WASHINGTON — The U.S. will continue to lead the fight against Islamic State militants in the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted Wednesday — notwithstanding President Donald Trump‘s apparent impatience to get American soldiers out of Syria.
Pompeo made the commitment as he kicked off the annual gathering of ministers, dignitaries and officials at the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, a 79-member group that includes Canada. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was late to the party, missing the morning session and the midday group photo thanks to weather delays in Toronto.
“The drawdown of troops is essentially a tactical change — it is not a change in the mission,” Pompeo said in his opening remarks.
“It does not change the structure, design, or authorities on which the campaign has been based. It simply represents a new stage in an old fight. The drawdown will be well-co-ordinated, and our policy priorities in Syria remain unchanged.”
WATCH: U.S. secretary of state vows to lead fight against ISIS despite withdrawal of troops
Trump, fresh from a state of the union speech in which he doubled down on pulling out of “endless wars,” addressed the group later in the day — a change in the schedule that appeared aimed at placating coalition members fearful that a U.S. withdrawal would spark a resurgence in the Islamic State, a group also variously known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
Trump did not directly address the issue of troops coming home, but did claim the coalition has retaken virtually all of the territory once claimed by the Islamic State group to be part of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
“It should be formally announced sometime, probably next week, that we will have 100 per cent of the caliphate, but I want to wait for the official word,” he said, later warning that it would be impossible to completely scrub the Middle East free of extremism.
WATCH: Trump says news on recapture of ISIS-held land expected ‘soon’
“You’re always going to have people; they’ll be around — they’re sick; they’re demented,” Trump said. “But you’re going to have them, no matter how well we do militarily. You can’t do better than we’ve done militarily, but you’ll have people that will be around. And we’ll search ’em out, and you’ll search ’em out, and we’ll find ’em, and hopefully they won’t be around very long.”
Freeland was scheduled to meet Wednesday with Sen. Jim Risch, the Indiana Republican who helms the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and on Thursday with Sen. Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate finance committee, to talk tariffs and trade.
A spokesman for Freeland said the minister is keen to talk to members of Congress about the importance of ratifying the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and the economic imperative of convincing the Trump administration to lift its tariffs on steel and aluminum.
Trump didn’t mention the metals tariffs Tuesday night, but he did urge the joint session of Congress to approve the agreement, which he billed as a vast improvement over the “historic trade blunder” of NAFTA.
WATCH: U.S. urging allies to bring home foreign ISIS fighters
“I hope you can pass the USMCA into law so we can bring back our manufacturing jobs in even greater numbers, expand American agriculture, protect intellectual property, and ensure that more cars are proudly stamped with our four beautiful words: ‘Made in the U.S.A.'”
A number of Democrats, as well as some Republicans, have expressed misgivings about the new agreement, in particular what Democrats say is a lack of enforcement tools for the deal’s labour and environment provisions. While some issues could be dealt with in the implementation bill on which members would vote, ratification is far from certain.
Some on Capitol Hill, including Texas Republican Kevin Brady, the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, have suggested Congress may resist bringing the agreement to a vote unless and until the tariffs are lifted.
Grassley has suggested a different approach: pull out of the underlying NAFTA agreement if it becomes impossible to satisfy Congress without going back to the negotiating table, widely seen as a non-starter.
WATCH: ISIS would pose enduring threat after planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, says top U.S. general