This week's US update on ISIS fight shows how complex the fight is - analysis

The US' fight against ISIS in Syria is made complex by Iran, Turkey and Russia among other forces.

SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC Forces celebrate the first anniversary of the Raqqa province’s liberation from ISIS, in Syria on October 27. (photo credit: REUTERS)
SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC Forces celebrate the first anniversary of the Raqqa province’s liberation from ISIS, in Syria on October 27.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The US continues to help lead an international Coalition that is seeking to prevent any ISIS resurgence in Iraq and Syria.

Challenges in both countries, including threats from Iran and controversy over a Turkish operation, mean that Washington has to carefully balance adversaries and allies, while focusing on keeping ISIS defeated. After eight years of fighting ISIS, the leading US commander provided an insight into the issues the US is facing today.

US Major General Matthew McFarlane, Commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, provided an update this week on ongoing efforts against ISIS the US has been engaged in since 2014. The update this week was provided alongside Dana Stroul, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. 

The update was meant to explain the current state of operations, the future of the mission and the US partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria. The SDP is the main group that defeated ISIS in parts of Syria in 2019 and played the key role in liberating areas such as Raqqa and Manbij.

What is the US-led coalition?

The US-led Coalition is supported by numerous countries, but its operations are complex. It works in Syria with the SDF, a “by, with and through” approach in which the SDF does the heavy lifting and the US has only a few hundred troops.

 Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), walk together near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 5, 2019.  (credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID) Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), walk together near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 5, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/RODI SAID)

In Iraq the US operates at the invitation of the government of Iraq. Beginning in 2019, there were numerous attacks on facilities where US forces were located in Iraq, leading to the US leaving many areas and concentrating forces in Erbil, in the Kurdistan autonomous region. McFarlane said the US accomplishes its mission through “advising, assisting, and enabling our partners – that is, the Iraqi Security Forces, the Peshmerga, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.” 

The commander went on to note that “the coalition’s efforts enable the stability and security of Iraq, and by extension the wider region in northeast Syria. We’re committed to this mission and to our partners as they continue to build capability, capacity, and competence, as they have demonstrated the will to take lead in this fight against ISIS. However, we recognize there is still a lot of work to do, and we are committed to continuing our support of our partners in Iraq and Syria.” 

What challenges does the US face?

The challenge for the US in both countries is different. In Iraq, the US must stress that it is only in the country at the invitation of the government. This is different from the era 2003-2011 when the US had invaded the country. The US says it is strictly doing non-combat work in Iraq in the form of advising and assisting. Meanwhile in Syria, the US role also faces opposition from Iran, Russia and Turkey. This means that in both places the ongoing operations against ISIS come in a complex context. 

Stroul reiterated that “that there is still much work to be done in counter-terrorism operations to – in support of the enduring defeat of ISIS, but it also speaks to the professionalism and commitment of US and coalition forces who are working on this problem set every single day with their partners on the ground.”

Stroul also noted that the Coalition has 84 members.

“Together with all of those partners, all of whom contribute different skill sets and different expertise, we are all committed to working both with the government of Iraq and with the Syrian Democratic Forces for the enduring defeat of ISIS.” 

How does Turkish threats of invading Syria affect the operations?

One question posed to Stroul and McFarlane was in regards to continued threats by Turkey to invade eastern Syria and attack the US partners there. Turkey often carries out targeted assassinations using drones against SDF commanders. This causes instability and anger and has resulted in the SDF pausing operations against ISIS. One of the issues in eastern Syria is that the US encourages the SDF to fight ISIS and keep ISIS members detained, while NATO member Turkey then bombs the same commanders the US is working with.  

The US says that it has been “warning of our grave and serious concerns about the prospects of a Turkish ground incursion into northeast Syria and raising concerns about the continued air operations.”

