The US, SDF keep the pressure up on ISIS in Syria - analysis

The US wants the pressure to be kept on ISIS, but every time Ankara has an election cycle or a need to distract from some issue at home, it will use drone strikes and threats of conflicts in Syria.

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run from ISIS gunmen in Raqqa, Syria, July 3, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/GORAN TOMASEVIC/FILE PHOTO)
Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run from ISIS gunmen in Raqqa, Syria, July 3, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/GORAN TOMASEVIC/FILE PHOTO)

In late November, the US said that Syrian rebels in the south of the country had killed an ISIS leader. He was actually killed in October, but it apparently took time to confirm the details.

He was said to be at least the third ISIS leader killed in the last few years, since a raid in 2019 killed the head of ISIS as he hid near the Turkish border in Idlib in northern Syria.

In February, US Special Forces took out another ISIS leader named Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. The leader killed in late October, who the US mentioned in late November, was Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. It took time for the US to confirm his death because the US apparently wasn’t involved in the operation. According to a Voice of America report “in addition to the death of Abu al-Hassan’s predecessor in February and the arrest of al-Sumaida’i in May, IS[IS] has lost at least five other senior officials in the past eight months.” 

A new raid on ISIS and complex US role in Syria 

Over the weekend, the US carried out another raid on ISIS, this time in eastern Syria where American forces operate with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). A raid by US forces, with extensive planning by US Central Command, took out an ISIS member named “Anas,” Washington said. He was apparently a regional leader. “The death of these ISIS officials will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out destabilizing attacks in the Middle East,” said CENTCOM spokesman Col. Joe Buccino.

“The death of these ISIS officials will disrupt the terrorist organization’s ability to further plot and carry out destabilizing attacks in the Middle East.”

Joe Buccino

The raid on the ISIS member in eastern Syria comes at a complex time for America’s role in Syria. Turkey continues to threaten to invade more of Syria and attack the US-backed SDF. Turkey generally uses former Syrian rebels it has recruited as local proxies to fight the SDF. Ankara’s goal appears to be to sacrifice these former rebels in battle against it to get rid of both groups.

Smoke rises over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014. (credit: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH)Smoke rises over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014. (credit: REUTERS/KAI PFAFFENBACH)

Turkey has an interest in destroying the US-backed SDF because Ankara accuses it of being a “terrorist” group – even though it has never engaged in terror. In fact, it has been fighting ISIS and terrorists for seven years; Turkey uses the term “terrorist” to describe any group or dissident it doesn’t like.

Ankara wants to reconcile with the Syrian regime. Turkey’s foreign minister recently said that “We are meeting with the Syrian regime through intelligence agencies. If the regime acts realistically, we are ready to work together on the fight against terrorism, the political process and the return of Syrians.”

Turkey’s deal with the regime is that both will fight the SDF and the rebels, but in order to do that, these groups need to be neutralized. The US backs the SDF. Turkey ostensibly backs the rebels.

ANKARA HAS been bombing eastern Syria and attacking Kurdish areas along the border over the last years; it increased the bombing recently and uses drones to carry out targeted assassinations. The SDF has been targeted recently and has complained that the US isn’t doing enough to stop Ankara’s attacks.

Washington is in an awkward position: It views Ankara as a member of NATO and thus an “ally.” But the US wants to work with the SDF – or use it – to defeat ISIS. The worldwide jihadist group is largely defeated, but recent incidents show that keeping it defeated requires constant operations. The US wants to keep up the pressure on ISIS members; the problem is that it can thrive in a variety of environments.

 Some ISIS members fled Raqqa in 2017 and went to Idlib via Turkey. After Ankara invaded Afrin in 2018, expelling the Kurdish population of that area, ISIS members and other extremists went to the border area of Afrin and Idlib, near the Turkish border. Some of them also remain in eastern and southern Syria, and Iraq.

ISIS also has networks in Al-Hol camp and in areas where the SDF has kept ISIS detainees. The US wants the SDF to keep the detainees but the SDF and authorities in eastern Syria have said that the international community needs to provide support and find a solution for the ISIS families, many of whom are foreign citizens or came from foreign countries.

This creates a conundrum. America needs the SDF to keep ISIS in check. It also needs the forces to keep the detainees in place. If they are released, they may spread havoc, continue their genocidal campaign against minorities, or try to flee to other countries.

How can the US continue to use the SDF against ISIS if it can’t also provide it with some security from Turkish drone strikes? This is a difficult question. It’s hard to encourage people to train and fight terrorists with one hand, while there is an ally that is bombing the same people who are doing the fighting on the other hand. Rarely in history has a country worked with one group, training it and asking it to sacrifice, while also allowing that group to be bombed.

Washington would tend to view this differently. It can’t stop Ankara’s drones without creating a crisis. Meanwhile, Turkey has become a bit distracted from the conflict in Syria and is now focused on threatening Greece again, providing a momentary respite for the US and SDF and their anti-ISIS operations. But the long-term problem remains.

The US wants the pressure to be kept on ISIS, but every time Ankara has an election cycle or a need to distract from some issue at home, it will use drone strikes and threats of new conflicts in Syria to distract from domestic problems. This sets up an endless cycle of crisis, with ISIS always waiting on the sidelines for an opportunity. The last year has nevertheless proven to be successful in not giving ISIS that opportunity.