We have not achieved victory yet over ISIS, the top US commander in the Middle East tells CNN as the Syrian Defense Force engages the terror army in one of its last bastions. Furthermore, says Gen. Joseph Votel, the SDF cannot achieve final victory on its own. Had anyone asked him, Votel says, they would have known that:
The US commander who has been leading the war against ISIS told CNN Friday that he disagreed with Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria and warned that the terror group was far from defeated, in a stark public break with the President.
Joseph Votel, the top American general in the Middle East, also said that the US-backed forces on the ground in Syria were not ready to handle the threat of ISIS on their own.
“It would not have been my military advice at that particular time … I would not have made that suggestion, frankly,” Votel said of the troop withdrawal. “(The caliphate) still has leaders, still has fighters, it still has facilitators, it still has resources, so our continued military pressure is necessary to continue to go after that network.”
Not only hasn’t the job been completed, Votel says, neither has the plan Trump ordered to get the job done. Votel doesn’t advocate sticking around until the last terrorist is defeated, but ISIS is still too much for our local partners to handle:
“They still require our enablement and our assistance with this,” Votel said, adding that the US military was still in the midst of executing a “well-crafted military campaign.”
“We want (ISIS) to be able to be controlled or addressed by the indigenous partners, whether that’s the Iraqi security forces in Iraq, or the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, that when they are capable of handing this threat on their own, without our assistance, that will be another key criteria indicating to me that we have accomplished our mission of defeat of ISIS.”
One potential issue created by the announcement of withdrawal will be what to do with nearly 1,000 ISIS fighters captured in the last few weeks. Many of them, reports the Military Times, are just “cannon fodder,” unskilled fighters used as little more than armed human shields. A significant number of them present a much greater threat, and it’s far from clear that the SDF will be able to handle them in the absence of American troops:
While some of the ISIS detainees are front-lines troops and untrained cannon fodder, a significant cohort of them are also more capable militants trained as external operation planners and master bomb makers who pose a threat to the U.S. and its allies.
“It’s closer to a thousand than it is hundreds already in detention, with more to potentially come,” Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, III, who helms U.S. Special Operations Command, said at a Senate hearing Thursday. “[It’s] a huge area of concern for us, especially because they’re being detained by the non-nation state that’s otherwise known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
U.S.-backed SDF troops, who fought to clear ISIS out of the eastern portion of Syria, have been in limbo ever since the Trump administration announced that U.S. forces would eventually depart the country after ISIS’ defeat.
Early on in the anti-ISIS campaign, some within the SDF hoped to create their own nation. But Syrian reunification looks more likely at the moment, potentially creating a chaotic transition phase during which detained ISIS fighters can slip through the cracks and plot attacks abroad.
The US wants the nations of origin to take back these fighters and prosecute them. As the video below indicates in its second half, no one’s terribly enthusiastic about welcoming home the jihadis who went off to butcher people, nor even the women who went off to marry them. Sen. Tom Cotton suggested yesterday that Guantanamo Bay has plenty of room for them, but a US official called that an “option of last resort.” That doesn’t mean it won’t be used, however:
A U.S. State Department official said last week that if the fighters can’t be repatriated, though, the detention center on the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be used to hold them “where lawful and appropriate.”
A U.S. official said Guantanamo is the “option of last resort.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. has identified about 50 people among the more than 900 held by Syrian forces as “high value” suspects that could be transported to Guantanamo if they are not repatriated.
Sending Islamic State prisoners to Guantanamo would open up new legal challenges, according to experts.
Last month, France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told French media that a handful of French jihadis had already returned home and more would follow soon after the departure of American troops. Britain refuses to take back citizens who joined IS and has reportedly stripped them of their citizenship. Other European countries have remained largely silent about the fate of men and women whom many see as a security threat.
If everyone else sees this as a security threat, and if the SDF is about to get bigfooted by Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Ayatollah Khameini, one can understand Votel’s frustration here. Even after the SDF and their US support destroys the last remaining ISIS claim on land for its caliphate, what’s left will be a threat for reconstitution in the vacuum left behind. Unless we capture ISIS’ leadership and make sure no one ever hears from them again, we will have the risk of seeing them rise up once more just as they did in the vacuum left by the US in 2011-13.
The SDF has surrounded what’s left of the ISIS footprint in eastern Syria. The military victory in Deir Ez Zor province looks inevitable, but that’s a battle, not the war itself. Votel wants to make sure everyone realizes that before we find ourselves back at square one in 2022.