The New York Times reports that ISIS is gathering new strength and conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria. Observers are confident that ISIS won’t reclaim anything like its former physical territory, a “caliphate” that was the size of Britain and controlled the lives of up to 12 million people.
However, if it continues to gain strength, ISIS may soon become a force to be reckoned with and could control enough territory to pose a serious threat to security in the region and, as a base for terrorist operations, beyond. To make matters worse, the Times says that ISIS is gaining influence in Sinai and in portions of West Africa.
ISIS still has the financial resources to accomplish its objectives. According to the Times:
The Islamic State can still tap a large war chest of as much as $400 million, which has been hidden in either Iraq and Syria or smuggled into neighboring countries for safekeeping. It is also believed to have invested in businesses, including fish farming, car dealing and cannabis growing. And ISIS uses extortion to finance clandestine operations: Farmers in northern Iraq who refuse to pay have had their crops burned to the ground.
One might think that ISIS, having been defeated militarily, would lack for manpower. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The Times says it has mobilized as many as 18,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, ISIS is said to be recruiting successfully in a sprawling tent camp in northeast Syria, home to 70,000 people including thousands of family members of ISIS fighters.
When ISIS rolled successfully through Syria and Iraq, its force was estimated to be around 30,000. It’s not difficult to envisage ISIS getting back to that number, especially if it continues to succeed with terrorist attacks.
President Trump has declared ISIS defeated, thanks to his efforts. The victory lap seems premature.
So too does Trump’s decision to cut our force in the region from 2,000 to less than half that number. An inspector general report (a joint effort by IG’s from the State Department, Defense Department, and US AID) finds that the drawdown of U.S. troops “decreases resources and support to U.S.-backed Syrian forces” thereby reducing their ability to conduct counter-insurgency action and to monitor and secure a major prison where ISIS fighters are held.
Trump’s drawdown looks like a classic case of being penny wise and pound foolish. Quite apart from security concerns, which of course are paramount, Trump can ill afford the political fallout from a string of successful, well-publicized military operations by ISIS. Not after touting the defeat of ISIS as a major accomplishment of his administration.