“But I want to wait for the official word. I don’t want to say it too early.”
Anthony Sheehan, deputy secretary of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, led Australia’s delegation to the meeting.
US officials have said IS has lost 99.5 per cent of its territory in the region and holds on to less than five square kilometres in Syria near the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
But there are fears the impending US pullout will imperil those gains. Trump told coalition members meeting at the State Department that while “remnants” of the group were still dangerous, he was determined to bring US troops home. He called on coalition members to step up and do their “fair share” in the fight against terrorism.
While the withdrawal would fulfil a Trump goal, top military officials have pushed back for months, arguing IS remains a threat and could regroup. US policy had been to keep troops in place until the extremists are completely eradicated.
Fears that IS fighters are making a strategic manoeuvre to lie low ahead of the US pullout have fuelled criticism that Trump had telegraphed his military plans – the same thing he accused President Barack Obama of doing in Afghanistan.
The conference started hours after Trump, in his State of the Union address, lauded what he said was the near-complete victory over IS. He also reaffirmed his determination to pull out the roughly 2000 US troops from Syria. He had said in December that the pullout would proceed quickly.
In liberated areas across Syria and Iraq, IS sleeper cells are carrying out assassinations, setting up checkpoints and distributing fliers as they lay the groundwork for an insurgency that could gain strength as US forces withdraw.
Activists who closely follow the conflict in Syria point to signs of a growing insurgency. Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says IS still has 4000 to 5000 fighters, many probably hiding out in desert caves and mountains.
US Defence officials believe many fighters have fled to ungoverned spaces and other pockets in the north and west.
A US Defence Department watchdog report warned this week that even with the IS forces on the run in Syria, the group “is still able to co-ordinate offensives and counter-offensives, as well as operate as a decentralised insurgency”, and could make a comeback within six to 12 months.