ISIS Has Not Yet Been Defeated

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U.S. Army vehicles supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in in the Deir Ezzor province, eastern Syria, last month. (Delil Souleieman/AFP/Getty Images)

Anyone who claims that ISIS has been defeated is misreading the map: ISIS is not an organization, it is an ideology, and anyone declaring that the United States has won over ISIS is mistaken. You can’t destroy ideology with air strikes; you can perhaps declare that you’ve diminished their power. The organization has been dealt a blow, but it has not been brought completely to its knees – the ideology remains, as does the danger for the future.

It happened on Motzoei Shabbos. Not four years ago and not a year ago, but a week ago.

A convoy from one of the Iranian militias comprised of dozens of fighters, with their weapons and vehicles, left its base in the Al Suwahana region of eastern Syria and began moving toward Dir a Zur in Syria. But the convoy never made it to its destination. It disappeared without a trace. The assumption is that ISIS members attacked it and somehow managed to wipe it off the map. Now everyone is waiting to get some type of hint about the whereabouts of the fighters … or their bodies.

This is apparently one of 68 attacks that Islamic State has carried out since the United States declared that the organization was defeated and that it would be withdrawing American troops from Syria.

Leave, and You Lose

The American withdrawal from Syria hands Iran and Hezbollah the image of victory. Anyone who claims that ISIS has been defeated is misreading the map: It’s not even an organization, it’s an ideology. President Trump erred when he declared that the United States has won against ISIS. You can’t liquidate an ideology with air strikes. You can perhaps declare that you’ve diminished their strength. The organization has been dealt a blow, but it has not been completely defeated — the ideology remains, as does the danger for the future. The step taken by President Trump is being perceived as a failure both among the Syrians and the Iranians. The minute one party leaves the front — and it makes no difference if it’s due to technical reasons or financial ones, or whether that party has maxed out its efforts or not — as far as the enemy is concerned, that party has lost. The game in the Middle East is holding onto territory, and whoever leaves is the loser. To illustrate this point, look at the Russians. They are not going anywhere; they are staying in Syria.

The American Move Looks Like Abandonment

The image that the United States projects with this announcement is abandonment of its allies. The American force was only 2,000 soldiers strong, located on the seam line between Iraq and Syria, but it signified the American presence in the field, and no future arrangement would have been possible without them. Now there is the danger that Iran will transport weapons to Hezbollah and will, in essence, be sitting on Israel’s northern border. The Israelis are afraid that their neighbors to the north will be entities backed by a country that openly states its interest in destroying Israel.

President Trump defended his decision by saying that there is no more need for American forces in Syria after the mission to defeat ISIS was successfully achieved, and the U.S. does not have to be the policeman in the region. Despite declarations that this administration is not interested in repeating mistakes of the Obama administration when it decided to withdraw from Iraq, this administration does not appear to have an organized strategy for the day after ISIS no longer has a grip on territory. There is no strategy to guarantee that the threat does not return and that conditions do not develop that will make it easier for them to facilitate a renewed rise of radical Islam in Syria and other places.

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Wreckage in the Syrian rebel-held al-Rashidin district of western Aleppo’s countryside. (Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images)

Instability Reigns

Either way, the areas where Islamic State is growing — primarily in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya — continue to be unstable. This makes it tremendously difficult to obtain the financial and human resources needed to provide for the needs of the population and to translate military success into a general plan of action.

The American move plays right into the hands of Iran: One of its strategic goals is to minimize American presence in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, primarily because American military presence in eastern Syria, along the border with Iraq, has limited Iran’s freedom of mobility. They have not been freely able to transfer forces and weapons over the land route from Iran — through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Iran — and Russia — claim that their forces are there at the request of the Syrian regime, and therefore they are legitimate, whereas America forced itself into Syria. President Trump’s decision strengthens Iran’s assessment that it has no reason to alter its behavior, goals or methods.