Nevertheless Ankara continues to carry out attacks in Syria and Iraq, even though there was a massive earthquake in Turkey in February. Stroul said that the US is “concerned that it would detract – the SDF would no longer focus on maintaining security at the detention facilities where still to this day 10,000 ISIS detainees remain under SDF custody, where they carry a serious responsibility for the international community in ensuring that these fighters cannot exit and reconstitute their ranks.”  

What about the Iranian threat to US forces?

Another question posed to McFarlane and Stroul was about Iranian threats to US forces in Syria and Iraq.

Stroul said that “we see Iran and Iran-backed threats to the region only increasing. We see them on ground by Iran’s sponsorship, arming, training, funding, and direction of militia groups, proxies, and non-state actors on the ground. We see it in the air threats from Iran’s proliferation of missiles and one-way attack drones to non-state actors across the region. And finally, we see the increasing aggression at sea by its maritime actions. That’s not even to begin on its malicious cyber activities, which have clearly threatened not only partners in the Middle East but outside the Middle East, and all of that is probably reported.” 

She went on to discuss the threat of Iranian drones.

“We are now at a point where Iranian threats are no longer specific to the Middle East, but a global challenge. And that is a result of the increasing military cooperation between Iran and Russia, and the illicit transfer by Iran to Russia of one-way attack drones that are being used in Ukraine to kill Ukrainian civilians.”

She went on to say that “we now need to rally a coalition not only in the Middle East, but a global coalition to push back on the malign cooperation between Iran and Russia.” 

Did the earthquake hamper the SDF?

When it comes to the recent earthquakes, McFarlance said that the US has not seen ISIS taking advantage of the chaos in Syria or Turkey due to the earthquake which did no damage to SDF-controlled facilities. ISIS continues to try to rebuild leadership after the SDF and the coalition successfully neutralized more ISIS leaders recently.

McFarlane said that in terms of larger operation, “right now, they’re militarily ineffective, as they have been; the last time they’ve done a complex attack was during the Ghuwayran prison attack in January of 2022.” 

The update was sparse with details

In general, the update on the operations was relatively thin on any real details about the operations against ISIS. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that ISIS is largely defeated and operations are smaller than in the past. The goal is to keep ISIS defeated.

Four US troops were wounded in mid-February during a raid on a senior ISIS leader which is one of multiple setbacks suffered by ISIS in February. The questions posed at the briefing indicate that the major challenges to the anti-ISIS mission don’t necessarily come from ISIS, but rather from Iran and Turkey and other issues.

Basically, the anti-ISIS mission faces many hurdles because of the issues involved with operating in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, it is Iranian influence that can undermine the mission. In Syria, it is not only Iranian proxy threats along the Euphrates river, where Iranian proxies target US forces at Conoco and Omar field, but also the continues Turkish threats to target the SDF and invade the area.  

One of the central features of the ISIS war, since ISIS took advantage of the chaos in Syria in 2013 to emerge as a major organization, is that many countries have used the “war on ISIS” to their own advantage. For instance, ISIS was able to exploit anger at the pro-Iranian Maliki regime in Iraq to take over many Sunni Arab cities in 2014. ISIS then used this as a springboard to genocide against Yazidis in Sinjar.

ISIS was founded by key Iraqi extremists who transited Turkey to join the group, but it had support from abroad. Later, in 2018, Turkey claimed to be targeting ISIS when it targeted Kurds in Afrin. Russia even claimed to be fighting ISIS when it intervened in Syria in 2015. This means that defeating ISIS was only one part of the overall context of what has been happening in Syria and Iraq. The vacuum left behind by the defeat of ISIS has led other countries and groups to try to exploit the situation. For instance, pro-Iran militias moved into Albukamal and Al Qaim on the Syria-Iraq border after ISIS was defeated.  

For the US-led Coalition this creates complexity and the recent briefing illustrates how the situation is more complex than just a counter-terror operation. The briefing didn’t really explain what the future holds for the mission, but it is clear the US is still committed to working with the SDF and advising and assisting Iraq’s security forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga, against ISIS.