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.