ISIS regrouping in Iraq as US takes back seat

Analysts warned that ISIS's ideology remains a potent force that could inspire violence for years.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Iraqi security forces inspect the scene of a car bomb explosion near a restaurant in Mosul, last November. (AFP)
Unresolved fight. Iraqi security forces inspect the scene of a car bomb explosion near a restaurant in Mosul, last November. (AFP)

TUNIS - Despite US President Donald Trump’s assurances that the Islamic State (ISIS) is “mostly gone” in Syria, reports indicate the militant group is “in a phase of rebuilding” in neighbouring Iraq.

An analysis by Jane’s Intelligence Review stated that “there are increasing indications that the Islamic State is exploiting the chaotic and unresolved security situation in Iraq to re-establish itself.”

While the development “does not appear to herald an imminent large-scale campaign,” the Jane’s Intelligence Review analysis said, it does show that “the Islamic State appears to be in a phase of rebuilding its structures to prepare for a future recommencement of insurgency in Iraq, accompanied by a steady drip of armed attacks.”

ISIS retains an entrenched presence in Iraq, including Nineveh province south of Mosul city, the country’s north-east Hamrin Mountains and in the towns of Hawija and Daquq, the report stated.

ISIS is using bases in these areas to “develop (or revive) its capability to conduct operations across a far broader area, including into Baghdad, Mosul city and Samarra and then onwards into Syria and Iran,” Jane’s Intelligence Review said.

The development comes a year after Iraq said it had routed ISIS, driving it from its final strongholds and securing its border with Syria and the western desert.

“Honourable Iraqis: Your land has been completely liberated,” then Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a televised address in December 2017. “We have accomplished a very difficult mission. Our heroes have reached the final strongholds of Daesh and purified it.” Daesh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

ISIS was also put on the defensive in Syria, with the Syrian government and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units making steady gains throughout the country. Nearly all of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate there has been retaken.

However, the group exerts influence in pockets in both Syria and Iraq, such as in villages throughout the Middle Euphrates River Valley, as well as in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, where it is recalibrating its strategy in a changing geopolitical landscape.

Analysts warned that apart from ISIS’s territorial footholds, its ideology remains a potent force that could inspire violence.

“This notion that we’re defeating Daesh, that we can begin to think about a post-Daesh reality is not to my mind accurate,” said Shiraz Maher, deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London, at a conference on counterterrorism in November. “This is an ongoing threat. It’s a live event.”

Counterterrorism expert Peter Vincent told NBC News: “The war has yet to be won and, if it’s ever going to be won, it’s going to take many more years and many more civilians will lose their lives.”

Such an assessment does not seem to be shared by Trump, however, who announced December 19 that he would withdraw the United States’ remaining 2,000 troops from Syria.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there,” Trump said.

“We’ve knocked them out, we’ve knocked them silly,” he later added during an unannounced visit December 26 to US personnel at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq.

The pullout, which Trump later scaled back, drew concerned reactions from senior analysts and politicians, who warned an abrupt departure would risk an ISIS resurgence and leave room for Russia, Turkey and Iran to further shape Syria’s future. Both US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk resigned in protest.

Critics also expressed concern that a hasty withdrawal would constitute betrayal to the Kurds, the United States’ most reliable partners in the fight against ISIS and who have now struck a strategic alliance with the Syrian government in the United States’ absence.

“If reports accurate about Kurds aligning with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, major disaster in the making,” US Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican wrote on Twitter December 30. “Nightmare for Turkey and eventually Israel. Big winners are Russia, Iran/Assad & ISIS.”

Further muddying the waters is the United States’ uncertain role in Iraq, where lawmakers in the newly formed government are also calling for its withdrawal.

“Trump needs to know his limits. The American occupation of Iraq is over,” said Sabah al-Saidi, the leader of the Islah bloc in the Iraqi parliament.

With the United States poised to exit Syria in less than four months and losing leverage in Iraq, it is likely to take a backseat as the fight against ISIS unfolds.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this means a chance to advance their conflicting agendas in the troubled region but there is a question as to whether the two powers can put aside their differences and effectively deal with the remnants of ISIS.