Donald Trump once bragged about the total demolition of Islamic State. Today, thanks to his and previous presidents’ policies, IS is making a dangerous comeback. Now, even staunch American supporters are ringing alarm bells.
King Abdullah’s concern
In a stark warning, Jordan’s King Abdullah told French reporters that Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) is regrouping and is on the rise in the Middle East. The reason for this resurgence is simple: the manifestation of the political division that exists in Syria and Iraq brought on by the US-led effort to push back on Iranian influence in the region. This division has led to the collapse of the US military position in northeastern Syria brought on by last year’s military incursion by Turkey, and the recent cessation of US-led anti-IS operations in Iraq in the aftermath of the fallout from the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian military commander who orchestrated Iran’s anti-IS efforts in Iraq and Syria.
This is a far cry from February 2019, when President Trump announced that the US had defeated “100 percent” of the physical territory once held by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II © Global Look Press/face to face/Angelika von Stocki
While that announcement proved to be premature (IS pockets held out for months longer), the gist of Trump’s braggadocio was true — the physical “Caliphate” that had once existed under IS was gone. What remained — so-called “sleeper cells” of insurgents embedded within the disaffected Sunni populations of Syria and Iraq—were slowly being rooted out by the combination of a US-led anti-IS coalition, and a combined Russian-Syrian-Iranian force operating separate from the US effort.
Now, King Abdullah rightly fears the collapse of US influence in both Syria and Iraq. “My major concern,” the King noted in his interview, “is we have seen over the past year the re-establishment and rise of ISIS, not only in southern and eastern Syria, but also in western Iraq. So if there is a split in Iraqi society as there is today, we have to deal with the re-emergence of ISIS.”
US campaign in Syria only strengthened IS
King Abdullah has every reason to be personally worried about an Islamic State resurgence.
When the Islamic Caliphate first emerged as a viable geographical entity in 2014, its leaders swore to take over Jordan and slaughter the King and his family. Middle East experts assessed Jordan, with a sizable population of economically and politically disenfranchised persons for whom an Islamic Caliphate might appeal, as being readily susceptible for recruitment by IS. While the Caliphate has been defeated, the ideology which underpinned it has not, and the threat to Jordan remains.
Jordan had served as a bulwark against the rising tide of IS, contributing considerable military and economic resources to a multi-national coalition, led by the US, whose ostensible mission was to defeat the Caliphate, but whose purpose appeared more geared toward overthrowing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. As such, the anti-IS campaign often had the unintended consequence of bolstering IS by weakening the Syrian government. IS was eventually defeated, and this defeat brought with it a recognition of the conditions that led to the rise of it, namely a major societal split in nations like Iraq and Syria where the ideology underpinning IS had taken root.
Radical Islam often consequence of foreign meddling
Unspoken by the King was the reality that in each of the countries where the ideology of IS took hold, the common cause for the societal divisions that serve as a womb for Islamic extremism wasn’t internal dysfunction so much as the chaos and anarchy that followed in the wake of external interventions such as the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the US-led NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, or the US-led effort to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad from 2011 until today.
In each of these incidents, US intervention resulted in a loss of central authority over large swaths of territory and served as a catalyst for the creation of radicalized resistance groups operating outside the traditional societal bonds that had governed prior to being disrupted and/or destroyed by the US occupier. IS thrived in the vacuum created by these foreign interventions, providing both the justification and opportunity for a generation of angry young men (and women) to embrace the opiate of an Islamic Caliphate.
Not winning the hearts & minds
While President Trump could brag that the US-led anti-IS coalition had destroyed 100 percent of the physical Caliphate, the reality was — and is — far different. The notion of Islamic State is, first and foremost, more about the hearts and minds of populations so inclined to embrace it; the physical Caliphate only emerges when a critical mass of believers coalesces together in a geographic region capable of sustaining it.
As King Abdullah fears, the consequences derived from the US collapse in both Syria and Iraq are potentially catastrophic. In the aftermath of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iraqi society is fracturing along ideological lines that threaten to mirror the conditions that led to the creation of IS in the first place. The political vacuum that is being created by this rift is an ideal incubator for the kind of extremism upon which IS thrives.
A second IS would be different
What would a resurgent IS look like? Void of a catastrophic collapse in centralized governance in the levant, the prospects of IS reconstituting the physical Caliphate are virtually nil. The new IS will operate from the shadows, thriving in the nooks and crannies of societal neglect where suicidal religious extremism can take hold and prosper, both in the Middle East and without. IS is a virus of the mind and soul, the spread of which is virtually impossible to prevent so long as there is a host willing to embrace its message. As such, the orgy of violence that is the hallmark of its proponents will not be limited to the Middle East, but rather expand to Europe, Asia, Africa and beyond. Defeating an idea is a multi-generational problem, which means IS and its attendant death and destruction will be around for some time to come.
King Abdullah rightly points out the threat posed by a resurgent IS. However, the party most capable of preventing this resurrection is also the party most responsible for the conditions that facilitate this rebirth — the US. So long as the US pursues policies that generate conflict in the Middle East, IS will never truly be defeated.
Report: Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer. He served in the Soviet Union as an inspector implementing the INF Treaty, in General Schwarzkopf’s staff during the Gulf War, and from 1991-1998 as a UN weapons inspector