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Make No Mistake: ISIS Needs the U.S. to Survive

“No war is over until the enemy says it’s over,” James Mattis, the former Marine Corps General and recently resigned secretary of state, is quoted as saying [1]. “We may think it over, we may declare it over, but in fact, the enemy gets a vote.” Mattis’s statement was made in 2012, well before President Donald Trump, in a surprise announcement on December 19, declared victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, better known as ISIS.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the president wrote [2]. He later expanded on that sentiment in a video message [3], posted on Twitter. “Our boys, our young men and women, are coming home now,” Trump noted. “We won.”

But a recent attack on U.S. forces in Syria, carried out by a suicide bomber which ISIS claimed was operating on its behalf, has led to an outpouring of criticism of Trump’s precipitous decision. “ISIS has claimed credit for killing American troops in Syria today,” Senator Marco Rubio tweeted [4] in the aftermath of the attack. “If true, it is a tragic reminder that ISIS not been defeated and is transforming into a dangerous insurgency. This is no time to retreat from the fight against ISIS. Will only embolden & strengthen them.”

While Mattis’s words were a cautionary warning about premature celebration, Rubio’s sentiments, along with those who share his point of view, miss the point of the ISIS attack altogether. The U.S. was on the verge of withdrawing from Syria, something Rubio and others believe would give ISIS a victory. Why, then, would ISIS attack American forces in such a high-profile manner, creating the condition for a reversal of Trump’s decision and keeping the U.S. military in Syria for the foreseeable future?

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As far as military patrols go, the one carried out by forces assigned to the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR) in the northern Syrian city of Manbij on January 16 was as routine as it gets. SOJTF-OIR was authorized under Section 1209 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to provide assistance to the so-called “Vetted Syrian Opposition,” or VSO. A Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) intelligence specialist, accompanied by a Department of Defense civilian translator, was tasked with meeting with local personnel from the Civil Administration of Manbij and the Manbij Internal Security Forces, ostensibly as part of the overall coordination being conducted with the VSO in preparation for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria announced by Trump last month. The intelligence specialist was accompanied by a small force of U.S. soldiers, tasked with providing force protection commensurate to the threat.

The “threat” as it was, was two-fold. On the one hand you have the Turkish military and allied proxies on the outskirts of Manbij who are threatening to occupy Manbij in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal in order to expel Kurdish forces aligned with the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish political party Turkey accuses of being allied with the PKK, a Turkish-based Kurdish group designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey. On the other, ISIS, an Islamic extremist group which had, until 2016, occupied Manbij. Although ISIS had been driven from Manbij by VSO forces, so-called “sleeper cells” remained. This threat was real—in March 2018 a U.S. Delta Force operator and British commando were killed in a roadside bomb attack carried out by ISIS.

But ISIS apparently was not a major factor in the security plan put in place by the patrol. The planned meeting took place in a popular restaurant located on the main street of Manbij. The owner had fled Manbij when ISIS took over, returning after its liberation to open this particular establishment, which became the “go-to” location for visiting dignitaries (Senator Lindsey Graham claims to have eaten there when he visited Manbij), and was frequented by U.S. soldiers during their “coordination” efforts with the VSO. If an ISIS suicide bomber wanted to pick one location in Manbij where he or she could be certain Americans and high-value local officials would regularly congregate, it would be this restaurant.

This is precisely what happened this week. Alerted by the tell-tale presence of the unique M-ATV vehicles used by U.S. special forces, flying large American flags, the ISIS suicide bomber waited until the Americans had entered the popular restaurant and sat down with their VSO counterparts. The bomber walked to the entrance of the restaurant, detonated a suicide vest carrying explosives and, in the resulting explosion, killed the DIA intelligence specialist, his American interpreter, and two other U.S. soldiers, and wounded three other U.S. soldiers. Eleven locals died in the bombing as well, including at least five members of the Manbij Internal Security Force.

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Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria had been met with a wave of high-profile opposition, and prompted the resignations of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk, in protest. Senator Lindsey Graham led a chorus of Congressional opposition to the decision, calling it [5] a “huge Obama-like mistake” and, in doing so, drawing parallels to the December 2011 withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, an action critics later claimed helped spawn the birth of ISIS. Graham further noted that “An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al Assad of Syria, and Russia. I fear it will lead to devastating consequences for our nation, the region, and throughout the world.”

While Iran, Syria and Russia have all supported Trump’s decision, ISIS had remained silent—until January 16. “The enemy gets a vote,” Mattis said. On January 16, 2019, ISIS voted, but it wasn’t the vote Senator’s Graham and Rubio have articulated. The ISIS attack in Manbij was a premeditated, carefully calculated event designed to sow chaos in the processes associated with an American disengagement in Manbij.

Manbij is a predominantly Arab city strategically located on the front lines separating Turkish forces from their arch-enemies, the Kurdish YPG, in the contested territory of northern Syria. The Manbij City Council, headed by a former Syrian Parliamentarian named Sheikh Farouk al-Mashi, has been touted as a model for similar Arab-led city councils in former ISIS strongholds such a Raqaa, the one-time capital of the ISIS caliphate. These councils would operate within the framework of a self-governing Kurdish-dominated entity in northeastern Syria known as Rojava. Arab-led city councils like the one in Manbij are viewed by the U.S. as a means of reducing the Kurdish profile in northeastern Syria, thereby placating the Turks, locking in a pro-U.S. Arab element opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus, and providing an Arab-based political entity that can effectively counter the attraction to ISIS on the part of many Syrian Arab tribes.

