ISIS A Big Winner After Trump’s Retreat

ISIS is quickly taking advantage of the abrupt American withdrawal from northern Syria.

As the United States withdraws from its positions in northern Syria to relatively safer areas, ISIS is joining the Turks and Syrians in taking advantage of the vacuum:

American forces and their Kurdish-led partners in Syria had been conducting as many as a dozen counterterrorism missions a day against Islamic State militants, officials said. That has stopped.

Those same partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, had also been quietly releasing some Islamic State prisoners and incorporating them into their ranks, in part as a way to keep them under watch. That, too, is now in jeopardy.

And across Syria’s porous border with Iraq, Islamic State fighters are conducting a campaign of assassination against local village headmen, in part to intimidate government informants.

When President Trump announced this month that he would pull American troops out of northern Syria and make way for a Turkish attack on the Kurds, Washington’s onetime allies, many warned that he was removing the spearhead of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Now, analysts say that Mr. Trump’s pullout has handed the Islamic State its biggest win in more than four years and greatly improved its prospects. With American forces rushing for the exits, in fact, American officials said last week that they were already losing their ability to collect critical intelligence about the group’s operations on the ground.

“There is no question that ISIS is one of the big winners in what is happening in Syria,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a research center in London.

Cutting support for the Syrian Democratic Forces has crippled the ability of the United States and its former partners to hunt down the group’s remnants.

News of the American withdrawal set off jubilation among Islamic State supporters on social media and encrypted chat networks. It has lifted the morale of fighters in affiliates as far away as Libya and Nigeria.

And, by removing a critical counterforce, the pullout has eased the re-emergence of the Islamic State’s core as a terrorist network or a more conventional, and potentially long-lasting, insurgency based in Syria and Iraq.

Although Mr. Trump has repeatedly declared victory over the Islamic State — even boasting to congressional leaders last week that he had personally “captured ISIS” — it remains a threat. After the loss in March of the last patch of the territory it once held across Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State dispersed its supporters and fighters to blend in with the larger population or to hide out in remote deserts and mountains.

The group retains as many as 18,000 “members” in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners, according to estimates cited in a recent Pentagon report. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, is still at large.

“Our battle today is one of attrition and stretching the enemy,” Mr. al-Baghdadi declared in a video message released in April. Looking comfortable and well fed, he sat on the floor of a bare room, surrounded by fighters, with an assault rifle by his side.

“Jihad is ongoing until the day of judgment,” he told his supporters, according to a transcript provided by SITE Intelligence Group.


[A]s an underground insurgency, the Islamic State appears to be on the upswing.

Militants have been carrying out “assassinations, suicide attacks, abductions, and arson of crops in both Iraq and Syria,” according to a report this summer by the Pentagon inspector general for operations against the Islamic State. It is establishing “resurgent cells” in Syria, the report said, and “seeking to expand its command and control nodes in Iraq.”

The militants have been burning crops and emptying out whole villages. They have been raising money by carrying out kidnappings for ransom and extorting “taxes” from local officials, often skimming a cut of rebuilding contracts.

Their attacks on village headmen — at least 30 were killed in Iraq in 2018, according to the Pentagon report — are an apparent attempt to scare others out of cooperating with Baghdad.

“The high operational tempo with multiple attacks taking place over a wide area” may be intended to create the appearance that the Islamic State can strike anywhere with “impunity,” the report said.

President Trump, of course, has claimed for the better part of a year now that he and he alone defeated ISIS. Indeed, it’s something he claimed again yesterday while speaking to the press in a bizarre twenty-minute monologue prior to the start of a Cabinet meeting. The reality, of course, is quite different. While the entity that called itself the “Islamic State” and claimed to establish a Caliphate based in Raqqa, Syria has essentially lost all of its territory and its dubious claim to statehood, that does not mean that ISIS has disappeared as a force to be reckoned with. For one thing, ISIS fighters and groups that pledged allegiance to ISIS around the world in places as diverse geographically as Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and Central Africa remained active notwithstanding the fate of the Caliphate.

