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Conflict in Syria: Ensuring ISIS’ Defeat

May 02, 2019
For nearly eight years, civil war has been raging in Syria. Pro-democracy forces, Islamist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Kurdish separatists form separate factions in the struggle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The United States military has also played an active role in the conflict, both engaging in firefights with and conducting air strikes against enemy targets.[1] However, on December 19th 2018, President Donald Trump claimed victory over ISIS and announced that a withdrawal of American ground troops was imminent.[2]

Foreign policy experts in the White House Administration have expressed reservations about the withdrawal. National Security Advisor John Bolton contradicted the President’s assessment of ISIS’ defeat, claiming in January 2019 that American troops would not “be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone.”[3] Furthermore, the principle reason for former-Defense Secretary James Mattis’ December departure from the Pentagon was due to his disapproval of the proposed troop withdrawal, according to National Public Radio.[4]

So, has ISIS truly been defeated? A report conducted by the Pentagon Inspector General between July and September 2018 states that, “ISIS has lost roughly 99 percent of the territory in Syria that it once held. Despite this, the report also characterizes ISIS as “as an adaptive organization capable of exploiting vulnerabilities in the security environment.”[5] The Pentagon report claims that ISIS’ enemies have all but completely liberated the terrorist group’s zones of occupation. However, the territorial defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria does not amount to a total victory over the terrorist organization. The report argues that defeating ISIS requires more than conventional territorial victories. A potential withdrawal of U.S. ground forces would constitute an example of a “vulnerability in the security environment” that could allow ISIS to reconstitute itself territorially. Furthermore, in February 2019, a new Pentagon draft report on Syria was released which claimed that ISIS could “regain territory in six to twelve months in the absence of sustained military pressure.”[6]

Image: Figure 1 - ISIS territorial changes from 2015 to 2018. Source: BBC

Image: Figure 1 - ISIS territorial changes from 2015 to 2018. Source: BBC

The Pentagon’s reports echo earlier warnings given by the United Nations. In an August 2018 meeting with the United Nations Security Council, UN counter-terrorism official Vladimir Volonkov stated that despite “significant” losses in Iraq and Syria, ISIS had evolved into a “covert global network.”[7] On January 11, 2019, Colonel Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. campaign against ISIS, announced that the military had begun withdrawing equipment from Syria.[8] However, 5 days after his declaration, a suicide bombing, for which ISIS claimed responsibility, resulted in the deaths of 2 U.S. troops and 2 civilians in the country, casting doubt on claims of the terrorist group’s defeat.[9] In addition, the recent attacks in Sri Lanka have been attributed to ISIS and emphasize the global reach of the organization.[10]

Furthermore, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria could embolden America’s traditional adversaries, Iran and Russia. Will Todman and John B. Alterman of the foreign policy think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies claim that Iran would have better military access to its ally Lebanon in the absence of American troops in Syria, which would give the Iranian military the opportunity to increase arms traffic to Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group.[11] A resurgent Hezbollah could pose a threat to US ally Israel. In addition, Toldman and Alterman assert that Russia would be able to further build up its military in Syria amid the absence of U.S. troops.[12] National Security Advisor John Bolton voiced similar concerns during a January 6, 2019 press conference, stating “there’s no desire to see Iran’s influence spread, that’s for sure.”[13]

The United States’ efforts to combat ISIS rely on the assistance of both Turkish and Kurdish forces, groups which are at odds, and a US troop withdrawal could encourage the Turkish government to attack the US’ Kurdish allies. Kurds are an ethnic group that primarily inhabit the border regions between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Kurdish separatists seek to establish an independent Kurdish state from Kurdish-majority regions in the three countries, which Turkey has opposed, forcefully, for many years. Syrian Kurdish forces have been allied with the United States since the 2014-2015 joint siege of the then-ISIS controlled village of Kobani.[14] The US views Kurds as strategic allies in the fight against ISIS. Kurds believe this alliance includes US protection from the Turks.

Turkey views Kurdish separatists as terrorists and has threatened to engage Kurdish forces in Syria to contain their fight for independence.[15] On January 6, 2019, National Security Advisor John Bolton told reporters that a prerequisite to U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria was an agreement from Turkey not to target the Kurds.[16] It is yet to be seen if such a deal can be forged and what the US would do if it cannot.

Image: Figure 2 - Kurdish inhabited territory. Source: BBC

Image: Figure 2 - Kurdish inhabited territory. Source: BBC

Concerns about the national security consequences of a US troop withdrawal are well founded. ISIS is not a conventional enemy. The ideology that motivates ISIS will continue to exist whether the organization holds territory or not. The United States must devise a strategy in the region that prevents the terrorist group from reconstituting. Despite President Trump’s statements, the US cannot truly declare victory over ISIS until it defeats the extremist ideology that gave rise to the organization in the first place.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

References

   [1]https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/u-s-troops-who-repelled-russian-mercenaries-prepare-more-attacks-n855271

   [2]https://www.france24.com/en/20181219-usa-syria-trump-claims-islamic-state-group-defeated-hints-us-troops-withdrawal

   [3]https://thehill.com/policy/defense/424074-bolton-no-troop-withdrawal-from-syria-until-isis-contained-kurds-protected

   [4]https://www.npr.org/2018/12/20/623246756/defense-secretary-mattis-to-retire-in-february-trump-says

   [5] https://media.defense.gov/2018/Nov/05/2002059226/-1/-1/1/FY2019_LIG_OCO_OIR_Q4_SEP2018.PDF, pg. 45

   [6]https://www.nbcnews.com/news/mideast/isis-regrouping-iraq-pentagon-report-says-n966771

   [7]https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13463.doc.htm

   [8]https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/16/world/middleeast/syria-us-troops-timeline.html

   [9]https://www.apnews.com/0a8f9c71d59c4e8e8df33d0470654bfc

   [10]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/23/pressure-builds-on-sri-lankan-officials-as-isis-claims-easter-attacks

   [11]https://www.csis.org/analysis/implications-us-withdrawal-syria

   [12]https://www.csis.org/analysis/implications-us-withdrawal-syria

   [13]https://www.nbcnews.com/news/mideast/no-syria-withdrawal-without-commitment-turkey-bolton-says-n955181

   [14]https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/middle-east/us-withdrawal-from-syria-leaves-kurdish-allies-vulnerable-1.3740923

   [15]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/12/turkey-primed-to-start-offensive-against-us-backed-kurds-in-syria

   [16]https://www.nbcnews.com/news/mideast/no-syria-withdrawal-without-commitment-turkey-bolton-says-n955181

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