U.S. looking at new ISIS leader and role in organization: U.S. official

Late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is seen in an undated picture released by the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, U.S. October 30, 2019. U.S. Department of Defense/Handout via REUTERS

U.S. looking at new ISIS leader and role in organization: U.S. official
By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is researching the new leader of the Islamic State to determine his previous roles in the organization, Nathan Sales, the U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, said on Friday after a U.S. raid last month killed its former leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“Any time there is a leadership transition in the terrorist organization, we want to make sure that we have the latest information that we need to have to confront the threat,” Sales told a briefing.

Islamic State, in an audio tape posted online on Thursday, confirmed that Baghdadi was killed in a weekend raid by U.S. special forces in northwestern Syria. It vowed revenge against the United States.

The group, also known as ISIS, said a successor to Baghdadi identified as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi had been appointed. Earlier on Friday, President Donald Trump tweeted: “ISIS has a new leader. We know exactly who he is!” he said, without elaborating.

Baghdadi had risen from obscurity to lead the ultra-hardline group and declare himself “caliph” of all Muslims, holding sway over huge areas of Iraq and Syria from 2014-2017 before Islamic State’s control was wrested away by U.S.-led coalition forces including Iraqis and Syrian Kurds.

Trump has been softening his pullout plans for Syria after a backlash from Congress, including fellow Republicans, who say he enabled a long-threatened Turkish incursion on Oct. 9 against Kurdish forces in Syria who had been America’s top allies in the battle against Islamic State since 2014.

Sales said combating Islamic State remained a top national security priority for Washington. “We will dismantle the group regardless of who its leadership cadre is,” he said.

While world leaders hailed Baghdadi’s death, security analysts warned the threat of Islamic State and its ideology was far from over.

An annual State Department report that his office put out on Friday concluded that despite losing almost all of its territory, Islamic State’s global presence continued to evolve in 2018, with new affiliates in Somalia and East Asia and through home-grown attacks.

“Additionally, battle-hardened terrorists headed home from the war zone in Syria and Iraq or traveled to third countries, posing new dangers,” Sales said in the report.

Separately, Sales said the United States brought back and prosecuted 6 adult fighters or Islamic State supporters. It has also returned 14 children who are now being “rehabilitated and reintegrated,” he said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Dan Grebler)

U.S. launches strike in southern Libya as U.N. warns of escalation

By Aidan Lewis

CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. forces said on Wednesday they killed 11 suspected militants in their second air strike in a week near the southern Libyan town of Murzuq, as the U.N. envoy warned of a growing risk of armed escalation and rights abuses in the country.

The strike comes as rival factions have been locked in a battle around the capital Tripoli, about 500 miles (800km) to the north, which forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have been trying to capture since April.

The U.S. attack, carried out on Tuesday deep in Libya’s southern desert, followed a Sept. 19 strike that the U.S. said had killed eight suspected militants.

“This air strike was conducted to eliminate ISIS (Islamic State) terrorists and deny them the ability to conduct attacks on the Libyan people,” Major General William Gayler, director of operations for U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement.

Some Islamic State militants retreated south into Libya’s desert as the group lost its stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte at the end of 2016.

The U.S., which has carried out occasional strikes in desert areas, has said it will not allow militants to use the fighting around Tripoli for cover.

The offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) upended U.N.-led plans to broker a political settlement in Libya and soon stalled in the capital’s outskirts.

The conflict has spread outside Tripoli, with air and drone strikes against the port city of Misrata, Sirte, and Jufra in central Libya, U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday.

It had also triggered a “micro-conflict” in Murzuq, where more than 100 civilians are reported to have been killed over the past two months, he said.

“The conflict risks escalating to full-blown civil war,” Salame said by video link. “It is fanned by widespread violations of the U.N. arms embargo by all parties and external actors.”

“Serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law have been committed with total impunity, including increased summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment as well as conflict-related sexual violence.”

Libya has been divided between rival factions based in Tripoli and the east since 2014, three years after a NATO-backed uprising ended Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

Haftar’s LNA is battling forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was set up in 2016 following a U.N.-brokered deal.

Haftar’s foreign backers include the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who diplomats and analysts say are vying for influence in the oil-rich nation with regional rivals Turkey and Qatar.

At least 128,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since April, according to U.N. estimates.

(Reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Islamic State counter-attacks out of final Syria enclave fall short -U.S.-backed SDF

Islamic state fighters and their families walk as they surrendered in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Ellen Francis

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State launched two counter attacks on U.S.-backed fighters besieging their final shred of territory in eastern Syria on Wednesday but were beaten back without any progress, the Syrian Democratic Forces said.

The jihadists, waging a last-ditch battle in Baghouz, a collection of hamlets and farmland near the Iraqi border, dispatched suicide bombers against SDF fighters, who thwarted the attacks, the U.S.-backed force said.

Islamic State launched the second counter-attack in the afternoon, “(taking) advantage of smoke and dust over Baghouz”, the SDF media office said. “Fighting is still continuing. (Islamic State) made no progress so far and were stopped.”

There were no SDF casualties. “They attempted to carry out suicide attacks but failed,” the SDF said.

Black smoke mushroomed high over Baghouz as the sounds of gunfire, explosions and planes could be heard in a battle that the SDF has said is as good as over.

In parts of Baghouz already under SDF control, dirt roads were littered with the scorched remains of cars, trucks and motorcycles. Many houses had been completely flattened and roads had been cratered by missile strikes.

Islamic State’s black flag could still be seen painted on walls, while others had been emblazoned with freshly daubed SDF slogans and the words “Down with Daesh”, an Arabic acronym for the jihadists.

Islamic State (IS) held roughly one third of Syria and Iraq at the zenith of its power in 2014, when its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all the world’s Muslims.

Subsequently, IS was steadily beaten back by a range of enemies including the U.S.-led international coalition, suffering its major defeats in 2017 when it lost the Iraqi city of Mosul and its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa.

No Islamic State leaders are believed to be in Baghouz, according to a U.S. defense official. U.S. government experts strongly believe Baghdadi is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq.

The group is still assessed to remain a potent security threat operating in remote territory in both Syria and Iraq.

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, said its forces had bombarded Baghouz heavily overnight before engaging in direct clashes with IS fighters in the pre-dawn hours.

Live footage broadcast by Kurdish Ronahi TV overnight showed a series of large blasts lighting up the night sky over Baghouz.

SUICIDE ASSAULTS

“There were suicide vest attacks by a group of bombers who tried to blow themselves up amidst our forces. Our forces targeted and killed them before they reached our positions,” Bali said.

The SDF has laid siege to Baghouz for weeks but had repeatedly postponed its final assault to allow thousands of civilians, many of them wives and children of Islamic State fighters, to leave. It resumed the attack on Sunday.

Around 3,000 IS fighters and their families surrendered to SDF forces in 24 hours, Bali said overnight. Three women and four children belonging to the Yazidi sect, a minority group who were kidnapped and enslaved by IS in 2014, were also freed, he said.

Islamic State put out a new propaganda video overnight Monday filmed in recent weeks inside Baghouz, maintaining its claim to leadership of all Muslims and calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

“Tomorrow, God willing, we will be in paradise and they will be burning in hell,” one of the men interviewed in the video said.

Though Islamic State is on the verge of losing its last piece of territory, Syria remains carved up among other parties to its multi-sided conflict: President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Kurdish-led SDF, and anti-government rebels.

The war has escalated in recent weeks between the Assad government and insurgents in the northwestern region of Idlib, where Islamist militant group Tahrir al-Sham holds sway.

Overnight, government forces rained incendiary bombs on the area, where a full-scale offensive was averted in September by an agreement brokered by Assad’s Russian allies and Turkey, which backs his opponents and has forces on the ground.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Deir al-Zor, Ellen Francis in Baghouz and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Lisa Barrington/Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

No pressure to withdraw from Syria by specific date: U.S. general

FILE PHOTO: General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) speaks during the Change of Command U.S. Naval Forces Central Command 5th Fleet Combined Maritime Forces ceremony at the U.S. Naval Base in Bahrain, May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The general overseeing U.S. forces in the Middle East said on Thursday that he was under no pressure to withdraw forces from Syria by any specific date, after President Donald Trump ordered the drawdown of most U.S. troops from Syria.

“What is driving the withdrawal of course is our mission, which is the defeat of ISIS and so that is our principal focus and that is making sure that we protect our forces, that we don’t withdraw in a manner that increases the risk to our forces,” U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

“There is not pressure on me to meet a specific date at this particular time,” Votel said.

Trump had ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria in December after he said they had defeated Islamic State militants in Syria. The abrupt decision sparked an outcry from allies and U.S. lawmakers and was a factor in Jim Mattis’ resignation as defense secretary.

