President Donald Trump on Wednesday promised that the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) will be “gone by tonight.”
Holding up a paper printout showing ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq, Trump told reporters “…everything in the red — this was on Election Night in 2016 — everything red is ISIS. When I took it over, it was a mess. Now, on the bottom — that’s the exact same — there is no red,” he said, adding, “In fact, there’s actually a tiny spot which will be gone by tonight.”
“So this is ISIS on Election Day, my Election Day, and this is ISIS now. So that’s the way it goes.”
Of course, by Thursday, the fight was still continuing.
As experts quickly pointed out, the map the president is relying on contained inaccuracies.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, noted that the president’s map ignored that ISIS effectively still has control over the Badiya region in southeastern Syria.
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) March 21, 2019
There’s also more to eliminating an extremist group than taking away the territory it controls.
The Pentagon and United Nations estimate that roughly 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in the Levant region, with experts fearing the emergence of an ISIS 2.0 in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria that the president is pushing for (and that is set to happen by the end of April).
ISIS has been active in several countries in North Africa and Central Asia. On Thursday, the group claimed responsibility for a series of explosions in Afghanistan that killed at least six and wounded dozens.
Trump has repeatedly taken credit for defeating ISIS and failed to acknowledge those who have helped fight against the extremist group. For instance, the fight to free one of the largest territories held by ISIS — the Iraqi city of Mosul — started under former President Barack Obama in October 2016, before Trump had even been elected.
While campaigning for the presidency, Trump claimed he would defeat ISIS in 30 days if elected. That didn’t happen — and no one with a semi-reasonable grip on the news would have expected that it would.
This isn’t to say that ISIS has not suffered huge territorial losses. U.S.-backed forces, fighting alongside an international coalition — including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Iranian-backed Hasdh al-Shaabi militia in Iraq, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces — have made great gains in taking back towns and villages from ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
As former Amb. Frederic Hof pointed out in a piece for the Atlantic Council, while “a measure of self-congratulation is indeed appropriate for the erasure of the ‘physical caliphate’ in a remote corner of Syria…Trump would also do well to ask and answer some questions.”
Notably, wrote Hof:
Is the United States doing all it can in the Arab world and beyond to help develop the region’s greatest natural resource: its human capital? Promoting educational reforms so millions can function in the twenty-first century? Encouraging students from the Muslim world to attend US universities? … Projecting a sincere, deep-seated respect for Islam? Convincing people around the world that rule of law, human rights, and the United States’ permanent struggle for ‘a more perfect union’ have universal applicability and an honored place in US foreign policy?
The answer to these questions, especially under the Trump administration, is a resounding “No.”
This administration has avoided discussing human rights with countries that have some of the worst human rights violations, from China to Saudi Arabia. The president has cast Muslims as global villains, slapped travel bans on several Muslim-majority countries, and cut back on the number of refugees the United States will accept, as Syrian and Iraqi families fleeing violence are still being internally displaced in significant numbers.
The fight to defeat ISIS has been especially deadly for civilians, whose lives have been defined by ISIS’s attempts to superimpose a caliphate over their homes and communities for around six years now. They continue to pay a heavy price as Trump tries to take yet another victory lap.
According to The International Rescue Committee (IRC) over 2,000 women and children arrived on Wednesday night at the al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria, as U.S.-backed Syrian forces try to clear the town of Baghouz of ISIS fighters.
The camp already holds over 70,000 people (over half of them children), and the IRC’s country director issued a statement saying the latest arrivals are “in the worst condition we have seen since the crisis first began,” some badly injured by shrapnel.
At least 138 people have died on their way to al-Hol, with babies comprising a significant number of those fatalities.