Report

Watchdog Warns of Islamic State Resurgence

The Pentagon’s inspector general sounds the alarm amid new violence in Syria.

A woman holds a baby as she walks on a street in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa on Oct. 14. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman holds a baby as she walks on a street in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa on Oct. 14. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General is warning in a new report that conditions could be ripe for the Islamic State to resurge in Iraq and Syria, even as new violence erupts between the Turkish and U.S.-backed forces fighting the militants in the region.

The Islamic State has lost all but a fraction of the territory it controlled after it swept Iraq and Syria in 2014. But without improvements to security, stability, and governance in the two countries, the group could soon rise again, the inspector general warned in a report released on Nov. 5.

This assessment comes against the backdrop of renewed violence in northern Syria between Turkey and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which forms the backbone of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State in the war-torn nation. In an attempt to defuse these very tensions, the United States and Turkey agreed several months ago to conduct joint patrols around the town of Manbij on the west bank of the Euphrates River. But as the patrols were set to begin last week, Turkey announced a new offensive against the Kurds on the opposite bank of the river.

The attacks forced the Syrian Democratic Forces on Wednesday to temporarily suspend a campaign against the Islamic State near the Iraqi border, Army Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the group, wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

While there was initially some question as to whether the start of the joint patrols would be delayed due to the attacks, they began on Nov. 1.

Both U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke on the phone on Nov. 2 with their Turkish counterparts about the situation in Syria and the first joint patrols.

“The leaders agreed yesterday’s first combined patrols northwest of Manbij, Syria, were an important step toward de-escalating tensions along the border and maintaining security and stability in the region,” said chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White regarding Mattis’s call with Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar.

The recent instability could contribute to a resurgence of the Islamic State. Although the militant group has lost all its territory in Iraq, it has successfully moved underground and acts as an insurgency in that country, according to the inspector general report.

In Syria meanwhile, the Islamic State has lost 99 percent of its territory but continues to operate as a “hybrid force.” Because many Islamic State fighters are from Iraq or Syria, they can more easily go underground and operate clandestinely as an insurgency, according to the report, which covers the period from July 1 to Sept. 30.

The report also raises questions about whether U.S. troops will need to remain in Iraq for the long term. The report says it will take “years, if not decades” for Iraqi security forces to be capable of fighting the Islamic State without coalition support. Several U.S. officials told the inspector general that U.S. forces could stay in the country as long as Iranian forces and their proxies operate in the region—echoing a new policy proposed by U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Meanwhile, humanitarian efforts focused on supporting and resettling displaced people in both countries are facing obstacles, including sectarian tensions and explosive devices left over from the war, according to the report.

A separate inspector general report released on Nov. 5 highlighted an uptick in activity of the Islamic State in the Philippines. The Islamic State branch operating there has gone without a unified leadership or command structure since the end of the 2017 siege of Marawi. But factions of the group carried out sporadic acts of violence this quarter, including a suicide bombing, according to the report. Officials estimate that approximately 500 fighters were active this quarter, an increase from the estimated 200 last quarter.

While more than 320,000 people have returned to their homes in and around Marawi since the city was overrun by the Islamic State last year, 70,000 residents remain displaced, according to the report. More than 100,000 children still have not returned to school.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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