As a presidential candidate in 2015, Donald Trump promised to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS.
But this week President Trump announced a new policy on the so-called Islamic State, first declaring the terror group defeated, and then suggesting that ISIS is no longer a U.S. problem — at least not in Syria.
There’s one small issue with Trump’s latest declarations about ISIS: They’re simply not true, according to former U.S. national security officials and analysts. ISIS may be diminished in Syria, but it’s hardly dead. And experts worry that a hasty U.S. withdrawal could create fertile ground for the terror group’s resurrection.
“ISIS is far from defeated, it’s just waiting for the right moment to regenerate, and engage in more opportunistic attacks not just in Syria but worldwide,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, a foreign policy think tank in London.
Trump’s sudden move to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria reportedly shocked White House advisers and the Pentagon, and pushed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to publicly resign in protest Thursday. On Saturday, Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, pushed forward his scheduled departure from the post in disagreement with Trump’s decision.
“I ultimately concluded that I could not carry out these new instructions and maintain my integrity,” McGurk wrote in an email to colleagues.
U.S. and its Kurdish partner forces have been successful in breaking ISIS’ grip on northeastern Syria, but the group is still a threat in the region. A report by the U.S. Lead Inspector General from earlier this year estimated around 14,000 ISIS fighters alone are still active in Syria, though military officials told the Washington Post in August they thought that estimate “seemed high.”
“We are inevitably creating the conditions for ISIS 2.0.”
“This is going to be an ISIS propaganda video in next few weeks, basically with them declaring victory,” said Colin P. Clarke, senior research fellow at the New York-based Soufan Center. “It’s a huge, huge morale boost for ISIS and its supporters.”
The White House maintains that Trump’s surprise shift in Syria does not mean an end to America’s global fight against ISIS and terrorism. But Trump’s recent actions there certainly undermine that fight, experts said.
“We are inevitably creating the conditions for ISIS 2.0,” said Michael Carpenter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and foreign policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump’s desire to withdraw from a protracted conflict is not in and of itself controversial, analysts said. Yet his seeming lack of preparation for leaving a country still deep in turmoil risks fomenting a renaissance for the beleaguered terror group. The White House did not immediately respond to request for comment on Trump’s new Syria strategy.
“If you don’t create the conditions for stability, and some modicum of orderly transfer following the departure of U.S. troops,” said Carpenter, “we’re just setting ourselves up for the inevitable reemergence of Sunni forces in eastern Syria.”
Stability is not a word one would use to describe Syria. Deeply fractured, with parts of the country still mired in civil war between Syrian Dictator Bashar Assad and rebel forces, and stretches influenced by foreign actors like Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, and America, the country remains highly combustible.
For two years, the Trump administration appeared aware of that reality and planned to keep U.S. forces in the country indefinitely to help ensure a stable transition of power. An abrupt withdrawal could create a security vacuum in which ISIS or other terror groups could regenerate, officials warned.
“This is the worst message that could possibly be sent to our partners.”
“ISIS has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two,” then-Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said in January, when he announced that U.S. strategy in Syria.
Until this week, the U.S. mission in Syria was also focused on preventing Iran and Russia from cementing their influence in the country. So, too, was keeping an increasingly agitated Turkey from attacking U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria’s eastern regions.
Though the U.S. maintains it will continue to counter Iranian influence through sanctions and other means, Trump doesn’t appear to have a similar commitment to protecting his Kurdish allies, who have been instrumental in the fight against ISIS.
“The immediate victims will definitely be the Kurds who are on the front lines fighting ISIS in northeast Syria,” said Khatib, “but also Syrian civilians.”
Turkey has not been shy in its discomfort with the Kurds’ success in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan views the Kurds as terrorists and a threat to Turkey’s national security, and has only resisted attacking them because of an American presence there. In America’s absence, the Kurds will suddenly be surrounded by enemies on all sides: Assad, ISIS and Turkey.
The Kurdish predicament could have far reaching implications for America’s counter-terror goals around the world.
“Other non-state actors around the world with whom we work to combat terrorism every day are paying close attention and they’ll now wonder if they can trust U.S. commitments,” said William Wechsler, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism under the Obama administration.
Such an erosion of trust threatens American interests in Syria and undermines the strategy of indirect action that has been at the bedrock of recent U.S. counter-terror initiatives around the world, said Wechsler, now a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington DC.
“This is the worst message that could possibly be sent to our partners,” he said.
Greg Walters contributed reporting.
Cover image: In this Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, file photo, an image made from drone video shows damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria. (AP Photo/Gabriel Chaim, File)