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Trump gets pushback on Syria, but US is already marginal there

Bloomberg Washington | Updated on February 04, 2019 Published on February 04, 2019

As Donald Trump prepares to defend his Syria troop pullout in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, fellow Republicans are pushing back hard. Islamic extremism in that war-torn country, runs their argument, is nowhere near as extinct as the President claims.

There’s plenty of evidence that the critics are right about that. But it doesn’t necessarily translate into a case for staying in Syria. Because US troops aren’t even marginally involved in the fight against the biggest remaining jihadi force there — which is al-Qaeda, not ISIS.

With the military might of America, Russia and Iran ranged against it, plus a host of their local allies, Islamic State never stood much chance of holding on to the swath of Syria and Iraq it seized a few years ago. And it hasn’t. Its essentially been wiped off the map, although thousands of its fighters remain at large and dangerous. Trump said in a CBS TV interview that the self-proclaimed caliphate has been stripped of 99 per cent of its territory on his watch, and soon well be at 100.

After eight years of civil war, the biggest chunk of jihadi-held territory in Syria now belongs to al-Qaeda, America’s original enemy in the global war on terror. Almost two decades after the September 11 attacks, the group’s Syrian affiliate has been on the march, seizing Idlib province in a dramatic advance last month. Its military strength is estimated to be in the tens of thousands, perhaps the largest concentration of armed jihadists ever assembled in one place.

ISIS Bogeyman

But the US military isn’t fighting it — and isnt likely to, even if Trump were to abandon his plan to withdraw. That’s because Russia and Iran call the shots in northwest Syria. And right now theyre not fully engaged against al-Qaeda either, having abandoned a planned assault in September at the insistence of their ally Turkey.

The jihadi problem in Syria hasn’t gone away, said Ayham Kamel of Eurasia Group, summing up a complex situation. Its just that, for all the sound and fury in Washington, the US isn’t a major player in this dynamic any more.

ISIS is practically defeated, whether the US has troops on the ground or not, said Kamel. Al-Qaeda in Syria is much more problematic now, he said, though Islamic State still dominates most discussions because its a bogeyman everyone can use.

The strength of al-Qaeda and the remaining threat of ISIS, with or without its physical footprint, is one reason why many of Trumps closest congressional allies split from him on Syria. In a rare rebuke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the jihadists werent defeated yet and that American national security interests require continued commitments.

100 per cent ‘destroyed’

The Republican-controlled Senate last week advanced an amendment urging the US to sustain the fight against Islamist militants, which is the official reason why American troops are in Syria. There’s an unofficial reason too: Iran.

Iranian fighters, along with Russian air power, helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad win the civil war against Western-backed rebels and jihadists. Right up until Trump’s surprise tweet in late December saying he wanted to withdraw from Syria, US officials were citing the need to counter Iran as justification for a continued presence.

Israel would like the US to stay, too, and for the same reason. But this may be one issue on which Trump — who campaigned on a promise to get out of intractable conflicts in West Asia — diverges from America’s long time ally.

Trump is expected to declare something like mission accomplished in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, repeating his view that we will soon have destroyed 100 per cent of the caliphate, and signalling that US forces may continue launching strikes as they pull out.

Dispersed ISIS network

The President chooses to emphasise the collapse of ISIS as a territorial entity. His intelligence services are taking a different tack, flagging the danger of a more dispersed Islamic State network in last week’s Worldwide Threat Assessment. The report said that ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria and maintains branches and supporters elsewhere.

Trump, who described the Syrian conflict last month as sand and death, says US troops on the ground aren’t the most effective way to counter those holdouts. “You’re going to always have pockets,” the President said in the CBS interview broadcast Sunday, “but that’s not a reason to keep armies there.” He said the US can also strike ISIS from across the border in Iraq as it withdraws from Syria.

Analysts say the wider threat of jihadism probably can’t be defeated by military boots on the ground whether the boots are American, Russian or any other kind. The conditions that led to the rise of radical Islamist groups in West Asia have not gone away. The region has the world’s worst record of economic growth in recent years, with soaring youth unemployment. On top of that, wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen have spread death, destruction and social breakdown.

Worsening problem

The conditions that enabled the radicalisation of youth in Muslim countries have only gotten worse, says Kamran Bokhari, a foreign policy specialist with the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute.

And militants who’ve fought in Syria or Iraq have shown the capacity to go underground and then resurface elsewhere. Islamic State fighters have showed up in Afghanistan, Libya and the Sahel region along the southern end of the Sahara Desert.

Paul Sullivan, a West Asia expert at Georgetown Universitys Center for Security Studies, lists some other places. Egypt, Tunisia, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and more, he adds. These battle-hardened and bitter terrorists could be a source of instability and violence for some time.

Published on February 04, 2019
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