Mike Pence stands by defeated ISIS assertion

January 20, 2019

Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday defended his assertion that the Islamic State has been “defeated” in Syria and said President Trump will stay the course in withdrawing all U.S. forces from the country, despite fallout over the deaths of four Americans there in a Wednesday attack claimed by the terrorist group.

In an interview with Fox News, Mr. Pence suggested that the troop withdrawal may be delayed, saying America “will not rest” until the Islamic State is driven “from the face of the earth.” But he stressed that the president “wants to bring our troops home.”

His comments came amid mourning for four Americans who were killed in a suicide attack that has reignited debate over the administration’s effort to pull all 2,000 U.S. troops out of war-torn Syria.

Two U.S. service members, a civilian Pentagon employee and a U.S. contractor were killed in the attack, which targeted a joint patrol of American and Kurdish forces in the northwestern city of Manbij, a main training and logistics hub of U.S. troops in Syria.

“First and foremost, our hearts go out to the families of those four American heroes and we [were] praying especially for them yesterday as there remains returned to Dover Air Force Base in presence of the president of the United States,” Mr. Pence said in his Fox News interview.

The vice president last week faced criticism for asserting in a speech that the Islamic State “has been defeated” hours after Wednesday’s attack. On Sunday, he emphasized the gains made against the group known as ISIS over the past two years.

“Look, the progress that we have made against ISIS since [Mr. Trump] came into office has truly been remarkable,” Mr. Pence said. “After President [Barack] Obama withdrew American forces from Iraq in 2011, we literally saw this ISIS caliphate rise up and overrun vast areas of Syria and Iraq that had been won by the American soldier.”

“President Obama began the process of a bombing campaign two years later,” he said. “But President Trump changed the rules of engagement. He told our military, as commander in chief, to go after them, and our soldiers and the Americans in the fight along with our allies have literally crushed the ISIS state.”

“Now,” he added, “the president made the decision as commander-in-chief to hand off the fight against ISIS in Syria to our coalition partners. We are working, in the process of doing that.”

“The president wants to bring our troops home, but recognizes there are remnants, there are ISIS fighters still in the region,” Mr. Pence said. “But we’ve taken back 99 percent of the territory that the caliphate had claimed. In a very real sense, the ISIS state has been defeated, but we will not rest or relent until we drive ISIS not only from the region, but from the face of the earth.”

Brett McGurk, who worked until recently as the State Departments envoy to a U.S.-led coalition of dozens of nations committed to battling the Islamic State, pushed back against Mr. Pences characterizations on Sunday.Theyre not defeated, Mr. McGurk said in an interview with CBS. We’ve come an extraordinarily long way. ... We have taken away a lot of their physical space. But we always said, and our policy was until most recently, we had to make sure that we completed the enduring defeat of ISIS. What that meant was taking away their physical space and retaining a presence so they could not resurge.Mr. McGurk, who recently resigned from his envoy post citing disagreement with the Trump administration, suggested Mr. Trump dismayed U.S. allies by suddenly announcing plans for a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria last month.What just happened was that policy was really just reversed overnight, he said, referring to reports that the president made the troop withdrawal decision abruptly, without consulting his top national security advisors following a discussion with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.We had been telling our partners on the ground, and around the world we built the collision of 75 countries that we were prepared to stay in Syria for some time ... until we completed the enduring defeat of ISIS, not just the physical territory, Mr. McGurk said. We had told that to our coalition partners, and it was reversed in a conversation between the president and a foreign leader.

⦁ Carlo Muoz contributed to this report.

Update hourly