Friday 21 December 2018

Has Isis been defeated in Syria, as Trump claims?

As president announces US withdrawal from the region, has the threat of Islamic State really been wiped out?

“We have defeated Isis in Syria,” Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday, “my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”

But is the US president right? The long fight against Islamic State looks good on a map, but it is yet to be decisive on the battlefield.

The terror group has lost more than 95% of the territory it claimed in 2014 and the juggernaut that threatened to shred the region’s borders has been battered back to where it all began for the group’s earliest incarnation – a sliver of land along the Euphrates River, bordering Iraq and Syria.

There, Kurdish-led forces, backed by US air support, have been fighting it out with diehard extremists in towns and villages in Syria’s far eastern Deir ez-Zor province.

At least 2,500 Isis fighters remain, all survivors of routs to the east and west of their last redoubt. Colossal ruin lays in their wake on both sides of the river. But the group retains the capacity to do even more damage, especially if let off the hook now.

 Turkish soldiers on their tank as they prepare for a military operation at the Syrian border against Islamic State. Photograph: Sedat Suna/EPA
The Kurds, armed and supported by the US military have shouldered the burden of the war. The US proxy, known as the SDF, has lost more than 1,500 men in the four-year campaign to oust the extremists from eastern Syria.

The Kurds have always counted on being able to leverage the near-defeat of Isis into a deeper alliance with Washington and more of a say in the postwar fate of their corner of Syria.

But earlier this year, the fight against Isis slowed, as Turkey sent forces to oust Kurdish militants from an enclave in northwestern Syria. The US refused to intervene, prioritising its ties with Turkey over its new ally. That was a taste of things to come for Kurdish leaders, who claimed over the summer that they were “more mistress than bride”.

Even so, the elimination of Isis remained an imperative for the US, and there was still time for the Kurds to convince their partners to stay for the long haul. Or so they thought.

But the Trump move to withdraw troops from the region is a blatant betrayal that will leave the US searching for a new partner if it ever intends to return to finish the fight. It will leave the Turks with a free hand to attack their longtime foe the Kurdish militants and impose their will across the area.

In central Iraq, attacks on military forces have spiked in recent weeks – a likely spillover from the clashes in Syria. In Raqqa, one of two major hubs for Isis, bombings and sniper attacks have also increased. One such strike took place hours before Trump’s “mission accomplished” tweet – which may come to be seen in the same light as George W Bush’s infamous 2003 photo op regarding Iraq.

Walking away now is a remarkable gift for Isis, whose leaders can say they saw off the Americans and their allies. Even without the withdrawal, the group would likely have held out for many more months as an organised entity, able to defend what it still had. With its most formidable foe leaving the fray, Isis may well be reborn.

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