Consternation with America’s unending wars on terrorism is understandable given the pliability of the mandate assumed post-911 and the expansive use of the authorities granted by Congress in a variety of contexts and conflicts tenuously related to the original authorizations. The fact remains however, that the U.S. led coalition’s continued presence in Northeast Syria is essential to maintain peace and to fight against a resurging Islamic State as well as to fend off other bad actors, such as Russia and Turkey.
ISIS prison break
According to the most recent Inspector General’s Report on Operation Inherent Resolve, ISIS continues to pose a “a significant threat” in Syria. The UN estimates that there are between 6,000 to 10,000 active fighters across Iraq and Syria. The US Treasury Department estimates that ISIS has tens of millions of dollars in cash reserves in the region which are spent on payments to fighters and operational activities and ISIS continues to raise funds through oil smuggling networks in eastern Syria. ISIS plans and executes attacks against Syrian Democratic Forces, coalition forces, and infrastructure and seeks to build its forces by breaking former ISIS fighters out of detention facilities controlled by the U.S.’s main partner in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Most consequentially, on January 20, 2022, ISIS staged an attack on Ghwaryan prison in Hasaka, which was initiated by a truck bomb, led to more than 500 people dead and the escape of potentially hundreds of ISIS fighters. The prison battle lasted for ten days and the U.S. coalition was forced to intervene with airpower to quell the ensuing prison riot. Subsequent operations of the SDF led to the capture of a number of insurgents, however it is unclear how many remain fugitives. The U.S. coalition predicts that ISIS will continue to target prisons as a means of rebuilding its fighting forces. There remain more than 10,000 former ISIS fighters in 14 SDF-controlled prisons in NE Syria, making these installations ripe for attack.
There are a further 56,000 women and children – family members and others of former ISIS fighters – who are housed at the Al Hol camp. The camp residents are a mix of ISIS adherents and women and children who no longer – or never did – support the formation of an extremist Caliphate. Humanitarian conditions are deplorable and aid workers are finding it increasingly untenable to provide services. Violence continues to pervade the camp with at least nine people killed in the month of April alone. There are also reports that ISIS is using al Hol as a grounds for recruiting children as new members. Some residents have been released to local tribes in exchange for assurances that the individuals will not be permitted to rejoin ISIS. Others have been released to Iraq, but at the current rate of release Al Hol will retain a sizeable population for another 15 years.
It must be acknowledged that the ISIS insurgency is currently described as “low-level” and that it does not currently have operational capacity to engage in attacks against the U.S. itself. Nonetheless, the present conditions in NE Syria mirror those which originally led to the creation of ISIS at Camp Bucca in the aftermath of the Iraq war.
Camp Bucca 2.0
Camp Bucca was a prison in Southern Iraq used to house those captured by the U.S. led Coalition that invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power. Together with Camp Cropper, Camp Bucca held as many as 25,000 detainees. As the U.S. decreased its presence in Iraq, it handed over the detainees to Iraqi authorities. Most of them were later released, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who would become the leader of ISIS. As one detainee later recounted, Camp Bucca served as a training ground for many fighters and leaders of the group:
“We had so much time to sit and plan,” he continued. “It was the perfect environment. We all agreed to get together when we got out. The way to reconnect was easy. We wrote each other’s details on the elastic of our boxer shorts. When we got out, we called. Everyone who was important to me was written on white elastic. I had their phone numbers, their villages. By 2009, many of us were back doing what we did before we were caught. But this time we were doing it better.”
The SDF prisons holding ISIS fighters and the al Hol camp have the same mix of ingredients that were present at Camp Bucca. They provide a venue for training, recruiting and/or indoctrinating future ISIS fighters. Although most of the residents are Syrian and Iraqi, many of the most hardened fighters are foreigners, with about 2,000 of those in SDF prisons and up to 8,000 of the al Hol residents from other countries. Both situations present a humanitarian and national security emergency that would be hard to address absent a U.S. presence in NE Syria. A failure to address these issues could lead to ISIS 2.0.
