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It's Unclear Who Will Continue The Fight Against ISIS As U.S. Pulls Out Of Syria


President Trump today continues to stand by his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They have a problem with Turkey. They have a problem at a border. It's not our border. We shouldn't be losing lives over it.

CORNISH: American troops continue their withdrawal from Syria. Turkish-backed militias continue to move in. These militias are battling U.S. former allies, the Kurds, who say they've been abandoned by the United States. And where does this leave the U.S. fight against ISIS in the region?

To help us sort this out, we're joined by NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Welcome back to the studio.


CORNISH: President Trump, as we just heard, is steadfast on this idea of troops leaving Syria. What about the U.S. military? I mean, what are you hearing from your sources in terms of how this is playing out on the ground?

BOWMAN: Well, they're still leaving, Audie. It continues. Some of the 1,000 U.S. troops have left already by aircraft for Iraq and Kuwait. What they're doing now is breaking down their smaller bases, consolidating into larger ones. But there have been some problems already. Some of the Turkish militias got pretty close to a U.S. Kurdish base. It appeared threatening. They were a couple of miles away. So the U.S. rolled in with some fighter aircraft, F-15s and Apache attack helicopters, kind of scoot them away. And the president says that the anti-ISIS fight will continue from a base called Al-Tanf. And that's on the border with Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

CORNISH: But you are telling us about this thousand U.S. troops who had been working for the past several years, essentially with Kurdish forces to defeat the Islamic State. So is the U.S. still actively fighting ISIS?

BOWMAN: Well, again, the president says it will continue. But this base, Al-Tanf, is far to the south, away from any ISIS fighters who even before this withdrawal were slipping into cities and towns in the northern part of Syria where the U.S. were located, mounting assassinations and planting bombs. And again, some of these ISIS fighters have escaped from prisons. There's a fear this will only get worse.

Now this base at Al-Tanf, that was created to keep an eye on Iranian troop movements into Syria and onto Lebanon, not to go after ISIS. And I spoke with a couple of officers directly involved in the ISIS fight. Both said the anti-ISIS fight from here is not enough. It makes little sense. It's very far from the ISIS fight. They say you might be able to do some surveillance of ISIS from this point, but that might be it. They say what you need is eyes on the ground. You either need U.S. forces there keeping an eye on ISIS and their resurgence, or you need Kurdish fighters keeping an eye on them. The problem is the Kurds are now fighting Turkey. And the U.S., of course, is leaving.

CORNISH: I want to follow up on that, Tom, because there's been a lot of concern about what will happen to ISIS fighters who had been captured. What do we know? Is ISIS taking advantage of the chaos?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, there were thousands of ISIS fighters already going to ground and going into some of these cities, mounting assassinations and bombings. And also, dozens of ISIS fighters have escaped from some of these prisons. They're being held by the Kurds, but the Kurdish guards have left to fight Turkey. So it's only going to get worse. And one officer told me what we predicted is coming true - ISIS will gain more power as the U.S. forces leave. And one likened it to President Obama pulling all troops out of Iraq in 2011. And that, of course, eventually led to the rise of ISIS. They're saying that caliphate that was destroyed could reemerge again in Syria because of these decisions.

CORNISH: Vice President Mike Pence, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, they're supposed to be headed to the region to work out some sort of cease fire, I understand. But has Turkey's president been receptive?

BOWMAN: President Erdogan said he'll meet with Vice President Pence, but what he has said, he will not stop this Turkish invasion.

CORNISH: Finally, I want to ask you about Russia because we've been hearing reports that Russian forces are aiding Syria. What are you hearing from U.S. troops?

BOWMAN: Well, the Russian troops are moving into some of these areas that the Americans once held. There was a video posted yesterday of a Russian soldier inside an old American base. But the bigger concern is moving to the oil fields. When I was there in Syria last year, some Russian mercenaries called the Wagner Group tried to seize the oil fields that were held by the Kurdish forces. They haven't seen much movement yet, but that's a real concern, Russian forces grabbing those oil fields.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman.

Tom, thank you for explaining it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.