But Trump was persuaded by advisers that about 200 U.S. troops would join what is expected to be a total commitment of about 800 to 1,500 troops from European allies to set up and observe a safe zone being negotiated for northeastern Syria.

About 200 other U.S. troops will remain at the U.S. military outpost of Tanf, near the border with Iraq and Jordan.

Thousands of people could still be left inside Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said, as waves of evacuations from the tiny area continued on Thursday.

The SDF has said it wants to ensure all civilians have been evacuated before launching a final assault on the besieged enclave of Baghouz. It is the last shred of populated territory held by Islamic State, which once controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Votel said he believed that Islamic State militants being evacuated from the remaining territory controlled the militant group were largely “unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized.” He said the militant group was waiting “for the right time to resurge.”

“We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and toxic ideology,” Votel added.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)

150 Islamic State fighters surrender in Syria battle: monitor

FILE PHOTO: A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds a walkie-talkie in Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Scores of Islamic State fighters surrendered to U.S.-backed forces on Monday, a war monitor said, after a ferocious assault to overrun their last shred of territory in eastern Syria.

Islamic State faces defeat in Baghouz, the only remaining patch of land it still holds in the area straddling Iraq and Syria where it declared a caliphate in 2014, although it still has control in a few remote areas.

Early on Monday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they had slowed their assault on Islamic State because more civilians were trapped in the area, though it vowed to capture it soon.

A convoy of trucks was visible heading into Baghouz in the morning, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 150 jihadists left the enclave, along with about 250 other people.

There was no immediate confirmation of the surrenders from the SDF or any indication as to how many jihadists remained holed up inside.

Islamic State’s fighters have gradually fallen back on Baghouz at the Iraqi border as they retreated down the Euphrates in the face of sustained assault in both countries after its grotesque displays of cruelty roused global fury.

Despite the setbacks, the group remains a deadly threat, developing alternatives to its caliphate ranging from rural insurgency to urban bombings by affiliates in the region and beyond, many governments say.

The Syrian Democratic Forces this weekend resumed its assault on the group’s pocket in the village of Baghouz, the culmination of a campaign that included the capture of Raqqa in 2017, when IS also faced other big defeats in Iraq and Syria.

The militia had already paused its attack for weeks to allow thousands of people to flee the area, including Islamic State supporters, fighters, children, local people and some of the group’s captives.

It said on Friday that only jihadists remained, but now says some more civilians are left.

“We’re slowing down the offensive in Baghouz due to a small number of civilians held as human shields by Daesh,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

However, “the battle to retake the last ISIS holdout is going to be over soon,” he added.

Dozens of trucks similar to those that had evacuated people from the enclave in recent weeks were visible heading back there on Monday and the drivers said they were going to pick people up at Baghouz.

Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said in an email that he could not verify who Islamic State was holding but hoped they would be released unharmed.

On Sunday, the SDF faced landmines, car bombs, tunnel ambushes and suicide attacks as they attempted to overrun the enclave – tactics the jihadist group has honed through its hard-fought retreat down the Euphrates.

Reuters photographs from Baghouz on Sunday showed dark plumes of smoke rising above houses and palm trees, and SDF fighters shooting into the Islamic State enclave.

While the capture of Baghouz would mark a milestone in the fight against Islamic State, the group is expected to remain a security threat as an insurgent force with sleeper cells and some pockets of remote territory.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Robert Birsel, William Maclean and Hugh Lawson)

Operation to end last IS Syria pocket hits evacuation snag

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gives bread to children near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The operation to destroy Islamic State’s final vestige of rule in Iraq and Syria hit a temporary snag on Thursday, as an expected evacuation of the remaining civilians from its last enclave in eastern Syria did not go ahead.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has steadily driven the jihadists down the Euphrates, has surrounded them at Baghouz near the Iraqi border but does not want to mount a final attack until all civilians are out.

Iraqi sources said the SDF handed over more than 150 Iraqi and other foreign jihadists to Iraq on Thursday, under a deal involving a total of 502.

The SDF had expected to pull the last civilians from Baghouz on Thursday, but trucks it sent in left empty. “We can’t get into details, but today no civilians came out,” SDF official Mustafa Bali told Reuters.

Baghouz is all that remains for Islamic State in the Euphrates valley region that became its final populated stronghold in Iraq and Syria after it lost its major cities of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017.

