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Done Or Dormant? Council On Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Says ISIS Remains A Force


The gulf between President Trump and his intelligence officials opened wider this week. On North Korea, Iran and the security threat posed by climate change, the assessment of leaders of the U.S. intelligence agencies differed dramatically from that of the president when they appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee. When it comes to ISIS, the terror group which President Trump has declared beaten, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said, quote, "ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria." Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Great to join you.

SIMON: You were, I gather, in northeast Syria when President Trump ordered U.S. troops out of Syria. What did you see? How did you react?

LEMMON: I was actually there while President Erdogan of Turkey was threatening to invade. And that was - certainly made for an interesting moment when you were talking to U.S.-backed forces who immediately said, are the Americans going to allow this? You know, we fought ISIS with you for years. What is going to come next for us?

SIMON: Well - and help us understand what you said to them.

LEMMON: (Laughter) I mean, as you can imagine, Scott - right? - there is no immediate or good answer right then in that moment. But what I said was that I think it is not lost on the U.S. policymaking community the sacrifices. You know, if you go around northeast Syria, you see row after row of white marble tombstones, which are the young people - thousands of young people - who have given their lives in the ISIS fight. I interviewed the father of a young woman who was killed in a fight against ISIS in Kobani and he said, look; we never expected this would be our daughter's fate, but we're very proud if it's part of something bigger. And we just hope this will bring lasting stability.

SIMON: Is ISIS done for?

LEMMON: The territory that ISIS holds is certainly no longer in their hands, but it is much easier to kill a terrorist than it is to slay an ideology. And what I saw over and over in talking to folks was that people are really pushing forward. So in the city of Raqqa, I met this young man who sells perfume, and he didn't want his photograph taken because everyone is concerned about what comes next. But he said I want to tell you that things are much better. I used to have 20 or 30 customers a day. Then I posted my shop on Facebook, and now I have 50 or 60. And all we want is for ISIS to really stay at bay and for stability to continue. We'll do the work. We just want some help in keeping ISIS - you know, keeping the pressure on ISIS.

And, you know, one commander I was going to interview, she called me and said, you know, I'm going to be late. And, in fact, I don't think I'll be able to come today because ISIS had put an IED under her teammate's car as they left Raqqa on a routine patrol. So what you see is a force that wants to reemerge. And to date, the U.S.-backed forces have done a pretty powerful job in keeping them underground.

SIMON: What would the effect of U.S. withdrawal be?

LEMMON: The question is how and what next, right? Because, you know, the question is, is a vacuum left, which would undoubtedly be filled by ISIS? And then how do you deal with that reemergent threat? Because right now, what I think is so often lost, Scott, is that U.S. policy is actually leading toward real forward momentum and actual progress on the ground for moms and dads who are fighting every single day on the front line of extremism. You know, one mom I interviewed runs a pajama shop who talked to me about how her daughter was nearly arrested by ISIS for wearing pajamas out in the street that had a smiley face on them. And she said all we want is to just, you know, be able to live our lives and send our kids to school.

And thus far, U.S.-backed forces have actually brought a level of stability that has allowed that to happen. And so if you have the Americans pullout, which is kind of the Oz that is holding this all together - because you don't see them, but you know they're there - the question is, who fills that vacuum? And then would the U.S. have to go back in to deal with it again?

SIMON: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you so much for being with us.

LEMMON: Great to join you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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