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The so-called Islamic State has lost all of its territory, but the US must take active steps to stop the threat from rising again. Liam Glen takes a closer look at the situation in Syria.
On March 23, 2019, the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces declared that they had taken the last ISIS holdout in Baghouz, Syria. Later that day, President Trump boasted that “the United States has liberated all ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq—100 Percent of the ‘caliphate.’”
We should not understate the symbolic importance of this event.The self-proclaimed caliphate stood out from other terrorist groups by taking control of vast swathes of land and governing them with all the trappings of a modern state. At its height, it held major cities such as Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria under its dominion, executing anyone deemed to be an infidel or apostate. This reign of terror is now over thanks to the sacrifices of thousands of anti-ISIS fighters from various armies.
A Long-Term Problem
However, retaking ISIS-controlled territory does not mean the end of the organization. According to US Special Envoy James Jeffrey, 15,000 to 20,000 “armed adherents” to ISIS remain scattered through Iraq and Syria. Many will turn to guerilla warfare, and should stability in the region falter again, they will take it as an opportunity to resurrect the caliphate.
The defeat of ISIS as a regional military force may very well strengthen ISIS as a global terrorist network. In the post-9/11 world, international conflict is rarely about whose army defeats whose on the battlefield. Instead, it is a sophisticated process of counterterrorism which involves espionage to gain information on extremist groups, precise military strikes to eliminate terrorist leaders, and propaganda to stem recruitment.
Unless we want to fight endless wars, we must also address the root causes of the problem. This entails a long process of social, political, and economic development such that extremists can no longer recruit fighters in underserved communities or wreak havoc unstable institutions. Local actors will have to lead the process, but in some cases US intervention may be beneficial.
Peace in the Levant?
A major factor in ISIS’s its success was its ability to exploit instability in Syria. Thus, peace in the region should be a top priority. US intervention in the Syrian Civil War began with aid to rebel groups against the incumbent Assad regime, then escalated after the rise of ISIS.
One may question whether the US should have intervened in the first place, but now that the war has gone on this long, it would be irresponsible to simply pack up and leave without a clear pathway to peace.
Perhaps this is why President Trump backtracked on his December 2018 announcement that he was withdrawing all troops in Syria and now says that a “small contingent” will remain. However, it is uncertain exactly what action the US will take.
The ideal solution to the suffering in Syria is an end to the fighting. This would be an incredibly complex affair. The interests of various internal factions and foreign countries with wildly different agendas would have to be considered. Realpolitik would take precedent over common sense and basic human decency.
For example, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is an incompetent war criminal, but as long as Russia and Iran support him, he will likely stay in power. However, after eight years of fighting, any peace may be preferable to continued war.
One may doubt the Trump administration’s commitment to Syria’s plight – indeed, it is questionable whether any government in history has ever engaged in foreign policy with purely humanitarian intentions – but the strategic benefits of stability in the region are self-evident. In addition, President Trump has proven himself capable of surprises, as showcased by his diplomacy with North Korea.
Ending the Syria Civil War would be a herculean task for any world leader, but just as Nixon became the one to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China, Trump may well be the one to facilitate peace in Syria.