Despite loss of territory, ISIS remains a potent threat against American interests.

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Phillip McTaggart/DVIDS

America’s fight ‘far from over’ despite fall of ISIS 'caliphate'

March 11, 2019 - 1:37 pm

By Ben Krimmel

As the Islamic State loses control of the last of its territorial caliphate, which once stretched over 30,000 square miles, the terror group remains an active and potent force in the region despite reports of their demise.

In both Iraq and Syria, ISIS continues to conduct small-scale attacks, assassinations, and is rebuilding its smuggling and ransom operations which funded their brutal reign.

And while President Trump made his wishes to drawdown the United States’ military footprint in the Middle East clear, the situation on the ground makes it increasingly uncertain whether the U.S. can achieve the goal of eliminating ISIS while removing American forces.

Gen. Joseph Votel, the top U.S. general overseeing military operations in the Middle East, told the House Armed Services Committee last week the fight against ISIS is "far from over" despite their losses in territory.

"Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment, but the fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over," Gen. Votel of CENTCOM said Thursday, March 7.

“We should be clear that what we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization," he added, saying they are "waiting for the right time to resurge."

Votel's grim assessment of the situation runs in conflict with the rosier descriptions of victory coming from the White House. After President Trump caught many off-guard with a December announcement withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, Votel, who said he was not consulted before the President’s announcement, criticized the decision.

"It would not have been my military advice at that particular time ... I would not have made that suggestion, frankly," Votel said in February. "(The caliphate) still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network."

Trump later reversed his original position of a full pullback of forces from Syria, where the U.S. currently has between two and three thousand troops.

Despite the territorial losses, conditions remain ripe in both Iraq and Syria for ISIS to continue to recruit among dissatisfied population centers.

In Syria, regional security analyst Kierat Ranautta-Sambhi writes a “trifecta of grievances” allow the group to pose a threat moving forward, as anti-Assad sentiment, sectarian cleavages in the populations, and socio-economic shortcomings may still drive local support to the group.

Similar conditions which may increase ISIS' support are present in Iraq. In Mosul, Aziz Ahmad describes a local population that remains alienated and where sectarian militias operate independently of Iraq’s weak federal government. Mosul is “exactly where ISIS wants it to be, filled with popular resentment that will gradually push locals back into the group’s orbit without its active intervention,” Ahmad writes.

A February Department of Defense Inspector General report about U.S. operations against ISIS said absent sustained counterterrorism pressure, “ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory in the (region).”

And in order to achieve the goal of defeating ISIS and build the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces, the DoD says the need remains for a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Votel told Congress U.S. forces in Syria will help “continue our mission and safeguard our interests” and noted the effectiveness of the U.S. footprint in Iraq. Over five thousand advisers and trainers are currently in Iraq, but no actual combat troops.

However, despite the political appetite, Votel makes it clear a U.S. pullback would run counter to America's stated goals.

"We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and, of course, their toxic ideology," Votel said.

Want to get more connected to the great stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.