As Daesh loses its final sliver of territory in Syria, US and Iraqi leaders are warning the militant group isn’t gone for good, and some think tanks are warning that the group could reemerge powerfully in Iraq. Those dangers, however, seem nearly as overblown as those the Pentagon is employing to keep US troops in Syria.
Outside the town of al-Baghuz Fawqani, the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, composed primarily of Syrian Kurdish militias, have captured hundreds of Daesh militants fleeing from the onslaught. Baghuz is only a couple of miles from the Syrian border with Iraq, across which the roughly 2,000 US forces in Syria will soon withdraw as the war draws to a close.
However, US Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads US Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee Friday, “We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and, of course, their toxic ideology.”
These kinds of claims are nothing new: a Pentagon draft report last month warned that without US forces in eastern Syria, Daesh sleeper cells could return the organization to controlling territory in as little as six months, Sputnik reported.
At the time, experts told Sputnik the conclusion was “bulltwaddle” and “Pentagon scare-mongering to keep United States forces in Syria.”
“If the US troops leave, there will not be a ‘vacuum,'” former British Ambassador to Syria Peter Ford told Sputnik at the time. “There will not be an ‘ungoverned space.’ The Syrian government forces will step in and, either alone or in conjunction with allied forces, including the Russians and possibly a reconstituted SDF, will easily keep on top of ISIS.”
“What makes more likely a revival of ISIS are US blocking of Syrian forces from entering the areas in question and the Western policy of creating economic misery through sanctions and attempts to prevent reconstruction,” Ford said.
Votel’s warning follows the same pattern: “We should be clear that what we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS [Daesh] as an organization, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going aground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge,” he said. “Recent observations by our men and women on the ground highlight that the ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remain unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized.”
A report published Thursday by the hawkish think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW), however, highlights a different danger, one that’s gone somewhat unnoticed in the Western press: Daesh is trying to rebuild its foothold in northern Iraq, too.
The militant group was forced out of the country in 2017, with Baghdad declaring final victory roughly a year ago. However, ISW warns Daesh may have as many as 30,000 fighters in northern Iraq and that it already de facto controls several villages.
“ISIS is re-establishing capable insurgent networks in multiple historic strongholds and linking them together, setting the conditions for future offensive operations against the Government of Iraq,” ISW writes. “The US and its partners should not view the current relative security in Baghdad as confirmation of the defeat of ISIS. The US Anti-ISIS Coalition’s strategy to enable Iraq to ‘independently manage’ an insurgency through intelligence support and other building partner capacity efforts will likely fail to prevent ISIS from regaining momentum based on its current trajectory in Iraq.”