Defeating the Islamic State inside Syria is going to require more pressure from American forces and allies, even as the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad continues to use chemical weapons on civilians, senior Trump administration officials warned Wednesday.
“In order to [achieve] a political solution to the Syrian conflict, … the Syrian government’s behavior towards people and for the region is going to have to change,” said Joel Rayburn, the State Department’s special envoy to Syria, at a discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“That’s the path out of the conflict,” he continued. “That will require serious pressure from the United States and from the rest of the international community.”
The persistence of the Islamic State — despite the loss of its “caliphate” to U.S. and allied forces last year — and the increasing aggression of the Assad regime pose a dilemma for President Trump, who has made clear his desire to end the U.S. military mission in the country.
Mr. Rayburn said it was crucial to prevent a resurgence of the terrorist group and “rehabilitate” the detainees who were relocated to refugee camps, where Islamic State operatives have been reportedly been actively recruiting both in person and online since at least mid-July.
Michael Mulroy, the Defense Department’s deputy assistant secretary for defense of the Middle East, explained that many of the children in the camps are only learning the ways and beliefs of the Islamic State.
“[They] only have one view and one philosophy the entire time that they’re in that camp,” he said. “If the international community doesn’t come up with a way to rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into society, that is the next generation of ISIS.”
The campaign against Islamic State in Syria has succeeded in recapturing virtually all of the territory the group once held across Iraq and Syria and Mr. Trump has declared the group “100% defeated.”
But defense and intelligence officers warn that the Islamic State remains a serious threat and could make a resurgence as it reverts from a de facto army to its roots as a covert terrorist network.
U.S. and international estimates last year said the group could have as many as 30,000 fighters still in its ranks, with many of them disappearing into local populations and preparing to spring back into action as soon as the U.S. departs.
Mr. Trump has pressed to draw down the U.S. military deployment in Syria, but has agreed to keep a reduced contingent in the country to deal with security threats.
The State and Defense officials’ comments come less than a week after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo charged that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in a May attack on the Idlib province. The government has reduced rebel forces to that single province as it seeks to consolidate its victory in Syria’s brutal eight-year civil war.
The recent attack is believed to be the first since the U.S. and allied forces conducted retaliatory strikes against the regime in April 2018 for an earlier chemical strike.
“Clearly the use of chemical weapons in May shows that the Assad regime is not deterred from using them,” said Mr. Rayburn. The regime has used chemical weapons in the country’s civil war more than 300 times over just the past five years, according to 2019 data.
Experts warn that while the Trump administration’s retaliatory strike to the chemical weapons attack was forceful, it is unlikely to make the Assad regime change its ways.
“The next time … the Assad regime uses chemical weapons against civilians, the strike must be much harder than it was,” said Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a Washington-based anti-Assad advocacy group.
He called former President Barack Obama’s response to prior chemical weapons attacks by Mr. Assad’s forces a “disaster,” but pointed out that Mr. Trump’s second response to an attack was “even weaker” than the first.
“We need to up the price with the Assad regime to ensure that never happens again,” he said.