America’s troop withdrawal speeds up the process of Assad’s regime retaking areas in the east and north of Syria that are under the control of the Kurds, who benefit from American aid and support. It also strengthens the image of Assad as victorious in the civil war, backed by the Iranian-Russian coalition. It is likely that the first order of business for these partners will be to take over swaths of territory on the Iraq-Syrian border, including the Tanaf area and traffic arteries from east to west, as well as the Kurdish region in northeastern Syria, which includes oilfields. It is likely that the SDF, the Kurdish army in Syria, will cooperate with the regime, but will stop fighting in pockets of ISIS. Also, the Kurds are afraid that Turkey will carry out its threats to expand their battles against them into northeastern Syria, and will take advantage of the new reality to capture territory on the Turkish-Syrian border.

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Syrians demonstrating in the rebel-held northern Syrian city of Idlib in September 2018, in support of the agreement between Turkey and Russia to avert an assault on Syria’s last major rebel stronghold. (Zein Al Rifai/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia in Charge?

America’s decision to withdraw from Syria means that the United States is almost completely leaving the Syrian case file, so to speak, in Russian hands. It is losing a vital bargaining chip vis à vis future political arrangements in Syria. Those arrangement were, at least according to some, to include the issue of an Iranian presence in Syria.

Although Russia wants American forces in Syria to retreat, it did ask for American involvement in the process of reaching a political arrangement. This was in order to garner internal support and participation in Syria’s postwar reconstruction. Putin does not want to open his already dwindling pockets to fund the destroyed country.

Russia will now try to translate the abandonment of the front by Trump into a demonstration that its own policy reflects determination, responsibility, persistence and stability, and establishes Moscow’s status as a central player in the Middle East.

To be fair, Trump made his policy very clear during the 2016 presidential campaign. “America,” he said, “will not pay a price by serving the interests of others.”

That includes Israel.

The Israeli Perspective

The few American soldiers stationed in Syria did not protect Israel, nor did they fight against an Iranian foothold in Syria. But their existence in these two arenas was a bone in the throats of Russia and Iran, and prevented Bashar Assad from completing his takeover of Syrian territory. In the future, Israel will have to work alone to push back on Iran’s attempts to gain ground in Syria.

“Nothing will change in Israel’s fight against the Iranians in Syria because the Americans were not part of it,” says Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, a director of the National Security Council in Israel until recently. “We have lived until today without the American policeman.

“America has not taken any sides and has not done anything to fight against Iran in Syria,” he states. “The Americans were there to fight ISIS and only ISIS. It is true that in the place where they were, the Americans blocked the Iranians from advancing their land corridor plan because they were sitting on the border between Iraq and Syria. The Americans created an area with clear boundaries, and shot anyone who came even close to it.”

He clarifies: “[On the one hand,] because America did not take part in the fighting against the Iranians, [America’s] departure will make no difference. On the other hand, however, the Iranians will now be able to achieve their land corridor. The minute the last American leaves, we will see massive movement of equipment and forces. … They will be able to load equipment onto a truck in Iran and reach Syria via Iraq, and from there they can get to Lebanon without anyone stopping them.”

“It’s hard for us to understand this,” Amidror emphasizes. “The United States has decided that it will no longer take all the world’s problems upon itself with no remuneration, as it has done since World War I. It no longer wants to carry the fate of the world on its shoulders, because that costs money and American soldiers’ lives.

“Israel made the decision to defend itself by itself; America understands that and helps however it can. The first operational F-35 fleet in the world outside the United States is in Israel, and that is not a coincidence. The Americans give us $3.8 billion each year so that we can purchase arms from them, and they give us international backing. On the other hand, they did not and will not do the work for us. They make it possible for us to be the strongest army in the Middle East, and that should not be minimized. …

“The president of the United States makes his decisions based on the considerations of the United States, not Israel,” he says. “At the end of the day, personal relationships do not determine the decision; interests do. When Obama had one type of interest, he worked in one way and when he had a different interest, he worked differently. We have to realize that things have changed in Syria, and perhaps specifically because the American entity is out of the equation there, it will become less complex and perhaps make it easier for us.”

‘Beaten But Not Defeated’

It’s a good idea to take note of the remarks of Brett McGurk, American envoy to the coalition against ISIS, who resigned his post this week, declaring: “ISIS is far from being defeated.” In his resignation letter, he writes, “The premature withdrawal of American forces from Syria is liable to generate in the region the exact same conditions that created this organization in Iraq in the first place.”

