MANAMA, Bahrain — U.S. troops have resumed large-scale counterterrorism missions against the Islamic State group in northern Syria, military officials said, nearly two months after President Donald Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw U.S. troops opened the way for a bloody Turkish cross-border offensive.
U.S.-backed operations against Islamic State fighters in the area effectively ground to a halt for weeks despite warnings from intelligence analysts that Islamic State militants were beginning to make a comeback from Syrian desert redoubts even though their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed during a U.S. raid on Oct. 26.
On Friday, U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Syrian Kurdish fighters — the same local allies the Trump administration abandoned to fend for themselves against the Turkish advance last month — reunited to conduct what the Pentagon said was a large-scale mission to kill and capture Islamic State fighters in Deir el-Zour province, about 120 miles south of the Turkish border.
“Over the next days and weeks, the pace will pick back up against remnants of ISIS,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the commander of the military’s Central Command, told reporters on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue security conference in Bahrain on Saturday, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.
The resumption of extensive counterterrorism operations capped a tumultuous two months in which many of the nearly 1,000 U.S. troops in northeastern Syria flew or drove out of the country under Trump’s withdrawal order. Separately, several hundred other troops, some with armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles, arrived from Iraq and Kuwait under a subsequent order from Trump to protect Syria’s eastern oil fields from the Islamic State, as well as from the Syrian government and its Russian partners.
When the dust settles on all of the troop movements, McKenzie said he would have about 500 U.S. forces, or half of what he had before Trump’s directives, operating in an area east of the Euphrates River and Deir el-Zour, north to al-Hasakah and into Syria’s far northeast along the border with Iraq.
U.S. commandos and their Syrian Kurdish partners conducted some low-level missions after the withdrawal order. But now that Americans and Kurds had regrouped their joint operations in the much smaller area, McKenzie said, they could resume bigger missions against the Islamic State.
“What we’re talking about are the pockets of people who represent the wreckage that followed in the wake of the caliphate,” McKenzie said in describing what was left of the Islamic State’s religious state that at its peak was the size of Britain. “They still have the power to injure, still have the power to cause violence.”
The operation Friday in Deir el-Zour province against several Islamic State compounds killed or wounded “multiple” Islamic State fighters and resulted in the capture of more than a dozen others, according to a statement from the U.S. military coalition in Baghdad, which oversees the operations in Syria.
After the U.S. withdrawal from the border, Vice President Mike Pence reached a deal with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that accepted a Turkish military presence in a broad part of northern Syria in exchange for a cease-fire. The deal amounted to a near-total victory for Erdogan, as thousands of Syrian Kurds were forced to flee south, often battling with ill-disciplined Turkish proxy forces as they went.
The United States considers the Syrian Kurds a pivotal partner in the fight on the ground against the Islamic State, but Turkey views them as terrorists, a distinction that has repeatedly put Washington in a difficult position.
Syrian Kurds who counted the United States as a friend and an ally accused Washington of betrayal immediately after the withdrawal from the border and the Turkish offensive. Army Green Berets who had fought alongside the Kurds and praised them for their valor said they felt ashamed at how the United States had treated the Kurds.
McKenzie insisted that relations between the two sides were now “pretty good.” He did not say, however, how long U.S. troops would stay in northern Syria. “We don’t have an end date,” he said twice during an interview with reporters Saturday.
With a mercurial president who has twice in 10 months ordered all U.S. troops out of Syria immediately — only to reverse himself twice after aides implored him to reconsider — other senior commanders said the Pentagon has to be ready for another no-notice message on Twitter that U.S. troops are leaving, oil or not.
It was a message that Pence, on an unannounced pre-Thanksgiving visit to Iraq, repeated Saturday even as he sought to reinforce the administration’s support for the Kurds and the mission of protecting the oil fields.
“President Trump is always going to look for opportunities to bring our troops home and to take these men and women out of harm’s way,” Pence said.