Leaving Syria shrinks US influence in the Levant

The U.S. departure from Syria leaves the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rudderless. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about plans to build Trump Tower in Moscow during 2016 campaign: report DC train system losing 0k per day during government shutdown Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees MORE’s abandonment of the coalition’s objectives triggered the resignations of special envoy Brett McGurk and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, two maestros who provided key diplomatic and military leadership that dislodged ISIS from Syria and Iraq. Who will replace their leadership? Who will coalition partners coalesce around? 

During the Obama administration and at the beginning of the Trump administration, the United States took great efforts to curb ISIS’s finances. Terrorism historian Walter Laqueur once wrote that terrorists don’t live by enthusiasm alone; they also need a great deal of money. That’s why the State and Treasury departments sanctioned scores of ISIS leaders, facilitators, and all of the group’s affiliates. The United States did so in an effort to highlight the threat the group posed to international peace and stability and to block the group’s access to the international financial system.  

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The United States also successfully sanctioned a number of ISIS’s vilest and dangerous foreign fighters at the United Nations. By adding these terrorists to a United Nations sanctions list, a travel ban is imposed and an Interpol “Purple Notice” is issued, which attunes global border and law enforcement officials of the threat posed by would-be terrorist travelers. The United States took this important step because it wanted to impede the movement of ISIS foreign fighters.  

As the State and Treasury departments sanctioned ISIS components worldwide, the U.S. military went into Syria and Iraq to directly combat ISIS on the battlefield. One of the earliest raids, in May 2015, by U.S. Special Forces resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS figure responsible for handling finances of the group. Our U.S. combatants provided counsel and training, and fought side by side with key proxies such as the Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces (SDF). While U.S. support of the SDF has been controversial, it also has proven vital in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish-led SDF has done more to fight ISIS than Iran, Syria and Russia. 

Now, the United States has ceded responsibility to a troika of state actors who are unwilling to finish the job against ISIS. Worse yet, Turkey will leverage the U.S. departure and dismantle the SDF. Who will now lead the final fight to destroy ISIS? Russia? Iran? Syria? It isn’t in the geostrategic interests of these countries to finish off ISIS. Rather, Russia, Iran and Syria are far more interested in removing U.S. influence from the region and ensuring the survival of  Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

ISIS has accumulated enough wealth to remain underground and operate covertly in both Syria and Iraq. It’s a well-known ISIS tactic. After the Sunni Awakening, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor of ISIS, went underground. AQI made money through extortion, credit card fraud and the sale of used cars — all of which were documented in a 2010 RAND study. AQI saved its money and rebuilt the organization. The group timed its reemergence with the start of the 2011 Syrian civil war. Quickly it took over large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq. It did so with less money and fewer human resources than it has today.

Today, ISIS has a larger rainy-day fund. When ISIS took over the bank of Mosul in 2014, U.S. government experts estimated that the group could have seized anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion. Recent news reports indicate the group has diversified its holdings beyond what was originally thought. In fact, according to Joby Warrick’s recent reporting at the Washington Post, the ISIS al-Rawi network is moving nearly a half-million U.S. dollars a day through Turkey.   

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There is a disturbing irony here. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to many reports, influenced President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria. Early in the Syrian conflict, Turkey couldn’t control its borders, allowing ISIS and associated smugglers to move illicit oil and gas to external markets. Can the United States depend on Turkey to counter ISIS? No, Turkey sees the Kurds as the primary threat. The United States cannot count on Turkey to keep ISIS in check. In fact, as of Dec. 23, Turkey is on Syria’s doorstep. Sadly, if Turkey crosses the Syrian border it won’t be to cut-down remaining ISIS fighters. Instead, Turkey will cross the border in an effort to destroy the SDF, the U.S. allies who helped defeat ISIS.

The Trump administration isn’t only repeating a past mistake; it’s tripling down. The decision to leave Syria not only signs the SDF’s death warrant but also calls into question the sacrifices of the U.S. military, the global coalition and every effort to cripple ISIS’s finances. ISIS will bounce back faster than AQI because it has more wealth. Now a significant power vacuum exists that Iran, Russia, Turkey and Syria can’t, or won’t, fill. ISIS’s motto is “remaining and expanding.”  Sadly, recent U.S. decisions will allow it to do both.

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where he also is director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. He was a member of the staff of former Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.).