U.S. officials said that a comparatively calm Ramadan in terms of attacks across Iraq and Syria shows the importance of capacity building and international partnerships in battling ISIS, but cautioned that “conditions that gave rise to ISIS have not been sufficiently addressed” and the terror group’s ideology “remains unconstrained.”
“While ISIS, or Daesh, remains military defeated and hold no territory, the Daesh ideology remains unconstrained and active, seeking to reconstitute and resume their campaign of hate in this region and around the world,” Major General Matthew McFarlane, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said Monday during a special briefing with the State Department’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. “But thanks to the efforts of our partners supported by the coalition, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in Daesh, or ISIS, activity and effectiveness across our area of operations.”
From Jan. 1 through the first week of April, there has been a 68 percent reduction in ISIS attacks in Iraq compared to the same period last year. In Syria, there has been a 55 percent decrease compared to the same timeframe.
“And when I say attacks, a reduction in attacks, I’m talking about opportunistic engagements, so relatively small — from one to a few individuals,” McFarlane added. “ISIS has failed to organize or coordinate anything more than that over the past year.”
The month of Ramadan, which ISIS traditionally has used to instigate and conduct attacks such as the 2017 Baghdad car bombing that targeted families breaking the day’s fast at an ice cream shop, ended on April 20; McFarlane called this Ramadan “one of the most peaceful in years thanks to the combined efforts of our partners.”
This year there were 19 recorded Ramadan attacks in Iraq, an 80 percent decrease from last year and 87 percent decrease from 2020. Syria also experienced 19 attacks during Ramadan, a 37 percent decrease from 2022 and a 70 percent decrease from 2020.
“As our partners continue to disrupt and dismantle ISIS cells and activities, we continue to also focus on preventing any reemergence of ISIS through our repatriation efforts from detention facilities and IDP camps,” McFarlane said.
So far this year, the Syrian Democratic Forces have repatriated more than 1,300 third-country nationals from al-Hol camp, but “there still remains a large amount of third-country nationals in these camps in northeast Syria awaiting repatriation to their homelands,” he aded. “The IDP camps continue to remain a strategic problem that requires an international solution.”
“We remain vigilant and cautiously optimistic of the progress against ISIS and Deash that we are seeing in Iraq and Syria,” the general said. “We remain laser-focused on the enduring defeat of Daesh, or ISIS, and our role to advise, assist, and enable our partners.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul emphasized U.S. Central Command’s March update that reported zero U.S.-only operations in either Iraq or Syria.
“The point here is the imperative of partnership,” she said. “In Iraq, we have transitioned our military role to an advice, assist, and enable, where Iraqi Security Forces are in the lead every single day and U.S. forces remain present in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq. And in Syria, zero – zero U.S.-only partnered operations because the Syrian Democratic Forces and their professionalism and unchanged commitment to partnering with us to ensure that Daesh cannot reconstitute is critical to how we achieve this mission.”
Stroul said the Defense Department and partners are “still concerned about Daesh ideology” as well as countering the terror group’s financing and funding — and the fact that 10,000 ISIS detainees are still under SDF custody in Syria. There are also nearly 50,000 displaced people, largely families and children, at the al-Hol and the al-Raj camps in Syria.
“The enduring defeat of Daesh will not be accomplished if we do not work across the international community to reduce these populations in Syria and also, for displaced persons at the al-Hol and al-Raj camp, facilitate their rehabilitation and reintegration into their countries of origin,” she said. “This, of course, is where it’s not only a military line of effort that will achieve the enduring defeat of Daesh.”
McFarlane stressed that “the threat of ISIS absolutely still exists,” and “that’s why the importance of building the capability, capacity of our partners so they can continue to ensure ISIS and that threat are never realized.”
“While we’ve seen a reduction in ISIS attacks and their effectiveness over time, it takes many steps to climb a mountain, and that’s part of our process here is ensuring that all of our partners which are doing these operations … they are important to ensure not only does ISIS never come back but any of the remaining militants that may be out there,” he added.
Critical to this effort, the general emphasized, are the 85 contributing nations that are part of the global coalition; 28 of those are part of the OIR team. “Many nations with one mission is incredibly important and I think punctuates the international community’s desire to ensure ISIS cannot come back,” McFarlane said. “The progress of our partners that they continue to build that capability and capacity and demonstrate with recent operations that they are moving forward and progressing in building that capability and capacity I think is an important effort or demonstration of the progress we’ve seen.”
Stroul said the U.S. military remains “deeply committed to ensuring continuity in this mission working by, with, and through local partners, because the threat remains.”
“The job is not yet complete, which is why U.S. forces with risks to force protection remain committed to working with our partners in Iraq and Syria to accomplish this mission,” she said. “…Part of our job is to make sure members of Congress understand the importance of this mission, to talk to the American people about this mission, and also to make sure that for years to come, so long as the invitation remains from the government of Iraq, for the U.S. military to continue to work in Iraq and we are able to continue to safely operate with the Syrian Democratic Forces. We will continue to remain committed to this important mission.”
Stroul noted that though the coalition has made “significant achievements,” the “conditions that gave rise to ISIS have not been sufficiently addressed.”
That is why the Department of Defense, State Department, and international community are working “to reduce the population of Daesh detainees and displaced persons at the camps in northeast Syria, at al-Hol and al-Raj” and will “continue to invest significant resources and time in leadership at the global coalition level so that we are working with partners outside of Iraq and Syria who are also vulnerable to ISIS or Daesh expansionism and ideology.”
“This is going to require years of effort through the global coalition, and the United States is prepared to do it alongside our partners,” Stroul said.