BAGHDAD – More than five years after the Islamic State group lost its last enclave of territory, U.S. troops remain deployed to Iraq and Syria to prevent ISIS from rising from its ashes.

And the conditions that helped ISIS originally form are still in place in Syria, according to the U.S. commander charged with keeping the pressure on. U.S. troops and partner forces can disrupt, destroy, and neutralize ISIS’ capabilities, Army Maj. Gen. Joel “JB” Vowell, the commanding general of Operation Inherent Resolve told Task & Purpose, but they cannot address the underlying conditions in Syria and elsewhere that allow ISIS and al-Qaida to continue to exist

“The root causes of instability that gave birth to ISIS are still there,” Vowell said in a June 20 interview. “There’s economic challenges in the Sunni areas, quite frankly. Those instability challenges are there: lack of education, lack of opportunity, lack of jobs. And extremism is still fomenting out in the deserts in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, in the Sunni tribes.”

Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has emerged mostly victorious from his country’s long-running civil war, which began in 2011, part of the Syrian population remains estranged from the regime, Vowell told Task & Purpose.

And ISIS can never truly be defeated as long as Syria remains a failed state, said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.

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Until then, ISIS may continue to represent very little active threat, but could quickly reconstitute into a formidable terrorist organization if the U.S. were to ease the pressure Vowell’s troops maintain. 

At the heart of ISIS’ resilience is instability caused by the Syrian regime, which the United States has shown no willingness to change, as it did in Iraq in 2003. Nothing short of that, Lord told Task & Purpose, has been able to end the country’s civil war with a new government in charge.

“In Iraq, you can navigate to a strategic outcome, which incorporates the objective of the defeat of ISIS, but the problem of our strategy in Syria is that our means never could sync up with our objectives,” Lord said. “And of course, our objectives related diplomatically to a broader outcome to the Syrian civil war that would lead to an election and the end of Assad’s rule. No U.S. administration was willing to invoke the necessary means to achieve that – wise or not.”

The Syrian Democratic Forces

For the past decade, the U.S. military’s mission in Syria has been focused on the defeat of ISIS, but its tactical successes could be completely reversed if all U.S. troops withdrew from the country, he said.

Turkey views the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish organization that has served as the U.S. military’s primary partner in Syria for years, as terrorists, and it has invaded the Kurdish-held enclave in northeast Syria in the past.

“The region will not suffer the SDF to exist absent the security and patronage and air support of the U.S. military,” Lord said. “The regime, Iranian-backed militias, first and foremost Turkey – it goes away in its current form when we do.”

If the U.S. withdrew from Syria and the SDF were destroyed, Sunni extremists in Syria’s Middle Euphrates River Valley could reestablish ISIS, which could threaten Iraq again, Lord said. In that case, the U.S. government would have to decide whether to intervene yet again in Iraq and Syria.

“Do we come back now with F-35s to bomb a few guys under a tree when we have these global priorities in Indo-PACOM [Pacific Command] and Europe?” Lord said. “I don’t think so.”

Iraq

The United States and Iraq are currently in negotiations about whether to continue the 25-nation coalition against ISIS or transition to a bilateral security relationship between both countries.

Currently, both U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed militias carry out attacks on ISIS leaders and strongholds, but without coordination or cooperation.

Iraqi forces continue to lack critical logistics and sustainment capabilities to independently support their forces, nor have they proven they can conduct combined arms maneuver, Lord said. Additionally, many of the Iraqi government’s resources have been diverted to the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, which constitute a parallel security force.

As things stand right now, the PMF oversees areas in Iraq where remnants of ISIS still operate, and it occasionally carries out operations against ISIS, said Lahib Higel, a senior Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“But any operations that are conducted with the support of coalition partners are coordinated with the [Iraqi] Army,” Higel told Task & Purpose. “Even if the Coalition was to withdraw, it is unlikely that the division of labour between the Iraqi Army and the PMF would change significantly.”

Iraq’s government appears to want to continue military cooperation with the United States and other coalition partners, Higel said.

“But it wants to have a greater say in what such cooperation entails and is therefore seeking bilateral agreements,” Higel said.

End Game

It is not likely that ISIS will be defeated in the near-term, said Alexander Palmer is an associate fellow in the Warfare, Irregular Threats, and Terrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.

Many historical analyses have shown that the medium length of an insurgency is 10 years, and if an insurgent group survives for 16 years, it is likely to operate for quite a long time, said Palmer, who noted that ISIS traces its origins to al-Qaida in Iraq two decades ago.

“The flipside to this is that these long-running insurgencies rarely win either,” Palmer told Task & Purpose. “So, it’s relatively unlikely that these insurgencies develop into a successful campaign where they overthrow a government or carve out a semi-permanent state. The main exception here is the Taliban in Afghanistan, but they had state sponsorship in a way that a group like ISIS does not.”

Currently, ISIS has mostly been beaten on the battlefield, said Palmer, who added that the end game in the fight against the group will likely involve using domestic law enforcement along with the military to contain ISIS.

“We’re approaching a point at least where ISIS itself is in what the U.S. military has called ‘survival mode:’ An extremely diminished capacity; it’s focused on day-to-day survival. It has an interest in projecting power outside of the region and conducting attacks further afield, but it’s not capable. And we want to keep in that state and treat as a problem to be managed rather than an army to be defeated.”

For right now, the focus of Operation Inherent Resolve is suppressing ISIS so that it cannot mass its forces and leaving behind partner forces to deal with the group so that the U.S. does not have to remain in Iraq and Syria forever, Vowell said.

Ten years into the U.S.-led mission to defeat ISIS, the terrorist group has been greatly diminished, he said. They no longer control large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria – including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city – and they can no longer defeat Iraq’s security forces, as they did in 2014.

“They are capable of doing small attacks, small ambushes in both countries, and we see that, and we’re on that right now with the d-ISIS [defeat-ISIS] mission,” Vowell said. “So, we’re in a good spot – not done – much better because of all the great work that went before us. It’s our job, this time in the movie, to take it to the final act and get the right credits so there’s no sequel.”

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