Despite President Donald Trump's decision to pull US troops from Syria and recent statements from some senior administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, saying ISIS has been defeated, the US-led fight against the terror group in Syria is continuing, with US-backed forces recapturing ISIS-held towns and the US-led coalition carrying out hundreds of air and artillery strikes in recent weeks.
Between December 16 and December 29, US-led coalition military forces conducted 469 air and artillery strikes targeting ISIS in Syria. The strikes were carried out against ISIS fighters, buildings, oil facilities, vehicles, tunnels, weapons caches and improvised explosive device facilities, according to a statement issued by the coalition.
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Prior to that period the coalition had been averaging about 200 strikes per week in Syria as fighting around the ISIS-held town of Hajin ramped up. Hajin was captured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on December 25.
A Pentagon spokesperson previously told CNN that "As long as there are US troops on the ground we will conduct air and artillery strikes in support of our forces."
And while Pence told Fox News this week that "The reality is we have defeated ISIS," the fighting continues as local US-backed Syrian forces battle the terror group.
"Coalition forces continue to assist our Syrian partners with close air support and artillery strikes in the Middle Euphrates River Valley," Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Sean Robertson told CNN on Friday.
"On January 2, 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces liberated the town of Kashmah, which is the third town following Hajin and Abu Hassam liberated in the past month. We will continue to work with the coalition and regional partners toward an enduring defeat of ISIS," Robertson added.
National security adviser John Bolton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and State Department Special Envoy on Syria Ambassador Jim Jeffrey are headed to Turkey and Israel this weekend to discuss the US withdrawal from Syria.
The Trump administration has sought to give Turkey a bigger role in the fight against ISIS following the US pullout despite Turkey's opposition to America's primary local ally in Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The US anticipates that Turkey will make a number of requests for US support, such as airstrikes to continue military operations inside Syria when the US withdraws, according to a US defense official. But the official said the US will be looking for assurances from the Turkish government that they will not conduct attacks on US backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Bolton tweeted that they are visiting Israel and Turkey "to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, how we will work with allies & partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, & counter Iranian malign behavior in the region."
A Senior State Department official echoed the theme of Bolton's comments, telling reporters Friday, "Our military posture in Syria may be changing but our overall goals in Syria remain the same."
The official added that there would be no timeline associated with the withdrawal of US forces.
However most experts believe that those objectives will be much harder to pursue without US troops in Syria, and Trump's decision to pull troops prompted both his secretary of defense, James Mattis, and his special envoy for the ISIS fight, Brett McGurk, to resign.
While in Israel Bolton may also have to explain Trump's Wednesday comment that Iran "can do what they want" in Syria. Jeffrey took on the additional special envoy role Friday.
Earlier in the week, Secretary of State Pompeo told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that "the decision the President made on Syria in no way changes anything that this administration is working on alongside Israel. The counter-ISIS campaign continues, our efforts to counter Iranian aggression continue and our commitment to Middle East stability and the protection of Israel continues in the same way it did before that decision was made."
Dunford discussed Syria and other issues with another key player, the Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov during a call on Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Friday that the Senate will vote as early as next week on a broad Middle East policy bill, one that will allow senators to express their misgivings about Trump's controversial decision to bring US troops home from Syria.
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