This Spring, U.S.-backed opposition forces retook the last remnant of Syrian territory still under the control of the Islamic State, marking the formal end of the terrorist group's short-lived experiment in statehood. Yet, less than half-a-year later, ISIS is already poised for a significant comeback.
That's the conclusion of the latest report to Congress of the Pentagon's Office of Inspector General (OIG) on "Operation Inherent Resolve," as U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts against the Islamic State are known. The study, released publicly in early August and covering the period of April 1st to June 30th, assesses that over the past several months ISIS both "solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria."
The details are dramatic – and deeply concerning. While it still lacks the capacity to once again carry out large scale military attacks or hold territory for long periods of time, the group's destabilizing activities – including "assassinations, ambushes, suicide bombings, and the burning of crops" – are on the rise. The objective of these activities is clear: to instill fear, to undermine local stability, and to demonstrate that ISIS is still viable and vibrant.
Moreover, despite major battlefield losses over the past year-and-a-half, ISIS has managed to maintain a significant cadre of forces. According to the OIG report, the group "likely retains between 14,000 and 18,000 'members' in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners," and is attempting to bolster these ranks via an extensive worldwide social media effort.
Those capabilities are now on display in Iraq. ISIS is "attempting to expand its influence over populations in Sunni-majority provinces north and west of Baghdad," where the reach of the Iraqi military remains tentative. In those places, the group has reorganized its leadership and established safe havens, and is now working diligently to grow its ranks by exploiting "family and tribal connections."
Its activities, meanwhile, have been enabled by the weakness of local partners. Both the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) "remain unable to sustain long-term operations against ISIS militants," the study observes. In Iraq, the ISF frequently lacks the capacity to keep forces in territory that it has "cleared" of an ISIS presence, allowing the group to reconstitute and reclaim lost ground.
ISIS is also deftly exploiting Iraq's internal political cleavages – chief among them the longstanding tensions between the country's central government and its autonomous northern Kurdish region. This friction has created "gaps" in coverage between Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmergamilitias that ISIS fighters have taken advantage of in order to "regroup and plan attacks."
Northeastern Syria, meanwhile, is fast emerging as a critical flashpoint. In Hasanakah Province, the sprawling Al Hol refugee camp is currently home to nearly 75,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). That total includes "thousands of ISIS family members," an estimated 29,000 of whom are the children of foreign fighters. Not surprisingly, ISIS is active in Al Hol, where it is attempting to recruit new members to its cause. The recent drawdown of U.S. forces in Syria, meanwhile, has diminished the ability of America and its allies to accurately gauge conditions within the camp, forcing them "to rely on third-party accounts" by humanitarian organizations and activists.
Meanwhile, according to the OIG study, the SDF are capable of providing only "minimal security" at the camp, thereby allowing the Islamic State's ideology to spread "uncontested." This is hugely significant, because the United Nations anticipates that some 31,000 Iraqi refugees will return home from Al Hol over the next several months – potentially reinvigorating the Islamic State's network in Iraq in the process.
These conclusions are sure to be unwelcome ones for the White House. President Trump has made no secret of the fact that he considers the fight against ISIS to have been won, and his Administration has increasingly turned its attention away from counterterrorism and toward "great power" competition with Russia and China. Nevertheless, as the Pentagon's assessment makes abundantly clear, the struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is still far from over.