With renewed fears of an Islamic State (ISIS) resurgence in Iraq and Syria, it remains clear that Kurdish forces in both countries are of irreplaceable importance to the United States to confront the ISIS threat long term.
Washington has recently affirmed it will retain military forces in both Iraq and Syria to aid in stabilization efforts and to prevent the group’s resurgence.
President Donald Trump vowed earlier this year to withdraw from Syria as quickly as possible. However, events on the ground in both countries in recent months indicate that although ISIS has lost the vast majority of territory which made up its physical ‘caliphate’, including Mosul and its de-facto capital Raqqa, the group is in no way defeated outright. It is still able to carry out terrorist attacks and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still alive.
The United Nations this August estimated between 20,000 and 30,000 members of the group are still operating in both countries.
Any US withdrawal from Iraq or Syria while this remains the case would not constitute ‘mission accomplished’. Consequently, the US-led counter-ISIS coalition’s envoy Brett McGurk has affirmed the US is “remaining in Syria” where its “focus is the enduring defeat of ISIS”.
The US military continues to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Deir ez-Zor province, where it has been fighting ISIS in its last major stronghold, the town of Hajin.
The spokesman for the anti-ISIS campaign, Colonel Sean Ryan, said the US “will keep troops” in Iraq for “as long as we think they’re needed," according to Reuters.
It is clear in both countries that Kurdish forces have proven and continue to prove an instrumental ally in US efforts to defeat ISIS.
Without the SDF in Syria, the US would have had no ally on the ground to coordinate against ISIS and would have had to either build one from scratch – the fiasco that was the train-and-equip programme two years ago demonstrated how that’s easier said than done – or send in thousands more of its own troops since air power alone would unlikely have defeated the group.
With the SDF making up numbers on the ground, the US never needed to commit more than 2,000 troops at any one time and has suffered a miniscule number of casualties in the last four years.
While Turkey did clear ISIS from the Syrian border cities of Jarablus and Azaz, along with Al-Bab further south, in Operation Euphrates Shield, one of its primary motives for doing so, if not its sole motive, was to prevent the Kurds of northeast Syria establishing a land-bridge through that area from the northeast to their isolated northwestern Afrin enclave.
The only major operation Turkey carried out in Syria since Euphrates Shield was its unprovoked invasion of Afrin itself earlier this year, a move that distracted the SDF from its fight against ISIS in eastern Syria and also destabilised a region hitherto largely untouched by the war, which hosted thousands of displaced Syrians from across the war-ravaged country.
Furthermore, the US relied primarily on the SDF as a ground force for the removal of ISIS from Raqqa, which it succeeded in doing last October, and is relying heavily on them for the ongoing Operation Roundup in Deir ez-Zor.
In Iraq, where Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi erroneously declared the group defeated in December, ISIS is making a steady comeback. Iraq analyst Michael Knights has routinely pointed to the low-level insurgencies the group has been waging in Nineveh, Diyala, and Saladin provinces for well over a year now.
In an August 31 interview in The Atlantic, Knights pointed out that the group’s tactic of assassinating village elders will “erode the faith of the population in the security forces” to the point they cease cooperating “out of fear” and eventually won’t oppose ISIS until “eventually, their kids start to see ISIS as the strongest forces in the area”.
In other words, ISIS has reverted to its roots as non-state terrorist organization that could arguably prove more difficult to defeat. This is because it can utilize guerrilla tactics against its various enemies instead of the conventional warfare it more recently used to hold territory. This will make it much more mobile and much harder to pin down and neutralize and will necessitate a different strategy to defeat than the more conventional fighting used to physically destroy the caliphate.
This comes at a time when Iraq attempts to form a new government months after its May 12 election and has struggles to quell months of protests in the southern Basra province. Furthermore, its takeover of Kirkuk and Shingal from the Kurdistan Region last October has caused fear and instability in those areas.
At a time when ISIS still posed a threat to Kirkuk, Baghdad deployed US-trained special forces to Basra to help subdue protesters over the summer when those troops were meant solely for combating terrorism.
Without the Peshmerga in Kirkuk, who are more familiar with the region and had a much better record at securing it when ISIS was at its peak strength, it is unclear whether Kirkuk under current Iraqi control can survive a surprise and organized attack by ISIS of the kind the group launched in October 2016 to try and capture the city. The group has exploited the security gaps between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) lines to its benefit and will likely continue to benefit from this impasse the longer it persists.
Helping facilitate a Peshmerga return to Kirkuk would serve the US goal of countering ISIS, as would ensuring the Peshmerga get their fair share of weapons provided to Iraq to keep the Kurdistan Region secure and ISIS at bay.
With the US staying on in Iraq and Syria for the foreseeable future, it should be abundantly clear to Washington policymakers they would find stabilising the region far harder were it not for the sacrifices of the Peshmerga and the SDF.
Editors' note: Paragraph seven was edited on September 4 to attribute quote from Reuters' report on August 19.