A recent Pentagon report has confirmed what many in U.S. defense have long feared: ISIS has been rebuilding in Syria.
The report was written by Department of Defense (DoD) Counsel Glenn Fine, the lead inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve, the official name for the US-led operation fighting ISIS, and covers the period from 1 April to 30 June, 2019.
A quick recap:
Late in 2018, President Donald Trump announced that he was ready to withdraw troops from Syria after a long and successful campaign taking back territory from ISIS. The move was decried by national security experts, as well as loyalists from Trump’s own party, as premature. The decision was almost certainly the last straw for then-Defense Secretary James Mattis who resigned days after the announcement on Syria. Now, the Defense Department has reported the results.
The first line of the 116-page document gets right to it: “Despite losing its territorial ‘caliphate,’ the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was re-surging in Syria this quarter.” The fact that ISIS has been rebuilding in Syria is due in no small part to U.S. absence. As Fine wrote in a message accompanying the report, “the reduction of U.S. forces has decreased the support available for Syrian partner forces at a time when their forces need more training and equipping to respond to the ISIS resurgence.”
While the major battles against ISIS may have been fought and won before Trump’s pullout decision, the challenge of stabilizing these former ISIS territories was still in its early stages at the end of 2018. As the report iterated, after taking territory back from ISIS, local forces still need support to help build credibility with local populations and collect on-the-ground intelligence to get ahead of any insurgent activity. Now, that threat of “insurgent activity” has become a reality. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford told reporters last month, “We can all certainly be proud of the progress that has taken place since 2015 […] in terms of clearing ISIS from Mosul, from Raqqa, from Fallujah and so forth […] But we also know there is still a fairly vibrant insurgency that has reverted to guerrilla tactics, and so there is still a threat.”
For the Trump administration to make a U-turn on its Syria policy would not look good politically. But given the facts on the ground, it may be the only choice to prevent a complete come-back of the Islamic State.