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ISIS Is Down however Not Dead Yet
The ghost of the 2003 Iraq conflict has hung over and formed each conclusion the United States has made on the Syrian courteous conflict since 2011 throughout two administrations. Now, the incoming administration of President Joe Biden will quickly grapple with the identical query Biden confronted as vice chairman: learn how to manipulate the Islamic State because it finds openings and regroups. As it seems forward, the Biden administration would breathe sage to seek how the U.S. labored to aim the Islamic State’s territorial grip on Syria two years advocate—and who laid down their lives for it.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) defeated ISIS within the spring of 2019 after a grueling half-decade combat—elbowroom by elbowroom, home by home, and city by city—during which 10,000 SDF members gave their lives. But it’s mighty simpler to kill a terrorist than to end an ideology, and as soon as once more ISIS is threatening mothers and dads and kids plane because the world needs to want away a combat that has not but ended.
Today assaults are on the ascend in Syria’s Deir al-Zour metropolis, with the BBC noting that the Islamic State “has launched more than 100 attacks in north-eastern Syria over the last month alone.” ISIS is bringing its specific blend of hellish terror to the region as soon as extra: beheadings, abductions, suicide bombings, bike assaults, to designation only some of their ways. The SDF is launching operations in opposition to ISIS at the moment and focusing on the locations the place ISIS fighters conceal and put together to launch their assaults.
What few know is that the ISIS combat on the bottom is an American post-9/11 coverage that achieved what it clique out to: discover a native colleague with shared pursuits keen to combat to aim ISIS’ territorial maintain on the area. Women performed a central function on this compel and served as America’s interlocutors within the battle to retake the ISIS “capital” of Raqqa and the years of campaigns leading up to that fight.
The success of the US-SDF relationship isn’t well known, but it contains policy implications for President Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken: as the new administration considers Middle East policy, it now faces the question of whether to continue America’s limited presence in northeastern Syria and how to employ diplomacy to move toward an end to the war in Syria. What it can be clear on is that a nearly unseen U.S. presence created a fragile normalcy upon which people from the area could build, and that that endangered stability did not end even with the Turkish-backed incursion in October 2019.
I saw that stability firsthand, traveling every few months to the region in 2018 to write The Daughters of Kobani, a history of how, in order to stop ISIS, the United States ended up partnering with a little-known group of Syrian Kurds with women’s equality right at the center of its ideology. At first, as my colleagues and I traveled around, I marveled at the rickety normalcy in place—in every check point you saw only local forces, no one asked for money or bribes, and women were everywhere: standing guard at check points, checking your papers at local security offices, serving as members of the new local police. Then I grew accustomed to it and determined to share with America that U.S. forces had managed to serve as the entirely unseen, Oz-like presence of a post-9/11 war, providing a security umbrella that kept the Russians at bay, the Syrian regime out, the Turks from invading, and local forces launching raids against ISIS able to keep the pressure on the terrorists of the Islamic State. And it managed all this with fewer than two thousand U.S. service members on the ground—and none of them fighting on the front.
I asked U.S. officials I’d meet in Syria in 2018 and 2019 why no one at home knew that the policy was working, that northeastern Syria looked different than other U.S. efforts in the region, that you never saw the Americans, but you felt the fragile normalcy? I asked them why, if the Americans had found a partner that was hardly perfect but full of purpose, progressive in its politics, and determined to create stability for its citizens, it rarely talked about it? After all, the heartbreak of other post-9/11 interventions had shaped the outlines of this one and had made it imperative that no U.S. forces would lead the fight, and only a limited number would deploy at all.
Part of the answer was that NATO ally Turkey considered these Kurds leading the fight against terrorists to be terrorists themselves, a feeling that was heightened by America’s reliance upon and support for the People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units. Part of it was that the desolate narrative of defeat shaped how the entire nation sees all of its post-9/11 interventions. And another was that northeastern Syria was hard to access and harder still to visit.
Those who saw it did talk about it.
“The strategy has been, ‘Let’s defeat ISIS.’ And we’re well on our way there. And this really has happened against very long odds with very few Americans with very little money,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen told 60 Minutes following a visit to Syria with Sen. Lindsey Graham. When asked what he wanted the American people to know “about America’s partners in Syria,” Graham answered, “They’ve done most of the fighting. They’ve done most of the dying. If they take over, they will work with us. This is a damn good deal. Take it.”
“All of America’s post-9/11 wars get tossed in the same manila file no one wants to revisit with the label “failure” written out in block letters across its top.”
Officials who shaped Syria policy at the time are now returning to office. Some have been trying for years to share that this outcome was critical to the U.S. effort to defeat ISIS in the Middle East. America needs “to distinguish between, for example, these endless wars with the large-scale, open-ended deployment of U.S. forces with… discrete, small-scale, sustainable operations, maybe led by Special Forces to support local actors,” incoming Secretary of State Tony Blinken told CBS last September. “This is one thing we labored on… by way of technique within the Obama-Biden administration, and it truly labored very successfully in Iraq and Syria to conquer ISIS.”