In Paris, a French source said the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State was verifying whether an air strike killed French jihadist Fabien Clain, who voiced the recording claiming the November 2015 attacks on Paris.

A second French source close to the matter said Clain had been killed and his brother Jean-Michel seriously wounded after a coalition strike on Wednesday in Baghouz.

In the 2015 attacks, gunmen and suicide bombers killed 129 people in the French capital. France’s military, foreign ministry and president’s office declined to comment. The coalition said it could not confirm the information at this time.

The capture of Baghouz will nudge the eight-year-old Syrian war towards a new phase, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge to withdraw troops leaving a security vacuum that other powers are seeking to fill.

Though the fall of Baghouz marks a milestone in the campaign against IS and the wider conflict in Syria, Islamic State is still seen as a major security threat.

The group has steadily turned to guerrilla warfare and still holds territory in a remote, sparsely populated area west of the Euphrates River – a part of Syria otherwise controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.

Bali told Reuters the SDF would attack Baghouz once the civilian evacuation was complete. He did not say how much more time was needed to finish off the remaining Islamic State militants or give a new estimate of how many fighters remained.

The SDF has previously estimated several hundred fighters – believed mostly to be foreign jihadists – are still inside.

A Reuters witness saw warplanes in the sky over Baghouz on Thursday though there was no sound of fighting or shelling.

The U.S.-led coalition said on Wednesday “the most hardened” jihadists remain in Baghouz.

More than 2,000 civilians left the enclave on Wednesday, the SDF said. It has said more than 20,000 civilians left Baghouz in the days leading up to the start of the SDF’s final push to capture the enclave this month.

The SDF has not ruled out the possibility that some Islamic State fighters had left Baghouz with the civilians.

SDF and coalition forces are recording the names and questioning everyone who has left in the civilian convoys.

Many of the people who left the enclave in civilian convoys have been Iraqis, some of whom said they had crossed from Iraq into Syria as Iraqi government forces made gains against Islamic State on the other side of the frontier.

FACING THE CONSEQUENCES

Two Iraqi military sources told Reuters the handover of Islamic State fighters on Thursday was the first of several.

“The majority of the fighters are Iraqi,” said a military colonel whose unit is stationed at the Syrian border. “But we have a few foreigners.”

Islamic State, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all Muslims, in 2014, attracted members from all over the world, including many Western states.

A Turkish official said Turkey was doubling down its own security measures to make it harder for foreign fighters still in Syria or Iraq to pass through Turkey, noting that the threat was much greater than the 800 that the SDF says it is holding.

Western countries refusing to repatriate jihadists were not living up to their responsibilities and leaving countries like Turkey to face the consequences, the official added.

Britain has stripped the citizenship of a teenager who went to Syria aged 15 to join Islamic State. But interior minister Sajid Javid said he would not take a decision that would leave anyone stateless, after Bangladesh said it would not accept her.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a woman born in the United States who joined Islamic State did not qualify for U.S. citizenship and had no legal basis to return to the country.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Raya Jalabi in Erbil, Tom Perry in Beirut and Tulay Karadeniz, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Angus McDowall, William Maclean)

Number of U.S. diplomats doubled in Syria as Islamic State nears defeat: Mattis

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis attends a news conference with French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly (not pictured) at the Defence Ministry in Paris, France, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Idrees Ali

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of U.S. diplomats in Syria has doubled as Islamic State fighters near a military defeat, U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis said on Tuesday.

The U.S.-led coalition, along with local partners, has largely cleared the militant group from Iraq and Syria but remains concerned about its resurgence.

“Our diplomats there on the ground have been doubled in number. As we see the military operations becoming less, we will see the diplomatic effort now able to take (root)” Mattis said.

He did not give a specific number.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mattis was referring to State Department employees, including diplomats and personnel involved in humanitarian assistance, and the increase was recent.

The United States does not have an embassy in Syria.

In a sign of the threat still posed by the militant group, security forces in northern Syria’s Raqqa said on Sunday they had uncovered an Islamic State sleeper cell which was plotting large attacks across the devastated city.

Raqqa served as the de facto capital of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate until it was retaken by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia alliance last October.

In June, the SDF imposed a three-day curfew in Raqqa and declared a state of emergency, saying Islamic State militants had infiltrated the city and were planning a bombing campaign.

“We are still in a tough fight, make no mistake about it,” Mattis said.

