US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters gather as they prepare to expel hundreds of the Daesh jihadists from the Baghouz area in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor Image Credit: AFP

More than two years ago former President Donald Trump announced that the head of Daesh, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, was killed in a US commando raid in Syria. Before that the terrorist group was routed in northern Iraq and Eastern Syria and it was believed then that the mission to destroy it was finally accomplished. But now intelligence reports say Daesh is resurging in both Syria and Iraq. Last week the group claimed responsibility for a deadly twin suicide bombing in a busy Baghdad market that claimed the lives of more than 30 people and injured at least 100. It was followed a day later by an ambush of members of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) north of the capital that killed 11. Daesh is believed to have been behind the attack.

Last December at least 37 people in Syria were killed in one of the biggest attacks carried out by Daesh since the fall of the self-proclaimed caliphate. The attack targeted a convoy of Syrian regime soldiers and militiamen returning from leave to their posts in Deir ez-Zor province, in a largely desert area on the border with Iraq.

Western intelligence reports say that Daesh was behind a surge in the number of terrorist attacks that were carried out in Syria and Iraq in 2020. The civil war in Syria and the political and economic turmoil in Iraq have allowed members of the terrorist organisation to regroup, organise prison breaks and carry out sporadic attacks against civilian and military targets. The Baghdad attack is a clear message that Daesh is now in a position to infiltrate heavy security cordons and strike in the heart of the capital.

The increase in Daesh related attacks comes in the wake of the drawdown in the number of US troops in Iraq under the Trump administration. The question now is how will President Joe Biden and his foreign policy team deal with this emerging challenge. Since last year’s killing of Iranian general Qassem Soliemani in a US drone strike in Baghdad, pro Iranian Iraqi politicians have been demanding the full withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. This has put the government of Prime Minister Mustapha Al-Kadhimi under tremendous pressure. Iraq cannot deal with multiple security challenges on its own. It still needs international help led by the US. It now finds itself locked in a US-Iran showdown. Kadhimi has been trying to control some of the PMU’s most notorious pro-Iran groups. The irony is that the PMU was instrumental in the fight against Daesh after the latter took control of Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul.

On the other side of the border, Syria is facing a political and military stalemate. On the ground there are US, Turkish, Russian and Iranian troops and fighters controlling various parts of the country. But there are pockets where Daesh has been able to regroup and wage attacks. The chaotic Syrian reality has allowed many extremist groups to dig roots, and since the killing of Baghdadi the international coalition appears to have lost focus on Daesh members and cells.

The coming few months will be critical. The Biden administration will be busy focusing on fighting the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States. On the foreign policy front, it will be working on rebuilding the alliance with Europe ahead of its re-engagement on the controversial Iran nuclear agreement. Both Iraq and Syria are unlikely to top the list of its foreign policy priorities. That would be a mistake. Iraq needs all the help it can get to deal with renewed Daesh threats. It cannot afford to waste time while the terrorist group carries out fresh attacks that aim at eroding the government’s grip on national security.

On the Syrian front, the previous administration had settled for positioning a small number of US troops in Kurdish run parts of Eastern Syria. No pressure was put on Moscow to revive a genuine political process aimed at ending the decade-old Syrian crisis. Earlier this month French Defense Minister Florence Parly admitted that Daesh is reappearing in Syria and Iraq. But the US-led coalition has not addressed this issue in recent months.

Political and economic turmoil in the region allowed Daesh to make spectacular territorial gains in Syria and Iraq between 2013 and 2017. International response came too late. Daesh was able to maintain control of vast territory and in the process it carried out horrific atrocities against innocent civilians including ethnic and religious minorities. The devastation it left in its wake has been shocking. It took an international coalition with huge investment and commitment to finally take it out.

With so many regional challenges, the US and its allies must refocus attention on helping local governments deal with new terrorist threats. Iraq in particular remains politically vulnerable and it would be a huge setback for the region if Kadhimi’s efforts to reform the country are hindered by the resurgence of Daesh. The price for not acting now will be too hefty.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.