“The Middle East after the Defeat of Islamic State” read a headline above an article published last week dealing with the supposed demise of the barbaric Jihadist organization.
“Islamic State isn’t revived” the author claimed before explaining that the “enduring collapse of the Islamic State is a step forward,” but will not cure the Middle East’s troubles.
Apparently the article influenced US President Donald Trump, who last week suddenly announced he would pull out US Special Forces from Syria “very soon”.
“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” Trump announced in Ohio.
“We’ve got to get back to our country where we belong, where we want to be,” the President added while touting US Special Forces successes against Islamic State.
His words raised eyebrows in CENTCOM the U.S. central command in the Middle East and contradicted the recently announced new US policy toward Syria which focused on clearing out the last Islamic State hubs and blocking Iranian imperialistic moves in the war-torn country.
“Neither the military, the State Department nor the U.S. military’s partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), say they had any clue this big, sudden change in U.S. policy was going to be happening, “ Defense One reported.
Trump’s announcement was followed by a report that the president had ordered the State Department to suspend $200 million in assistance for reconstruction and humanitarian aid in Syria.
Trump’s announcement might be intended to encourage other Western countries to step up their involvement in Syria, some observers say.
If that’s the case, French president Emmanuel Macron got the message.
After meeting with a SDF delegation in Paris, the ambitious French leader reportedly promised to send additional French forces to SDF-held territory in Syria.
The French troops would be deployed in the area of Manbij, the disputed city between Afrin – the most northern Kurdish canton, seized by the Turkish army and its ally the Free Syrian Army last week – and the other two cantons along the Turkish border.
Macron’s announcement set France on a crash course with Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has vowed to ‘liberate’ Manbij from ‘terrorists’ (the Kurdish YPG militia).
Erdogan responded furiously to the news about Macron’s intention to deploy more troops in the YPG-held territories and to mediate between the SDF and the Turkish government.
“Who are you to mediate between Turkey and a terror group?” Erdogan fumed during a meeting of his AKP party in Ankara while he accused Macron of committing an “expression of hostility” against Turkey.
Macron’s initiative could be related to the latest ISIS attack on French soil and the realization that the war against the Jihadist group is far from over.
Indeed, the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria and a series of events which happened in recent weeks seem to indicate Trump would be dead wrong if he pulls out his troops at this stage.
In Syria, Islamic State still holds territory in eastern Syria while U.S. special forces and their local allies are holed up in a military base near the al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq.
The base is surrounded by the Syrian army and its Shiite allies, and the US-led anti-ISIS forces in al-Tanf have not been able to launch any operation against the Jihadist group for over a month.
Last week, ISIS launched a large-scale attack on the Syrian army, killing 25 soldiers and seizing a large oil field in eastern Syria.
At about the same time the Islamic State group succeeded in seizing a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus, killing 36 soldiers of Assad’s army, Reuters reported.
Along the Israeli border on the Golan Heights, Islamic State affiliate Jaish Khaled Ibn al-Walid has recently expanded the territory under its control and ISIS fighters who fled Iraq and territories in Syria have joined the brigade in the Yarmouk Basin.
ISIS in Syria is also active along the Turkish border, in territory controlled by the Turkish army and its Islamist ally which operates under the name of Free Syrian Army.
Then there is Iraq, where Islamic State lost almost all territory under its control last year, but recently stepped up attacks on the Iraqi army and its ally the Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella organization of predominantly Shiite militias.
Iraqi officials told The Globe and Mail that between 150 and 200 members of the security forces in the country lost their lives as a result of ISIS attacks in recent months.
Islamic State said that in the period between February 19 and March 21 alone it killed or wounded 103 Iraqi soldiers or members of Hashd al-Shaabi, and also abducted an additional 13 members of the Iraqi security forces.
The deterioration of the situation in Iraq is a result of the stand-off between the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, which has been the most effective fighting force in the war against ISIS.
The central government in Bagdad is not able to contain the reemerging threat of ISIS in Iraq without the involvement of the Peshmerga militia, Iraqi MP Shiwan Dawudi claimed as far back as January.
The Kurdish militia is not willing to help the Iraqi government in the battle against ISIS anymore, since Baghdad with the help of Hashd al-Shaabi, Turkey and Iran crushed the Kurdish independence drive late last year.
Another indication Islamic State is regrouping and reemerging as a dangerous foe in Iraq is the news that he group “is increasingly targeting energy infrastructure following a lull since October 2017,” IHS Markit reported this weekend.
On March 22. ISIS attacked the Alas oil field in the Salah al-Din Province and an oil pipeline in northern Iraq, according to IHS Markit reporter Rebecka Lind.
At about the same time, ISIS terrorists killed another five members of the Iraqi security forces north of Mosul in the Nineveh Province and killed and wounded ten Hashd al-Shaabi fighters near Tuz Khurmatu, south of the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
This all makes clear that if Trump makes good on his promise to pull out US troops from Syria at this stage, he risks repeating the blunder of former president Obama who pulled out the US army from Iraq at the end of 2011.
During the presidential campaign in 2016 Trump himself blamed Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the rise of Islamic State because they pulled out the US army from Iraq to the last man.
At the time of its founding, Islamic State counted only a few dozen ex-Al Qaeda terrorists, members of the organization that was defeated by the U.S. military in the 2007 surge in Iraq.
In 2011, as soon as the US military left Iraq, ISIS took advantage of the growing chaos in the country and began to bolster its ranks.
The same can happen now in both Syria and Iraq, Trump’s own military commanders warn.
“We send memos. We tell them (the White House) what is going on. I’m not sure they’re listening, or if they even know what we’re doing out here,” one of these commanders said last week.
“We’re on the two-yard line. We could literally fall into the end zone. We’re that close to total victory, to wiping out the ISIS caliphate in Syria. We’re that close and now it’s coming apart,” a commander of the US Special Forces told NBC.