The central justification for US President Donald Trump’s demand that the United States evacuates its military presence from Syria is that the Islamic State (ISIS) has been defeated. Superficially, and compared to what came before, this argument may not initially appear outlandish.
ISIS declared its ‘caliphate’ after a series of lightning conquests of large stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria. At its height, millions lived under ISIS’s black flag.
ISIS’s domain is much reduced. Its Iraqi and Syrian capitals fell to the global coalition in 2017. Thousands of its fighters have been killed and captured in a losing campaign to defend the caliphate’s physical existence.
Contrary to the terror group’s propaganda, its dominion is no longer ‘remaining and expanding’.
All that remains of ISIS’s holdings in Iraq and Syria is a series of villages on the bank of the Syrian Euphrates. Little wonder, then, that world leaders, including former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and some of the world’s military men, have declared ISIS effectively defeated.
However, this analysis is not entirely correct nor is it convincing.
ISIS’s claim from the beginning was not just that it had created a nation occupying fixed geographical bounds but that it had begun a terror infrastructure that spanned the globe. It has operations, fancifully termed ‘wilayats’ (provinces), in lands as far from Syria as the Philippines and West Africa. Terrorist acts undertaken in ISIS’s name have been committed across the planet.
Reducing ISIS’s caliphate to rubble discredits the physical basis of its global reach and counteracts its more overheated propaganda but its global reach will remain unless specifically and painstakingly dismantled.
Though swathes of Iraq and Syria are no longer coloured in black on maps of the region, ISIS retains the capacity to commit violent acts worthy of its terrorist past, exploiting ungoverned spaces in both countries to retain influence and capacity.
John Arterbury, a Middle East analyst, noted: ‘The battle against ISIS is at a potential inflexion point as it loses its last villages in eastern Syria. Despite this territorial loss, however, ISIS still retains lethal capabilities in Syria.
‘The group likely has clandestine networks stretching from the far east to Idlib in the west, capable of [improvised explosive device] IED production and targeted killings.’
ISIS claimed a bombing January 16 in Manbij, Syria, that killed four Americans and ten fighters affiliated with the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces on the heels of a broader campaign of violence.
‘The group retains some limited freedom of movement in the rural Homs desert. It’s through such desert sanctuaries, as well as its sleeper cell networks, that the group maintains dangerous capabilities stretching from Syria into western Iraq’, Arterbury said.
In Iraq, despite the state’s declaration of victory, ISIS and its affiliated organisations commit acts of terrorism and intimidation, notably around Hawija, which was captured from ISIS in mid-2017.
Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said that, far from having brought ISIS to the brink of defeat, ‘the US ISIS campaign has simply reset the conditions that led to ISIS to begin with in Iraq and the president’s decision to leave Syria will result in an ISIS resurgence there ahead of the 2020 elections’.
Pregent noted the warning of US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who sized up ISIS’s capacity by saying the group is intent on resurging and commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.
‘ISIS will seek to exploit Sunni grievances, societal instability and stretched security forces to regain territory in Iraq and Syria in the long term’, said Coats.
‘All of the underlying dynamics that led to ISIS are arguably worse in 2019 than in 2014’, Pregent said.
The US withdrawal from Syria would likely present a situation similar to what many consider the beginning of ISIS’s resurgence in Iraq.
Arterbury said: ‘If concerted efforts are not made to further prosecute the group, as well as address the conditions in which it arose, it could use these remaining forces as a springboard for regrouping. Its activities in western Iraq show that this may already be occurring’.
The Americans’ withdrawal from Syria would allow ISIS a space it will eagerly fill. As in Iraq, policymakers must deal with a situation in which the terror group perpetuates a campaign of violence to undermine the Iraq state and all sides in the Syrian conflict, subverting the possibility of functioning mainstream politics divorced from violence.
‘Ten-year-old Americans will be fighting in Iraq as 20-year-olds against the next iteration of ISIS and al-Qaeda, as well as against [Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] proxies who continue to grow in strength and capability’, said Pregent.
‘All is not well in Iraq and Syria.’
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.