President Donald Trump tweeted earlier today, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” The tweet was accompanied by news reports saying that the president has ordered, or is considering ordering, a full withdrawal of American forces from Syria.
But has the Islamic State (ISIS) been “defeated” in Syria? The short answer is no.
An unknown number of the group’s top leaders, including presumably Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and middle managers remain alive. It is highly likely that thousands of fighters remain in both Syria and Iraq. They continue to fight as insurgents, biding their time for opportunities to surge. And the Islamic State’s media machine, which is assumed to be headquartered in the region, remains prolific, pumping out messages in multiple languages on a daily basis.
It is true that the Islamic State has lost nearly all of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders seemed to refine the president’s claim in a followup statement, saying the US has “has defeated the territorial caliphate.”
If that were the end of the story, then so be it. But as FDD’s Long War Journal and a number of others have repeatedly pointed out, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men returned to their insurgent roots some months ago.
In Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are still battling the Islamic State’s men in Hajin and the nearby area in eastern Syria. Hajin is considered the last significant ground under the so-called caliphate’s control. The jihadists are on the verge of losing it, but it is worth noting that Hajin was still an active battlefront when President Trump declared victory earlier today.
Outside of Hajin and the surrounding villages, the Islamic State’s men conduct regular attacks. Consider the group’s self-reported operational data.
Beginning in early August, the Islamic State has released weekly summaries of its operations around the globe in the form of short, crude videos titled, “Harvest of the Soldiers.” (Summary statistics are also provided in an infographic in the group’s weekly newsletter, Al-Naba.) Thus far, there have been 20 such installments in the video series – covering a period from the last week of July through mid-December. In sum, the Islamic State has claimed 1,922 operations around the globe during this 20-week span. Nearly half (946, or 49%) have occurred in Iraq. But another 599 (31%) were carried out in Syria. The group claimed 44 operations in Syria during the week from Dec. 6 to Dec. 13 alone.
Now, these figures should be taken with a grain of salt. Not every operation is equal. Some are small in scale, while others are much larger. The Islamic State may also exaggerate in some ways, such as in its claimed casualties, which are not tallied here. And there are some slight discrepancies even within some of the “Harvest of the Soldiers” videos, such as totals that are more or less than their constituent parts. (For instance, the total number of operations claimed in Syria may be slightly higher or lower than the sum of all regions in country.)
Nevertheless, FDD’s Long War Journal finds that these figures are generally consistent with the scale of the fighting. The SDF has suffered significant casualties at the hands of the Islamic State in the battle for Hajin. And the jihadists continue to lash out elsewhere in Syria, including in their one-time capital of Raqqa.
Of course, the Islamic State’s men are not confined to Syria. They initially joined territory spanning both Iraq and Syria into one contiguous proto-state. So the high number of claimed operations in Iraq — in areas such as Kirkuk, Salah ad Din, Diyala, Anbar and Baghdad — matter as well. In other words, although President Trump didn’t mention Iraq in his tweet, it is not a wholly separate theater from Syria as the Islamic State once ruled over territory covering much of both countries, with its operatives shuttling back and forth. The group’s insurgency operations in the two countries are not separate either — so any analysis of the current state of ISIS would have to take into account that whole picture.
Moreover, the Islamic State mushroomed into a worldwide phenomenon with so-called provinces far afield from the heart of the Middle East. The organization’s Khorasan “province” in Afghanistan and Pakistan had the third highest number of claimed operations in the 20-week span mentioned above, with 171 (or nearly 9% of the total claimed operations). Next was the group’s Sinai “province,” with 110 claimed operations, or nearly 6% of the total. Although this point will not be fleshed out in full here, there is connective tissue between these “provinces” and the Islamic State’s mother ship.
Then there is the number of Islamic State fighters remaining in both Iraq and Syria. As FDD’s Long War Journal has noted in the past, it is likely that the US and its allies do not know the true number of fighters, as the estimates vary. However, none of the available estimates places the total number at zero, or close to it.
Part of the uncertainty arises from the fact that the Islamic State continues to maintain a footprint in the areas outside of the US military’s purview. The group regularly clashes with Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists and their international allies.
Regardless, estimates of the number of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria range from less than 10,000 to between 20,000 and 30,000. Earlier this year, the Defense Department assessed that there were “between 13,100 and 14,500 ISIS members remained in Syria” alone — a figure that is in the same ballpark as the United Nations Security Council’s approximation as of July. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, US-backed forces launch counterattack against Islamic State in eastern Syria.]
The sectarian aspect of the war in Iraq and Syria will continue to be problematic for the foreseeable future. The actions taken by Assad, Iran and their allies will likely help drive at least some additional Sunnis into the Islamic State’s ranks.
An American withdrawal, predicated on the erroneous claim that the Islamic State has been “defeated,” will have other lasting effects. It remains to be seen what becomes of the predominately Kurdish SDF, which has conducted most of the ground campaign against the Islamic State. Turkey, a putative American ally, is opposed to the SDF and its main constituent, the YPG (or People’s Defense Units), which is affiliated with the PKK. The PKK is a designated terrorist organization that has conducted attacks inside Turkey.
Russia and Iran remain in the country, backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Iranians have imported various extremist proxies. And Israel, an American ally, has already taken action against Iranian assets dozens of times since the war began.
And then there’s the issue of al Qaeda and related actors. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is led by the group once known as Al Nusrah Front, has been the strongest player in the northwestern Idlib province. Al Nusrah was an official branch of al Qaeda until July 2016, when it ostensibly broke away from al Qaeda’s command. HTS claims to be an independent group, and there’s no question that it has been at the center of heated disputes within the jihadist community. Some al Qaeda veterans have fiercely criticized HTS. Both the US and the United Nations, as well as other countries, still consider HTS to be affiliated with al Qaeda and say there is evidence of ongoing ties between the two. The situation is a bit murky, but other al Qaeda actors, such as the “Guardians of Religion,” have arisen as well. HTS has struck a deal with Turkey to stave off an invasion of Idlib province by the Assad-Iran-Russia axis for now. Whatever HTS’s current status with respect to al Qaeda, it is clear that al Qaeda loyalists are still camped in Idlib.
In sum, the Islamic State isn’t dead in Syria, or elsewhere. And several other thorny issues are influenced by America’s presence.
“These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign,” Press Secretary Sanders said in a statement earlier today. “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign.”
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