The offensive took weeks longer than expected, and the stream of refugees fleeing from the Syrian desert town of Baghouz was far larger than the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces initially predicted. But the result of the battle was nonetheless sweet: After four-plus years of war, Kurdish and Arab forces over last weekend recaptured the last sliver of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) self-declared caliphate.
How ISIS Rose and Fell
More than four years ago, ISIS ruled over 8 million people across a swath of territory the size of the United Kingdom. Today, its fighters are defiant but defeated—either locked up in makeshift detention camps, dead, or in hiding. If Arab governments hope to sustain this success, they must do the difficult work of addressing the many political, social, and economic causes that served as kindling for ISIS’s propaganda and recruitment.
This reality stands in contrast to the conventional but misplaced argument among the Washington foreign policy elite that keeping ISIS permanently suppressed is the responsibility of the U.S military. Part of this sentiment rests on Washington’s general over-reliance on military intervention, where endless deployments in the Middle East are viewed as acceptable holding patterns to ensure terrorists don’t regenerate. Another part is due to the tendency of the U.S. national security establishment to take primary ownership of regional problems regardless of its strategic importance to American security and prosperity.
Whatever their motives, those arguing against strategic U.S. troop withdrawal in Syria expose their complete lack of understanding of why groups like ISIS thrive in the first place. The notion that throwing several hundred or several thousand U.S. soldiers into a conflict zone and keeping them there indefinitely to fix issues better addressed by Syrians, Iraqis, and the rest of the Arab world itself is a perennial error of poor judgment. The lessons of prior deployments are simply ignored, if they were ever learned at all.
Iraq and Syria are both in disturbing shape, even after ISIS’s collapse. But it is not the U.S. military’s job to rehabilitate these societies or govern, police, and inoculate them from extremism—nor is it capable of doing so. The U.S. military’s top objective is to protect and defend the American people and their national security interests around the world—an objective that is now accomplished in these nations as the last inch of the Islamic State’s caliphate is destroyed.
A Realistic View of the ISIS Affair
Yes, ISIS as an ideology and organization will survive in some way. In July 2018, the United Nations assessed that as many as 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters may still be active in Iraq and Syria. Some of these men, perhaps alienated or tired of fighting for a bankrupted cause, will return to their ordinary lives. But others will remain active, ready to conduct terrorist attacks against local security forces, extort businesses, and intimidate areas of Iraq and Syria outside of the government’s reach.
Nevertheless, stationing U.S. troops in the Syrian desert or the plains of Iraq is not the solution to the problems that are ISIS’s lifeblood. This counterproductive policy—that drains U.S. blood and treasure and harms our national security—is not supported by the American people. It also drains attention from far more important strategic priorities, both at home and in Asia.
If groups like ISIS or al-Qaida are to be annihilated or rendered irrelevant, the people of the region can’t look to the United States to do the work for them. Quite frankly, the United States should focus on terrorist threats to America, not offer to try. As London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges told the Wall Street Journal, “ISIS and al Qaeda are symptoms of broken politics in the Arabic and Islamic world: sectarianism, repression, exclusion of the population, abject poverty.”
Terrorism is the spawn of oppressive security forces; unwieldy, greedy bureaucracies; power-hungry, scheming politicians who divide their societies for personal benefit; poor economies with very little opportunity for those entering the job market; states that use sectarianism as a weapon to enhance their regional position; and catastrophic foreign interventions (like the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the 2011 NATO regime change operation in Libya) that always disappoint, fostering more chaos and radicalization than the democracy we naively anticipate.
Middle Eastern Leaders Are More Capable Here
While the United States can end “endless wars” and refrain from counterproductive foreign interventions by being more restrained in our foreign policy goals (and more judicious in how we use military power), we can’t do much about the other items on the list. The political leaders in the Middle East are far better suited to the task. Rather than preserving an indefinite force presence that lets the region’s leaders off the hook, at the expense of American priorities, Washington should bring U.S. forces home and encourage regional powers to solve their own problems.
The Islamic State’s territorial defeat is a celebratory moment for everyone in the anti-ISIS coalition—not least of all the United States, which provided the vast majority of the air power. Now it’s time for the region’s governments to finally step up and do right by their people.
A strategic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria is the only appropriate move, and it decreases the risk of major conflict. Anything less will only delay the moment when Arab leaders take the initiative to fight the illness that feeds the tumor that is terrorism.