Report

Fears Rise of an ISIS Comeback

The U.S. drawdown could provide a dangerous opening for the Islamic State to resurge.

A woman carries a bag containing her belongings at the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp for displaced people in northeastern Syria on June 3.
A woman carries a bag containing her belongings at the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp for displaced people in northeastern Syria on June 3. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

With the United States continuing its drawdown in Syria, experts fear that the Islamic State could return stronger than ever unless other nations step in—but no replacement forces have yet been committed.

“Our expectation is the slack will be taken up by coalition forces — and we are getting a very encouraging response from them,” James Jeffrey, the top U.S. envoy to Syria and the counter-Islamic State coalition, said in an interview with Defense One in Brussels on Friday. He added that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria—promised in a December tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump, which prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis—was continuing on pace.

But so far, no partner forces have committed to sending additional forces to fill the gap when the majority of U.S. troops depart, potentially providing a dangerous opening for the terrorist group to resurge.

Without some level of American commitment, both political and in the form of funding for operations and stabilization, it’s unlikely key allies will step up to the plate, said Melissa Dalton, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We really do serve as the political backbone of this operation and for those critical enabling partners,” Dalton said.

The first step toward getting partners, such as the British or the French, to shore up additional support is brokering an agreement between the Turks and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to secure the border, Dalton said.

The French, for example, have been very clear that they are there for counterterrorism and will not participate in a “border monitoring role,” said one U.K. official, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

Jeffrey is in the midst of brokering such an agreement, but the delicate negotiations are vulnerable to outside events—an economic downturn in Turkey, a dispute between Washington and Ankara over a Russian missile system, and others.

The Turks want assurances that the SDF—predominantly made up of Kurdish fighters, which Turkey views as a terrorist group—won’t use northeastern Syria to launch attacks on southern Turkey, while the SDF fears that the Turks will invade the vulnerable border towns.

Without U.S. or allied support to sustain the security and stabilization gains the coalition has made, it’s likely that the Islamic State will “over time be able to prey upon local grievances,” as it did in the lead-up to the 2014 takeover, and eventually “reconstitute and be able to take territory,” Dalton stressed.

As of August 2018, the Islamic State had as many as 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria—far more than the 700-1,000 fighters its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, had in 2011, when the United States withdrew, according to a new report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) that warns of the risk for an Islamic State resurgence. During the gradual fall of the caliphate, the group quietly dispersed across both countries and is now waging a capable insurgency, boosted by a global financial network and sufficient supplies, including weapons, hidden in tunnel systems.

“ISIS began reconstituting key capabilities in late 2018 that will enable it to wage an even more aggressive insurgency in coming months,” according to the report, which noted that the group declared the start of a new global campaign called the “Battle of Attrition” on May 31.

The primary reason the insurgency will grow is that the territory it lost in Iraq and Syria is still “neither stable nor secure,” according to the report. The Islamic State is targeting government officials and village leaders in order to degrade governance structures and impede reconstruction efforts.

If the United States withdraws, the Islamic State will likely succeed in reestablishing territorial control in Iraq and Syria, the report concludes. Without an American presence, disparate SDF elements will fracture, vital intelligence and air operations will cease, and Turkey may invade northeastern Syria. A Turkish invasion would cause the SDF to pull forces away from the Middle Euphrates River Valley, “creating even more space in which ISIS could re-emerge.”

Despite the drawdown, the U.S. Defense Department insists that the U.S. military is committed to working with its regional partners in order to prevent the “significant threat” of an Islamic State resurgence.

“Ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS remains a vital U.S. national security interest,” said Michael Mulroy, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, during an event last week. “Even though the so-called caliphate is defeated, ISIS remains a significant threat.”

Mulroy said the United States is continuing to partner with local forces to build the security forces necessary to stabilize the region. The 5,200 U.S. forces currently operating in Iraq, along with the rest of the anti-Islamic State coalition, are helping to train and equip the 28 Iraqi brigades, comprising thousands of soldiers, that were on the front lines of the Islamic State fight, he said.

In Syria, the United States must support local partners, such as the SDF, to stabilize the areas that have been liberated from Islamic State control, Mulroy said. One focus is helping the SDF and its civilian counterparts to manage significant humanitarian and security challenges at Al-Hol and other camps for displaced people in northeastern Syria, he said. In addition, another challenge for the SDF is handling over 2,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 50 countries the group has detained. The United States must press partners to repatriate their citizens, Mulroy stressed.

Mulroy also highlighted the work of another coalition partner in Syria, the Maghawir al-Thawra, a force comprising Arab tribal members that continues to conduct daily patrols in the 34-mile deconfliction zone around the Tanf garrison in the south.

“The priority now is to ensure U.S. and coalition investments in the D-ISIS fight outlive the warfighting of the last five years,” Mulroy said, referring to the fight to destroy the Islamic State.

Mulroy also called the Jordanian armed forces a “crucial ally” in combating extremism.

But if Jeffrey is to be believed, the United States will soon reduce its footprint in the region, which could severely hamper the ability of local forces to defend against an Islamic State comeback.

“The U.S. is repeating a critical mistake by deprioritizing this effort at a pivotal moment when our gains are at their most fragile,” the ISW report warned. “The U.S. must take immediate steps to dampen ISIS’s resurgence in Iraq and Syria, including halting and reversing America’s ongoing withdrawal from Syria.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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