The last ISIS fighters have been routed in Baghouz, the town they once held on the Euphrates River that was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces in late March with support from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. Now the coalition is transitioning to focus on the "enduring defeat" of ISIS according to Col. James Rawlinson, director of Public Affairs for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR).
Rawlinson spoke to The Jerusalem Post last week and said that the coalition has supported the liberation of 110,000 sq. km. of territory and 7.7 million people who had been under ISIS control. The last battle against ISIS in Syria began in September and ended on March 23. "The last months were very tough, and ultimately the SDF prevailed," he says.
Last year, the US announced it would withdraw forces from Syria as ISIS was defeated. Now that policy has changed slightly, but the US is still drawing down forces. These were decisions made in Washington. For the coalition commanders, the goal is ensuring that ISIS is defeated.
Last year there was a lot of discussion of "stabilization" in Syria, a long-term goal. "We aren't quite at the stabilization phase," says Rawlinson. "This doesn't mean the end of the fight – and we have reason to believe ISIS is transitioning to an insurgent-type organization and preserving their forces. So at this point, we knew they were going to transition when they still controlled territory."
ISIS lost its center of gravity when it lost its last physical bastion. "That was part of their identity and it was important to take that away – and a huge part of getting after their capability, to resurge they need to inspire and get people to join, and they need finances and resources. We knew they were going to go to this," the colonel says.
The coalition is focusing on building the capacity and capability of local security forces. "The enduring defeat is what we are talking about and that means being able to ensure they can't come back." That is a difficult goal, because ISIS operated on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, the coalition is working with the Iraqi security forces on one side and the SDF on the other.
Regarding Iraq, the coalition stresses that it was invited by Iraq to aid the fight. "All 79 [coalition] members recognized the threat ISIS poses, what we are trying to accomplish, what the intricacies are. We are trying to improve the capabilities of those local forces – and in each region its different, even within Iraq," the officer says. "It's specific to the organization we are speaking about... we have seen ISIS moving more into the north of Iraq, so we may give different training to the area they are moving into; if it is in an urban location, it is different." The coalition has trained 200,000 Iraqis, from foot soldiers to fighter pilots.
The battle for Baghouz took months to complete as thousands of ISIS fighters and tens of thousands of their spouses, children and other civilians surrendered. "It was the last stand; it was an area they had controlled for years," he said. "They knew how to move resources and people undetected; and just the number people in that area was higher than we estimated, and that extended the amount of time that we assessed." He describes the campaign as a difficult challenge, facing off against ISIS members with suicide vests and IEDs who use human shields.
The SDF is now tasked with managing the detainees from the battle, which include numerous foreign ISIS fighters. Many countries have refused to take these ISIS members back, which poses numerous challenges. The SDF and the US have asked countries to take them back, according to other reports. "They are off the battlefield and in detention, and SDF providing security – they are doing a fantastic job," says Rawlinson.
"It is not a long-term solution; there should be a mechanism people can process into and that would be the next step." The international community will have to decide the next step. "In the interim, keeping them in custody is part of the 'defeat ISIS' mission, so they can't get out and destabilize the region." That is a difficult problem.
So what happens now? ISIS could begin a classic insurgency in Iraq and Syria. This is what they did in Iraq after the US "surge" ended and ISIS began to launch attacks. It grew between 2011 and 2013, eventually conquered Mosul in June 2014 while it also gobbled up part of Syria. "They are going back to the playbook: disaggregated networks and cells, and each has its own ability to resource and [carry out] missions... Collectively what they want to do is destabilize the area: We try to enable local security forces to contain that," the colonel says.
"We look at it like cancer: you can do it kinetically and cut it out [but] you might not get all the tissue, and with chemo you kill the healthy tissue. We want to teach the body to push the cancer out and keep the good part... [to] enable the local security forces to contain the threats and attack the ideology – attack the idea that makes some people attracted to what ISIS is."
Rawlinson stresses that ISIS is an existential threat. "We have to keep the pressure on... concurrent with that, we need to make sure that those who may be vulnerable to ISIS ideology understand it is not the path to pursue. We care about the people who may turn to ISIS and understand it's not the right way to go."
While the coalition could not address the issue of the US draw down, Joint Staff spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder added that, "As [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General James Dunford recently pointed out, there has been no change to the plan announced in February. We continue to implement the president's direction to draw down US forces to a residual presence in a deliberate and coordinated manner."
He noted that the important issue is to ensure campaign continuity. "We're continuing to work closely with our allies and partners in the region to develop and refine the support required for the stabilization phase of the [defeat] ISIS campaign in Syria. This work is ongoing and, for operational security reasons, we will not discuss specific US troop numbers or draw down time lines."
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.