Pentagon Says It's Staying In Syria, Even Though ISIS Appears Defeated : Parallels The U.S. is keeping its troops in Syria and continues to press for a political settlement to that country's civil war. It's far from clear whether the U.S. has sufficient leverage to achieve that.

Pentagon Says It's Staying In Syria, Even Though ISIS Appears Defeated

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There may still be terrorist attacks carried out in its name, but the state of Islamic State is really no more. ISIS is down to a handful of enclaves, but there are still hundreds of U.S. forces fighting ISIS in Syria. And the Pentagon says they are sticking around. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and NPR's State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen are both here to talk us through what's happening in that country.

Hello to you both.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, David.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Tom, I want to start with you because the Trump administration came in talking about no foreign entanglements, America First, no nation-building. So why does the U.S. still have troops in Syria?

BOWMAN: Well, they have troops in Syria to deal with ISIS. And they consider ISIS a threat to the United States. That's why the U.S. forces are there advising the local troops - Sunni Arabs and Kurds. And the caliphate is quickly coming to an end, but there's still a little fighting along the border with Iraq. Now, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters this week that U.S. troops inside Syria will remain fighting ISIS, quote, "as long as they want to fight."

Now, most of the Americans are advisers working with Kurdish and Arab forces, as I said. And Mattis says that American troops can stay and set the conditions for a political settlement. He said, we're not going to just walk away.

GREENE: Where does that leave what has been this civil war that we've been following for so many years? If ISIS is now dwindling - I mean, you have Bashar al-Assad, who seems to be ready to win this civil war. Right, Michele? So these groups in Syria that the United States was backing, is there any future for them?

KELEMEN: There's not much of a future to them. What the U.S. is hoping is to get them around the table with Bashar al-Assad's government and talk about a future constitution, future government...

GREENE: The political settlement that Tom was talking about.

KELEMEN: ...Without Bashar al-Assad there. There's been a big question, though, hanging over what they call this Geneva peace process. And that is, will Russia and Iran deliver Bashar al-Assad to negotiations meant to pave the way for a post-Assad Syria? That doesn't look likely in a case where that side is really winning. So the next big test for this Geneva process is later this month, on the 28, the U.N. special envoy is hoping to have a new round of peace talks.

GREENE: Well, Michele, let me ask you about a big player once a political settlement is or is not coming together. And that is Russia, which has been trying to play a very big role in the future of Syria. Right?

KELEMEN: That's right. The Russians have always provided diplomatic cover to Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. Two years ago, it sent in warplanes and really changed the course of the war. But the Russians are not the only players here. Iran is also a major player on the ground in Syria. The Americans want to see the Russians kind of push Iran out, but Russia's foreign minister made clear this week, as he does quite often, that Russia and Iran were invited by the Syrian government. The Americans weren't.

GREENE: Michele Kelemen, you have the United States government that wanted Assad out of power. That looks like that might not happen. You have President Trump who wants to put America first. We have hundreds of troops there. What role does the United States want to play now in the future of Syria?

KELEMEN: Well, so far what - at least the State Department is doing, they have a very small number of development and diplomatic personnel on the ground in Syria around Raqqa. And the goals are much more minimal. First of all is de-mining, which they say is going to take a really, really long time, and then just to provide basic services.

BOWMAN: And it's important to note that in Raqqa, what the U.S. is doing there - they're calling it stabilizing. It's not reconstructing or certainly not nation-building in Raqqa. They're being very pointed on that. But they are providing money and, as you say, de-mining, bringing back sewer and water and electricity. But some would call that, clearly, reconstructing if not nation-building.

GREENE: Is it a concern for the United States if Syria is rebuilt with a lot of influence and support from countries like Iran and Russia?

KELEMEN: Yes, it is a big concern. The U.S. isn't planning on spending a huge amount of money in reconstruction aid, but it is rallying Europeans, the Arab countries to do this. And they're saying that they don't want this reconstruction aid going to Syria until there's a political process underway.

GREENE: Just listening to you both, I mean, it sounds like putting Syria back together as a country is going to be something that is so much more daunting than actually going after ISIS as a terrorist group. Right? I mean, that's a different thing.

BOWMAN: You're absolutely right. People I talk with in the Pentagon said they knew ISIS was going to eventually come to an end. They were guerrilla fighters. They didn't have a lot of heavy weaponry. They didn't have aircraft and so forth. So defeating them just was a matter of time. What they say now is, this is much more complex - trying to put this country back together again.

GREENE: Tom Bowman, Michele Kelemen. Tom covers the Pentagon. Michele covers State Department.

Thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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