Despite the U.S.-led coalition making significant progress in curtailing the group's activities, ISIS terrorists are making a comeback in certain parts of Syria, especially in areas under the control of the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad. The possibility of an 'ISIS 2.0' is a worrying development that comes as President Donald Trump and his administration are looking for ways to extricate U.S. forces from the conflict and replace them with a potentially problematic predominantly Arab coalition consisting of troops from countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
In a routine press conference on April 17, 2018, U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, the top spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the American-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, offered new details about the apparent surge in terrorist attacks. On April 16, 2018, The Wall Street Journal had also reported that Trump’s new National Security Advisor John Bolton was in talks with Egyptian, Saudi, Emirati, and Qatari officials about the potential of contributing to a new force that could take over from the approximately 2,000 American troops, as well as other existing coalition personnel and contractors, at some point in the near future. The goal was for those countries to contribute more monetarily to sustain military and civil activities in Syria, as well.
“We have seen also not just reports, but also corroborated through our own intelligence gathering, that ISIS is starting to conduct more attacks on the west side of the Euphrates River outside of Abu Kamal against pro-regime forces,” Dillon explained. “And then we've also seen – not corroborated by us, but in open source, the retaking of neighborhoods in southern Damascus.”
He added intelligence and other reports had begun noticing the rise in ISIS attacks as early as January 2018, which coincides with a Turkish intervention in northwestern Syria targeting Kurdish fighters that led to significant numbers of American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) personnel leaving their positions in order to aid their comrades. This is something we at The War Zone warned could happen right from the beginning of Turkey's offensive. In March 2018, Dillion acknowledged that the Turkish campaign had caused a slow down in coalition-supported operations against the terrorists.
According to Dillon, the remnants of ISIS in eastern Syria are presently concentrated mainly east of the Euphrates closer to the Syria-Iraq border, though the group conducts limited operations as far north as the area around the strategic city of Deir ez-Zor. The river serves as a formal, if dubiously effective deconfliction line between the U.S.-led coalition and Russian forces. It is, by extension, supposed to serve as a boundary between American-backed groups and elements aligned with Assad’s regime, as well.
It's also not entirely clear whether or not there is an ISIS revival underway or if the group, or splinter factions, are transforming into a second iteration of the group, which was itself an outgrowth of Al Qaeda-aligned groups in Iraq and Syria. The iteration of ISIS that managed to seize territory and form a parallel state appeared in no small part due to the vacuum the Syrian civil war created in that country and the rapidly degrading security in Iraq after the United States withdrew the bulk of its forces in 2011.
On top of that, there's the possibility that former ISIS members might seek to form multiple new groups or do so in cooperation with other aggrieved elements in the region. Syria's Al Qaeda-linked Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which is reportedly growing in size and capabilities itself, could easily absorb elements of the organization, which might split off once again in the future. In Iraq, some of the Sunni Muslims terrorists have joined with Kurds to form a group called The White Flag, which stands in opposition to the Shia Mulsim majority government in Baghdad, which also launched a crackdown on Kurdish independent aspirations in 2017.
Regardless of its composition, a resurgent or evolving ISIS has translated into a spike in U.S. air and artillery strikes in Syria, as well. Though we don’t know exactly what assets have seen additional use, U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16C Viper, and F-22 Raptor jet combat aircraft, as well as MQ-9 Reaper drones, flying from various bases in the region, form the bulk of the airpower available to American troops in the country and their partners. In January 2018, the service redeployed a squadron of A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft from Turkey to Afghanistan to support a surge in operations in that country.
Air Force special operations AC-130U Spooky and AC-130W Stinger II gunships have also been common features in the region, on and off, as have U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters operating from forward bases. Earlier in April 2018, B-1B Bones took over operations from B-52s that had been at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Those swing-wing bombers also recently took part in strikes against Assad’s chemical weapons infrastructure.