The problem with this approach is that it can’t work. The Kurds will never grant full autonomy to the Arab city councils, thereby guaranteeing Turkish angst, and the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, has insisted on the return of all Syrian territory to its control. Moreover, the city councils are weak and ineffective, and as such provide the perfect incubator for a residual ISIS presence. The only way the continued existence of city councils such as the one in Manbij is for the U.S. to remain in Syria and continue to prop them up.  

The leadership of ISIS knows that its days are numbered once the Syrian government can turn its full attention on the eradication of that organization. ISIS was born in the vacuum of governance created by the collapse of central authority in both Iraq and Syria brought on by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent support of Islamic extremism as a vehicle of instability in Syria after 2011. As the Iraqi government, with the assistance of Iran, regains control of its own territory, the last remaining bastions of ISIS control are on Syrian soil, in areas controlled by the U.S. military. The correlation between the presence of U.S. military forces and the continued existence of ISIS should not be lost on anyone—ISIS needs the U.S. in order to survive.

The patrol that was attacked in Manbij was not, as the detractors of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria have stated, furthering the national security objectives of the United States. While it wasn’t their intention, through their actions these Americans were empowering ISIS by furthering a situation from which ISIS in Syria draws its relevance. A U.S. withdrawal from Syria would set ISIS adrift, allowing the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, to defeat it and reassert its control over not only the territory currently occupied by ISIS, but also the hearts and minds of the Syrian Arabs whom ISIS needs for sustainment. By attacking the U.S. military and Manbij City Council on January 16, 2019, ISIS cast its vote in favor of the continued presence of U.S. military forces in Syria. Those who continue to argue in favor of a U.S. military presence in Syria are only giving credence to that vote.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Dealbreaker: Donald Trump and the Unmaking of the Iran Nuclear Deal (2018) [6] by Clarity Press.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Make No Mistake: ISIS Needs the U.S. to Survive"

#1 Comment By b. On January 18, 2019 @ 3:06 pm

“SOJTF-OIR was authorized under Section 1209 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)”

Given that all US presence in Syria is illegal, this is not any “authorization” worth the ink – illegal acts cannot be “constitutional”, even if a proper authorization under the War Powers Act is attempted – Article 6 of the Constitution persists. If it were not so, every single ratified international treaty would be a lie.

#2 Comment By Kent On January 18, 2019 @ 4:16 pm

I always assumed 911 was an attempt to engage the American military in the Middle East in order to provide some raison d’etre for Al Qaeda. They never feared us, they wanted us there. And without a doubt, we’re always dumb enough to oblige.

#3 Comment By Ken T On January 18, 2019 @ 5:04 pm

What this proves more than anything else is the stupidity of setting policy like a schoolyard bully. There are probably dozens of ways that a competent President could have extricated us from Syria without standing up and taunting them with his “ISIS has been defeated”. Which of course only made them determined to show the world “No, we’re not”.

Any competent President could have made any number of noises about “diplomatic processes” and “local governments handling their own affairs” and who knows what all else. It might have all been meaningless, but it would have given us the cover to leave without making things worse.

But of course “making things worse” is Trump’s reason for living, and the reason his supporters still support him.

#4 Comment By blimbax On January 18, 2019 @ 6:14 pm

Robert Fisk made the same point that Ritter and commenter Kent make. The purpose for the 9/11 attack was “to provoke the United States into just the blind, arrogant punch that the US military is preparing.”

See, [7]

#5 Comment By Myron Hudson On January 18, 2019 @ 6:19 pm

Kent: Yes, I always saw 911 as a sucker punch landed on the big drunk guy at the bar, with the expectation that he would turn around and attack anyone he didn’t like, and wreck the place in the process. I saw the footage and thought oh no, we’re really going to screw the pooch on this one. I wish I had put money on it.

#6 Comment By Ron Chandler On January 18, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

What a ridiculous article. Mr Ritter is a respected person but he is clearly immersed in the deep brainwash all Americans are subject to.
Firstly, the activities of the Americans in Manbij are entirely ILLEGAL as are the activities of the Kurds, who are Syrian citizens — and TRAITORS, stooges of the Mossad and America both. The Turks who are said to need placating are INVADERS. On top of that, Turkey supports the terrorist Ahrar al-Sham, the Grey Wolves and al-Qaeda too. On every count, these entities are constantly engaging in crimes against the Syrian Arab Republic, which barely rates a mention by Mr Ritter. How could anyone seriously believe that a congeries of criminal interlopers will achieve any improvement in Syria’s sovereignty? Well, one person is in no doubt about that: president Bashar al-Assad, who has made it clear: all these evil-doers will be driven out of Syria, terrorism will be defeated and no separatist traitors will be allowed to compromise its sacred soil.
We know what Washington intends in Syria: NATIONAL DESTRUCTION. That much is clear from the plan drawn up in 2007: ‘Which Paths To Persia?’ a scheme written by Zionist Martin Indyk, whose satanic dictates have been carried out over 8 years. News for these demons: Syria is beloved of Almighty God: whoever persists in trying to destroy Syria will themselves be destroyed.

