Jeffrey, a longtime diplomat whose career included posts as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, as well as Deputy National Security Advisor in the George W. Bush administration, spoke to The Defense Post about whether U.S. troops are spread too thin in Syria and if he fears an ISIS resurgence.
The Pentagon Inspector General recently concluded that fewer troops on the ground in Syria has decreased support for partner forces and undermined our ability to monitor ISIS activity at al-Hol. Do you agree with that?
J.J said: “There is some reduction in forces in Syria. We are making up for that by keeping a very strong presence in Iraq. We’re making up for that with very strong air components. We’re making up for that with more Coalition forces on the ground. Denmark just announced that it would be in northeast Syria last week. So we’re finding ways to compensate for it.”
This week ISIS released an audio recording of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What does it say about the group’s capabilities that after all these years he’s been able to evade capture?
As the ISIS chief — because he was captured as an al-Qaeda leader — so we got him, check that box. We then released him, but that’s another thing. As an ISIS leader, he’s been operating since 2013, so that’s only six years. Whereas how long was Osama bin Laden’s son on the loose before we got him?
But you’re not concerned that he’s still been able to hide out? Like, what does that say about their networks?
I’m concerned about, first of all, are they setting up another caliphate? Are they holding more territory? No. Are the incidents extraordinarily low by every measure we’ve made in Afghanistan and Iraq? Absolutely, yes. Do we have areas where they seem to be persistent, pervasive, resilient, especially in Iraq, yes? In certain areas. And that’s the thing that has concern.
You saw recently that there was an island in the Tigris that was simply blown to bits by the U.S. Air Force. Forty tons of bombs or something like that. That island had been attacked twice, and it was hard to clean them all out. These are very, very rare.
This is the only case I can think of in either country where we’ve actually had a little tiny military operation, or several military operations, to clean these guys up. Most of the time, they’re on the move. I know in the Badia desert, south of the Euphrates, and we’re very worried about that. We’ve taken certain actions that I can’t get into against them. They float around like desert nomads. They strike the Russians. They strike the regime. They strike the Iranians. They stay away from us because they know what’s going to happen.
It’s a very different kind of concern than what we have had before with ISIS. So what we’re basically watching is the Delta. Are they increasing their attacks? Are they showing more resiliency? Are they beginning to not dominate, but at least contest. That’s the word. Contest terrain. We don’t see any of that other than rare things like this stupid island.
In his audio recording [Baghdadi] called on this followers to target prisons. Has the U.S. taken any additional steps to further secure these detention centers that are holding ISIS suspects and their families?
You can assume, one, that the U.S. always takes steps to harden targets that have been identified as under attack. And you can take it as an assumption that I’m not going to confirm that in any way, shape or form.
In late August, U.S. Central Command announced it had struck what it referred to as al-Qaeda in Syria leadership.
Also the Department of Justice is offering a cash reward for information on the whereabouts of senior members of Hurras al-Din. What threat do al-Qaeda and its affiliates, specifically in Syria, pose to the U.S. right now?
There’s a long history. The Khorasan group a few years ago not far from there. There’s a long history of those groups actively, and I can think of some events, but I’m not so sure whether I read that in a classified or unclassified. Attacks have been foiled right on the spot far away from Syria that these guys launched. So we’re sure that they do have both the capability or the intention of launching these things, which is why we’re keeping them under pressure, with the military pressure.