Having already declared that the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) has been defeated in Syria and Iraq, President Donald Trump might have been surprised to learn that according to two new reports, there are roughly 30,000 ISIS fighters remaining in Iraq and Syria — on par with the group’s presence at its peak.
The Pentagon just released portions of an inspector general report for Operation Inherent Resolve, the military’s name for the battle against ISIS, and the data indicates that there are somewhere between 29,000 and 31,000 ISIS fighters remaining in Iraq and Syria — about as many as it had at its peak, four years ago.
Another recent report from the United Nations indicated that while ISIS is certainly on the backfoot, the militant group is not down for the count. “It seems likely that a reduced ‘covert version’ of the [ISIS] ‘core’ will survive in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, with a presence also in neighbouring countries,” the report reads. Significant numbers of ISIS fighters also exist in Afghanistan, Libya, Southeast Asia and West Africa.
When asked about these numbers on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted the United States will “continue to take all those threats seriously,” she also said that the group has been “practically” defeated.
This is a pretty fascinating development. For one thing, the Pentagon’s numbers are quite the about-face from the numbers the military was sharing back in December, when it was believed that in the same regions of both Iraq and Syria (the ones under Operation Inherent Resolve), there were fewer than 1,000 fighters left.
“On 1/20 – the day Trump was inaugurated – an estimated 35,000 ISIS fighters held approx 17,500 square miles of territory in both Iraq and Syria. As of 12/21, the U.S. military est the remaining 1,000 or so fighters occupy roughly 1,900 square miles..” @jamiejmcintyre @dcexaminer pic.twitter.com/OgYEuDgzD2
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 28, 2017
So where did additional 30,000 or so ISIS fighters come from?
Charles Dunlap, law professor and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University’s School of Law, told ThinkProgress that he finds reports of those numbers “misleading.”
“Actually, the report only says that ‘some’ Member States estimated the total current [ISIS] ‘membership’ in Iraq and Syria to be ‘between 20,000 and 30,000 individuals,'” Dunlap, who is also a retired Air Force major general, said over email. “Obviously, until we know more about how ‘some’ states arrived at their figures, and whether ‘membership’ includes family members as well as fighters, there’s legitimate reason to be skeptical as to what estimates really mean in terms of capability.”
“Given that the UN report also concedes that ‘[m]any fighters melt back into the local population and stay there,’ I doubt anyone knows – or even could know – the real numbers,” he added. Dunlap also noted that, “even small numbers of ISIS fighters will be able to mount some attacks and terrorist strikes.”
Indeed, in addition to the “fog of war,” Hayat Alvi, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told ThinkProgress that after the offensive in Raqqa, Syria last year, “the fighters most likely dispersed within and across borders, much like we’ve seen with the Taliban in Afghanistan. “
Alvi, who said her views do not reflect those of the U.S. War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense, added that she “wouldn’t be surprised” if ISIS had gained more recruits since last fall. “The ultra-extremist Sunnis in the world are enraged about [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad ‘winning’ in Syria,” she said, adding that the ISIS leadership is “still intact.”
Politics (literally) counts
But these numbers aren’t just coming from random U.N. member states — they’re also coming from the Pentagon. So how did that happen and why now?
Nicholas Heras, Fellow at the Center for a New American Security working in the Middle East Security Program, told ThinkProgress that these new numbers reflected a “reassessment” of what would constitute a “potential” ISIS fighter. This is not to say that these would-be fighters aren’t real (in fact, said Heras, they are likely all local Iraqi and Syrian youth).
However, with the congressional midterms coming up in November and the 2020 presidential election after that, Heras said that “the Trump administration does not want ISIS to have a resurgence in eastern Syria that will lead political opponents to say ‘You didn’t knock the crap out ISIS and now they’re back.'”
The president, for his part, has been doing a victory lap over what he claims is the total defeat of ISIS for months now, declaring the mission accomplished and wondering when Iraq and Syria will thank him for all he has done:
Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all! In any event, the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our “Thank you America?”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2018
But it looks like he is now following the advice of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has been saying for months that the United States was not “just going to walk away” from Syria.
“Part of the way that advocates were able to sell the idea [of staying in Syria] to the big guy, to Mr. Trump, is the fact that you still have active ISIS networks in Russian and Iranian Assad-backed areas in central and eastern Syria,” said Heras. [added, assume it was him who said this]
What that means is that the locals aren’t happy with the Russians, the Iranians, the Syrian regime forces, or the Americans. Which leaves that space, and its neighboring regions in Iraq, vulnerable to an ISIS resurgence.
But in order to the United States to stay, it needs to prove that there’s a legitimate threat (the Syrian government has long maintained that the United States cannot remain in Syria indefinitely), and the January numbers of 1,000 or fewer fighters weren’t going to cut it.
Hence (probably) the larger numbers. Although Heras said he doesn’t not want give any kind of conspiracy much ground he did add, “The timing is kind of coincidental, isn’t it?”
How to handle ISIS 2.0?
This confirms what analysts have been warning about for months — that a resurgence of the militant group — dubbed ISIS 2.0 — is likely. And now that the United States has apparently reassessed its estimation of the ISIS threat, what lies ahead for its troops in Iraq (where Dunalp says the security forces “are improving”) and Syria, two very different countries with their own very complicated sets of problems?
In Iraq, said Heras, the burden of dealing with the next iteration of ISIS will fall on the local Iraqi government and security forces. The United States, he said, has a “low-profile advisory role” that won’t allow for much influence.
The United States could engage its Gulf Arab partners in investing in and developing Iraq’s northern and western Sunni regions, which in many ways, said Heras, are a “region unto themselves” and where humanitarian needs are pronounced. In Syria, the United States will have to somehow play a more active role, “with a light footprint,” he said, adding that the new ISIS troop estimates could be seen as a “more holistic view” of the threat of ISIS.
This requires a deft policy-making touch: Does the U.S. go after ISIS on the ground, targeting it directly? Or does it go after the broader threat, dealing with local communities and other players who give ISIS cover? It remains to be seen how the Trump administration answers that question, but whatever happens in Syria will have to happen within a strange kind of cooperation with Russia and Iran.
“We all rely on each other,” said Heras. “The Russians and the Iranians rely on each other and they both rely on us.”
Alvi said that Iran will continue to support Assad until it “decides that it goes against its geopolitical interests to do so,” although given the success it has had, along with Russia, in helping the Syrian regain lost territory from rebels, Iran might decide “that it’s not a bad idea to continue its support for the Syrian regime,” along with Russia, who is unlikely to cede the access Syria gives it to the Mediterranean.
U.S. military strategy over the next few years will be hard to forecast, said Alvi.
“It depends on whether or not they remain there and what kind of troop numbers we’re talking about,” she said, noting that U.S. troop numbers have not been steady. “If we want to really blast ISIS out of existence, then the political will has to be there to deploy troops in the tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands, and stay there until the job is done.”
Then again, said Alvi, the United States figured it had achieved its goal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the group continues “to inflict mayhem there even after 17 years.” That the U.S. would have succeeded in totally destroying the Taliban had it maintained its troop levels, though, is also in doubt.
“There are two sides to the counter-terrorism coin: one is fighting terrorists with military forces; and the other is to fight its ideology. ISIS ideology is alive and well and now we know it’s even thriving,” said Alvi, adding, “So, our strategists have to answer the question: How do you kill an ideology?”