White House again claims defeat of ISIS caliphate in Syria as fighting continues

(CNN) — The White House announced Friday that the ISIS caliphate in Syria has been 100% defeated, but CNN’s team on the ground reported that US-backed forces are still working to clear final pockets of fighters holed up in tunnels alongside the now-cleared village of Baghouz, the group’s last stronghold.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had briefed President Donald Trump on the development as he flew to Florida on Friday and additional information would “soon” come from the Pentagon.

Hours after the announcement the Pentagon had not commented.

Later Friday, a US Defense official told CNN that the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the US-led coalition are still fighting the last remnants of ISIS in eastern Syria.

“The SDF is still encountering fighting in the caves under Baghouz. The fighting is still going on,” the official said.

The CNN team on the ground in eastern Syria said Friday that it continues to see airstrikes and hear heavy gunfire.

“There has been gunfire coming out of the ISIS positions, which are, admittedly, a very small piece of territory on the edge of a hill outside the eastern end of this town of Baghouz,” CNN Senior International Correspondent Ben Wedeman reported from his position overlooking the village.

“If you were to look at the amount of territory, it is very small indeed, but the fighting goes on,” he added.

Syrian Democratic Forces spokesman Mustafa Bali told CNN that while the battle is all but over, some final ISIS holdouts remain.

“The WH statement doesn’t contradict ours: we also believe that ISIS was defeated. There are some groups that refuse to surrender. Our Forces with the assistance of the Coalition forces are working to force them to surrender and defeat them,” he said.

Earlier this month, Trump declared that US backed-forces had retaken 100% of the territory once claimed by ISIS in Syria, an announcement that surprised US officials and regional allies leading the fight, who told CNN at the time that the battle was not over.

“We just took over, you know, you kept hearing it was 90%, 92%, the caliphate in Syria, now it’s 100%. We just took over 100% caliphate, that means the area of the land we’re just have 100%, so that’s good,” Trump said while addressing US troops at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska on his return trip from Hanoi, Vietnam.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, the President had pulled out a sheet of paper to demonstrate the success against ISIS, showing two maps of the terror group’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria, maps he said: “just came out 20 minutes ago.”

“Election night in 2016, everything red is ISIS,” Trump said, pointing to the red on the map.

“Now on the bottom, there is no red,” he said, adding, “Actually, a tiny spot, which will be gone by tonight.”

Sanders showed reporters aboard Air Force One a similar map Friday depicting ISIS-held territory in Syria in 2014 compared with today.

Earlier this week, Trump also disputed the characterization that he had changed his strategy in Syria by leaving some US troops there for a period, despite previously announcing that all US troops would be withdrawn.

“No, no. We’re leaving 200 people there and 200 in another place closer to Israel,” he told reporters Wednesday on the White House South Lawn when asked if he had reversed course.

One contingent of troops will be stationed in northeast Syria, where they will be part of a multinational force tasked with helping to prevent an ISIS resurgence and helping to prevent clashes between Turkey and America’s Kurdish-led Syrian allies.

The remainder will be at At Tanf, Syria, a base near the Syria-Jordan border that allows the US to monitor and target some of the ISIS remnants who operate west of the Euphrates River. The US presence there also denies Iran and its proxies access to a strategic highway connecting Syria and Iraq that runs near the base, a US presence that Iran’s adversary Israel is seen as keen on keeping in place.

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