In the last two weeks of January the US carried out 645 strikes on Islamic State. As the Department of Defense says that ISIS has lost 99.5% of its territory in Syria, Washington hopes it can get its 78 Global Coalition allies to pick up the slack as it winds up operations. An official told The Wall Street Journal that the US hoped a "coalition of Western nations" might be able to help create a "buffer zone" between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish groups as the US withdraws.
The new reports come amid a storm that is brewing in the US. The State Department is hosting foreign ministers from the Global Coalition on February 6. The foreign ministers will meet in Washington and discuss the "important next steps in degrading ISIS's global network."
The US says it is determined to prevent a resurgence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but that it is also withdrawing. The last meeting of the coalition took place in Morocco in June. Therefore this is an important meeting that comes at a crossroads in the campaign.
The Office of Director of National Intelligence released its Worldwide Threat Assessment this week as the US prepares for the next stage. The map accompanying the assessment is sobering. It shows ISIS active across a swath of countries in the Sahara and Sahel in Africa and across the Middle East to India and East Asia. The jihadists have "expanded" their abilities to strike at US interests, the report says.
Trump slammed the intelligence community in a series of tweets on Wednesday, asserting that "when I became President, ISIS was out of control in Syria and running rampant." He says tremendous progress has been made, "especially over last five weeks." These are the five weeks since Trump announced the withdrawal on December 19.
While it appears ISIS has lost all but a pair of villages on the Euphrates, villages in the coalition's area of operations in Syria, a larger problem looms for the US in northern Syria. There the US withdrawal comes as Turkey vows a military operation aimed against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the partner of the US coalition.
This puts the SDF in a bind. If the US withdraws, a new war with Turkey could take place in Syria. US officials, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump have vowed that America's Kurdish allies in Syria will not be abandoned to a new conflict. But how to prevent that conflict is not clear.
Turkey has followed through on threats in the past, invading the Kurdish area of Afrin in northwestern Syria in January 2018, forcing the YPG to leave. During the campaign hundreds of thousands of Kurds were reportedly displaced by the fighting, and the SDF has vowed that this must not happen again. Ilham Ahmed, leader of a political wing of the SDF, went to Washington last week and has been holding meetings to shore up support. She is requesting a delay in the US withdrawal, according to reports by Joyce Karam, Washington correspondent of The National. The SDF also rejects the idea of a "buffer zone" that would be under Turkish control in Syria.
The US now has hinted at having other Western countries fill the void of US troops that have been deployed in northern Syria. These troops have conducted joint patrols with Turkey but they have also been present to prevent a flare-up in fighting between Turkey and the SDF. They established observation points and drive around in armored vehicles festooned with large US flags. Other European forces are present in Syria. French vehicles have been spotted in Manbij and UK Special Forces have been photographed near Hajin on the Euphrates in southern Syria.
However the UK is unlikely to remain in Syria and challenge Turkey amid the Brexit crisis. France, which was the former colonial power in Syria and which has played a key role in discussions during the eight-year civil war, including taking part in airstrikes against the Assad regime, may be more likely.
But generally these countries have sought US leadership. When President Barack Obama neglected to carry out airstrikes in 2013, the French did not go alone. How the US will get the other coalition members, many of whom don't even have forces in Syria and are reticent to face casualties at the hands of ISIS, to up their contribution is unclear given the current set of circumstances.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.