Foreign ministers and senior officials from the 79-member, U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition are meeting in Washington to develop a way ahead after President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw American forces from Syria. (Feb. 6)
As the United States prepares a full drawdown of forces in Syria, former defense and intelligence officials are concerned with the region’s stability and a repeat of what happened when ISIS emerged after the United States left Iraq in 2011.
President Trump vowed a change in policy in his 2019 State of the Union Speech. As he specifically promised a reduction of troop presence and focus on counterterrorism, he stated: “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”
“It’s a long-standing campaign talking point for him, but I think the real problem was the fact that it was not done through any sort of process,” said Joseph Collins, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for stability operations.
Trump predicted all ISIS-held territory in Syria would be regained by the second week of February, but many U.S. military and intelligence officials still consider the extremist group a threat. ISIS as a terrorist group, and as an ideology is very much alive, according to Brian Katz, a former Defense Department official.
“They’re just not physically holding and defending the area anymore. They’re in the rural areas in Iraq and Syria,” Katz said. “They’ve probably started re-infiltrating some of the areas that were cleared by the counter-ISIS forces, rebuilding those clandestine networks to be able to launch attacks if there is the more significant drawdown of U.S. troops if there is a collapse of our local partner forces again.”
“You have to continually pursue these groups until there’s almost nothing left. And we did it one time before,” said Collins. “We did the best job that anyone has ever done in history and it still came back to bite us.”
Looking back at al-Qaeda extremists who became ISIS fighters after Obama’s withdrawal, Collins said the United States should have learned its lesson.
“Al-Qaeda in Iraq was the most thoroughly destroyed terrorist group in history,” he said. “When U.S. forces and our special operators were done, there were only a few hundred of these stragglers who were left.”
In an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday, President Donald Trump defended his decision to withdraw troops from Syria despite criticism from military officials and allies who don’t think the job fighting Islamic State militants there is over. (Dec. 26)
President Trump’s disregard for protocol to discuss policy with officials before making a public comment via press conference or tweets has left issues unresolved such as adjudicating foreign fighters and leaving local allies without support, Collins said.
“This is where the international community has to work together, including the U.S., because there are a lot of foreign terrorist fighters out of Iraq,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim said at a recent event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We don’t know what is the next step.”
On Saturday, Trump tweeted about the issue, calling on European allies to put 800 captured ISIS fighters on trial.
“The Caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them,” he wrote. “The U.S. does not want to watch as these ISIS fighters permeate Europe, which is where they are expected to go. We do so much, and spend so much – Time for others to step up and do the job that they are so capable of doing. We are pulling back after 100% Caliphate victory!”
Without a policy decision from leaders, the future status of these fighters is unknown.
“You can’t make foreign fighters stateless — it encourages that individual not being connected to law-abiding societies whether its integration or any sort of accountability and heightens the risk of them pursuing extremist ideologies,” said Melissa Dalton, a former assistant of the secretary of Defense for policy.
Alhakim said U.S. policy should include working with partners to eliminate ISIS control east of the Euphrates River. But Collins criticized the United States’ unilateral actions which he said have occurred since the George W. Bush administration, but has “been raised to an art form in the past two years.”
“The United States consistently disregards the interests of our allies who are fighting with us and in fact dying with us,” Collins said. “We’ve had a massive dose of unilateralism and we do not treat our regional allies or even our NATO allies with the respect they deserve.”
Currently, U.S. soldiers are fighting with Syrian Democratic forces, Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces, which are also made up of Iraq Shia militia, backed by Iran.
In a recent interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Trump said the presence of American troops in Iraq was to keep an eye on Iran. Katz said it might be an element of it, but it makes it more complicated for the Iraqi politicians trying to rebuild their country.
“The more difficult Western partners make it for these [Iraqi] politicians to support a U.S. presence, the higher the risk of an ISIS resurgence and potentially conflict with Iran,” Katz said. “The last thing the people of Iraq want to be drug into is a conflict between the U.S. and Iran played out in Iraq.”
As for the fighters, Dalton said leaving the area may make it easier for Turkey to infringe upon the rights of Kurdish entities.
“People who’ve been fighting with us against ISIS, against Assad, and against the Russians and Iranians, are now trying to figure out — how are they going to survive? That’s one of the issues that has to be worked out in these inner agency meetings that never took place,” Collins said.
Katz said most military analysts believe keeping a small presence of 1,000 or 2,000 troops to train local forces and provide air support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is a good investment and can keep “steady pressure on ISIS which prevents them from adapting and re-emerging.”
Officials agree that a pull out without regard for the region’s future will influence how the United States is viewed on the world stage. U.S. withdrawal may also give way to Russian and Iranian influence, as well as Turkish influence in the east, which Dalton said may restrict future humanitarian aid access in Syria.
“If the U.S. is not honoring its commitments to partners and allies, then the going gets tough down the road. What reason do they have to honor those commitments with us?” she asked. “It’s a very rocky and troubling road that we are walking ourselves down.”
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