On the ground in Syria, Army and Marine Corps personnel have at times manned a combination of towed M777 155mm howitzers and truck-mounted M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, the latter of which can fire up to six 227mm GPS-guided rockets before having to reload. It’s an impressive array of firepower, which the United States put on full display in February 2018 to beat back a combined force of Kremlin-linked Russian mercenaries and Assad-aligned militiamen near Deir ez-Zor.
The video below shows U.S. Army HIMARS in operation at an undisclosed site in Syria.
Data the U.S. Air Force collects and publishes monthly shows that American manned and unmanned aircraft “released” less than 600 bombs and missiles in both Iraq and Syria in December 2017, reflecting a noticeable drop in operations following the liberation of the Syrian city of Raqqa. But in January 2018, this total rose sharply to nearly 800 and remained well above 700 the following month. The American-led coalition, as a general rule, does not track the number of artillery shells and rockets it fires during operations.
“We have – in an effort to make sure that we can contain ISIS in these areas [east of the Euphrates], there is [sic] obstacles that were put into place, and we have since focused some of our air assets to be able to identify targets and conduct deliberate planning,” Dillon noted in his April 2018 press briefing. “And now we're starting to see some more strikes as a result of that.”
The colonel didn’t elaborate on what those obstacles are, but they are likely a variety of fortified positions, semi-permanent outposts, and other sites from which American troops and their local Syrian partners can monitor for terrorist movements, call in fire support, and resupply after extended operations. The U.S. military has a number of forward locations it uses throughout eastern Syria. Video footage and images of sites further north, closer to the Turkish border, show special operators, along with conventional supporting troops, with vehicle-mounted and fixed heavy weapons, as well as mortar emplacements, for self-defense and localized patrolling.
But this robust posture, coupled with the need for American troops to keep up pressure on ISIS as various other actors in Syria pursue their own agendas, is visibly at odds with Trump’s desire for both a quick victory and a rapid exit from the country and its nebulous conflict. Earlier in April 2018, the president caught both the public and his own senior advisers off guard by calling for a withdrawal in the near future.
“As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS,” Trump told reporters during a shared press conference with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at the White House on April 3, 2018. “We've completed that task and we'll be making a decision very quickly, in coordination with others in the area, as to what we will do.”
Unfortunately, as Dillon readily acknowledged in his recent briefing, that mission is far from over and ISIS remains a continuing threat. Pulling American troops out now, and potentially doing so abruptly, would only embolden the terrorists and leave local troops who have been holding the line against the group without critical air, artillery, and materiel support.
Even after Assad’s chemical weapons attack in Douma and the subsequent American-led punitive missile strikes on various regime targets, Trump appears to be determined to end the U.S. military’s presence in the country. He has publicly decried the operation as costly and without many directly tangible benefits to the United States, despite his promise both as a candidate and since becoming president to completely defeat ISIS.
And this is where Bolton’s plan for an Arab force to help “stabilize” the situation comes in. But from what we’ve already seen, not only could it be difficult to establish this contingent in the first place, deploying it might exacerbate tensions rather than reduce them.
Most immediately is the fact that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE remained locked in a bitter spat with Qatar primarily over the latter country’s diplomatic relations with Iran. They’ve largely blockaded the small peninsular nation and it's highly unlikely that would consent to join together with it in a new coalition. Political tensions between these and other parties have scuttled proposals for an "Arab NATO" and similar regional military organizations for years.
On top of that, Egypt is already heavily engaged against ISIS-affiliated terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula, along with far less publicized cooperation with Israel over the crisis in the Gaza Strip and support for groups fighting the internationally-recognized government in Libya. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are themselves deeply mired in a grueling counter-insurgency campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, an Iranian-supported rebel movement.
It could be difficult for any of those countries to find the manpower and other resources to contribute to a broad, effective occupation of eastern Syria for the foreseeable future. And unlike the United States, which has remained laser-focused on containing ISIS, even as it effectively carves out a semi-autonomous region outside of Assad’s control in the process, it's less clear that these additional parties would be able to suppress their other agendas in Syria.
