US sees ISIS dangerously morphing in Syria and Iraq

In Iraq, ISIS has stopped conventional military operations and has “transitioned to an insurgency” operating along the border with Iran.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Porous frontier. An Iraqi soldier stands guard near the city of Qaim at the Iraqi-Syrian border, on November 11.  (AFP)
Porous frontier. An Iraqi soldier stands guard near the city of Qaim at the Iraqi-Syrian border, on November 11. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The Islamic State (ISIS) has transformed into a dangerous insurgency in Iraq and Syria since the terrorist group was ousted from its strongholds in the two countries, a major report by the US government claims.

Although ISIS retains only pockets of areas in Syria and has lost its territory completely in Iraq, the group wages deadly insurgent attacks in Iraq and functions as both an insurgency and a conventional military fighting the Damascus government in Syria, the report said.

“ISIS continued to move underground and solidify as an insurgency in Iraq and Syria,” the report said, referring to the period from July 1-September 30. “Despite the loss of almost all of its territory, the terrorist organisation kept some of its bureaucratic structures in place and continued to raise funds. These operations, in combination with concerns about both the ability of the Iraqi security forces to operate without coalition support and the ongoing Syrian civil war, raised the potential for an ISIS resurgence.”

The 130-page report was written by the US Defence Department’s inspector general office, which conducts in-depth strategy reviews, and given to the US Congress. It describes ISIS in ominous language that differs markedly from the enthusiasm with which US President Donald Trump has characterised the removal of ISIS from Iraq and Syria by a coalition of 79 countries, including the United States.

The report could become the basis of congressional hearings when the Democratic Party takes control of the US House of Representatives in January and scrutinises the Trump administration’s Middle East policy.

In Iraq, ISIS has stopped conventional military operations and has “transitioned to an insurgency” operating along a crescent of territory from Anbar province in western Iraq to Diyala province just east of Baghdad along the border with Iran. ISIS has attacked Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), assassinated tribal leaders, mayors and village elders and destroyed facilities that generate and distribute electricity, the report stated.

“The attacks provoked popular outrage, intimidated local populations and undermined people’s confidence in the ISF,” the report said. ISIS fighters in Iraq are mostly Iraqi nationals and not foreigners, which enables them to blend in with local populations and take advantage of their familiarity with terrain, language and customs.

The report sharply criticised the ISF, which the United States has been training since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 but which remains disorganised, corrupt and incapable of operating independently. The ISF is “years, if not decades” from ending its reliance on the United States and other countries assisting in gathering intelligence and conducting surveillance, the report said.

The Iraqi military, including the ISF and militias that were created to fight ISIS, “act with impunity” as they kill civilians in their effort to defeat ISIS. The US military plans to remain in Iraq “as long as needed” to achieve ISIS’s “enduring defeat,” the report said.

In Syria, ISIS has taken advantage of the country’s instability and sectarian divisions to maintain control of pockets of territory in eastern Syria and attack the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. “Pockets of opposition-held territory and general chaos caused by the war gave ISIS safe havens in areas beyond the reach of the SDF,” the report said.

ISIS capitalised on the recent 2-month pause in fighting in northern Syria to “recruit new members, gain resources and conduct attacks,” the report said.

The US strategy in Syria became more confusing in recent months when US national security adviser John Bolton said the US troops would not leave Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”

Bolton’s statement was the first time the Trump administration linked US military deployment in Syria to Iran’s presence and it contradicted repeated statements by the Defence Department that the United States seeks only to defeat ISIS.

The conflicting messages raised questions about when US troops would leave Syria — with the defeat of ISIS, the withdrawal of Iranian forces or the end of Syria’s civil war.