US faces strategic challenges in eastern Syria

Though ISIS cannot continue to hold territory in perpetuity, it remains dangerous.
Sunday 02/12/2018
A US soldier sits on an armoured vehicle on a position near the front line between US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkey-backed fighters in Manbij, last April. (AP)
Tough balance. A US soldier sits on an armoured vehicle on a position near the front line between US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkey-backed fighters in Manbij, last April. (AP)

CAMBRIDGE - The Islamic State (ISIS) no longer holds sway over great stretches of Iraq and Syria but its capacity for violence remains. Fighting continues around ISIS’s base at Hajin, in Syria’s eastern desert near the Iraqi border.

Monitors, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, suggest that hundreds of combatants and civilians have likely been killed in fighting since November 23, with ISIS inflicting heavy casualties on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Kurdish-led fighters who serve as the boots on the ground of the global coalition fighting ISIS.

This comes amid questions raised of Operation Roundup, aimed at mopping up remnants of ISIS’s claimed caliphate, after it was revealed that US military bodies have varying estimates of how many ISIS fighters remain in Syria.

US efforts are backed with rhetorical firmness and the prospect of real force. US bases dot the area and American special forces are frequently embedded with the SDF, whose fighters have worked closely with the United States in defeating ISIS.

Managing the global coalition against ISIS provides its own challenges. The United States’ Kurdish allies are perceived to be a threat by Turkey, whose sporadic military operations against those it deems Kurdish terrorists prompted the SDF to suspend its advance against ISIS targets. The offensive has since resumed.

Ryan O’Farrell, an analyst, said: “The [People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia] YPG is definitely hesitant about sending their top units all the way to the Iraqi border so the coalition is basically trying to juggle keeping the peace with Turkey and mounting this operation.

“So long as those tensions flair, the YPG will always view Turkey as the more pressing threat, so the coalition will be stuck with lower-quality units that hamper offensive capabilities.”

The US military’s Operation Inherent Resolve on November 25 announced that it would be “employing combined fires, including indirect fire and close air support” to counter increased ISIS activity around Hajin.

John Arterbury, an analyst in Washington, said: “The Hajin pocket is the apex of ISIS’s remaining capabilities in Syria. The group likely has several hundred fighters remaining in the area who are still able to deploy in platoon-sized elements outfitted with technicals and light arms.”

This explains ISIS’s capacity for inflicting damage and continuing to hold out in Hajin.

Arterbury, however, cautioned against overrating ISIS’s strength. “Their posture,” he said, “is still inherently defensive and reliant upon opportunistic attacks, such as those done under the cover of sandstorms.”

Nonetheless, though ISIS cannot continue to hold territory in perpetuity, it remains dangerous. “[E]ven after losing Hajin, which is inevitable, the group will retain a limited ability in eastern Syria’s desert regions, although we will likely witness the group revert to a more classic underground insurgency in coming months as they mimic their counterparts in neighbouring Iraq,” Arterbury said.

This is underpinned by ISIS’s long-term strategic planning, which owes much to its periods of insurgency after the effective defeat of its predecessor organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, a decade ago.

Craig Whiteside, an associate professor at the US Naval War College Monterey, noted that ISIS’s strategy, understood to include cycles of retreat and advance, remains unclear. He suggested that ISIS’s presence in Hajin could be “stronger than we think they are [or]… feel like they absolutely have to own some territory somewhere or risk losing support among global supporters.”

Whiteside also put forth a third option in which ISIS’s strategy is “to put pressure on the SDF and try to encourage it to break the link between Kurd and local Sunnis, which has been a staple of their strategies since 2007.”

“In this case,” Whiteside said, “peeling the Sunni tribes away from the Kurds/Americans is a key pre-condition for survival in Eastern Syria.”

Fighting of the sort seen in recent weeks, resulting in a large number of civilian casualties, could prove instrumental to increasing local Sunni tribal distrust of SDF forces purportedly guarding them from ISIS incursion. Similarly, a sustained mission in which the United States brings rhetoric and arms to bear against ISIS but fails to halt its terror campaign could undermine local confidence in their protectors and undercut US credibility.

Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said: “Operation Roundup has made progress but it isn’t going as smoothly or quickly as the US and its partner forces hoped. The Islamic State’s recent offensive in eastern Syria demonstrates that the group still has significant operational capacity and it is likely that the Islamic State has thousands of loyalists elsewhere in Syria.

“The US doesn’t really know how many fighters are left but they remain prolific,” Joscelyn said. “Over the past two months the Islamic State has claimed more than 265 operations in Syria and another 363 in Iraq. Therefore, the fight is far from over.”

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