"The United States — more than any nation in the world — possesses the power and the will to hunt to the ends of the Earth those who wish to bring harm to the American people," Esper said at a Pentagon news conference today. "Saturday's operation is just one example of the determination and great skill of the U.S. military."
Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest rather than be captured by the American special operations forces. The raid was the culmination of a multiyear interagency effort to find the terror leader and then capture or kill him.
"His death marks a devastating blow to ISIS, who are now deprived of their inspirational leader following the destruction of their physical caliphate earlier this year," the secretary said. "I'd like to thank our brave service members who took part in this daring raid, along with our interagency partners who supported the mission. There is no guarantee of success in an operation of this level of difficulty."
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. special operations force hit Baghdadi's compound, located in Idlib province in northwestern Syria. "The assault force was engaged by small arms fire, and the threats were quickly eliminated," he said. "Our forces isolated the compound and protected all of the noncombatants.
"While clearing the objective, U.S. forces discovered al-Baghdadi hiding in a tunnel," he continued. "The assault force closed in on Baghdadi, and that ended when he detonated a suicide vest."
Milley said officials tested the remains to ensure it was the ISIS leader and disposed of the remains appropriately. The chairman also said two men were detained from the compound and are in U.S. custody.
Esper praised the professionalism of the joint-service force that conducted the raid. "They executed the raid in all its facets brilliantly," he said: "Not a single United States service member was killed in this high-risk operation."
Despite Baghdadi's death, the security situation in Syria remains complex, the secretary said, noting that state and non-state actors continue to vie for control of territory and resources. "As we have learned from our recent history in the Middle East, it is very easy to get drawn into continued conflict if our objectives are not clear," the secretary said. "Acting as a police force out to solve every dispute is not our mission. Our mission in Syria today remains the same as when we began operations in 2014: to enable the enduring defeat of ISIS."
As part of that mission, the U.S. repositioning of forces within the country will allow U.S. forces to continue the defeat-ISIS mission and give the president options, the secretary said. The rest of the forces will return to the United States.
"Those [troops] that remain will continue to execute counterterrorism operations while staying in close contact with the Syrian Democratic Forces who have fought alongside us," Esper said. "Additionally, the United States will retain control of oil fields in northeast Syria."
The oil fields are important because at the height of Baghdadi's reign, those oil fields provided ISIS with the money needed to fund its terror campaign. "U.S. troops will remain in this strategic area to deny ISIS access to those vital resources," the secretary said. "We will respond with overwhelming force against any group that threatens the safety of our forces there."
The Syrian Democratic Forces can use the revenues from those fields to secure ISIS prison camps and conduct operations against ISIS, he noted.
Esper said that the situation in Syria was a major topic of discussion at the NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels last week. A number of allies expressed their desire to help with the establishment of a safe zone along the Syria/Turkish border. "Turkey bears full responsibility for the consequences of their unwarranted incursion, which has brought further instability to the region," he said.