He said troops would work after the defeat of Islamic State to ensure that the militant group did not return.

Russia has held the balance of power in Syria, both on the battlefield and in the U.N.-led peace talks, for the past two years. It has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recover huge amounts of lost territory without persuading him to agree to any political reforms.

But nine rounds of talks, most of them in Geneva, have failed to bring the warring sides together to end a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.

The United States has said it will pursue “a strategy of isolation”, including sanctions, with its allies if Assad holds up a political process aimed at ending Syria’s seven-year-old war.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Andrew Roche)

U.S. Navy jets begin sorties against IS in Syria from Mediterranean

F/A-18 fighter jets are seen on the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, May 5, 2018. Picture taken May 5, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Karolina Tagaris

ABOARD USS HARRY S. TRUMAN (Reuters) – A U.S. naval strike force led by aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman began sorties on May 3 against Islamic State in Syria, continuing missions by a U.S.-led coalition against the militants.

The force joined the U.S. Sixth Fleet on April 18, nearly a week after the United States, Britain and France launched air strikes targeting what Western powers said were Syrian chemical weapons installations.

The Navy said it was a scheduled deployment to support coalition partners, NATO allies and U.S. national security interests.

“We commenced combat operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve,” Truman’s commanding officer Captain Nicholas Dienna said, referring to the coalition operation launched in 2014 against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“That operation demonstrates … our resolve to our partners and allies in the region and our continuing fight to eliminate ISIS and their impact to the region,” he said.

Strike fighter squadrons commenced sorties over Syria from the eastern Mediterranean on May 3, the Navy said in a statement.

The most recent aircraft carrier strike group to operate in the sixth fleet was the USS George H.W. Bush which last conducted combat operations from the eastern Mediterranean Sea in July 2017.

The Truman is capable of carrying 90 aircraft, including F-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. It currently has “60 or so” aircraft on board, Truman’s air department officer Commander Steven Djunaedi said.

Several fighter jets were catapulted in sequence on Friday and Saturday from the Truman’s 4.5-acre flight deck and thundered into the sky, a Reuters witness said.

The strike group includes the cruiser USS Normandy and the destroyers Arleigh Burke, Farragut, Forrest Sherman and Bulkeley.

“Our fundamental job, by our presence even alone, is to increase the security and stability here in this part of the world,” Dienna said.

The Nimitz-class carrier was at the center of the U.S. Navy’s strikes against Islamic State in 2016. It returned to its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, after an extended eight-month deployment.

Officials on board would not say how long its latest deployment was expected to last.

“We’ll be here as long as they need us and we’ll move on when they decide we need to go do something else,” the strike group’s commander Rear Admiral Gene Black said.

The United States, Britain and France have all participated in the Syrian conflict, arming rebels, bombing Islamic State fighters and deploying troops on the ground to fight the group.

April’s intervention was the biggest by Western countries against President Bashar Assad and his ally Russia. The countries said the strikes were limited to Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities and not aimed at toppling Assad or intervening in the civil war.

On Friday, the U.S. Navy said it was re-establishing its Second Fleet, responsible for the northern Atlantic Ocean, amid heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow.

Asked to comment on relations with the Russian navy in the Mediterranean, Dienna said: “We’ve had numerous interactions thus far with the Russians across the Mediterranean.

“I have been involved in virtually all of them and every single one of those has been professional, it’s been courteous and it’s been in accordance with international law.”

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

U.S. signals open-ended presence in Syria, seeks patience on Assad’s removal

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is pictured after a photo op during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, January 16, 2018.

By David Brunnstrom

PALO ALTO, Calif. (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday signaled an open-ended military presence in Syria as part of a broader strategy to prevent Islamic State’s resurgence, pave the way diplomatically for the eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and curtail Iran’s influence.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a speech at Stanford University, called for “patience” on Assad’s departure – the clearest indication yet of an acknowledgment that Russia and Iran have bolstered Assad and that he is unlikely to leave power immediately.

Billed as the Trump administration’s new strategy on Syria, the announcement will prolong the risks and redefine the mission for the U.S. military, which has for years sought to define its operations in Syria along more narrow lines of battling Islamic State and has about 2,000 U.S. ground forces in the country.

While much of the U.S. strategy would focus on diplomatic efforts, Tillerson said:

“But let us be clear: the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge,” while acknowledging many Americans’ skepticism of military involvement in conflicts abroad, Tillerson said.

