By Kabir Taneja
Last week, US President Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce that he would withdraw troops in Syria who had been aiding anti-ISIS and anti-Assad groups, leading the Western coalition against ISIS operating under the Operation Inherent Resolve umbrella. However, the president’s announcement that the US has “defeated” ISIS, one that was conveyed to American allies, perhaps characteristically for the current administration, via Twitter, is an ill-informed and ill-conceived outlook on Syrian crisis with both regional and international ramifications.
The narrative of ISIS being “defeated”, is not new, and Trump’s position that he intended to withdraw US troops from the conflict is also not an overnight development. In March 2018, at a rally in the state of Ohio, the president announced that the US would withdraw from the Syrian theatre soon. While the decision to do so was perhaps known, it is the manner in which it was executed that became inherently problematic.
The reactions to the president’s tweets on the issue from allies such as Britain, France and Israel, who in all likeliness found out about the decision via social media, was in unison to condemn this move. Britain, America’s closest ally, stood strongly against the decision reiterating that the ISIS threat is still ‘very much alive’.
The fallout of this Twitter decree by the president was significant. US Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, a veteran who was scoffed at by a large section of US media prior to his appointment for being a hawk resigned.
In a turn of events over the past two years, Gen. Mattis was today seen as the most reasonable Trump official and one that could reign in erratic decision making in the White House. To make matters worse, the chief of Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS, Brett McGurk, who had led the US response in Syria and Iraq, and was seen as the one critical element keeping the Western coalition together, quit two months earlier than his intended retirement after Mattis’s announcement. Both Mattis and McGurk, had repeatedly re-affirmed US support to anti-ISIS groups in Syria, this was seen as a betrayel to their promises by their own leadership.
The retention and momentum of anti-ISIS operations by President Trump was handed over to Turkey over a phone call, despite Ankara’s history of clandestinely allowing ISIS to fester in Syria and Iraq during its formative years in order to create some sort of buffer against the Kurds, their bid for an independent nation and Turkish fight against Kurdish group Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane (PKK or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Turkey’s presence in the northern parts of Syria is not new, and while current concentration of ISIS presence is situated in and around the desert regions of Deir Ezzor, which is south and deep into Syria, far away from the Turkish border, it remains to be seen how Ankara, if at all, plans to operate in Syria now. The Turkey-backed militias also include Islamist groups, who while being anti-Assad, intend to develop their own Islamist structures around the territories they command. Meanwhile, ISIS itself has gone from commanding geography near the size of the United Kingdom to almost nothing, however, this loss of territory does not amount to the end of ISIS itself. Even in its pre-ISIS avatar, the group and its thinking had prevailed through multiple names, including Al Qaeda in Iraq. Reports of ISIS claimed attacks in Iraq continue, and the power vacuums and the region’s social-political sectarian smorgasbord remain active challenges.
While it is true that foreign powers and their military interventions are not the solution, and have proven to be counter-productive more than often, pulling the plug on ongoing operations only gives space for the resilience of terror groups in the region to stage comebacks whether in behemoth organized forms such as the Islamic State or in their traditional design, that of smaller insurgency movements.
Benjamin Bahney and Patrick B. Johnston in their important 2017 essay published by Foreign Affairs magazine titled ‘ISIS Could Rise Again’ highlight the fact that ISIS already has a good record of resurgence, and the group has a “tried-and-true playbook for bringing itself back from near death”. ISIS has seen resilience within Iraq and Syria while also maintaining sizeable control in its two main foreign establishments, namely Afghanistan and Libya. While ISIS Khorasan expanded in Afghanistan at an intense pace, using infrastructure of the Haqqani Network to build an ecosystem that rivals that of the Taliban in some spaces such as Kabul, it continues to claim attacks in Libya, a residue nation after an arguably ill-planned intervention by Western powers in 2011. The latest attack in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, was claimed by ISIS while this piece was being written. Pro-ISIS groups in the African Sahel, also continue to fester.
The Kurds have been at the forefront of the fight against the so-called Islamic State, receiving much of the training from NATO states and American troops serving as “advisers” to the conflict.
While the future of Syria post the defeat of the caliphate has been unclear for a long time, such an abrupt withdrawal by the US is perhaps less surprising than the manner in which it was conducted by the White House, keeping both the Pentagon and NATO allies in the dark. This supersedes on what is the premier cause for concern. It is not the withdrawal itself, but the deft manner in which it was conducted, without debate or due process keep its allies in mind, causing uneasiness over America’s role in the global order, and the undermining of its institutions. To put it in perspective, this withdrawal was also followed by a troop-reduction in Afghanistan, a country that in its seventeenth year of war against the Taliban, as part of America’s ‘war on terror’, is precariously balanced today on the possibility of a Taliban victory. One of the major fears in countries such as India, which has big stakes in Afghan security, is that Trump could also initiate a complete pull out of Afghanistan without consulting partner nations or regional players, potentially leaving a second-time failed state open to all elements.
It is important to reiterate that the US deployed its troops against ISIS primarily as advisers, and it has been the locals, the Iraqi armed forces in Iraq and Kurdish militias in Syria that had been the biggest aid to Western operations to defeat the Islamic State. While ground troops were deployed in strategic roles, it has been the Western air power that has played an absolute critical role in the degrading of the caliphate. Without this air support, the outcome of the campaign could have been drastically different. The US-led coalition would still be required, after a military campaign, to conduct capacity building measures to make sure resurgence of ISIS, or another ISIS-like entity is avoided.
A Taliban commander is known to have once said to the US invasion of Afghanistan that ‘they (US) have watches, but we have the time’. That one side, if willing, can wait out a far superior enemy in a conflict. A reformation of ISIS as an insurgency, emboldened by an end of the supply and training channels of anti-ISIS campaigns, specifically the Kurds, could be just this waiting to happen once again. While the US campaign in Syria has been convoluted since the Obama administration’s utterly muddled approach to the issue, the current ad-hoc thinking to re-mold American foreign policy by way of systemic institutional anarchy is only going to aid anti-democratic powers across the world. Including ISIS.