ISIS comeback? How US withdrawal is a triple whammy for Assad in Syria

Martin Jay
Martin Jay
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is disquieting adage surely about to prove its validity in the coming months as President Trump announces plans to pull out what many believe is around 2000 troops in Syria.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise though as, not only does the US President relentlessly go against the flow of advice from him own experts who tell him that withdrawal is not an option – but he has also been hinting it since mid-February in a press conference with Australian PM Michael Turnbull.

What’s less clear is what has provoked the announcement in recent days. Perhaps it may well have been the death of a British soldier embedded with US forces in Manbij or the recent reports that he asked for a $4bn from Saudi Arabia for a new push in Syria.

What is clearer, however, is the impact this will have on the ground, which from a Washington perspective would appear to be entirely self defeating at best and suicidal at worse, which will lead many to second guess that it is a temporary wile designed to leverage a better deal with partners in Syria. Yet at what cost?

The Assad regime will benefit enormously from money put aside to go into rebuilding infrastructure once destroyed by ISIS, being withheld, which Trump also announced just days ago.

Yet the killer blow is what this erroneous plan will do to ISIS, which far from what some media reports, is not dead in the water but in reality rebuilding itself and its ideology

Martin Jay

Edge of the wedge

But pulling US forces out of these tiny enclaves which were taken over from ISIS is only the thin edge of the wedge. If Washington goes the full nine yards, it might well even freeze the military aid it has pencilled in for the Kurdish-led SDF forces which were benefitting from US Special Forces help.

Such a move is also an unpalatable victory for Assad’s allies in Syria, namely Hezbollah and the Iranians, with the latter expanding throughout southern Syria in recent months and building military garrisons. Russia too will toast the announcement as America appears to be in retreat, a point even endorsed by a US military magazine which admitted losing Syria to the hands of Moscow.

Yet the killer blow is what this erroneous plan will do to ISIS, which far from what some media reports, is not dead in the water but in reality rebuilding itself and its ideology. It was, in a nutshell, waiting for the right moment for a comeback. And here it is.

Nobody in the White House nor even in the Pentagon – and certainly not its chief James Mattis – believes that the fight with ISIS is over in Syria (the death of the British soldier in Manbij, who was on an anti ISIS mission was a sad reminder of that).

In fact, in many ways, it’s only just begun in Iraq and the US pull out in Syria will be a godsend for the extremist group, given the border with Syria, remarkably, is still not secure. As King Abdullah of Jordan once said in a TV interview “what the West doesn’t get is that terrorists don’t recognize the Iraqi Syrian border”.

ISIS rebuilding itself

Indeed, and, according to one of region’s leading journalists and experts on ISIS, Hassan Hassan, the group is already rebuilding itself and planning a comeback –already starting to take back small pockets of terrain originally won in battle by the Iraqi army.

Estimates vary but leading experts say that ISIS still has 10,000 fighters, many lying dormant in villages and towns in both Syria and Iraq. Yet if the decision by Trump is genuine and US troops will not return in the coming months, then the mistakes of the US invasion of Iraq – and subsequent premature withdrawal – have clearly not been learnt, nor for that matter the West’s bundled intervention in Libya.

Pulling out of Syria will give Iran an even greater justification for remaining as it will use the rise of ISIS and America’s innocuous, confused policy in the region – which barely misses a heartbeat before it contradicts itself – as a basis for a bigger military build up. In turn, this will attract more fighters from Iraq to join their brothers in arms against a new enemy whom they loath even more than Assad or the Americans.

It’s senseless and only begins to become comprehensible when the pundit examines Trump’s track record on such capricious stunts, whether it be threatening North Korea or slapping trade tariffs on the EU, only to lift them a week later. We will have to wait a while to see if it is really genuine.

ISIS, in the meantime, will look on curiously in particular to the suspension of 200 million dollars which was put aside for mine clearing and the restoration of water and electricity.

In such desperate times, any faction whatsoever which enters such devastated towns which can restore public services will be mightily welcomed. History is about to repeat itself in Syria due to the tumultuous foibles of US foreign policy and we already have ringside tickets.
Martin Jay is a Beirut based journalist who in 2016 won the highest press award given by the United Nations for his reporting on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In Beirut he has worked on a freelance basis for Al Jazeera, DW, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Mail on Line, The National and regularly appears on TV commentating on geopolitics. He can be followed at @MartinRJay.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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