While tweeting this triumph, President Trump seems to have completely forgotten the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who have been the United States’ loyal allies on the ground who made that possible with minimizing American losses. More than 1,500 SDF fighters have been killed in the four-year battle on the ground against ISIS and many more injured. Moreover, the SDF has continued to battle ISIS even when Turkey began battering the Kurds in Afrin, opening two fronts. Now Turkey seems to have been handed carte blanche in their potential treatment of our allies, raising serious questions about American loyalty.
And while ISIS has lost 95 percent of its territory in Syria via the coalition airstrikes and SDF ground battles, ISIS cadres are still present in both Syria and Iraq and are continuing by U.S. military estimates to entice up to 100 foreigners each month to travel to Syria to join the group. Two thousand Islamic State fighters are also estimated by our military to be holding out in northern Syria, and “there could be many thousands more sympathizers and supporters preparing to regroup in cells elsewhere,” the Washington Post reports. ISIS attacks still occur on a regular basis in Raqqa, as well as attacks throughout the SDF region, and in Iraq as well, where spillover from the group in Syria continues to influence events. SDF intelligence officials informed ICSVE researchers that many ISIS cadres have temporarily left the group and are hiding out in their villages where the SDF is trying to hunt them down. How they can do so when also fighting Turkey along their northern borders is an important consideration in the possibility of an ISIS resurgence.
ISIS, like al-Qaeda before it, is a group that has shown incredible resilience and the ability to easily replace killed leaders in their flat terrorist organization whose ideological aims and propaganda have already successfully spread around the globe. Will ISIS be reborn with this retreat by one of the world’s most formidable forces? Certainly ISIS will make propaganda gains as a result, claiming they chased U.S. forces out of Syria. The SDF, meanwhile, threatens to release the 3,200 foreign fighters they hold, and have unsuccessfully tried to return to the countries from which they came. These prisoners consist of two-thirds women and children and the other third male fighters, perhaps capable of helping the group revive itself.
Let’s hope the administration returns to the words of U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk, who only last week called quick withdrawal a “reckless” decision, explaining, “If we’ve learned one thing over the years, enduring defeat of a group like this means you can’t just defeat their physical space and then leave; you have to make sure… security gains are enduring.”