Military operations against ISIS in Syria have effectively ground to a halt since the Turkish military crossed the border to launch an assault on the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Wednesday.
“The SDF is clearly focused on the northern border to protect their forces,” a defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity told Defense One, saying that as a result, the fight against the terror group is “paused.”
After trying unsuccessfully to start a counter-ISIS force of local fighters in Syria and Iraq from scratch, the U.S. military backed the mainly-Kurdish SDF in the fight against ISIS in Syria beginning in 2016. Those Kurdish militants became “the backbone of the fighting force against ISIS,” the recently-retired U.S. Central Command commander, Gen. Joseph Votel, wrote in an op-ed this week. “Without it, President Donald Trump could not have declared the complete defeat of ISIS.”
But despite those declarations — Trump announced the territorial defeat of ISIS’s “caliphate” in December, when the group still maintained a stronghold in the northern city of Baghouz, and then again in February after the SDF reclaimed the city — the U.S. military continued to conduct occasional airstrikes on ISIS targets while SDF forces, backed up by the U.S.-led coalition, carried out ground operations against them. On Wednesday morning, as the first Turkish airstrikes were hitting Syria, the Defense Department’s counter-ISIS office sent out a press release touting SDF operations, including the capture of several ISIS officials and an explosives expert, and insisting that “Syrian Democratic Forces are leading the way to find and eliminate ISIS fighters, finance, logistics, and media networks.”
A U.S. official said that while the SDF has ceased counter-ISIS operations while it fights the oncoming Turkish forces, “the coalition” has not.
“We’re still doing intelligence, we’re still doing stabilization stuff, if we have a target on the ground we’re still going to go after it from the air,” the official said — but noted that the coalition has carried out few airstrikes in recent months. “We are still operating as the U.S. and coalition but obviously ground stuff is more complicated without a partner on the ground.”
Trump’s critics, including some Republican senators, have accused him of betraying America’s most reliable local allies in the fight against ISIS.
Turkey considers the SDF to be a terrorist group, and says it wants to form a “safe zone” in northern Syria where it can rehome refugees from the Syrian civil war currently living in Turkey. Following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday, Trump announced that the United States would pull fifty U.S. soldiers out of a small border zone established to prevent a Turkish attack on the SDF. As part of that deal, the SDF complied with U.S. requests to pull back its own defenses against a potential Turkish assault — leaving them vulnerable when Turkey invaded on Wednesday.
“We defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate and no longer have any troops in the area under attack by Turkey, in Syria. We did our job perfectly!” Trump tweeted Thursday afternoon.
A July report from the U.N. Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee estimated that there were some 14,000 to 18,000 ISIS militants active in Iraq and Syria, and that despite the military defeat of the caliphate, Islamic State leaders are “adapting, consolidating and creating conditions for an eventual resurgence” in those countries.
And U.S. officials have long been concerned that if Turkey attacked the SDF, the group would be pulled away from guarding thousands of ISIS militants currently held in detention in prisons across Syria.
The U.S has reportedly taken custody of around 40 high-value detainees previously held by the SDF, including two notorious British fighters known as “the Beatles.”
Without U.S. support, the SDF are wildly overmatched by the far more sophisticated and well-equipped Turkish military — which is flying F-16 jets that the U.S. licensed Turkey to build in the 1980s. The SDF has no anti-aircraft weapons or other heavy weapons from the U.S. that would be useful against Turkish tanks.
“I think Kurds will, first of all, defend themselves to the best that they can. When it becomes apparent to them that they cannot deal with this very modernized army and the capabilities that Turkey has, then I think they will leave the area,” Votel said Tuesday.
Some lawmakers were more explicit: “By the time sanctions are imposed on Turkey many of our key allies in the fight against ISIS will have been killed,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a tweet Thursday.
In a curiously-timed release on Thursday, the counter-ISIS mission office sent out another press release touting “Life after Daesh,” using the Arabic term for ISIS. It included a photo of a United Nations refugee agency working with local partners to remove debris from Aleppo “to support people returning home.”
“The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve and its partners remain united in a long-term, international mission to create enduring security in Iraq and Northeast Syria to enable stabilization activities and humanitarian assistance,” the release read.
Marcus Weisgerber contributed reporting to this story.