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Wed 20 November 2019
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CJ Werleman argues that the President has given new life to the terrorist group by defying the Pentagon and his national security experts and withdrawing US troops from north-eastern Syria.


Speaking before White House reporters, facing staunch criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for his decision to abruptly withdraw US troops from northern Syria, US President Donald Trump presented what can only be described as an Alice in Wonderland-like portrayal of realities in the Middle East. 

Like any time Trump speaks in front of a room full of people, his televised address contained one demonstrable falsehood after another, with the President even contradicting himself when boasting of bringing troops home at the same time as declaring: “A small number of US troops will remain in the area where they have oil. Let someone else fight over this long, bloodstained sand. We’ve done a great job and now we’re getting out.” He added that the US will fight wars only when vital security interests are threatened.

It’s rarely an easy task to translate Trump’s often incoherent psycho-babble, but the fact of the matter is that US special forces were in northern Syria as part of the country’s counter-terrorism mission to defeat ISIS. But Trump’s assertions show that neither counter-terrorism nor defeating ISIS is of interest to him nor is it a vital security interest of the nation or US allies.

Only hours before Trump took to the podium, James Jeffrey, the US Special Envoy for Syria and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said that more than 100 ISIS fighters have escaped from prisons in Syria since Turkey’s incursion began two weeks ago. “We could say the number is now over 100,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We do not know where they are,” which eviscerates Trump’s claim that “captured ISIS prisoners” had been “secured”.

Anyone who has maintained even a casual observation of ISIS knows that breaking out of prisons and regrouping before staging catastrophic and spectacular attacks is exactly what ISIS has mastered over the course of the past decade. In fact, a ‘get out of jail’ strategy is how the terror group rebuilt itself in 2013 after its then parent organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), had been crushed by the US military surge and accompanying Sunni Awakening in 2006 to 2007. 

In 2012, ISIS launched a year-long operation it code-named Breaking the Walls, which consisted of targeting eight prisons with 24 vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks, ultimately resulting with the release of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and 500 other detainees from Abu Grahib Prison.

There are currently 10,000 ISIS prisoners being held in prisons throughout north-eastern Syria, a number which includes more than 2,000 foreign fighters from around the world, including Europe, Africa, and the United States, according to the Pentagon.

“ISIS’ jailbreak strategy was designed to exploit many of the same conditions that exist in north-eastern Syria today, following the US withdrawal and the subsequent Turkish invasion,” observes Aki Peritz in Foreign Affairs.

A New York Times journalist, who recently returned from visiting a Kurdish-controlled ISIS detention centre in Syria, described how guards had “disabled” televisions in order to prevent detainees from knowing that the US had broken its partnership with its Kurdish allies because “they did not want the prisoners inspired by the chaos to try to break out”.

The reality, however, is that captured ISIS fighters are already “inspired by the chaos” and eager to rejoin the battlefield and resume their violent deeds. The group had been “enjoying a resurgence” well before Trump’s withdrawal of US troops and Turkey’s incursion had begun, carrying out targeted assassinations against village leaders, specifically those who cooperated with anti-ISIS forces. This resulted in ISIS regaining control of small pockets of territory it had lost in recent years and reestablishing command-and-control structures. 

“ISIS’ next breakout success could be even more devastating than its 2014 campaign,” predict analysts at the Institute for the Study of War. “The US is repeating a critical mistake by deprioritising this effort at a pivotal moment when our gains are at their most fragile.”

Trump’s unwitting rehabilitation of ISIS promises to not only further destabilise the region, but also to unleash a potential wave of new terror threats across Europe, Britain and the US, at a time when all of these are confronted with the growing threat of violent right-wing extremism.

“With the collapse of ISIS and the attitude of Turkey against the Kurds, the resurgence of attacks in France is being planned,” Christian Estrosi, Mayor of the French area of Nice, has warned. “Jihadists like Adrien Guihal who took up arms against France are destined to reorganise themselves and begin again.”

Dana Kennedy, a Daily Beast journalist, recently spoke with a “young Salafist Muslim” in France who has expressed sympathies with countrymen who have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside ISIS recruits. He told her: “There’s a lot of misinformation about what our brothers are trying to accomplish over there. I hope they have a second chance to do some good work, thanks to the US.”

Earlier this year, the terror group’s “cyber caliphate” urged its followers to carry out renewed attacks on London, New York, and San Francisco in a series of messages sent via its account on the encrypted app Telegram. One of the posts read: “Don’t spare none. Kill them all. It is now time to rise. Slit their throats. Watch them die”.

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This is what Trump has breathed new life into by defying the Pentagon and pretty much all of the country’s top national security experts in removing a small US force that had been working with local forces to complete the task of removing ISIS fighters from the battlefield and deradicalising those who already had.

On the campaign trail during the 2016 US presidential election, Trump accused both Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama of being the “founders of ISIS” – a claim that is demonstratively false. With the 2020 election just around the corner, Trump’s eventual opponent can now look American voters in the eye and credibly claim: “ISIS, you rebuilt that, Mr President.”


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