“U.S.-Backed Forces Declare Defeat Of ISIS ‘Caliphate,’” the headline read. On Saturday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militant jihadist group that has terrorized the world, and especially Iraq and Syria, finally lost the last remnants of its territory in the deserts of eastern Syria. There is certainly cause for celebration. All cities that were under the direct control of ISIS have been liberated to a number of groups, including the Iraqi and Syrian governments and Syrian rebel groups. ISIS control of cities and civilian populations saw individuals accused of homosexuality thrown off buildings. But we must remain cautious celebrating this “victory.” Much as Obama underestimated the power of ISIS back in 2014 when he referred to them as the J.V. team of Al Qaeda, it would be foolish to assume that they are no longer a threat. And with the understanding that U.S. policy in the Iraq War helped create favorable conditions for ISIS to form, America must carefully consider the best path forward in Syria.
ISIS came into the global attention 2014 with the capture of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, and large swathes of land in western Iraq. A group deemed too brutal for Al Qaeda, ISIS set off on its own path with the goal of creating a global caliphate, an Islamic state ruled by a Muslim religious leader, to be governed by its fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Within months, the group had millions of civilians under its control and a significant portion of the land of both Iraq and Syria, including oil fields which helped net more than $1 billion per year. Over the next five years, however, the combined efforts of the Iraqi military, Syrian rebel, Kurdish forces, and Western airpower helped drive the group into a tiny pocket of land in the desert borderlands between Iraq and Syria. On March 23, 2019, the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces declared total victory over ISIS, bringing an end to their five years of terror.
Despite this territorial victory, ISIS remains dangerous for two major reasons. The first is that the conditions that help create terrorist groups like ISIS remain in Iraq and Syria. A significant motivating force for those that joined ISIS was the poor economic and political condition for Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria. Syria and post-war Iraq are politically and economically dominated by Shia Muslims, which leads to the disenfranchisement of many Sunni youths in these nations and can be a significant factor in radicalization. Tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites reached all-time highs in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Syrian Civil War has been fought mostly along Shia-Sunni lines. If conditions do not improve for Sunnis in the region, then the conditions will continue to be ripe for either new jihadist organizations to form, or groups like ISIS to see a resurgence.
The second major reason for the continued danger of ISIS is the impossibility of defeating the ideology of or even completely eliminating ISIS leadership and fighters. The ideology of ISIS is fundamentalist in nature and calls for strict adherence to what are considered to be the teachings of Muhammad and the precepts of early Islam. ISIS is somewhat unique amongst other jihadist organizations in that it views itself as the successor to the caliphate early Islam that came to rule much of Asia and North Africa. In addition, a key aspect of ISIS ideology is that its armies will defeat the armies of “Rome” which will bring about judgement day. Although one can eliminate all the territorial holdings of this group, they cannot eliminate these ideas and beliefs. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the declared “caliph,” remains at large and is suspected to be hiding in the Iraq-Syria border region. Thousands of ISIS fighters are also believed to be hiding in this region. ISIS fighters are also present in Idlib, the last major rebel-controlled province in Syria. What will likely follow this so called defeat is a prolonged insurgency much like the one faced by Egypt in the Sinai peninsula or in Mali from jihadist groups. This likelihood will be compounded by the expected full US disengagement from Syria which will leave something of a power vacuum in the rural areas of eastern Syria.
In addition, ISIS has shown the ability to inspire terrorist attacks abroad such as the Paris attacks of November 2015 that killed 130 people and the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. Just as Al Qaeda continues to commit and inspire terrorist attacks in spite of lacking any territorial control, ISIS should have no trouble doing the same.
America’s future role in Syria is one of the biggest concerns moving forward. Syria is currently ruled by dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has repeatedly chemically gassed and bombed his citizens through the eight-year civil war in Syria. If the U.S. is truly committed to fostering democracy throughout the globe and working to remove despots and war criminals, Assad ought to be a prime target. Yet Assad now has the support and military backing of Russia and Iran, two major world powers. This means that the opportunity for any military intervention with the goal of ousting Assad has passed. In addition, the United States has not demonstrated an ability to engage in wars with the goal of establishing new democratic governments. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led to the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and helped create favorable conditions for the rise of ISIS. The invasion of Afghanistan similarly cost many of thousands of lives and the Taliban, which the U.S. overthrew, has maintained a bloody insurgency throughout the country. Both of these results are in many ways a reflection of America’s failure to engage in state-building enterprises in these countries, to encourage the formation of civic institutions and to help foster economic groups. Instead they left power vacuums with governments that have nominal control of their countries.
America’s best option in this case may be instead to try to encourage democratic change, although the last time that there was any popular movement in Syria, a civil war erupted. Working to strengthen the Kurds may also be a viable option. The Kurdish people maintain a fairly autonomous region in northern Syria. In addition, they have been America’s most important ally in combating ISIS on the ground. Continuing to foster their autonomy and strength would both serve as a potential counterweight to Assad and would help prevent the resurgence of ISIS, although this would likely draw the ire of Turkey who have repeatedly threatened to invade the Kurdish autonomous region. There are seemingly no good options for the U.S. in Syria. Any attempt to use military force would put the United States in direct conflict with two other global powers. Syrian rebels have been more or less contained to a single province in northwest Syria and they no longer present a legitimate threat to Assad’s hold on power. Supporting Kurds, who have remained fairly neutral in the civil war, presents as the best option for U.S. both as a strategy to prevent ISIS from reemerging and to create a counter to Assad without directly attacking him.
While the end of ISIS’s territorial country is certainly an event that should be celebrated, it would be unwise to assume this means the end of this group or the threat that it poses to the West. What must follow now is a careful consideration of our future policy towards Syria that both fosters democracy and a transition from President Assad in addition to containing any remnants of ISIS.