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With U.S. Troops Leaving Syria, What Will The Fight Against ISIS Look Like?


President Trump is saying that the fight against ISIS in Syria is over.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have won against ISIS. We've beaten them, and we've beaten them badly. We've taken back the land. And now it's time for our troops to come back home.

GREENE: That was last week. This week sounded like a different message. Our colleague Tamara Keith asked the president, on his trip to Iraq, if he planned to remove U.S. forces who are in that country.


TRUMP: No plans at all. No. In fact, we could use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria.

GREENE: Do something in Syria. OK. So what is the something? And does this mean that the U.S. hasn't really finished the job in Syria? Douglas Ollivant is in our studio. He was director for Iraq at the National Security Council under Presidents Bush and Obama. He's now a fellow at New America. Thanks for coming in this morning.

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT: My pleasure, David.

GREENE: I just want to step back here. I mean, ISIS has been one of the most feared terrorist organizations in the world. So it's no small thing to declare, as the U.S. president, that they've been defeated. Are they defeated?

OLLIVANT: Well, they've been defeated. We use some different terms here in military speak. Defeated means you can't do what you were trying to do before.


OLLIVANT: So ISIS is defeated in the sense that there is no - physical caliphate is the word that Brett McGurk uses. I think we all know what that meant.

GREENE: He was the U.S. representative...

OLLIVANT: He was the U.S...

GREENE: ...In charge of the fight against ISIS, yeah.

OLLIVANT: That's right. So a physical caliphate where they controlled cities, were able to govern land, where they - people had to, effectively, work under a proto-state. Well, that's gone. Maybe there's a little bit of land along the Euphrates River valley, but they're really, really pushed back and, essentially, no longer control any terrain in Iraq and Syria.

GREENE: So geographically, if we thought of them as sort of like their own country, we've taken that land away...


GREENE: ...From them.

OLLIVANT: That has now shrunk down to pretty much nothingness. So in that sense, yes, they're defeated. Now, that doesn't mean that there are not lots of ISIS cadres, true believers still running around who have now gone to ground and are starting to form terrorist groups, going back to their terrorist roots, essentially, and - you know, from whence they came in Iraq and Syria. And further, it doesn't mean that we don't have affiliates around the world - in Africa, in the Sinai, in Afghanistan. And then further, it doesn't mean we don't have sympathizers throughout the world - as we saw in Europe a couple summers ago, the San Bernardino shootings here. So there's kind of three levels. That center level, that core, the physical caliphate is gone. And so I think to say that they are defeated in that sense is true.

GREENE: But it sounds like this other - I mean...

OLLIVANT: But these other things are still there and they're...

GREENE: And still threatening...

OLLIVANT: And still threatening.

GREENE: I mean, could carry out terrorist attacks and still threaten...

OLLIVANT: Could tomorrow morning.

GREENE: So what do you make of the president's strategy here? If they've been physically defeated, is it a good move to move these 2,000 troops out of Syria? Does that still give the United States the capability to go after sort of the new ISIS in 2019?

OLLIVANT: Well, I think so. The troops in Syria were starting to transition to other missions. We were starting to worry more about protecting the Syrian Kurds from the Turks and countering Iranian influence inside Syria, which may or may not be important missions - we can debate them - but is not fighting ISIS. So those troops are now leaving. They really didn't have a legal basis for their presence in the first place, and so they'll be leaving shortly. That doesn't mean that the region can't handle it. We have commandos all over the place in bases all over who can project power throughout the regions. It's not as if we're now helpless and emasculated because 2,200 troops are leaving Syria.

GREENE: Is that what the president is talking about when he talks about using Iraq as a base? Having commandos who could sort of go in at a moment's notice and go after, like, an ISIS cell somewhere?

OLLIVANT: That may be what he's talking about. I kind of wish he wouldn't do it in Iraq because the Iraqis get very touchy about that - having their sovereign territory used as a base to project American power. But yes, essentially, that's what we're talking about.

GREENE: So are you optimistic, looking at what the Trump administration has done so far in the fight against ISIS, that they are doing all they can to protect us, protect the United States from potential attacks and potential threats from this group?

OLLIVANT: We have long-term continuity, of course, from the time the Obama administration realized this was a real problem until the present day, and we've improved and gotten better in how we fight ISIS throughout that time. It's a kind of continuity of government between the two administrations. But yes, I think we have a pretty solid strategy for dealing with ISIS. ISIS, at least now in Iraq and Syria, is no longer really a military problem. It's an intelligence service problem. It's a police problem. It's a special forces problem, but it's no longer a problem that lends itself to artillery or even airstrikes for the most part.

GREENE: So you agree with this move to move the troops out of Syria?

OLLIVANT: I have some issues with the way it came about, but as term - in terms of the policy itself, yes. I think this is probably the right path.

GREENE: OK. Douglas Ollivant was the Iraq director at the NSC under both Presidents Bush and Obama. He's now a fellow at New America. We really appreciate it this morning. Thanks a lot.

OLLIVANT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.