As the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) wages an assault on a few hundred fighters entrenched in an area of no more than 700 square meters in eastern Syria, reports have emerged of a deal that has allowed tens of terrorists to be evacuated from the besieged enclave. Other reports speak of more than a thousand ISIS fighters who managed to slip into the vast Iraqi desert with a cache of gold bullion worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A number of US generals disagreed with Trump’s December decision to begin a hasty troop withdrawal from Syria. Joseph Votel, America’s top general in the region, warned this week that ISIS was far from defeated and that US-backed forces on the ground in Syria were not ready to handle the present threat of the group on their own. European leaders also criticized Trump’s decision and warned of a vacuum that could give ISIS an essential lifeline.
Syria’s Kurds, who have been instrumental in dislodging ISIS from key areas of its so-called caliphate in Syria, are apprehensive that they stand to lose even as they emerge as winners. The US pullout from Syria, which one American official said would not be abrupt, will leave the SDF without a crucial backer both on the ground and in the air. The Kurdish territory, rich in water, gas
The Kurds have few choices left: Either embrace the regime or face possible retribution from Turkey, which does not hide its readiness to move in once the Americans have left. On the other hand, the Americans say they could not protect the Kurds if they rejoined the regime, which the US does not recognize. In a desperate move, Kurdish officials have called on the Europeans to step in, but Europe is divided and its decades-long transatlantic alliance with Washington is in jeopardy.
Adding to growing US-EU tensions is Trump’s bold warning to Europe this week to take more than 800 foreign ISIS fighters captured in Syria and put them on trial in their home countries or face the prospect of having them released ready to “permeate Europe.” The Europeans have so far rejected Trump’s demand.
In the meantime, the loose Russia-Turkey-Iran alliance over Syria is also in trouble. Meeting in Sochi last week, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Furthermore, the two countries disagree with Erdogan’s plans to move into Kurdish areas once the US withdraws. Interestingly, the US also rejects Turkey’s territorial ambitions in eastern Syria.
Such a geopolitical mess could allow pockets of ISIS fighters to regroup in isolated parts of Syria and Iraq. Experts believe that the group could devolve into smaller sleeper cells carrying out guerilla-type attacks in both countries. But what is more troubling is the warning by the head of Britain’s MI6, Alex Younger, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last week that Al-Qaeda could be resurging in Syria’s ungoverned areas. He was quoted by CNN as saying that ISIS and Al-Qaeda could exploit “new technologies and (we must) make sure we are ahead of them.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad this week put a damper on the outcome of the political process, through Sochi and Astana, accusing the opposition of being “agents of Turkey.” The failure of the political process will extend the life of Syria’s civil war and will give disenchanted Syrians reasons to back extremist movements. The same could happen in Iraq, where Sunnis continue to feel disenfranchised by a dysfunctional political process. ISIS and Al-Qaeda have used Sunni marginalization in the past to dig roots in provinces like Anbar.
It is too early to celebrate the defeat of ISIS and the world must be careful not to take its eye off the group, especially as it continues to find refuge in countries in Africa, the Middle East