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How Strong Are ISIS Forces In Syria?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump is defending his plan to pull U.S. forces out of Syria. That is after members of Congress complained that they were caught off guard and questioned whether ISIS has been defeated there or not. President Trump says yes, it has, thus time to bring U.S. troops home. Plenty of others, including senior members of Trump's own national security team, disagree. We're going to put the question now to Dan Byman, terrorism expert, professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.

Hey, Dan.

DAN BYMAN: Hey.

KELLY: Hey. So has ISIS been defeated in Syria? What do you think?

BYMAN: The short answer is no. The Islamic State has been hit pretty hard. It's lost its above-ground caliphate. But it still has thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of fighters underground. It still has strong appeal. There's no government in Syria and in Iraq that can exercise control if U.S. and its allies are reducing their presence. So it's a group quite capable of coming back.

KELLY: And you said thousands of fighters underground. There has also been fierce fighting above ground. And very recently, there's been fighting near the Iraqi border, a town called Hajin, where ISIS had been pretty well dug in.

BYMAN: That's right. This group has a presence in a few small pockets of Syria where U.S. allies, Kurdish forces, have been fighting them with a lot of U.S. support - so not completely gone from above ground and a presence in a number of Iraqi areas, including some major cities in an underground way.

KELLY: I said some of President Trump's own national security team have said things very recently that suggest that they were not on board with this decision. The State Department's Brett McGurk recently talked about how it would be reckless to say that the caliphate is defeated so the U.S. can just leave. I mean, the concern here is that without U.S. troops on the ground, ISIS could bounce back. How real a concern is that?

BYMAN: That's quite a real concern. This is a group that, 10 years ago, was able to bounce back from near total defeat in Iraq in part by going underground, assassinating local leaders that were opposed to it, creating instability and then, when there was a moment, coming back and re-emerging quite strongly. And the United States and its local allies have been tremendously effective in defeating this group, but it's still not gone.

KELLY: And what exactly have U.S. troops been doing in Syria that prevents their resurgence? There's something like 2,000 U.S. troops, which is not a huge force in terms of boots on the ground.

BYMAN: The U.S. forces play multiple roles. Some of the role is direct action against their group. But most of it is training and working with local forces, especially the Syrian Kurdish forces. And if the U.S. troops leave, not only will that mission end but the Syrian Kurds are going to have to fight other foes, especially Turkey. So our best ally is going to be moving from fighting the Islamic State to being - opposing another U.S. ally. So this is a huge, huge blow to the anti-ISIS effort.

KELLY: And it sounds as though - in your view - if anything, it makes that battle space more complicated, rather than less, if the U.S. isn't there.

BYMAN: That's right. The U.S. presence, though small, was enough to deter, at least to some degree, the Turks and other foes - at least make them consider the U.S. response. But now that America has gone or will be gone - you'll see Iran; you'll see the Syrian government; you'll see Turkey - you'll see lots of regional actors trying to increase their influence. And we'll probably see more conflict in a region that already has more than enough.

KELLY: That's Dan Byman, professor at Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

Thanks so much for taking the time.

BYMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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