Few weeks after United States President Donald Trump announced that Daesh has been defeated in Syria, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were waging a major battle on Monday against what has been described as the terrorist group’s last foothold in the war-torn country. By Tuesday, the SDF, comprising mainly Kurdish and Arab fighters and supported by coalition air strikes, was closing on the town of Baghouz Al Fawqani — few kilometres from the Iraqi border, where about 500 Daesh terrorists were entrenched and holding more than 1,000 civilians hostages.
The town in the Der Ezzour area in the eastern Syrian desert is the last enclave held by Daesh in Syria. Their defeat is symbolically significant, since the fall of Raqqa in 2017, and means that the structure of the so-called caliphate has been dismantled. Now there is talk of evacuating the few hundred terrorists that still remain in Idlib province or allow them to slip into Iraq in return for freeing their civilian hostages.
But while Trump and his acting US Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan believe that Daesh has been defeated, the UN and other US top brass disagree. Briefing the United Nations Security Council on Monday, the UN counter-terrorism chief, Vladimir Voronkov, warned that recent losses by Daesh extremists “should not lead to complacency at any level”. He said the group remains a global threat with up to 18,000 militants remaining in Iraq and Syria with access to tens of millions of dollars in funding.
Meanwhile, Army General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, who was in the Middle East last week, was reported as saying that the actual date of troop withdrawal would depend on the situation on the ground in Syria, where an effort to eliminate Daesh is in progress. According to CNN, General Votel does not subscribe to Trump’s view on the state of Daesh in the region and he supports the US intelligence assessment that “tens of thousands” of fighters are still alive and kicking in Syria and Iraq. “They are dispersed and disaggregated, but there is leadership, there are fighters there, there are facilitators there,” Votel told CNN.
Most analysts agree that despite the eviction of Daesh from Mosul in northern Iraq in 2017 and the fact that the group has lost most of its territory in both Iraq and Syria, it is still capable of changing its tactics and make use of regional geopolitical uncertainties. In Syria, the SDF face the prospect of clashing with Turkish troops and their local allies once the US pullout is completed. If the SDF retreats, remnants of Daesh fighters can still regroup and recapture territory between Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, the absence of a political solution in Syria will continue to frustrate the country’s Sunni majority who at one stage provided an incubator to Daesh fighters.
By contrast, Iraq finds itself increasingly entrenched between the US and Iran in their current face off. Trump’s recent statement that he will keep his troops in Iraq to keep an eye over Iran has infuriated most Iraqi political parties and blocs. Iraqi President Barham Salih rejected last week Trump’s statement saying the United States should not burden Iraq with its own “policy priorities.” There have been calls by Iraqi lawmakers to expel US forces from Iraq.
Tension between Washington and Baghdad following Trump’s announcement prompted Pentagon chief Shanahan to pay a surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday to find ways to reassure the Iraqis and maintain US military presence there. Iraq remains vulnerable to Daesh threats as fighters take cover in the vast desert and attempt to wage suicide attacks to disrupt stability across the country and fan sectarian feuds.
Added to these uncertainties is the fact that the group’s decentralised structure has allowed it to extend its presence into Africa, including Libya and Somalia, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has benefited from failing US regional policies during the past two decades; starting with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which gave rise to Al Qaida there, and the ensuing sectarian violence that ripped that country apart.
What should not escape the attention of world leaders is the fact that Daesh relies on tens of thousands of sympathisers around the globe who include top high-tech hackers and online recruiters. The ability of Daesh to evolve and adapt provides a worrying scenario for security bodies. And perhaps more important is the fact that its hardline ideology continues to garner support by disenfranchised young Muslims and others all over the world. It is too early to declare the defeat of Daesh and other hardline groups that may be regrouping. They remain a global threat and thus require a global response.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.