ISIS is (not) defeated

President Donald Trump tweeted: We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency. So how do you see this rationale for withdrawing troops, how do you assess the current state of ISIS in Syria and beyond? Read few comments.


James Forest, Professor of Security Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell

1. Trump is a person who for the past decade has quite often tweeted or said things publicly that are unsubstantiated by evidence, and are frequently proven shortly afterwards to be untrue. Based on this historical pattern of behavior, I am personally not inclined to believe much of anything he says these days, particularly when his behavior is motivated by political and personal reasons rather than for the good of the entire nation. Thus, it would seem prudent for us to pause and not over-react whenever he does this.

2. Trump has already begun “walking back” his comments about ISIS being defeated.

3. The good news is that terrorist groups almost never succeed in achieving their stated goals and objectives. The day will come when ISIS is truly just a matter for historical analysis. But we do not yet have any factual evidence to support the view that the group is actually defeated at present, and there is wide disagreement about what kinds of data or metrics should be used to make such an assessment.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Chief Executive Officer of Valens Global, Author of Bin Laden’s Legacy

President Trump’s rationale for withdrawing troops from Syria is flawed. First of all, it contradicts his administration’s previously announced policy toward leaving troops in Syria, which discerned other U.S. interests beside ISIS. As the Washington Post has noted, in September the administration’s policy was that “some 2,000 U.S. troops would stay in Syria indefinitely, not only until the Islamic State was defeated, but also until a political solution to the overall Syria conflict was in place and, in a key part of Trump’s newly announced Iran policy, all Iranian forces and their proxies aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had left the country.” The last of these goals is unrealistic — there is little chance that Iran would agree to withdraw all its forces and proxies — but that’s not problematic if you see this stated goal as the starting point in a negotiation. Regardless, the administration’s September policies made clear that it had at least three major interests related to U.S. troops in Syria: 1) ISIS, 2) the need for a political solution to the Syria conflict, and 3) Iranian influence in Syria. So a few months ago, President Trump’s administration did not see ISIS as the only reason for a U.S. troop presence.

But even from the perspective of leaving if “we have won against ISIS,” as the President put it, this is not the time to declare ISIS defeated. There is strong evidence that ISIS is growing stronger as an insurgent faction. This is observable in numerous ways, including the greater frequency with which ISIS fighters are able to kill dozens of their opponents in a single set of skirmishes. Insurgencies are notoriously difficult to defeat. Our experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have made clear, time and again, that one cannot declare a war over simply because a foe is defeated territorially.

So President Trump’s statement that ISIS is the only reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria was wrong, as was his claim that ISIS has been defeated.

James LutzProfessor of Political Science, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne

President Trump is being precipitous in announcing a victory in Syria. Previous experience in Iraq and Afghanistan would suggest that early victories may be an illusion. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it .

It would appear that the announcement is timed to provide positive press coverage of the White House in a time period where there are continuing stories about problems with the Trump Foundation and the Russia investigation. President Trump has demonstrated in the past that he is quite good in deflecting attention away from negative press coverage.

Any claims of victory are premature. Terrorist organizations have proven to be quite resilient and difficult to defeat except through long term commitment. ISIS will not disappear in the next week, the next month, or the next year. The group or portions of the group will remain active and dangerous. The American troops dealing with ISIS were few on the ground but demonstrated to allies and others that the United States was willing to deal with international threats.

The withdrawal at this time is likely to be a mistake for long term foreign policy interests of the United States. It may provide short term political benefits for the Trump presidency but could come at a high cost.

Sean Foley, Associate Professor, Department of History, Middle Tennessee State University

President Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw American troops from Syria represents a significant reversal in policy but should not surprise anyone. There has been little domestic support for more military involvement in the Middle East or Afghanistan for a significant period. It is worth noting that for all their differences, Obama and Trump both ran for president by promising to curtail US military deployments in the Middle East and South Asia.

That said, the decision to withdraw will have significant consequences for Syria and America. ISIS forces have proven to be resilient, and its future will depend on decisions made in Ankara, Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran far more than in Washington. How the US government protects its interests and those of its Kurdish allies in Syria going forward remains to be seen and has, in part, already prompted one senior official, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, to submit his resignation.

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