Donald Trump might have declared “victory” against the jihadi group, but the withdrawal of American troops could give it renewed strength.
While Moscow, Tehran and Ankara are rubbing their hands together with glee, the Islamic State could also benefit.
On Wednesday, the American president surprised the world when he announced the end of his army’s operations against the jihadi group in Syria, declaring that they had been defeated and that it was time for his soldiers to come “back home.” “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” tweeted the occupant of the Oval Office. “We have won … It’s time for our troops to come back home. … Our boys, our young women, our men, they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now,” he continued in a video released later that evening.
This announcement caused a lot of disappointment, namely in the Western camp. Paris, London and Berlin expressed concern yesterday about the commander-in-chief’s about-face and insist that the fight against the terrorist group is not over. In Syria, the others who stand to lose the most include the Syrian Democratic Forces (an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces), who up until now received support from Washington in the fight against the Islamic State group in the eastern part of the country. They consider the withdrawal to be an abandonment and a betrayal, but nevertheless insisted yesterday that this fight against the Islamic State group will continue for the moment.
Even though the jihadi group has lost almost all of its territory in Syria since 2014, and even though the SDF recaptured the last of its urban strongholds, Hajin, on the border with Iraq, as of Dec. 14, the Islamic State group has still not disappeared. And the detail that the American president seems to be hiding is that the jihadi organization’s territorial losses do not signify its defeat. The Islamic State group still has a certain number of fighters across Iraq and Syria and its sleeper cells could still spring into action.
“IS’s territorial control is mostly limited by a strip of land in Deir ez-Zor along the Euphrates, but the group has pockets of active insurgents in the Hasakah provinces (northeast), Raqqa (north-central), and Aleppo (northwest),”* explained Ayman Jawad al-Tamimi, research fellow at the Middle East Forum. According to The New York Times, “a spokesman for the American-led coalition against the Islamic State, Col. Sean J. Ryan, estimated that the group still had 2,000 to 2,500 fighters in the Hajin area. Experts estimate that the organization has 20,000 to 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq over all, although most have now gone underground.” Among them, “10,000 to 15,000 are in Syria. These figures are based on a range of open sources,”* explained Maxwell B. Markusen, researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The group is thought to still be carrying out “an estimated 75 terrorist attacks a month in Iraq,” he told The New York Times.
Extortions and Kidnappings
The terrorist group’s sleeper cells operate, for example, in Iraq, where the jihadi group has admitted multiple attacks, murders, kidnappings and cases of extortion against various populations. These admissions come a year after Iraq’s former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the terrorist group had been defeated in Iraq. A similar situation could happen again, this time in Syria. Furthermore, without American troops and airstrikes supporting the SDF, which is also threatened from the West by Ankara’s very close offensive, the Islamic State group could regain territory in addition to maintaining its other activities. “If Turkey or other rivals attack the SDF, IS could take advantage of the situation and regain some of the territory that it lost,”* al-Tamimi continued. “IS has lost a large part of its territory and, therefore, has lost part of its ability to collect taxes, to export oil, etc. Nevertheless, it extorts money like the mafia, and it is finding other ways to bring in money. It also does kidnappings in exchange for ransom,”* Markusen confirmed.
“Furthermore, IS can use its propaganda machine to frame the American withdrawal as a victory. Then the ending of airstrikes against the Islamic State group will allow it to form again and reorganize,”* he insisted. “Even without the withdrawal, the group would likely have held out for many more months as an organized entity, able to defend what it still had. With its most formidable foe leaving the fray, Isis may well be reborn,” added the British newspaper, The Guardian.
Once again, although IS has been weakened considerably, it has not been wiped off of the Syrian map completely.
*Editor’s note: These quotes, although accurately translated, cannot be independently verified.