by Kahlil Ram
Despite the recent fall of the Caliphate and the loss of its territory, the Islamic State (ISIS) remains formidable. Its ideology continues to glorify the struggle of conflict, and though ISIS’ territorial rule over parts of Iraq and Syria has been shattered, it still possesses support zones in those countries through which it can coordinate its logistics. The Defense Department of the United States believes that ISIS still boasts over 30,000 troops stretching across Iraq and Syria. Beyond this, ISIS has shown itself to be quite adept at preserving its wealth through various criminal enterprises and hidden caches, potentially allowing it to survive as an insurgent force for many more years.
Jihadist propaganda has been successful because it extols the virtues of fighting against the enemy indefinitely, promoting the endurance of long term warfare, lasting for potentially decades and even generations. For jihadists, setbacks are seen as God testing their will, and their fanaticism continues to make them dangerous even after the loss of their territory. In his recent speech following the loss of the Caliphate, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi discussed how ISIS would transition back into a traditional insurgency and continue the fight in a way similar to al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) methods until 2007. Like AQI before it, ISIS is a Sunni extremist group that seeks to eliminate rival Sunni leaders while drawing recruits from the Sunni population. This could prove extremely dangerous for U.S. stabilization efforts since ISIS and its predecessor AQI have relied heavily on the Sunni tribal population for support. It was only with the Anbar Awakening, when Sunni tribes decisively and violently turned against AQI, that the terrorist group was crippled and nearly killed. The threat presented by ISIS’ adjustment is considerable, since Iraqi security forces continue to rely on American firepower, and it could prove impossible for the Iraqis to hold out alone.
In the past, many ISIS fighters–rather than leaving the region after losing territory–have simply disguised themselves amongst the population to gather intelligence and resurface at a later point. They continued to conduct operations in both Iraq and Syria from 2017 to 2018, including attacks on Shiite pilgrims and oil tankers. ISIS has also attacked multiple targets in the Iraqi territories of Saladin, Diyala, and Kirkuk, despite having lost their Caliphate. Additionally, ISIS has reportedly smuggled $400 million out of Iraq and Syria, meaning that it remains the wealthiest insurgency group in history. Furthermore, there is evidence that despite the collapse of the Caliphate in Iraq, it still continues to retain command centers.
Beyond this, American withdrawal potentially allows ISIS to regain its footing. U.S. allies continue to rely on American firepower, especially as ISIS begins targeting Sunni tribal leaders. This withdrawal has stunned and disappointed the Kurdish Peshmerga, a group that was instrumental in halting and rolling back the Islamic State. This presents an unfavorable predicament for the Kurds as they attempt to gain independence while trapped between a hostile Syria and Turkey. While American firepower and support have so far protected the Kurds, the Peshmerga runs the risk of collapse if it is abandoned. With the winding down of the Syrian civil war and Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s plans to subjugate the rebellious Kurds, the future looks bleak for the already turbulent region. The lack of American troops may cripple the Kurds and remove them as a formidable opponent of ISIS.
Despite the temptation to leave after the collapse of the Caliphate, the United States needs to maintain its commitments to its allies and remain in the region until ISIS is dead. While withdrawing from Syria may be good for the general public’s opinion of President Trump, the Presidency should remind itself that the enemy is still alive and that American allies, the Kurds and the Iraqi army, are not yet ready to stand on their own. While the Syrian civil war nears its conclusion, ISIS faces the victorious Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, and Turkey — all powerful adversaries by any measure. Yet, by returning to insurgency, ISIS may survive them. The organization still has the capacity to wreak havoc in Iraq and Syria, to reduce human security, and destabilize the region yet again. If it retains its prestige, ISIS will continue to be able to inspire deadly attacks against targets in Europe and America. Rather than leave the fate of ISIS to whatever long term geopolitical fate awaits it, the United States should hold on to the initiative, protect its allies, and see to it that the bloody specter of the Islamic State is escorted firmly into oblivion.