Four years in the past, as President Donald Trump’s fresh administration weighed whether or not to immediately arm the SDF in forward of retaking the ISIS self-styled capital of Raqqa, Blinken wrote that “the only fighters capable of seizing Raqqa belong to our most effective partner on the ground—the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mixture of Arabs and Kurds dominated by the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia.”
From 2014, and the made-for-TV battle for the city of Kobani, the place the Kurds, with ameliorate from Iraqi Peshmerga and Free Syrian Army compel on the bottom and the U.S. from the mannerism, handed ISIS its very first conquer, till 2019 and the apocalyptic aim of the Islamic State within the city of Baghouz, the men and women of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) served as America’s and the world’s infantry. The SDF fought the Islamic State home by home, road by road and city by city, every single day for greater than 5 straight years till at final the Islamic State now not held pretense to a shred of territory.
Their dedication to stopping ISIS was equal to, if not better, than America’s; their losses expose their unravel. Consider these numbers: At the peak of its territorial power, ISIS dominated a swath of land throughout Iraq and Syria roughly the dimensions of Virginia or Ohio. It reigned within the populated Syrian cities of Raqqa and Manbij and Tabqa, stored ladies out of discipline, bought girls on its streets, beheaded and chopped off limbs of opponents on the town squares, and hosted alien fighters from greater than 100 nations who got here to figure a wildly distorted United Nations of ISIS. It blared its aspirations of ruling from Raqqa to Rome and past and plotted assaults within the United States and Europe and across the globe.
Every Gold Star household is a undoubted tragedy, and time inside this neighborhood has formed my perspective on conflict. To rid the world of ISIS as a compel that held terrain and terrorized residents throughout borders, the U.S. army endured fewer than ten resist deaths, in keeping with U.S. army officers. America’s colleague misplaced 10,000 men and women.
Yet Americans know miniature of this story. Indeed, all of America’s post-9/11 wars get tossed within the identical manila file nobody needs to revisit with the tag “failure” written out in hindrance letters throughout its high. In sever that’s as a result of each coverage makers and folks removed from Washington participate an exhaustion with America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both have turn into synonymous with endlessness, loss, lives shattered, misfortune endured, and an America that may now not outline or determine how a contest is gained. The infamy of that is that America too hasn’t seen when its coverage has labored.
“The goal must be to remove the U.S. troop presence in Syria, but the “how” issues.”
As those that formed the U.S. coverage on Syria—together with Blinken and Brett McGurk, former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS—revert to governing, they have to determine whether or not after which how to make sure that America’s companions within the ISIS combat endure lengthy sufficient to construct on the positive aspects achieved. This is captious now, as ISIS assaults mount and the Syrian regime has confirmed itself unable to strongly counter the ISIS risk.
“Protecting the homeland while letting pockets of the developing world fall irretrievably into terrorists’ control guarantees far greater problems down the line,” the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister celebrated. “The U.S. needs to learn from the recent anti-ISIS campaign in Syria and Iraq, where a light footprint approach fronted by special operations forces and focused on enhancing the ability of allied local partners in their local fight against terrorists was met with success.”
I traveled to northeastern Syria in December 2019, simply weeks after the Turkish-backed incursion into northeastern Syria. I anticipated to behold a noble ration of change, and I did behold some—a push that used to take three hours now took six as we averted the freeway managed by Turkish-backed forces—however far lower than I had imagined. Security was largely in hand thanks to those native companions who had by no means deserted America’s priorities, together with holding ISIS prisoners, plane whereas America withdrew from key cities. It shocked many within the U.S. to listen to after I returned what I noticed firsthand: that the restricted U.S. presence within the area was serving to to present America’s companions within the ISIS combat a little bit of elbowroom to dodge when coping with the Syrian regime and its Russian backers. And, urgently, it was providing to mothers and dads some elbowroom, an endangered stability supplied to them by native forces. The objective should breathe to steal the U.S. troupe presence in Syria, however the “how” issues. America can toy a key function in exerting athletic savoir-faire whereas sustaining the stress on ISIS.
There are at all times conflicting priorities within the first 100 days of any administration, however as those that crafted the counter-ISIS coverage revert to authorities, guaranteeing ISIS doesn’t revert to energy—plane whereas it strives to—ought to breathe among the many high.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the writer of The Daughters of Kobani in addition to the New York Times bestsellers Ashley’s War and The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, and an accessory senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations. She usually seems on CNN, PBS, MSNBC, and NPR, and has spoken on nationwide safety matters on the Aspen Security Forum, Clinton Global Initiative, and TED. A graduate of Harvard Business School, she serves on the board of Mercy Corps and is a member of the Bretton Woods Committee.