Both the Saudis and the Emiratis have already been actively supporting various rebel groups fighting the regime in Damascus, both as part of efforts managed by the U.S. military and Intelligence Community and on their own. Along with Egypt, they are staunchly opposed to Assad, as well as Iran’s rising influence in Syria and the Middle East as a whole.
The matter of Iran is the most important factor in this equation. With the exception of Qatar, the countries the Trump Administration is looking to for help in Syria are all looking to or are actively in the process of trying to contain the regime in Tehran and its proxies. As noted, the Saudi-led fight against the Houthis in Yemen is, at least for that coalition, almost inseparably linked with checking Iranian geopolitical expansion in the Middle East.
It is hard to believe that they would be able to fully repress their long-standing goals, especially ejecting Iran from the country and unseating its client Assad, during a Syrian deployment and it is almost certain that they would actively try to target Iranian-backed elements, militarily or otherwise, in the name of "stabilization." The eagerness of the Saudis to become involved in such a complex and potentially cost effort only seems to underscore the likelihood that they see these and other additional benefits from establishing a U.S.-endorsed foothold in the country.
“We are in discussions with the U.S. and have been since the beginning of the Syrian crisis [in 2011] about sending forces into Syria,” Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, said at a press conference in Riyadh on April 17, 2018. “We made a proposal to the Obama administration that if the U.S. were to send forces... then Saudi Arabia would consider along with other countries sending forces as part of this contingent.
It’s notable that the Obama administration apparently repeatedly declined this offer for years, quite possibly out of concern for how the deployment might further disrupt the situation in Syria. Trump, however, enjoys a much closer relationship with the Saudis and is far less likely to reject their pledge of support in this matter.
But we’ve already seen the problems that conflicting agendas can pose in Syria when Turkey, as already noted, unilaterally invaded northwestern Syria in order to destroy elements of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG, which it sees as a terrorist group and a direct threat to its interests. Turkish authorities launched that operation despite opposition from their own ally, the United States.
Since then, Turkish officials have explicitly threatened American troops over their continued support for the predominantly Kurdish SDF, many of whom came from the ranks of the YPG. The situation also prompted many SDF fighters to turn west, which, in no small part, why ISIS both remains a threat and is now regaining some of its strength.
And unless it remains under the umbrella of some sort of American protection, which would largely defeat the Trump Administration's goal for such a force, the Arab coalition would be much more susceptible to large and open counter-attacks from Assad or his Iranian or Russian benefactors, as well.
As it stands now, U.S. troops are the only obstacle in the way of Turkey expanding its campaign against the Kurds throughout northern Syria and preventing Assad from reasserting control straight to the Iraqi border. This is because no one in the country is eager to spark a larger conflict with the United States, a calculus that would not necessarily apply to Saudi, Egyptian, or Emirati forces.
With all this in mind, the United States is perhaps the main actor in Syria concerned about ISIS and is the one most capable of minimizing the group's ability to conduct activities within the country and elsewhere. It also remains the military most able to provide the air, artillery, and persistent intelligence gathering capabilities, especially when it comes to unmanned aircraft, that have been essential in keeping the terrorists on the run.
Until the Syrian geopolitical situation otherwise becomes more stable, a withdrawal of American forces and a decrease in U.S. attention can only realistically provide the terrorists with the room they need to rebuild as other parties distract themselves with their own separate agendas. One simply cannot reliably expect the proposed Arab force simply to fill the gap.
Beyond that, there is a distinct risk that doing so would provoke additional tensions and skirmishes that could create a larger conflict that spills over into neighboring countries. Trump may be eager to extricate U.S. forces, and perhaps, more importantly, his administration, from Syria, but it's no good to do so, though, if American troops have to go right back because the situation has completely collapsed and ISIS has revived itself to the point that it can once again to threaten countries through the region.
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