Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan on Tuesday said forces in Syria are weeks away from gaining control of all ISIS-held territory in the country, and officials are monitoring the political situation in Venezuela before providing potential support options to the administration and State Department.
In his first press briefing since taking over the Pentagon following Secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation, Shanahan adhered closely to his predecessor’s strategic approach and reiterated the department would remain focused on security tenants outlined in the current National Defense Strategy.
“The terrain is not different or new. I spent the better part of 18 months, if you will, sitting in the right seat of the cockpit with Secretary Mattis in the left seat,” the former deputy secretary said.
Shanahan clarified the U.S. is in the “early stages” of a withdrawal process from Syria process, adding forces will have liberated 100 percent all ISIS-controlled territory within the next couple weeks.
“We are on a deliberate, coordinated, disciplined withdrawal,” Shanahan said. “ISIS is no longer able to govern in Syria. ISIS no longer has freedom to mass forces. Syria’s no longer a safe haven. We’ve eliminated the majority of their leadership”
The U.S. will remain in the country until officials can sustain local security efforts, with recent discussions offering “real promise,” Shanahan said.
Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, offered a different picture of ISIS during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday, adding the terrorist group remains set on regaining territory in the region.
“ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria,” Coats said. “[The group] will seek to exploit Sunni grievances, societal instability, and stretched security forces to regain territory in Iraq and Syria in the long term.”
A new threat assessment report the DNI office released Tuesday describes a continued ISIS presence in Syria while offering the group has lost territory and many leaders.
“ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses,” officials wrote in the report.
Shanahan said the Pentagon is continuing discussions with allies to address challenges specifically in the Northern border of Syria.
“The mil-to-mil conversations have been very strong with our coalition partners. Those conversations have translated into discussions with their senior diplomats and politicians, and there are very important dialogues going on in major capitals in Europe about support to that portion of Syria,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan cited the same “wait and see” approach with the current political situation in Venezuela, offering the Pentagon is monitoring developments without confirming if military action would considered an option.
“We are monitoring the situation very carefully, and we’re watching,” Shanahan said. “As the situation in Venezuela evolves, we’re there to give [the National Security Council] advice and counsel and support.”
President Trump in recent days recognized Juan Guaido as winner of Venezuela’s presidential election over Nicolas Maduro, with the country facing newly approved sanctions and continued political unrest.
At a White House press briefing on Monday, National Security Adviser John Bolton was seen with a notepad and “5,000 troops to Colombia” written down.
Shanahan declined to comment if the Pentagon would consider such an option, clarifying he had not discussed that plan with Bolton.