ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The United States is gearing up to play a greater role in stabilizing Syria. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters that American diplomats and contractors will move into the eastern part of the country now that the Islamic State caliphate there has all but come to an end. Mattis says the hundreds of U.S. troops now on the ground will help those civilian workers rebuild. NPR’s Tom Bowman has more.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: ISIS is on the run, said Secretary Mattis, and American troops are working with local forces in Syria to clear the final pockets of the Islamic State caliphate along the border with Iraq. But Mattis said those U.S. troops, numbering some 2,000, will soon shift to another job – helping what he calls the initial recovery of the cities and towns destroyed during the past three years of war. And that means civilians rather than troops.
JIM MATTIS: You’ll see more U.S. diplomats on the ground, for example. So we’re going to be training people how you clear IEDs. You don’t want amateurs doing this thing. You’re trying to set up – whether it be chlorinated water that prevents cholera, for example, schools open, that sort of stuff.
BOWMAN: Expand on that. What is the plan?
MATTIS: Well, when you bring in more diplomats they’re working the – that initial restoration of services. They bring in the contractors. There is international money that’s got to be administered. That is a diplomat’s job. The military would move them around, make certain they’re protected.
BOWMAN: Protected not only from any Islamic State fighters but potentially from Syrian government forces who are moving east with their Russian and Iranian allies. All three countries have pressed U.S. forces to leave, saying they were never invited into Syria by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Mattis noted the Americans and Russians have worked out a demarcation line. The Americans and their local rebel allies are clearing ISIS to the east of the Euphrates River. The Russians and their allies handle the area to the west. Mattis said it would be a mistake for the Syrian government to interfere with that U.S.-led rebuilding effort. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.