In addition to this, the defeat of the Caliphate did not mean that the fighters that had been fighting on the ground suddenly disappeared. Many of them slipped into Iraq to continue the fight there. Others went into hiding, waiting for the opportunity to re-emerge and continue their fight. Now, thanks to President Trump and his betrayal of the Syrian Kurds means that those ISIS fighters have been given free rein to come out of hiding and resume their fight, while others who were being guarded by those same Kurds have been freed and are likely to either return to Europe to commit acts of terror there or returning to the field to resume the fight on the ground. And we can they can thank Donald Trump for their new-found opportunity.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Syria, Terrorism, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    ISIS wins.
    Putin wins.
    Assad wins.
    Erdogan wins.
    America gets nothing, really. A sullied reputation.
    And, likely, down the road some Kurdish kid who saw family members killed will sign onto ISIS and commit a horrendous terror attack against the US, for our role in this debacle.
    So much winning…
    Forget Putin and Xi…Trump is getting played by third rate dictators like Kim and Erdogan. Such a pathetic little loser…

  2. Kathy says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Forget Putin and Xi…Trump is getting played by third rate dictators like Kim and Erdogan.

    And he gets a black eye from them, by running full speed to smash their fists with his eye.

  3. CSK says:

    But…but…Trump said that he, himself personally vanquished ISIS. This can’t possibly be true.

    Can it?

  4. Teve says:

    At yesterday’s White House cabinet meeting, Donald Trump seemed eager, if not desperate, to characterize himself as the world’s fiercest and most effective foe of the ISIS terrorist network.

    “I’m the one — meaning it was me and this administration, working with others, including the Kurds — that captured all of these people that we’re talking about right now,” the president said. He added, “I’m the one that did the capturing. I’m the one that knows more about it than you people…. As you know, most of the ISIS fighters that we captured — ‘we.’ We. Not Obama. We. We captured them. Me.”


  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    So much winning.

  6. JohnSF says:

    He really is away with the fairies, isn’t he?

  7. CSK says:

    @JohnSF: You must have Celtic ancestors. 😀

  8. Scott says:
  9. Pylon says:

    The ISIS flag looks like Trump’s signature upside down. Just sayin’.

  10. Slugger says:

    For those who don’t read Arabic, the banner says “Thanks Don, you’re the greatest!”

  11. CSK says:

    @Slugger: You might want to be careful there. If Trump sees your comment, he’ll take it seriously and Tweet it.

  12. de stijl says:

    It amuses me and appalls me that Rs think they are the “adults in the room” and feel emboldened by the last presidential election they won to wreak absolute havoc.

    Jarring and shocking dislocations of norms and SOPs in economics and the conduct of warfare. Rs give us massive deficits and torture memos and insanely counterproductive Middle East wars.

    And so gullible! Bush 43 and his team got snookered by Iran. Trump got snookered by Putin (or Putin owns Trump’s compliance).

    I’m tired of people who claim the mantle of realistic domestic and foreign policy being absolute push-overs for falling for what they want to believe rather than what is.

    Rs are the Party of confirmation bias, hubris, and radicalism.

    Bush 43 was the worst President we’ve ever had until the next R President in Trump.

    (Bush 43 had a bigger bodycount, but Trump has created more havoc, so reasonable people could switch my ranking.)

    We are sick of cleaning up the messes you create. You folks have given us the worst two Presidents in our history in the last two elections you “won”. Utterly unfit, shockingly inept, obtuse, incurious, mercurial, radical, gullible, and incompetent.

    You are not the defenders of the Republic. By your actions, you are killing it.

  13. JohnSF says:

    That’s a yes. 🙂
    Some Irish, some Welsh, but mostly English, though my surname’s an Irish one by origin.

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: (Yes, I do know the answer to this question, BTW.) Then, does it also follow that “we” ‘re responsible for releasing all of those ISIS prisoners by ditching our ally who was containing them? We? Trump? Him?

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @de stijl: For me the overall havoc and ineptitude overshadow the body count, so let’s compromise by saying the Bush 43 was the most needlessly and senselessly brutal and Trump the most comprehensively inept of history. That work?

  16. de stijl says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I’m totally cool with that.