ISIS is still alive and kicking. This week alone, its members carried out many attacks throughout Syria and Iraq, killing dozens of people and injuring many more. ISIS still holds a series of villages and towns on a strip along the Euphrates River in Eastern Syria.

According to the Syrian Center for Human Rights, which tracks the war through local networks of informers, there are some 8,000 ISIS fighters in the region, in addition to thousands more who fled from areas in southern Syria, where they were trounced and are hiding, and perhaps might now rear their heads again.

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US-backed forces in eastern Syria, in September 2018. (AFP/Getty Images)

Exposing the Kurds

With the sudden withdrawal from Syria, the United States is abandoning its only military partner in Syria, the SDF, leaving them exposed on all sides. “The decision by the White House to retreat from northern and eastern Syria will have a negative effect on the battle against terror,” the Kurds announced this week, adding that “this battle is not yet over, and the defeat of the terror has yet to be completed. The move generates a political and military vacuum that will make it possible for ISIS to rear its head again.”

“A far more aggressive operation is necessary to nearly eradicate the organization,” says Yoram Schweitzer, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel and considered one of the most eminent researchers on the subject of Islamic State. He was a counterterrorism strategy advisor in the prime minister’s Office and head of the department that combats international terror in the IDF. He states clearly: “The war against ISIS is not over and requires a much more determined and aggressive battle.”

“The bad winds blowing from the direction of Islamic State — its behavior, intentions and declared values — are not hidden. They are a clear and present danger to the entire world. In order to thwart their efforts, another international operation is needed, with a combined military, political, judicial, ideological and ethical steps.”

The West Made to Appear Helpless

“The public executions and beheadings of journalists and Western aid workers, after they were humiliated by their murderers, served their media strategy, and its efforts to draft recruits to its ranks,” Schweitzer says. “For young Muslims — Arab and Western — these acts delivered a message about their power, which is in the hands of the Muslim empire that is being created, and about the helplessness of the West in dealing with it. But at the same time these barbaric acts raised a hue and cry around the world in general and in the West in particular, the public horror galvanized leaders of many countries to join an international coalition that was formed to stop the threat of Islamic State from spreading to the whole world. This coalition, at the peak of the fight against ISIS, was comprised of more than 60 states that participated in various levels in the battle to vanquish ISIS.”

He believes that an international operation is required in order to attain a closing act, an absolute dismantling of the organization, although it is doubtful that it will be possible to completely do away with it.

Other experts who have been following ISIS wars for years say that, initially, President Trump really thought that ISIS was already on the rocks, and therefore, within just a few weeks, up to a hundred days into office, it would be possible to completely annihilate it. But slowly, as the responses to his approach began to come in, including from army brass considered to be deliberate people who have no accounts with him as president or with his policies, he realized that the Arab phrase “haste is from the Satan” suits the situation he found himself in. He began to send messages that the American army would be leaving but would remain active on that front. As proof, this past week, the American Air Force increased its aerial activity in the region, and the scope of its bombardments almost doubled from the days before.

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At a demonstration in Berlin last March, of some thousand protesters against the Turkish offensive targeting Kurds in Afrin, Syria. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

‘Only a Partial Withdrawal’

The White House was also alarmed by the reactions of the government leaders who are partners with the United States on its Middle East policy. They quietly expressed their disappointment at the American announcement, at the absolute “abandonment” of the Middle East. The White House spokesperson was sent to publicly declare that it is actually only a partial withdrawal of forces, while the rest will be deployed in other places, and that in actuality it is not a complete American withdrawal from the Syrian front. According to the spokesperson, the United States will continue to maintain a presence in Syria. This announcement calmed the Kurds, who were already talking about how the American administration “stuck a knife in their backs,” and the Israelis were also somewhat mollified after a phone conversation between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the president himself.

