By Faisal Al Yafai
January 1, 2019
In the mid-2000s, when the United States
was heavily deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US administration was
under repeated pressure domestically and internationally to declare when it
would leave those countries. The administrations of George W Bush and later
Barack Obama hesitated to do so, knowing that the moment a timeline was set,
their adversaries would simply wait, biding their time until the clock ran down
and the last soldiers went home.
The same calculation is being played out in
the last Islamic State strongholds in eastern Syria, now that Donald Trump has
declared ISIS “defeated” and announced that the estimated 2,000 American troops
in the country are heading home.
The sudden end of the campaign against ISIS
appears to have caught everyone, friend and foe, by surprise. If ISIS still
poses a threat, it will simply lie low for several weeks until the US leaves
and then re-emerge. If it has been defeated, it will no longer pose any threat.
So, which is it?
The trouble is that claiming ISIS has been
defeated is all a matter of definition. Specifically, the definition of two
terms: “ISIS” and “defeated.”
In one sense, the battle against ISIS in
Syria is coming to an end: This month saw the fall of Hajin, the last Syrian
town held by the Jihadis. But in another sense, ISIS exists more as an idea and
less as a group, and that idea could yet re-emerge in different ways. It is
possible for ISIS to exist in two states, simultaneously defeated and
In one sense, it will never really make
sense to speak of ISIS as defeated. There will always exist some forgotten
corner of the globe or a dark crevice of the Internet in which recruits and
recruiters will gather. The tangible legacy of ISIS’ tenure in Iraq and Syria –
the testimonies of those involved, the documents of their time in charge, the
photographs and gory and glorifying videos – will continue to exist, circulated
on whichever communication method the supporters default to, waiting to be
introduced to a new generation of the disaffected.
Groups can always rise again, and small
groups suddenly become much more important. ISIS itself went through this
evolution, rapidly overtaking al-Qaeda in terms of prominence and power.
Al-Qaeda, too, in the years before September 11, 2001, was high but not
foremost on the list of priorities of the US government. Bill Clinton, who
served as president until a year before the 9/11 attacks, was relentlessly
criticized for “missing” his opportunity to kill Osama bin Laden. The truth was
that the US, like any government, had priorities.
There comes a time when political and
military leaders accept that any military campaign faces diminishing returns,
that continuing to supply resources to the fight against ISIS can no longer be
But in a different, more hard-headed sense,
there comes a time when political and military leaders accept that any military
campaign faces diminishing returns, that continuing to supply resources to the
fight against ISIS can no longer be justified politically.
It certainly seems that Trump came to that
conclusion after a phone call from Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish
president’s question – “Why are you still there?” – focused Trump’s mind.
The consensus of analysts and of other
governments is that ISIS is not quite defeated. One US estimate puts the number
of fighters inside Syria at nearly 15,000. It is true that ISIS has lost more
than 95% of the territory it held at its zenith, but many of its senior
leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain alive and at large. The group’s
formidable online presence continues.
But there’s a second part to being defeated
because even if all those elements could be destroyed ISIS could still
re-emerge. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces lack the ability to
police large parts of Syria, and the Syrian regime may not be inclined to do
so. Truly defeating ISIS would require rebuilding and policing the territories
it formerly held, an open-ended commitment that Trump certainly does not want.
So, if the question is framed in narrow
terms of the military defeat of ISIS such that it becomes difficult for it to
regroup, then defeat is close, potentially measured in months. But then the
second definition matters: What is ISIS?
The great power of ISIS always lay in an
idea, expressed through the group. Yes, the group managed to establish a
proto-state across Syria and Iraq. But its real strength – and its great danger
– lay in its ability to motivate thousands of young men and women, from dozens
of countries, to leave their settled lives and join this fledgling state. More
than that, it managed to persuade them that they were doing so for an
apocalyptic reason, for the chance to take part in the vanguard of a movement
that would usher in a new global era.
Those ideas may seem laughable from the
outside. But to thousands, they were astonishingly powerful. Understanding how
ISIS managed to do that is crucial, because that idea could easily be expressed
by a different, as yet unknown, group.
If ISIS were merely one group, it could be
defeated. But if it is an idea, that idea will be extraordinarily difficult to
defeat, and the battle against it will not be carried out in the eastern
deserts of Syria, but in the hearts and minds of men and women across the world
who might one day consider heeding the siren call of another ISIS.
This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which