Analysis: Can the Islamic State be defeated?

The Syrian regime army will soon push into the village of Tafas and find itself face-to-face with ISIS fighters.

Hezbollah fighters stand near military tanks in Western Qalamoun, Syria (photo credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS)
Hezbollah fighters stand near military tanks in Western Qalamoun, Syria
This week a delegation of US senators, including Lindsey Graham and Elizabeth Warren, toured the Iraqi city of Mosul. After seeing some alleyways festooned with rubble from last year’s battle with Islamic State, they saw the historic al-Nuri Mosque that ISIS destroyed last June. Even though bodies are still be found in the rubble of Mosul and bombs left behind by ISIS are still a threat, the senators walked without body armor alongside Iraqi officers, including Nineveh plains commander Gen. Najim al-Jabouri.
The tour was optimistic and illustrated the continued US commitment to the battle against ISIS. Across the border in Syria warplanes from the anti-ISIS coalition and fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces are bearing down on the last pockets of ISIS in an operation called Roundup. According to the coalition ISIS has lost 300 square kilometers of ground over the last months, as the operation enters “phase two.”
However, ISIS is still active in a swath of territory that stretches from the Sahel in Africa all the way to the Philippines. It exploits ungoverned spaces, weak governments and ill-defended borders to percolate among existing extremist groups that have sworn allegiance to it. These include Boko Haram in Nigeria, an ISIS affiliate in Niger that killed four US soldiers last year, “Sinai Province” in Sinai, the Khalid bin al-Walid faction in Syria next to the Golan, increasingly deadly fighters in Afghanistan and other affiliates throughout the world.
The 70-member anti-ISIS coalition that the US helped put together starting in August 2014 has an impressive list of members. But its mission is less clear today. The coalition recently met in Morocco, where 52 delegations, including 24 from Africa, attended. Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition against Daesh, helped preside over the event. He was appointed under Obama and is one of the few high-level holdovers who has stayed on in the Trump administration. He provides consistency to the anti-ISIS campaign, but the campaign itself is not entirely clear on where it is headed.
Iraq declared victory over ISIS in December 2017. Yet every day in Iraq brings news of more operations against ISIS and more attacks. On the roads between Mosul and Baghdad, and Kirkuk and Baghdad, ISIS activity has increased, and the extremists have emerged from caves and hideouts to put up fake checkpoints. Last month they kidnapped members of the large Sunni Shammar tribe, executing several members. So Baghdad has sent its quick reaction force into villages in Salahuddin province to hunt ISIS. Eight were wounded on July 4 by a bomb.
ISIS mortars, tunnels and terrorist cells have been uncovered. The threat is so complex that the Iraqi central government’s security forces and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga are now working together once again. They had been at odds after the Kurdistan referendum in September 2017 and Iraq’s imposition of federal rule on Kirkuk last year. The coalition is still carrying out air strikes on ISIS in Iraq. On June 14 two strikes targeted ISIS fighters.
ON THE Golan the ISIS threat also adds to the difficulty Israel faces in the Syrian civil war. In mid-June the Syrian regime launched an offensive against Syrian rebels in the south, after a cease-fire of almost a year. The rebels collapsed quickly and lost around half their territory. But the small ISIS group near the Golan has not lost any territory. Instead, it has sought out the possibility of recruiting members of the Free Syrian Army to its ranks. It is still unclear, given the confusion on the ground and lack of reliable reports, whether ISIS will engage the Syrian regime in the coming days. What is clear is that eventually the Syrian regime will have to fight ISIS, and that will mean fighting along the border with Israel.
ISIS on the Golan has not sought to attack Israel since a skirmish in November 2016 when the IDF struck ISIS positions in response to a threat. The ISIS affiliate, Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid, is a local brand staffed mostly by locals. The cease-fire and de-confliction agreements next to the Golan that Russia and the US signed, and which foreign reports indicate Israel is presumably a silent partner to, do not include ISIS. That means the Russian Air Force, which is supporting Syrian regime ground operations, can strike ISIS with impunity in Syria.
What happens when the Syrian regime army pushes just another kilometer from its current front line into the village of Tafas and finds itself face-to-face with the ISIS fighters? Will there be another regime agreement whereby the ISIS members are allowed to be transported toward the Euphrates Valley, as happened with ISIS members from Syria’s Qalamoun border with Lebanon in August 2017? Syria and Hezbollah decided to give the ISIS members a free trip toward the Euphrates Valley and dump the extremists on the border with Iraq. The coalition didn’t agree and bombed a road to try to stop the convoy. As Operation Roundup continues, the coalition won’t want the regime sending more ISIS fighters east, simply so the regime can solve its problems in the south.
Pushing ISIS members from one country to another has too often underpinned the strategy of countries dealing with these kinds of extremist threats. For instance, a dual US-Saudi citizen who went to Syria allegedly to join ISIS was captured by the SDF in the US-backed campaign to defeat ISIS. Oddly, the US authorities in Syria sought to transfer him to Saudi Arabia by basically letting him go. Petitions in the US then claimed that it was an abuse of his rights to release him without providing him a way to go somewhere. Lost in the debate seemed to the question of why he wasn’t charged with supporting ISIS.
Then there are the “Beatles,” the brutal ISIS executioners who murdered James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who have been treated like celebrities while being detained in Syria. Daily Telegraph correspondent Josie Ensor tweeted in June that shadowy “deals” might see the SDF release the perpetrators. This is because the US and UK don’t want to take responsibility for prosecuting the ISIS members. Instead, they have been left in a detention facility run by the SDF. If the SDF were to do what Iraq has been doing and execute them, human rights organizations would accuse the US of overseeing some sort of abuse. So the US has distanced itself from responsibility, even though its own citizens, Sotloff and Foley, were victims. Sotloff once wrote for The Jerusalem Report.
The inability of the massive anti-ISIS coalition to actually bring to justice perpetrators who appear to have been located points to an overall unwillingness to deal either with the long-term issue of defeating ISIS or with bringing perpetrators to justice. This may not be the coalition’s fault. Its mandate was to fight ISIS with local partners and allies, not to run courts and carry out investigations or find victims.
In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in May 2017, Gen. Raymond Thomas, OC United States Special Operations Command, said 8,000 US special operators were deployed in 80 countries around the world. Some of them are involved in anti-ISIS operations or helping countries train to fight extremists. This massive footprint of fighting enemies who transit porous borders everywhere in the world appears to be the future model of the never-ending war on ISIS, and the broader never-ending war on terrorism. If one ISIS cell is defeated, another appears.