U.S. forces in Syria have already faced direct threats from Syrian and Iranian-backed forces, leading to the shoot-down of Iranian drones and a Syrian jet last year, as well as to tensions with Russia.

Trump administration officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, had previously disclosed elements of the policy but Tillerson’s speech was meant to formalize and clearly define it.

A U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran with an opportunity to reinforce its position in Syria, Tillerson said.

As candidate, U.S. President Donald Trump was critical of his predecessors’ military interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. As president, however, Trump has had to commit to an open-ended presence in Afghanistan and, now, Syria.

The transition to what appears to be open-ended stability operations in Syria could leave those U.S.-backed forces vulnerable to shifting alliances, power struggles and miscommunications as Assad’s allies and enemies vie for greater control of post-war Syria.

After nearly seven years of war, hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed and a humanitarian disaster, Tillerson asked nations to keep up economic pressure on Assad but provide aid to areas no longer under Islamic State’s control.

Tillerson said free, transparent elections in which the Syrian diaspora participate “will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership,” Tillerson said.

“Responsible change may not come as immediately as some hope for, but rather through an incremental process of constitutional reform and U.N.-supervised elections. But that change will come,” he said.

Syrian opposition member Hadi al-Bahra welcomed Tillerson’s announcement but urged more details.

“This is the first time Washington has said clearly it has U.S. interests in Syria that it is ready to defend,” Bahra told Reuters.

However, he said, more clarity was needed on how Washington will force the implementation of the political process and how it “will force the Assad regime into accepting a political settlement that leads to establishing a safe and neutral environment that leads to a transition through free and fair elections.”

“SWISS CHEESE”

The top U.S. diplomat said Washington would carry out “stabilization initiatives” such as clearing landmines and restoring basic utilities in areas no longer under Islamic State control, while making clear that “‘stabilization’ is not a synonym for open-ended nation-building or a synonym for reconstruction. But it is essential.”

Tillerson said the United States would “vigorously support” a United Nations process to end the conflict, a so-far stalled process, and called on Russia, a main supporter of Assad, to “put new levels of pressure” on the Syrian government to “credibly engage” with U.N. peace efforts.

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria said on Wednesday he had invited the Syrian government and opposition to a special meeting next week in Vienna.

But it was not immediately clear how or why Moscow would heed Washington’s oft-repeated demands.

James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who served as a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said that while Tillerson set down the broad parameters of a first comprehensive U.S. strategy for Syria, he left major questions unanswered.

“It’s full of holes like Swiss cheese, but before we just had the holes,” said Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Key questions that Tillerson left unaddressed, he continued, included how long Assad should remain in power and whether he would play a role in any political transition.

Tillerson praised Turkey’s role in taking on Islamic State. Ties between the two countries have been strained over U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic forces, the mainly Kurdish-led militias fighting Islamic State in northern Syria with the help of U.S. forces.

The U.S.-led coalition said on Sunday it was working with the SDF to set up a 30,000-strong force that would operate along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, as well as within Syria.

Assad responded by vowing to crush the new force and drive U.S. troops from Syria. Russia called the plans a plot to dismember Syria and place part of it under U.S. control, and Turkey described the force as a “terror army.”

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, David Alexander and Jonathan Landay; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by James Dalgleish)

New York woman charged with laundering money to help Islamic State

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors said Thursday that they had charged a Long Island, New York woman with laundering more than $85,000 in fraudulently obtained money through Bitcoin to help Islamic State.

Zoobia Shahnaz, 27, was arrested Wednesday on charges of bank fraud, conspiracy and money laundering, the office of Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde in Brooklyn announced. Shahnaz pleaded not guilty on Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen Tomlinson in Central Islip, New York, according to John Marzulli, a spokesman for Rohde’s office.

A lawyer for Shahnaz, Steve Zissou, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Prosecutors said that between March and July of this year, Shahnaz obtained a loan and multiple credit cards by making false representations to financial institutions, and used them to buy Bitcoin.

They said she then laundered the money through illicit transactions involving shell companies in Pakistan, China and Turkey with the ultimate goal of using the money to benefit Islamic State.

In July, prosecutors said, Shahnaz sought to travel to Syria, but was stopped and questioned by law enforcement at John F. Kennedy International Airport when she tried to board a flight to Islamabad, Pakistan.

The most serious charge, bank fraud, carries 30 years in prison, according to Rohde’s office.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)