WASHINGTON — ISIS is stronger today than Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was in 2011 when the U.S. withdrew most of its forces from Iraq — even after the dismantlement of its land caliphate, an analysis released Monday concludes.
“The slow-motion reduction of ISIS’s territory and strength initiated by President Obama and continued by President Trump gave the group plenty of time to plan and prepare for the next phase of the war,” the analysis by the Institute for the Study of War said.
“It had a plan to recover ready before the ‘caliphate’ fell and has been executing it during the anti-ISIS campaign conducted by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the U.S.-Led Anti-ISIS Coalition.”
The analysis said ISIS deliberately withdrew and relocated many of its fighters and their families from Mosul, Raqqa, and other important cities “into new and old support zones in Iraq and Syria.
“ISIS’s forces are now dispersed across both countries and are waging a capable insurgency. ISIS retained a global finance network that funded its transition back to an insurgency and managed to preserve sufficient weapons and other supplies in tunnel systems and other support zones in order to equip its regenerated insurgent force,” the analysis said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq had between 700 and 1,000 insurgents in its force when the U.S. withdrew most troops from Iraq in 2011. ISIS has as many as 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria in August 2018, according to a Defense Intelligence Agency estimate.
“It will recover much faster and to a much more dangerous level from the far larger force it still has today,” the analysis said.
Neither the Pentagon nor U.S. Central Command had immediate response to the new analysis.
The Institute noted that ISIS declared the start of a new global campaign called the “Battle of Attrition” on May 31, 2019. “Its propaganda instructed its forces to seize terrain temporarily as a way to attrite their opponents,” the analysis said.
Steps by ISIS include increasing its capability to detonate waves of Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) across Iraq and Syria, systematically eliminating village leaders and civilians who cooperated with anti-ISIS forces, displacing civilians and de facto controlling small pockets of terrain in Iraq, and degrading governance structures and reconstruction efforts in Syria, the analysis said.
The Institute strongly warned of likely doom that will come with a U.S. withdrawal from eastern Syria.
“(ISIS) will likely succeed if the U.S. withdraws. American support on the ground in Syria coheres disparate SDF elements that would almost certainly fracture if the U.S. leaves. The U.S. presence in Eastern Syria enables vital intelligence and air operations that could not be replaced if America withdrew. It also deters Turkey from invading northeastern Syria, which would at minimum cause the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) to pull forces away from the Middle Euphrates River Valley to defend against Turkey in the north, creating even more space in which ISIS could re-emerge,” it said.
“The U.S. is repeating a critical mistake by deprioritizing this effort at a pivotal moment when our gains are at their most fragile,” according to the analysis. “The U.S. must take immediate steps to dampen ISIS’s resurgence in Iraq and Syria, including halting and reversing America’s ongoing withdrawal from Syria.”
Otherwise, the Institute predicted, “ISIS’s next breakout success could be even more devastating than its 2014 campaign.”