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Syrian Civil War: Daesh Is Resurging

February 1, 2020

An Iraqi commando during the war against ISIS (2014-2017). Via Wikimedia Commons.

The US’ top civilian official coordinating the anti-ISIS coalition revealed the terror group’s current estimated size at a state briefing with journalists on January 30. A day after Ambassador James F. Jeffrey met with European allies in Copenhagen he went on the record discussing the various crises unfolding in the Middle East. Top of mind were the Syrian civil war and joint operations against ISIS, but Jeffrey also touched on the complications between Russia and Turkey, sanctions on Iran, and the volatile situation in Iraq.

In his opening remarks to the press, Jeffrey made it clear ISIS are fielding between 14,000 and 18,000 fighters in their former caliphate:

Meanwhile, the fight against ISIS, of course, had a signal success back in March with the defeat of the caliphate along the Euphrates in Syria, but we are seeing ISIS come back as an insurgency, as a terrorist operation, with some 14- to 18,000 terrorists between Syria and Iraq and ISIS considers both countries as – as they have always done, as a single front. We are working with both our – the Iraqi Government and the local authorities in Syria to combat this scourge.

Jeffrey’s reference to a “signal success back in March” is the siege of Baghuz or Baghouz, a small Syrian village along the Euphrates river that was surrounded by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), where ISIS’ main body congregated after losing their capital Raqqa the previous year. The arrival of up to 80,000 people in Baghuz sparked a humanitarian crisis with women and children abandoned by their husbands–all fighters–without food or shelter. This population, with large communities of foreigners among them, was herded into the Al Hol camp whose inhabitants numbered 68,000 by late 2019.

But Jeffrey’s claim that as many as 18,000 ISIS ground forces remain at large is shocking and appears to be a setback for the US-led coalition, whose long-term commitment is far from assured. While it’s true ISIS lost the bulk of its manpower over five bloody years, from the blitz across northern Iraq in mid-2014 until large-scale combat subsided in 2018, for such a large figure to exist with their arms and supplies intact is a worrying scenario. Even with just 10,000 fighters spread across Syria and Iraq they still rank among the larger insurgencies in the world. According to Jeffrey, after years of airstrikes and a pitiless ground war, they have manpower left for two infantry divisions.

The US ambassador didn’t revise the estimate figure he gave and repeated it to journalists. It’s a puzzling admission because Jeffrey does cite an earlier assessment of ISIS’ strength at their height, pegged at 35,000 fighters, yet he now claims half this number are active and not behind bars. This is at odds with the US military’s own optimistic measure of its progress against the terrorist group. Jeffrey adds ISIS branches are on the march in Sub-Saharan Africa where they’re up against France and other NATO allies. From the briefing:

President Trump was absolutely on target when he said last year that ISIS had been 100 percent defeated as a territorial entity, as a caliphate…it held territory and had an army of 35,000 troops. It held sway over 7 million people. We have taken that down. However, ISIS as a insurgent or terrorist group is still very, very threatening. In Iraq and Syria, between 14- and 18,000 people.

The past several months had numerous occasions that detracted from Operation Inherent Resolve, which encompasses the US-led war against ISIS, and may have gifted the terror army with opportunities it exploited. Two surprising reversals stand out. First was the impulsive decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw 2,500 US troops from eastern Syria on October 9. Although the reason why seemed practical, with Turkey launching an invasion to roll back the Kurdish PKK from its border, it undermined the SDF and led to territorial gains by the Assad regime. The sudden absence of US troops was so severe, in fact, Russian and Turkish convoys were organized to fill the void and keep the peace.

The second debacle occurred at the end of 2019 when the US stepped up its separate campaign against Iranian proxies in Iraq. The sequence of events led to an attempted siege by Kataib Hezbollah on the US Embassy and the death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani that almost started a regional war. An unwanted side effect of these complications was the temporary halt to anti-ISIS efforts in Iraq for weeks and the near-withdrawal of 5,000 US troops from the country.

While all this was unraveling the ISIS holdouts maintained a schedule of operations. The brief setback of losing their commander Al-Baghdadi on October 26 didn’t seem to cause organizational collapse. More troubling is the existence of resources, be they illicit cash or military supplies, that can sustain ISIS throughout the year. For ISIS to engage in arson, extortion, and guerilla tactics is a worrying sign the group is gearing up for decisive campaigns once again. Going back to the summer of 2014 the fringe group was a minor faction in the Syrian civil war until its sudden assault on Iraq and territorial expansion.

This pattern might repeat itself again and it would doom thousands of US forces to another aimless war in a region where its enemies–the Iranians, the Russians, and the Syrians–are too close for comfort.

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