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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

US office overseeing ISIS fight gets reprieve from Team Trump

The State Department unit has been granted a six-month extension

In this June 7, 2017, file photo, Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the global coalition against IS, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy Baghdad, Iraq. The Trump administration will keep open the State Department unit overseeing the fight against the Islamic State group for at least six more months, reversing a plan for its imminent downgrade even as President Donald Trump pushes ahead with moves for a speedy U.S. exit from Syria. Hadi Mizban / AP
In this June 7, 2017, file photo, Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the global coalition against IS, speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy Baghdad, Iraq. The Trump administration will keep open the State Department unit overseeing the fight against the Islamic State group for at least six more months, reversing a plan for its imminent downgrade even as President Donald Trump pushes ahead with moves for a speedy U.S. exit from Syria. Hadi Mizban / AP

The Trump administration has handed the State Department unit overseeing the fight against ISIS a six-month reprieve, reversing the government's plan to shutter the standalone office after the battlefield defeat of the militant group in Iraq and Syria.

The office of the special envoy to the global coalition fighting the militant group, led by Brett McGurk, will now stay in business for at least six more months, even as President Donald Trump presses ahead with a speedy US exit from Syria.

A plan initiated by Rex Tillerson before he was fired as secretary of state in March would have folded the unit into the department's counterterrorism bureau as early as this spring, officials said.

Mr Tillerson's successor, Mike Pompeo, canceled the plan this month, and the office will stay an independent entity until December, when there will be a new review, said the officials, who weren't authorised to discuss the plan publicly.

The office reports directly to the secretary of state and the president, and the planned shift would have undercut its status and the priority of its mission. It could have led to staffing and budget cuts as well as the departure of Mr McGurk. He is now expected to remain in his job at least through the end of the year.

Still, the officials said Mr Trump's intent to reduce the US military and civilian stabilisation presence in Syria has not changed. The State Department has ended all funding for stabilisation programs in Syria's northwest. Islamic State militants have been almost entirely eliminated from the region, which is controlled by a hodgepodge of other extremist groups and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's government forces.

At least some of the US money for those projects is expected to be redirected to Syria's northeast where ISIS fighters remain, the officials said.

The conflicting moves of retaining Mr McGurk's office while pulling out of the northwest illustrate how the administration is being pulled in different directions by Trump's two competing interests: extricating the US from messy Mideast conflicts and delivering a permanent defeat to ISIS.

Mr Trump has said the United States will be withdrawing from Syria "like very soon". In late March, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies tried to dissuade him from pulling troops out immediately, warning there was a risk ISIS would manage to regroup. Mr Trump relented slightly, but told aides they could have only five or six months to finish off ISIS and get out.

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The US announced in September 2014 that it was forming a coalition of nations to defeat the nascent extremist group that had taken over vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. Days later, President Barack Obama named retired Marine Gen. John Allen the first special presidential envoy for the coalition. Mr McGurk, his deputy, replaced him in 2015.

Almost four years later, ISIS no longer controls territory in Iraq, though US officials say its ideology remains a threat there. The final vestiges of the self-proclaimed caliphate are in Syria, where civil war has made it far trickier to wrest the militants from the few pockets of territory they still control.

Yet, as Mr Trump's administration eyes an exit as soon as ISIS is vanquished, the broader situation in Syria is not getting any better as far as American interests are concerned.

Mr Assad's forces are making inroads against the opposition and now control roads between Syria's three main cities for the first time since the war broke out in 2011. Moscow is solidifying its influence, even hosting Mr Al Assad for a surprise visit Thursday to Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. An outbreak of direct fighting between Israel and Iranian forces based in Syria has catalyzed concerns about Tehran's involvement in Syria and the potential for a broader regional conflict.

"Hopefully, Syria will start to stabilise," Mr Trump said last week as he met with NATO's secretary-general at the White House. "You see what's been happening. It's been a horror show".

Nevertheless, there are no signs that Mr Trump is backing away from his determination to limit US involvement to the narrow task of defeating ISIS, leaving to others the longer-term challenges of stabilising the country, restoring basic services and resolving the civil war.

A $200-million pledge that Mr Tillerson made in February for stabilisation programs in Syria remains on hold on Trump's orders and is under review. Mr Tillerson, who had advocated for maintaining the US presence, was fired shortly after he made the pledge at a conference in Kuwait.

Then the administration this month decided to halt funding US military and reconstruction programs in the Syrian northwest, the officials said. Pending the results of the overall review, the canceled money is expected to be shifted to programs in northeast Syria, where U.S. troops are still battling ISIS, and civilian teams from the State Department and US Agency for International Development are working in newly liberated areas.

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