Home The ‘Final Offensive’ by US-Backed Forces Against IS: Is it Really the End?

The ‘Final Offensive’ by US-Backed Forces Against IS: Is it Really the End?


Introduction

The build-up to the United States (US)-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) ‘final battle’ can be seen in the December 19, 2018 tweets by President Donald Trump in which he said, ‘We have defeated ISIS in Syria…’and ‘…it’s time to bring our great young people home!’ These tweets, understandably, made US' allies such as Britain, Israel and Syrian Kurds quite apprehensive about the security situation in the region. 

On Feb 6, 2018, President Trump stated that IS (Islamic State) would lose 100% of its territory by the coming week. To quote him “It should be formally announced sometime next week that we will have 100 percent of the caliphate”.[1] The Pentagon commander-in-charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, stated on 11 February, 2019 that the US troop-withdrawal may begin within “weeks”, adding an important caveat that “…will all be driven by the situation on the ground."[2]

Deir el-Zour Offensive

The present offensive began on Saturday, February 9, 2019, in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, along with the Iraqi border, and was focused on the village of Baghuz. Earlier on the same day, IS terrorists had attacked the SDF personnel close to an oil-field in the east, inviting retaliatory air-strikes by the US-led coalition. According to SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali, there are almost 600 IS terrorists in the area, many of them believed to be foreigners. These terrorists are the most battle-hardened ones in a do-or-die situation defending their last stronghold, adding to the fierceness of the battle.

While the US-led coalition’s air-power is giving the advancing SDF personnel cover, they still have to move carefully as the area has been mined by IS.

More than 20,000 civilians were evacuated from Deir el-Zour before the offensive began and an almost week-long halt was given for the civilians to flee, before the last leg of the wider offensive against IS resumed on Saturday 9 February, 2019.

Mustafa Bali tweeted on the most recent developments in the offensive, stating that the SDF personnel “have advanced on northern and western axis into Baghuz since 19:00, 10 February 2019 evening, capturing 41 positions of ISIS and destroying fortifications. IS counterattack was foiled at 4 am on 11 February 2019 morning. Heavy fighting is going on inside the village at the moment.” [3]

The Road Ahead

Any war can see a genuine conclusion only when a military victory is followed by a political solution. Military victories, if not followed by a political settlement are transient and preludes to another war/battle. 

Statements made by President Trump lead one to believe that the US lacks a coherent strategy. From announcing a troop-withdrawal on Twitter, to saying “We'll come back if we have to. We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly, and I'm not leaving. We have a base in Iraq and the base is a fantastic edifice”, during an interview on CBS News’ ‘Face the Nation’ aired on Feb 3, 2019, no one knows for sure what the next course of action for the US is. [4]

At a time when Germany, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have increased their financial commitments to the coalition, would it be wise for the US to withdraw troops from Syria? [5]

Much of the US actions in Syria have been carried out from outside, example by fighter jets flying out of Qatar. As such, the US could look at increasing troop-presence in Iraq to be prepared for any possible resurgence of IS. Such a step, however, would come with its own set of complications as the Iraqi leadership would not want to upset the friendly Iranian leadership.

Even if the US-backed forces are able to wrest the last-held territories from IS, it will only be a de-territorialisation of IS. They will resort to guerilla tactics, and peace and stability in the region will remain as elusive as ever. As the world is now witnessing a de-centralisation of jihad, and ideological self-radicalisation, a much broader strategy, focusing on the entire region rather than Syria alone, is required, given that countries in North Africa like Niger, Chad, etc. have been identified as the new incubation centres for IS. This may require a tacit, point-based understanding between Russia, Iran, and the US. 

Another important issue would be the future of Syrian Kurds. Turkey, already incensed by the alliance of the Arab and Kurdish SDF with the US, labelled US’s move of making protection of the People's Protection Units (YPG) a condition for the troop-withdrawal, a ‘grave mistake’.[6] It’s pertinent to note that Turkey considers YPG, a member of the SDF, an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

While the offensive is being described as the ‘final battle’, IS still holds territory south of Damascus. As the German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it, IS is transforming into an “an asymmetrical warfare force”. [7]  UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres mentioned that the terrorist organisation has morphed into a covert network interested in attacking aviation and using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.[8] Even in the so-called 'liberated' areas, IS sleeper cells are active. An example would be the 'liberated' town of Manbij in which suicide attacks by IS killed four American nationals last month.

Even the complete physical defeat of IS, if achieved, would not mean much, if the idea of IS is not killed. Deir el-Zour is perhaps not the ‘final battle’; definitely not the end of the war.

References

1. Nytimes.com. (2019). Trump Predicts All IS Territory Will Be Cleared Next Week. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2019/02/06/us/politics/ap-us-united-states-islamic-state.html [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

2. Nytimes.com. (2019). Withdrawal of U.S. Forces in Syria Likely to Start in 'Weeks': U.S. General. [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/02/10/world/middleeast/10reuters-mideast-crisis-usa-syria.html[Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

3. Twitter.com. (2019). Twitter. [online] Available at: https://twitter.com/mustefabali/status/1094592573144993797 [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

4. Cbsnews.com. (2019). Transcript: President Trump on "Face the Nation," February 3, 2019. [online] Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-president-trump-on-face-the-nation-february-3-2019/ [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

5. Karam, J. (2019). Donald Trump expects to liberate '100 per cent' of ISIS territory by next week. [online] The National. Available at: https://www.thenational.ae/world/donald-trump-expects-to-liberate-100-per-cent-of-isis-territory-by-next-week-1.822748 [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

6. Ensor, J. (2019). Turkey's Erdogan warns US of 'grave mistake' in making conditions for Syria withdrawal. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/01/08/turkeys-erdogan-warns-us-big-mistake-making-conditions-syria/ [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

7.  haaretz.com. (2019). Merkel vs. Trump: ISIS not defeated, 'transforming into an asymmetrical warfare force'. [online] Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/merkel-vs-trump-isis-not-defeated-transforming-into-an-asymmetrical-warfare-force-1.6916893 [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

8. Griffing, A. (2019). Trump promises to 'protect Israel' from Syria – but what does that mean. [online] haaretz.com. Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-trump-promises-to-protect-israel-from-syria-but-what-does-that-mean-1.6917039 [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

Original Image Source: Google Maps.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS or of the Government of India

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Kanchana Ramanujam
Research Assistant
Contact at: [email protected]

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