Dangers posed by Turkey
The premature departure of U.S. forces could usher the return of ISIS. In 2019, when President Trump hastily decided to move back U.S. troops, Turkey promptly invaded and attacked SDF-facilities, including areas holding ISIS fighters. The U.S. sought to transfer about five dozen high-value ISIS detainees to more secure locations, but were only successful in obtaining custody of two individuals: the so-called ISIS Beatles. In the ensuing violence an undetermined number of ISIS fighters escaped. President Trump was forced to reverse his position and maintain a U.S. presence with a new justification to protect oil fields controlled by the SDF.
A departure of U.S. forces would invite further action by Turkey. Turkey continues to issue threats to invade and occupy further territory in Northern Syria, while its history of human rights abuses in its occupied territories is widespread. As General Mackenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, “increased conflict between the SDF and the Assad regime or Turkey […] would likely provide ISIS the respite it needs to recover from recent losses and expand its influence.”
Based on Turkey’s threats, it is plausible that the one area of Syria controlled by the SDF would be lost if the U.S. withdraws. SDF controlled territory is currently the only part of the country where most human rights organizations can openly operate and are implementing reconstruction and peace building work, all of which may be lost with a U.S. withdrawal.
Russia – has not/cannot fill the void
In a comprehensive and well-argued piece for Just Security, Tess Bridgeman and Brianna Rosen submit that the legal justification for the war against ISIS rested on shaky grounds from the start and has become more tenuous following ISIS’ territorial defeat. While several of their points are well-founded, one point is worth revisiting.
Noting Russian involvement since 2015 to help the Syrian government solidify control of most of its territory, Bridgeman and Rosen suggest that U.S. operations may no longer be necessary and proportionate to address the threat posed by ISIS given Russia’s support. However, the Syrian government has not shown itself able or willing to suppress the ISIS threat – even with Russia’s backing. In the past, the Syrian government has demonstrably assisted ISIS by releasing militants within its custody to fight opposition forces. More recently, the Syrian government has suffered considerable losses to ISIS as their interests now diverge. Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has only served to increase civilian suffering, through indiscriminate bombing, attacks on hospitals and other protected objects. Further, there are now reports that Russia is withdrawing some forces from Syria to redeploy them in support of flailing operations in Ukraine. In sum, the Syrian government – even with Russia’s support – is not in a position to suppress ISIS.
Congress has relinquished control of the Syrian conflict
While Congress has been busy engaging in all manner of hearings and spending authorizations for the Ukraine war, it has quietly received periodic briefings on the Syrian conflict with few complaints as to the continued presence of U.S. forces and operations there. Congress also had a prime opportunity to act upon President Obama’s proposal for an AUMF specific to ISIS. The objective stated within that proposed AUMF – to degrade and defeat ISIL – remains the mission of Operation Inherent Resolve. Of course, it serves Congress’ self-interest not to act on proposed AUMFs. For if they choose not to act, they cannot be held responsible for failed military missions.
Although the U.S. has widely trumpeted its military defeat of ISIS since 2018, it is clear that ISIS remains a threat. If the U.S. leaves NE Syria, it would create a power gap to be filled by ISIS, the Syrian Government, Iranian-backed militias, and Turkey, fostering an environment in which wide-spread human rights abuses would flourish. If Congress is concerned that a more explicit authorization is required to maintain U.S. forces in Syria, it should encourage President Biden to seek a new AUMF along the lines of that proposed by President Obama in 2015. This could provide more clarity to the mission of suppressing ISIS while reinvigorating the role of Congress in the exercise of war powers.
As to the threat of ISIS more broadly, states should act to repatriate their nationals present in SDF prisons or create a tribunal to prosecute them in the region prior to repatriation. States must also act to repatriate or reintegrate women and children living in al Hol. The U.S. should continue to support its SDF partners in pursuit of these goals. Without a U.S. presence, it is not clear how an ISIS resurgence could be suppressed.