ISIS attacks raise doubts about Trump’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Syria

The remaining known ISIS pockets are in Hajin, al-Kashmeh, Baghouz and the countryside of Abu Kamal, Hama and Hasakah.
Sunday 27/01/2019
A military vehicle burns at the scene of a suicide car bomb attack in Syria’s  north-eastern Hasakah province, January 21. (AFP)
Stubborn threat. A military vehicle burns at the scene of a suicide car bomb attack in Syria’s north-eastern Hasakah province, January 21. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Back-to-back attacks were carried out against US troops in Syria after US President Donald Trump insisted that he was withdrawing his forces from the Syrian battlefield now that the Islamic State (ISIS) had been annihilated. Both attacks were claimed by ISIS.

The first was January 16 in Manbij, west of the Euphrates River, killing four US service personnel. The second was January 21 south of Hasakah. Five members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were killed and two Americans were wounded in that attack.

Two days before the attack, Trump tweeted: “I defeated ISIS in Syria.” He added that Pentagon officials were putting ISIS’s numbers at 30,000, noting: “LIES. If ISIS is in Syria, where are they? Hiding? I used Google Maps to look at Syria. Maps don’t show anyone! Everybody’s gone! Mission accomplished!”

The ISIS attacks prove Trump mistaken. Whether they are homegrown and authentic or inspired by the many enemies of his Syria policy is yet to be seen. For now, taking the ISIS claim at face value raises serious doubt about Trump’s “Mission Accomplished.”

By most estimates, ISIS controls around 2% of the territory it once held in Syria. The Americans estimated that 30,000-40,000 ISIS fighters remain in Syria and Iraq combined but the Syrian assessment is that 13,000 remain in Syria, half of them in Kurdish-held territory.

Authorities in both countries collected a treasure trove of information towards the end of last year when two senior ISIS commanders were apprehended, telling plenty about what remains of the terror group.

One was Osama Saleh, arrested by the SDF in Deir ez-Zor, and the other was Jamal Mashadani, arrested by the Iraqis in Baghdad in November. Information from both men is being analysed and processed by the Russians in preparation for a post-US operation against ISIS.

The Russians say that what remains of ISIS pockets are divided into two main categories. One is among former militants once described as “moderates” who radicalised after their defeat in East Ghouta and Daraa in mid-2018. They refused to join the Russia-led reconciliation and moved to northern Syria, where they remained largely unwelcome, seen as outsiders and outcasts.

This group, estimated at 6,000 men, was further radicalised by the disruption of foreign assistance, which forced them to join new military groups, such as ISIS, that were willing to pay their bills.

ISIS is reportedly paying $200 per month to fighters who join its ranks and $400-$500 for senior military commanders. It is the highest-paying employer in the Syrian battlefield, although no match for its previous self when its fighters used to get $800-$1,000 per month.

The second group are Arab tribesmen along the Euphrates, who were either previously affiliated with ISIS or with other jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

They went underground after the ISIS eclipse in Raqqa but are slowly re-emerging, seeing that conditions have changed. The Russians estimate this group at 6,000 fighters.

Another 1,000-2,000 members are local recruits picked up over the course of the past year, lacking professional training, however, and with no battlefield experience.

The Russians say this group will not fight, having joined ISIS out of financial need rather than religious indoctrination. The total estimate of 13,000 ISIS members applies to affiliates, fighters and non-military personnel, which means that the actual number who are a battlefield threat is much smaller than expected, which would be music to Trump’s ears.

Can such a small force, with no proper training, carry out two precise operations against US troops in less than a week?

For now, the remaining known ISIS pockets are in Hajin, al-Kashmeh, Baghouz and the countryside of Abu Kamal, Hama and Hasakah. The main pocket is Hajin, a small town south of Deir ez-Zor, which is the last “hub” for ISIS, with around 500 members.

Also, there is a minor ISIS presence in al-Kashmeh (150 people), a village 11km south of Hajin. There is a small ISIS enclave standing in the north-western countryside of Hama, with an estimated 150-200 fighters.

The SDF is handling the fight against ISIS remnants south-east of Abu Kamal, while the Syrians/Russians/Iraqis are dealing with ISIS in the eastern countryside of Abu Kamal. Leading the ground operations are Shia units from the Al-Hashed al-Shaabi.

Second after Hajin, in terms of ISIS presence, is Baghouz, which although declared liberated last May, has active ISIS cells and tunnels, taking them back and forth into Iraq, given that the village is near the border.

No fewer than 400 ISIS members are in Baghouz. By “ISIS members,” it is meant those who are ideologically pro-ISIS, and not necessarily ISIS-trained or -funded. Not all of them have taken the oath to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and not all are battlefield veterans.

The third location, Idlib province, has been held by an assortment of jihadist militias since mid-2015. Syrian estimates say Idlib is home to 15,000 ISIS fighters, whom the Turks had promised to expel and disarm by mid-October 2018. That did not happen, explaining the need to extend the Sochi agreement over Idlib, reached between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Syrians say not all of them are members of ISIS but this big group basically loops all fighters who are not on Turkish payroll in Idlib, as opposed to the 70,000 who are. Turkey inflated the ISIS threat, just like the Syrians and Russians did at one point, to justify its operations and ambitions in Idlib.

Hardcore ISIS fighters died on the battlefield in the past five years. None of them surrendered and agreed to be shipped off to Idlib. The ISIS members in Idlib are those who radicalised after entering Idlib, having previously worked with the Free Syrian Army, al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other organisations.