The Islamic State (ISIS), which was driven from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq over a year ago, is determined to regain territory in the region. It will take a combination of military and financial pressure, attention to public grievances, and the repatriation and rehabilitation of people who lived or fought with ISIS—as well as those who were subjugated by them—to foil the militant group’s ambitions, according to senior U.S. officials. This already tall ask has been made even more challenging by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces shoots at an Islamic State drone near Baghuz, Syria, on Feb. 10, 2019. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces shoots at an Islamic State drone near Baghuz, Syria, on Feb. 10, 2019. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

“We believe they continue to aspire to regain control of physical terrain,” Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, said of ISIS, adding the warning: “Without sustained pressure, they have got the potential to do so in a relatively short period of time.”

A U.S.-led coalition pushed ISIS out of its last strongholds in Baghuz, Syria, in March 2019. Seven months later, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed himself during a U.S. raid.

Emphasizing the importance of dealing with those who have been displaced by the conflict, McKenzie said: “The enduring defeat of ISIS has got to incorporate a way forward for the displaced persons and all the people that are at risk across the theater; if not, we are actually never really going to defeat ISIS and the problem is going to come back.”

Unless this problem is resolved, he said, “we are setting a strategic barrier for ourselves 10 to 15 years down the road as these children grow older, as they are radicalized.”

McKenzie spoke in an online discussion hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace on August 12. The conversation, which was moderated by USIP President and CEO Nancy Lindborg, was preceded by a panel discussion on “How ISIS Really Ends.”

ISIS is a ‘Significant Threat’

William Roebuck, deputy special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS and a senior advisor to the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, said that in addition to its successful military campaign against ISIS, the anti-ISIS coalition—made up of 82 member states and organizations—has had remarkable success in choking off the group’s finances, stymying the flow of foreign fighters, and countering ISIS propaganda. Despite this success, Roebuck acknowledged ISIS remains a “significant threat.”

“Our assessment is that it is a threat, but it isn’t an increasing threat,” Roebuck said during the panel discussion. He said ISIS’ capabilities have been significantly degraded and “it is not able to mount sophisticated attacks or operations, or to tactically coordinate.” Instead, he said, the group’s attacks these days are directed against “targets of opportunity” and individuals that are helping the coalition’s local partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Roebuck said the coalition’s success hinges on three factors: that there is adequate local security capacity, that the local population’s basic needs are met and infrastructure destroyed by the conflict repaired, and that conditions are created that prevent further engagement in violent extremism and allow refugees to return to their homes.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Alexus G. Grynkewich, director of operations at U.S. Central Command, said Iran’s support for proxy groups in Iraq also created conditions that led to the rise of ISIS. The Iran-backed Shia groups operate in mostly Sunni areas, which creates sectarian tensions. While ISIS’s ideology is unpopular in these Sunni areas, when the Shia groups move in their presence and actions push the local population toward the militants, Grynkewich explained.

McKenzie described Iran’s support for proxies in Iraq and Syria as “an impediment to the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Al-Hol: A Breeding Ground for Terrorism and COVID-19?

With a population of around 68,000, al-Hol camp in northeast Syria is home to mostly women and children. National security experts worry that the dire conditions inside the camp will turn it into a breeding ground for violent extremism.

Grynkewich said there is a fair amount of evidence that some of the residents of al-Hol are probably ISIS fighters.

Leanne Erdberg Steadman, director of countering violent extremism at USIP, who moderated the panel discussion, said that in places like al-Hol, “where there are undeniable perpetrators of violence, and we see them continue to try and enforce the caliphate’s austere violent norms upon others, those are not the only residents there.”

“These varying roles and levels of devotion to ISIS are neither well understood nor are they static,” she said, noting that many children in these camps are highly traumatized.

In al-Hol, where the vast majority of residents are children, Philippa Candler, acting UNHCR representative in Iraq, noted the challenge of integrating them into society while ensuring that they are not stigmatized for their parents’ actions.

