US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began an assault against the last remaining Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria on Saturday. It is hoped that this strike will be successful in wiping the remaining vestige of the Islamic State (IS) Caliphate within the SDF’s area of operations. This news comes as a boost following a Washington Post report that the US is planning on withdrawing its 2000 troops from Syria by the end of April. While Islamic State has lost much of its claimed territory over the past four years, the world needs to still proceed cautiously as IS sleeper cells undoubtedly remain and with them continues the risk of insurgencies.
IS redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it established a caliphate across large portions of Syria and Iraq. However, the faction over the past three years has steadily lost territory with its main two trophies – Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq – both falling in 2017. Even still, US security sources believe that many prominent IS leader remains at large and there is evidence that prominent IS figure Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and hiding in Iraq.
The SDF is proceeding cautiously in initiating its final offensive, having waited for over a week to allow for more than 20,000 civilians to be evacuated as they cornered the remaining IS fighters in a four-square-kilometre territory in the eastern province of Deir Az Zor. SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali confirmed the launch of the final assault on the village of Baghouz, adding that the current push aims to end the military presence of “Daesh terrorists.” No indication has been given as to how long the SDF hopes it will take to capture Baghouz but doing so would likely herald the end of a five-year war aimed at driving IS out of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
US officials have stated in recent weeks that IS has lost over 99% of its territory in Syria and now only holds on to a few small villages in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. A successful offensive in Baghouz would likely ramp up pressure for Trump to hasten the removal of the US presence in Syria. However, caution is needed in doing this as while IS leaders remain and supporters remain there is every chance the group could reform and pose a new threat in the absence of countervailing forces.
Moreover, an attempted motorcycle attack on a US and SDF base at the Omar oil field this past Saturday highlights the necessity of exercising such caution. The motorcycles were rigged with explosives, and the incident is indicative of the militant’s propensity to mount attacks well beyond the front line. Events like this demonstrate that militants could quickly rebound if a military victory in Baghouz is not accompanied by long term solutions to such grievances that first contributed to the rise of groups like IS.
Without future-focused solutions a power vacuum will no doubt be created, just as it has many times throughout the Middle East over the past two decades. To avoid future insurgencies, all factions involved need a chance to be heard and be given the opportunity to negotiate ways of handling their differences. This is incredibly important for countries where IS has been present, as without sustained counter-terrorism pressure there is every chance militant groups will resurge and attract those disillusioned with their government.
Analysts widely believe that the threat posed by IS will remain even after they have lost what remaining territory they have left. How this enduring security threat is addressed in the short to medium term will be of utmost importance in bringing stability to much of the Middle East.
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