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ISIS Loses Last Toe-Hold In Syria, But Remains A Threat In The Region

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the weekend, ISIS lost its last toehold in Syria. That's according to U.S. officials and their allies on the ground. But there's still work ahead for the U.S.-led coalition. The ISIS leader is still at large, and the terrorist group could still easily spread its ideology in a country devastated by civil war.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the next steps in this fight.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.S. Special Envoy Jim Jeffrey calls it a great day for the coalition whose goal was the, quote, "enduring defeat of ISIS."

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JIM JEFFREY: We're a big step closer to that today. But ISIS still lives on in various cells and in the minds of many of the people in the areas that we've liberated.

KELEMEN: Though President Trump announced last year that the U.S. is withdrawing from Syria, Jeffrey says some U.S. troops will stay on. And so far, there's no timeline for their departure. The U.S. wants to make sure that ISIS can't regroup.

Jeffrey describes ISIS as a low-level insurgency operating in the shadows. At its peak, it controlled vast territories in both Iraq and Syria and had almost 8 million people under its way. Now it controls no one, Jeffrey says.

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JEFFREY: It had somewhere between 35,000 and a hundred thousand fighters. They're all in prison or dead or fled. And now we're working to deal with the immediate situation - humanitarian reconstruction and stability and, essentially, counterinsurgency against ISIS in the northeast of Syria as well as in neighboring Iraq.

KELEMEN: The U.S. envoy says he doesn't know where the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, and finding him remains a priority for the U.S. and its partners.

The Kurdish fighters who helped the U.S. battle ISIS in Syria have another worry. They've captured thousands of ISIS fighters who they describe as a time bomb that the U.S. should help diffuse. They're calling for an international tribunal to prosecute foreign ISIS fighters rounded up in the campaign, but Jeffrey says the U.S. is not looking at that option now.

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JEFFREY: Right now, the focus is on getting countries to take back their own foreign terrorist fighters.

KELEMEN: The majority of the detained ISIS fighters are Syrian or Iraqi, and Jeffrey says they should be sent back to their communities for deradicalization and reintegration or punishment.

At his news conference today, Jeffrey also called on coalition partners to do more to pay for the costs of rebuilding areas once controlled by ISIS. The Trump administration has been drastically cutting its assistance.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, The State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOODS' "WHERE I MET YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.