The Islamic State (IS) group is exploiting the US troop withdrawal to stage a resurgence in Syria, a Pentagon watchdog said Tuesday, adding that it has also strengthened its position in neighbouring Iraq.
“Despite losing its territorial ‘caliphate,’ the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria this quarter,” according to the US report, which calls the IS group, ISIS.
The jihadists – who suffered major territorial losses at the hands of Iraqi and Syrian forces when backed by a US-led international air campaign – are now grabbing this opportunity to replenish their numbers and attacking local forces that still need support and training, Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, explained in a message accompanying the report.
The IS group has been able to “regroup and sustain operations” in the two countries partially because local forces “remain unable to sustain long-term operations, conduct multiple operations simultaneously, or hold territory that they have cleared,” the report said.
The official report also highlighted that it is now harder for the US military to advise their local allies on the ground. Furthermore, Washington is no longer able monitor the camps for displaced persons which are now reportedly being over-run by the IS group and proving fertile recruiting ground.
Senior US commanders against ‘partial withdrawal’
The decision made by the US administration for the “partial withdrawal” was made despite commanders saying that the local US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) “needed more training and equipping for counterinsurgency operations”.
Last year, US President Donald Trump declared victory against the IS group and ordered the withdrawal of all American troops from Syria – a decision that prompted then defense secretary Jim Mattis to quit.
“We’ll be out of there pretty soon. And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems — along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We’re 7,000 miles away,” Trump said last month.
However, a small number of US troops have remained in northeastern Syria, an area not controlled by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and Washington is pushing for increased military support from other members of the international coalition against the IS group.
The report by the Office of Inspector General said IS group jihadists have carried out targeted assassinations, ambushes and suicide bombings in both countries and in Iraq have “established a more stable command and control node and a logistics node for coordination of attacks.”
The group’s strategy in the two countries is to “create turmoil in territory it has lost” and prevent local security forces “from establishing effective control and maintaining civil order,” the report added.
The coalition fighting the IS group believes the jihadist group likely has between 14,000 and 18,000 “members” in Iraq and Syria, among them up to 3,000 foreigners, it said.
The IS group has suffered major losses, but its predecessor the Islamic State of Iraq likewise appeared on the ropes after Sunni Muslim tribesmen turned against the jihadists, switching sides to join US “surge” of troops in 2007-2008 to deal them a body blow.
The self-proclaimed leader of the so-called ‘Caliph’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was however able to revive the group’s fortunes, drawing on Sunni anger at Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, aided by the chaos and violence of the Syrian civil war.
The jihadists seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq, declaring an Islamic “caliphate” in 2014 committing widespread atrocities, and were only pushed back after years of fighting and a major US air campaign.