.”

He says that ISIS has active franchises in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and beyond.

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Terrorists - Shirqat, Iraq A still image taken from an ISIS propaganda video showing Islamic State militants firing at light machine gun Source: PA Images

Critics of Trump’s decision also note that ISIS sprouted in Iraq after former president Barack Obama, who was also eager to end a foreign intervention started under his predecessor, withdrew troops from that country.

Responding to Mattis’ resignation last night, Senator Marco Rubio of the Republican Party said the former Defence Secretary’s letter made it “abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances and empower our adversaries.”

Earlier this month, ISIS fighters were driven out of the “Hajin pocket”, the last part of the group’s once-sprawling caliphate where the US military’s efforts were focused.

But while ISIS fighters were forced out of the area, they pulled back to positions east of Hajin last Friday and to Sousa and Al-Shaafa, the other two main villages in their shrinking Euphrates valley enclave.

AFP also reports that as recently as yesterday, members of the group posted pictures of fighting in Hajin on their social media accounts.

Besides those left in this pocket near Hajin, ISIS also has a presence in Syria’s vast Badia desert, a front which is managed by Russian-backed government forces.

What is left of the jihadist group also has sleeper cells across Iraq and Syria that regularly carry out attacks.

“ISIS anticipated its battlefield defeat and the loss of the caliphate and prepared accordingly,” Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington, told AFP.

Syria US

Yesterday, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said that Trump’s decision would ultimately “help the Islamic State” in the region.

“The final defeat has not yet been achieved. We are at a decisive and crucial stage that requires concerted efforts by all, and greater support from the international coalition,” the group said in a statement.

“The decision to withdraw will directly undermine efforts against the terrorist organisation and will have serious implications for the stability [of the region] and world peace.”

Verdict

We rate this claim as FALSE.

Evidence from experts, observers and fighters on the ground suggests that while ISIS’ power in Syria has greatly diminished in recent years, the group is still active in the country.

And while the US-led coalition – including the several European countries, Australia, Jordan, and Iraqi Kurds – have assisted in fighting the group in recent years, other forces have also played a part, including the Syrian army, Russia, and other rebel groups.

It is simply untrue for Trump to say the US alone has defeated ISIS in Syria.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

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