The fall of the ISIS caliphate on March 23, 2019 marks a shift in Syria and the U.S. counterterrorism strategy for the future. Photo Credit: Reuters
By: Adrienne Thompson, Columnist
On March 23, 2019, US backed Kurdish forces defeated ISIS’s last occupied Syrian village. Subsequently, President Trump announced the liberation of 100% of ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria.[i] Going forward, President Trump will begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, while leaving 400 behind to monitor the borders of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.[ii] He has promised to continue cooperating with US partners and allies in efforts against ISIS and remain vigilant for any threats posed to American interests.[iii] While the fall of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq marks a major victory, the premature withdrawal of US troops in Syria gives rise to conditions for the resurgence of ISIS and leaves US allies and interests open to challenges from their adversaries. Going forward, the U.S. should develop a clear and feasible counterterrorism strategy to ensure the defeat of ISIS, and continue to cooperate closely with its allies to secure its interests in the Middle East.
Despite the U.S.’s liberation of ISIS-held territory, it is still questionable whether to consider ISIS to be defeated versus degraded due to the possibility of the group’s resurgence in the future. ISIS’s occupation of territories in Iraq and Syria not only provided a hub for the terrorist organization, but permitted the group to claim the territory as a “holy land” for its own state.[iv] Having their own “state” allowed ISIS to conform a society to their ideologies, give them a home base, and earn funding. ISIS gathered technology, acquired weapons, and financed their missions by taxing their occupied territories, and earned an estimated $800 million in taxes annually.[v] With the loss of key territories, ISIS has relinquished much of its stronghold, its authority, and power.
Rather than lapsing into complete defeat, however, ISIS uses its ideology and even its losses to survive. Most ISIS terrorists are killed by trying to defend their occupied territory, thus the destruction of ISIS strongholds in Iraq and the Levant mean that fewer terrorists die in its defense.[vi] Furthermore, through online technology, ISIS spreads its ideologies for recruitment and to inspire new attacks beyond the territories it formerly held in the Middle East. Without a home base, it is also more difficult to estimate now hidden locations of ISIS militants and sleeper cells. According to James Jeffrey, U.S. Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, there is still an estimate of 15,000 to 20,000 active ISIS militants in the region.[vii] While the loss of the caliphate has contributed to a decrease in ISIS militants and its stronghold in the region, such advantages could contribute to ISIS’s resurgence.
The projected withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria decreases U.S. influence in the region and leaves Syria open to the designs of U.S. adversaries. In December 2019, Trump declared a previous victory over ISIS stating, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,”[viii] making it clear that the U.S.’s main objective is to defeat ISIS. With the caliphate gone, remaining in Syria no longer seems relevant, but Russian and Iranian interests in Syria pose a threat to the U.S.’s influence in the Middle East. Syria is still in an ongoing civil war between separatist groups and the Bashar al-Assad regime, with Russia and Iran supporting the Assad regime to advance their agendas in the Middle East. Iran’s main goal is to create a land corridor extending from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria as a method to transport weapons and to deter Israel. This would leave the U.S.’s ally Israel susceptible to attacks from Iran vis-à-vis Hezbollah.[ix] It also questionable what would happen to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and other local rebel groups, once U.S. troops leave. The U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Syria fighting and training Kurdish forces to combat ISIS, and while it has produced great results, a U.S. departure leaves the Kurds vulnerable to its adversary Turkey, who wants to prevent Kurds from establishing any settlement.[x] A US departure not only affects the role of ISIS in the region, but also the role its adversaries will have in shaping Syria and the Middle East, and the U.S.’s relationship with its allies in the future.
Moving forward, the U.S. should formulate a clear counterterrorism strategy with an emphasis on cyber capabilities, to monitor clues of ISIS recruitment and identify potential militants. The U.S. should also maintain support to its allies to ensure that they are not blindsided by U.S. strategy and left defenseless against common adversaries. The U.S. should provide continued training to Kurdish forces to prevent an ISIS resurgence, and also ensure Kurdish protection from Turkey.[xi] Continued US assistance to Kurdish forces could also deter Iran. Furthermore, Trump has promised Israel continual support with a U.S. withdrawal, but his plans to put such support into action remain unclear.[xii] If the U.S. turns its back on its allies within the region, this damages the trust that has been built and weakens U.S. influence. Ultimately, the U.S. should set achievable goals and priorities to ensure its interests in an ISIS liberated Syria.[xiii]
[i] Donald Trump, “Statement from the President on the Liberation of ISIS-Controlled Territory,” The White House, March 23, 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-liberation-isis-controlled-territory/.
[ii] BBC News, “IS ‘caliphate’ defeated but jihadist groups remains a threat,” March 23, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-45547595.
[iii] Donald Trump, “Statement from the President on the Liberation of ISIS-Controlled Territory.”
[iv] Kathy Gilsinan, “The ‘Caliphate’ is Dead, but Americans Might Not Be Any Safer, “ The Atlantic, March 23, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/03/us-safer-islamic-state-gone/584110/.
[v] Daniel Byman, “What Comes After ISIS?” Foreign Policy, February 22, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/02/22/isiss-success-was-also-its-undoing-syria-sdf-islamic-state/.
[vii] BBC News, “IS ‘caliphate’ defeated but jihadist groups remains a threat.”
[viii] Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne, and Nicole Gaouette, “Trump orders rapid withdrawal from Syria in apparent reversal,” CNN, December 19, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/19/politics/us-syria-withdrawal/index.html.
[ix] Alexander Pearson and Lewis Sanders IV, “Syria conflict: What do the US, Russia, Turkey, and Iran want?” Deutsche Welle, January 23, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/syria-conflict-what-do-the-us-russia-turkey-and-iran-want/a-41211604.
[x] Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne, and Nicole Gaouette, “Trump orders rapid withdrawal from Syria in apparent reversal,” CNN, December 19, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/19/politics/us-syria-withdrawal/index.html
[xi] Jared Szuba, “ISIS’s ‘caliphate was crushed. Now Syria’s Kurd-led alliance faces bigger battles,” The Defense Post, March 29, https://thedefensepost.com/2019/03/29/syria-sdf-kurds-face-bigger-battles-isis/.
[xii] Alexander, Griffing, “Trump Promises to ‘protect Israel’ from Syria, but what does that mean?” Haaretz, February 11, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-trump-promises-to-protect-israel-from-syria-but-what-does-that-mean-1.6917039.
[xiii] Michael E. O’Hanlon, “4 essential elements of a U.S. strategy on Syria,” Brookings, April 17, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/04/17/4-essential-elements-of-a-u-s-strategy-on-syria/.