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Syria withdrawal not end of US fight against Islamic State, Pompeo says

Militants remain 'a menace' to global security, US secretary of state tells anti-IS coalition partners at conference in Washington
Washington hosts meeting for foreign ministers of all 79 members of global coalition against IS (Reuters)
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The withdrawal of US troops from Syria is not the end of Washington's war against the Islamic State group (IS), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told representatives of the dozens of nations in the global coalition against the militants.

Instead, the United States is entering a "new stage in an old fight", Pompeo said at a conference in Washington on Wednesday.

"You all know why we're here. ISIS remains a menace, one that's our generation's responsibility to stop," Pompeo said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

In a statement later in the day, at the conclusion of the one-day summit, the ministers representing the global, anti-IS coalition - made up of 74 countries and five international institutions - said they remained committed to "ensuring the enduring defeat" of the group.

"Together we remain firmly united in our outrage at ISIS's atrocities and in our determination to eliminate this global threat and overcome its false, destructive narrative," the ministers said.

The coalition also reiterated its support for the Iraqi government in its efforts to stabilise areas previously held by IS militants.

"The territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria will mark a significant milestone in the war against ISIS, but does not mean our campaign against ISIS is over. Further engagement is needed in Iraq and Syria, where the terrorist group is still resilient," the statement read.

Washington's Syria withdrawal

Pompeo's comments on Wednesday appeared to diverge from US President Donald Trump's assertion late last year that IS has been completely defeated.

The White House's decision to pull US troops out of Syria has been criticised by European allies and US lawmakers, and led to the resignation of former Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis, who left the Trump administration in December in protest against the move.

In a report to lawmakers last month, US intelligence chiefs also cautioned that IS is still an international threat.

"ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses," the report reads.

Pompeo stressed that the administration will not let up on its anti-IS efforts.

"President Trump's announcement that US troops will be withdrawn from Syria is not the end of America's fight. The fight is one that we will continue to wage alongside of you," Pompeo told the foreign ministers of countries in the anti-IS coalition.

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The secretary of state lauded US allies for their successful efforts to drive IS out of massive swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, where the militants previously controlled a population of more than seven million people.

"For our victory to be final and enduring, ISIS must no longer pose a threat to our respective homelands or function as a global network," he said. "There must be no more safe haven from which it can operate."

Pompeo added that the coalition will work on preventing IS from spreading its "sickening ideology" to inspire lone attackers, as the fight enters an era of "de-centralised jihad".

Syria policy

During his State of the Union Speech on Tuesday evening, Trump defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Syria but pledged to cooperate with partners to ensure IS's defeat.

"Now, as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home," he said.

Addressing the ministerial meeting on Wednesday, Trump reiterated his plans to pull out of Syria, suggesting that his own administration is to thank for the territorial setbacks of IS.

The US president also vowed to continue combating what he called "radical Islamic terrorism".

"Rest assured, we will do what it takes to defeat every ounce and every last person within the ISIS madness and defend our people from radical Islamic terrorism," he said.

Syrian solution

Also, Pompeo, along with the representatives from Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UK issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling for a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

"There is no military solution for Syria and no alternative to a political solution, thus there is a concerted need for diplomacy and international political will to end the Syrian conflict and alleviate the continued suffering of the Syrian people," the statement said.

It also expressed support for UN envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen.

Some Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have restored ties with the Syrian government, despite adopting a hardline stance against President Bashar al-Assad early in the conflict.

Earlier on Wednesday, a senior state department official briefing reporters on background, said Washington's position that Assad cannot play a "responsible role" in the future of Syria has not changed.

"We are supporting the UN process," the official said. "We very much hope for a brighter future for the Syrian people, but it’s hard for us to envision that with Assad at the helm."