In May 2019, the U.S. Institute of Peace formed a working group to help the U.S. government and the international community better respond to these “intersecting security and humanitarian challenges,” said Lindborg. A recommendation that emerged from this effort highlighted the need to coordinate the voluntary resettlement and repatriation of the tens of thousands women and children at al-Hol. “This will only be possible if we enable those affiliated with ISIS to disengage from violent extremism and, at the same time, foster community reconciliation in the areas where they will be returning,” said Lindborg.

Recent reports of the first COVID-19 cases at al-Hol have heightened fears that the camp could quickly become a pandemic hot spot. The pandemic has complicated an already difficult situation as governments have had to turn their attention and resources to addressing the health crisis.

Candler said lockdowns in response to the pandemic have made it difficult to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees. Many IDP camp residents have also been deprived of a source of livelihood as they can no longer travel to their places of work.

The Challenge of Repatriation

Repatriating people with links to ISIS has been particularly challenging. Most countries simply do not want them back.

Azadeh Moaveni, project director for gender at the International Crisis Group, described a “real reluctance” among European nations to repatriate women and children who are affiliated with ISIS. “The problem in Europe is that there has been a political blockage to repatriation,” she said. “The language around this population has been deeply dehumanizing and publics are very against repatriation and elected politicians see little to gain politically in a very febrile atmosphere,” she added.

On the other hand, Moaveni said, security officials make the case that it is more dangerous to leave people affiliated with ISIS in camps from which they can escape. But this opinion is often overruled by political considerations.

In a significant development, the Court of Appeal in the United Kingdom ruled in July that a British woman who traveled to Syria to join ISIS should be allowed to travel from a displacement camp in northern Syria, Camp Roj, back to the UK to challenge the decision to strip her of her British citizenship. The judge said that the national security concerns about Shamima Begum “could be addressed and managed if she returns to the United Kingdom.”

Moaveni described the court’s ruling as a minor, but significant, shift in attitude. “The number of Europeans we know in al-Hol are actually quite small … but they have an oversized impact on the perception of al-Hol and the repatriation of returnees in Europe; they have an oversized impact on ISIS’ ability to deploy the camps,” she said.

Describing al-Hol as “one of the worst places in the world,” McKenzie said repatriation of its residents needs to be done at a faster rate. He said the international community needs to support repatriation efforts or the coalition’s gains against ISIS “may be for naught.”

Lindborg said this will only be possible “if we enable those affiliated with ISIS to disengage from violent extremism, and at the same time foster community reconciliation in the areas in which they will return” by “transforming relationships, building social bonds, generating a sense of belonging, and providing justice and accountability.”

Finding Durable Solutions

UNHCR’s Candler said it is also important to find durable solutions to the challenge posed by what to do with displaced persons. Making the point that many of them may either be unable or unwilling to return to place of their origin, she said: “We need to start looking at solutions other than return.”

Among the durable solutions, Candler emphasized a need to prioritize responses to issues of sexual and gender-based violence, address cases of trauma, and ensure that displaced persons have their official papers. These documents, she said, are critical to ensuring freedom of movement, access to services like education and healthcare, the ability to claim compensation for damaged property and killed family members, and can also speed up security screenings. Another priority should be restoring infrastructure and essential services, she said while acknowledging the challenge of moving from a humanitarian emergency response to infrastructure development.

The Way Forward

ISIS’s rise was accelerated by public grievances about endemic corruption, bad governance, dismal services, and a lack of opportunities. These conditions still exist in the region and triggered months of anti-government protests in Iraq late last year.

McKenzie said the new Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, has an opportunity to address the protesters’ demands for political, economic, and security reforms.

Grynkewich warned that if these underlying grievances are not addressed “then you are going to get these kinds of movements [like ISIS] that spring up.”

In the end, McKenzie said, there is “not going to be a clear-cut military victory” against ISIS. “This problem is going to be with us for a while,” he predicted. Pointing to ISIS being able to take advantage of this situation, he added, “We can either deal with this problem now or deal with it exponentially worse a few years down the road.”

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