All the Remaining Players Reorganize

Meanwhile, Turkish President Erdogan hastened to declare that in his conversation with Present Trump he was appointed to lead the war against the remnants of ISIS. In other words, he was given permission to capture northern Turkey and to take over areas currently held by the Kurds. That is exactly what the Kurds feared most of all, but very quickly the Americans informed them that there is no White House agreement for Turkish forces to cross the Euphrates River to the east to reach the Kurdish capital of Al Kalmishli in northern Syria. Indeed, there does not seem to be Turkish preparation to enter Kurdish territory. Moreover, in some places where the Kurds have control, there was news about the rapid establishment of new bases for the … American army. Or more accurately, for that part of the American army that will remain in the field and help those fighting against Islamic State.

The Iraqis are also part of the new picture. They were ordered to bring their Golden Division soldiers to the border with Syria. These are special forces in Iraq’s army that fight against ISIS, and they have proven experienced in defeating ISIS units in central Iraqi cities that they formerly held. Bringing this division to the border signals to the Kurds that they should be calm, because the Turks aren’t coming. At the same time, this also calms Israel, as it knows that the Iraqi forces will not let the Iranians send their weapons in ground convoys from Iran to Syria and then to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Where are the Russians in all these behind the scenes preparations? The assessment is that, with all the efforts of American and international entities trying to present President Trump as having pulled this decision out on a whim, we have to hope that that is not the case, and that he planned the move well and perhaps even coordinated it with Moscow.

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Israeli soldiers stand guard at the Israeli side of the Quneitra Crossing, in the Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights, in September 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The American Move: What Does It Mean for Israel?

Israel understands that the United States has the sovereign right to make any decision that is good for America. If President Trump thinks this step will benefit his country and his people — he has certainly thought about it in depth and made his decision based on his country’s needs.

But the decision to withdraw American forces from Syria has numerous implications for Israel.

Yerushalayim assumes that Washington still has interests in the Middle East, and every hasty withdrawal of troops from Syria will weaken its influence on future processes in the area and minimize its wiggle room in the face of existing challenges. By choosing this step, the American government leaves its allies in the Middle East with question marks regarding America’s ability to back up their policies, and also ratchets up Iran’s motivation to better establish its hold and influence in the region.

The removal of 2,000 soldiers from Syria has hardly any immediate effect on Israel. They were not in any way connected to Israel’s independent actions in Syria’s skies or on the ground. So where is the problem? Part of Israel’s deterrence came from its close ties with America that would not let anyone harm Israel; Yerushalayim is worried that already today, all of Israel’s enemies know that this is no longer so certain.

Israel now remains alone in its battle against Iran’s efforts to stake a claim in Syria, and at most it will garner some diplomatic support from the United States in this battle.

Israel feels uncomfortable. It sees the United States as its closest ally. In all recent conversations, Israel received promises that the American forces would remain in Syria until the Iranians left and a political arrangement was reached.

That is why it was surprised by the American announcement. Yerushalayim is having a hard time understanding whether the decision is based on internal reasons, or if there is some deal here with Turkish President Erdogan, which involves the purchase of American defense systems instead of Russian ones, at an investment of billions of dollars, and which facilitates the continued acquisition of F-35 aircraft.

It’s also safe to assume that the withdrawal of forces is meant to prevent a clash between American forces and Turkish forces in northeastern Syria. In any case, it does not seem that this decision is a component in the agreements about a broader plan in Syria to which Russia is also a partner.

Ultimately, the main significance for Israel is the possibility that the withdrawal will galvanize Iran to get their forces and Hezbollah terrorists closer to the Israeli border. Unstable relations between Washington and Moscow did not make it possible, even beforehand, to rely on the administration as a mediating agent, because of pressure from Russia.

Israel is afraid that when the Americans leave, ISIS will reestablish itself in Iraq and Syria, as part of a broader trend of global jihad organizations gaining footholds in these two countries. From Israel’s point of view, this trend carries several threats and risks:

  • First, it has the potential to turn the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula into active terror hotbeds.
  • Second, there is mounting anxiety about ISIS aid to jihadist organizations in the Middle East, including in states that border Israel.
  • Third, Israel is afraid of a terror attack in Israel and against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, carried out by ISIS terrorists.