ISIS Loses Final Stronghold in Syria, Yet Retains Funds and Influence in the Region

Axel Sontgerath

Staff Writer

ISIS has lost its final stronghold in Syria, CNN reports. On Saturday March 22, The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the end of the so-called “caliphate” declared by the terrorist group in 2014. After fully liberating the small village of Baghouz in eastern Syria, the coalition of Kurdish and Arab soldiers backed by American, British, and French Special Forces said that it has officially defeated ISIS.

At a formal ceremony to mark ISIS’s defeat, the Syrian Democratic Forces stated that it had lost 11,000 fighters battling the militant group. At its peak, ISIS controlled an enormous swath of territory from Western Syria to the periphery of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

At the group’s height, 7.7 million people were estimated to live under ISIS rule, per a report from Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the official name for the coalition fighting ISIS. Many of those people paid taxes, fees and fines to ISIS, which made up a large portion of the group’s income.

In the years since the group’s height, its annual revenue more than halved. The revenue stream went from up to $1.9 billion in 2014 to approximately $870 million in 2016, according to a recent report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) at King’s College London.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and other members of the global coalition fighting ISIS, have hailed the victory. “We must not lose sight of the threat Daesh [ISIS] poses,” May said, adding that her government “remains committed to eradicating their poisonous ideology.”

CNN further reports that the militants who mounted the last stand in Baghouz included some of the most battle-hardened personnel remaining in ISIS, and the wives and children of the fighters were used as human shields. They had also dug a network of underground tunnels that allowed them to move from house to house undetected.

In an interview, Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a UK-based think tank for international affairs, said that ISIS will revert to its insurgent roots as it moves underground, using the territorial loss as a call to arms among its network of supporters. “The group itself has not been eradicated,” Khatib told CNN. “The ideology of ISIS is still very much at large.”

Even with the collapse of its “caliphate” in Syria, the Unites States and its allies are nowhere close to bringing down the terrorist organization’s economic empire, The Atlantic reports. The terrorist group remains a financial powerhouse, and can rely on an established infrastructure to keep a steady revenue stream. This continuity of wealth is a real risk, threatening to help ISIS retain their committed core of fighters and fund future terrorist attacks for years to come.

The Islamic State’s financial strength offers a new perspective into the broader challenge facing the United States and other governments involved in the conflict. In its effort to suffocate the group financially, Washington has been forced to rely on a fundamentally different strategy than it employed in its Levantine military campaign.  Recently instead of using air strikes and artillery barrages, the main weapons at its disposal were diplomatic, such as sanctioning Islamic State-linked businesses, denying them access to the international financial system, and quietly cooperating with governments across the globe.

The end of ISIS’s days of governing their own territory present government officials with a double-edged sword, according to the Atlantic. On one end, the loss of territory has made it far more difficult for the group to rely on two major source of revenue: the exploitation of oil fields in Iraq and Syria, and the taxation of citizens living under its rule. With these two revenue streams in full force, the Islamic State was able to raise roughly $1 million a day, an anonymous senior Iraqi security official reported. This transformed the militant group into the world’s richest terrorist organization.

On the other end, ISIS is now free of the costs associated with trying to build its self-declared caliphate. This allows it to focus exclusively on its terrorist operations. A U.S. Treasury Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with the Atlantic, said that the group is operating increasingly like its insurgent predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and no longer requires the same resources it did when it governed territory.

Interestingly, the Islamic State also kept meticulous records on the 7 to 8 million people living under its rule during the height of its power, creating an avenue for the extortion of Iraqis and Syrians. “If you lived in ISIS territory, they know where you live, they know much money you make, and they know what your business is,” Howard Shatz, a senior economist at the Rand Corporation, told the Atlantic.

The Islamic State has set its roots as a sort of financial Hydra: if the U.S. and its allies manage to cut off, for example, the group’s kidnap-for-ransom business, it can turn to other commercial enterprises and extortion rackets. The loss of ISIS’ final Syrian territory would have many believe that fighting is over, but the U.S. military still has plans to stop the Islamic State from resurging, the New York Times reports.

The group’s offshoot in Afghanistan, known as Islamic State in Khorasan, is estimated to have more than 2,500 fighters spread between Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan and Laghman Provinces in the country’s eastern region, according to a recent United Nations report.

General Joseph L. Votel, the head of the U.S. Military Central Command, spoke to lawmakers this month and stated, “I think ISIS Khorasan does have ideations focused on external operations toward our homeland.” However, one United States official said some American military units had shifted away from attacking the Islamic State as the terrorist group ramped up attacks against the Taliban, New York Times reports.  American officials believe these increased strikes helped push the Taliban into negotiating a peace deal with the United States.

Until the final United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, thousands of American forces are expected to continue strikes against the Islamic State and the remains of Al Qaeda that are still in the country, including on collaborative raids with Afghan commandos, New York Times reports.

In Africa, the United States Military has a relatively light presence across the continent. The U.S. provides airstrikes when needed, but mainly relies on European and African coalition partners to carry out missions against ISIS, the New York Times further reports. The hot zones for these missions have been located primarily between West Africa and Somalia.

About 6,000 United States troops and 1,000 Defense Department contractors work on a variety of missions throughout Africa, mainly training and conducting exercises with local armies. American Green Berets advise local troops in several West African countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso, but rarely join them on missions.

The American Military is scaling back its commandos by about 25 percent in West Africa. The shift comes as insurgents are attacking northern Burkina Faso, and pushing south along the border with Niger toward areas previously untouched by extremist violence, including the Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo and Ghana.

The United States now has 5,200 troops in Iraq, mostly spread between two main bases. In Syria, President Trump has ordered all but a residual American force of 400 troops to withdraw. Armed drones and airplanes will continue to provide air support.

In the same New York Times report, James F. Jeffrey, the American Special Envoy for Syria, made clear that the liberation of the declared caliphate, an area that nearly five years ago stretched to the size of Britain, did not eradicate the Islamic State’s potency. He stated, “There is still a great concern.”

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