#7 Comment By tommy On January 18, 2019 @ 7:19 pm

Money talks— Sitting on the side lines viewing this entire game of killing it is easy to see how this all came about.
Follow the money. Who gained by this? I, an American sure as hell did not. A few American government employs raped the country for there gain. Some dead some still serving work for arms dealers and become filthy rich by keeping there wars going.
With an open mind it is easy to see what the problem is ,was, and will continue to be.
Half of the world countries bowing to the wishes of the western powers so they dont get there little pinkies sQuashed. Siskening twerps with no —-s.
How many lives have been lost because of American stupidity. If America had not armed and payed for this entire so called war there would not have been one. All Turkey wants is to grab more territory. Netanyahoo wants them all killed. Western bankers and arms dealers want more money. Us armed IS and they pillaged and plundered killing and raping with Us aid.
The Kurds are paid to fight with my money.Damnit: I did not hire them. If they were not being payed by the US they would not be fighting. Get the fuck out of the way US and Kurds and let Syria liquidate the scum that gets paid to kill and plunder.
All for what?

#8 Comment By catspaw On January 18, 2019 @ 11:01 pm

The U.S. was on the verge of withdrawing from Syria, something Rubio and others believe would give ISIS a victory. Why, then, would ISIS attack American forces in such a high-profile manner, creating the condition for a reversal of Trump’s decision and keeping the U.S. military in Syria for the foreseeable future?

Of course, and any junior analyst out of a decent state school would suss it immediately. Not Marco Rubio, though. Not a very sharp blade, that boy. Then again, when your main job is to repeat what the Israel donors tell you, you needn’t be too quick on the uptake.

#9 Comment By JR On January 19, 2019 @ 1:57 am

Looks that quite some neocons and ‘humanitarian’ interventionists consider the reverse true for US hegemonic policy in the Middle East. That particular despicable US policy needs ISIS to to survive.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 19, 2019 @ 2:48 am

It’s a pleasure to have your in depth analysis —

“I always assumed 911 was an attempt to engage the American military in the Middle East in order to provide some raison d’etre for Al Qaeda.”

That was the expressed goal of Osama Bin Laden.

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Syria poses no threat to the US or her allies, including Israel. And we never belonged there. If Israel feels a pinch that she needs our immediate presence, she can provide space for the US military presence and foot the bill.

The same is true for other allied states in the region. I am less certain about Iran’s benign motives in the region, but we have no justified reason, beyond suspicion to mucking around picking a fight. I think there are serious loopholes in the treaty, now gone, but something is better than nothing.

I am skeptical, the EU is going to give up the financials at stake based on the unsubstantiated or irrelevant complaints by others in the region.

As for terrorism, that is a matter for those who occupy the region.

#11 Comment By TomG On January 19, 2019 @ 9:23 am

If only Trump could articulate the case as Ritter does and prove the stupidity of the Graham-Rubio-MSM crowd. But alas, we have a commander in chief who has more conviction over the wall than de-escalating the mid-east mess as his poor picks of staff continue to undercut his foreign policy campaign promises.

#12 Comment By furbo On January 19, 2019 @ 10:25 am

That was good analysis. The only interest we still have in Syria is to get some type of assurances for the safety of the Kurds who’ve done alot of heavy lifting in the ISIS fight. Fortunately, the Russians are supportive and the Assad regime has lived with them peaceably before. Get us out of the way and the Assad forces, Russians, and Iranians can make short work of what’s left of ISIS.

#13 Comment By Sid Finster On January 19, 2019 @ 11:41 am

Marco Rubio may be a dope, but I suspect that he knows the real score.

ISIS is but a pretext, just as the manifold excuses to make war on Iraq were but pretexts, and flimsy ones at that.

#14 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On January 19, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

The attack was probably a false flag attempt by the CIA or our “allies” to sabatoge USA’s withdraw.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 19, 2019 @ 2:16 pm

“But alas, we have a commander in chief who has more conviction over the wall than de-escalating the mid-east mess as his poor picks of staff continue to undercut his foreign policy campaign promises.”

Our sovereignty is exactly why we should not be in Syria and exactly why we need a wall. It serves two purposes:

1. security

2. symbolically making a statement that it the people of the US who own and determine US existence, purpose and destiny.

The constant refrain concerning how effective the wall would be is a peculiar rationale. The police don’t prevent crime — why not get rid of the police — nonsense.

And unlike the police presence which certainly doesn’t cover three feet of the country by comparison, the wall will need much less maintenance than our investment in police services. What keeps most of from engaging in crime is home rearing and community ethics. And it seems that time and access to a functioning economy.

The fact that people commit crimes despite having police is not to cause for getting rid of said police services.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 19, 2019 @ 2:22 pm

The border between ISIS and the US is two coasts of more than 6000 miles of ocean. And many acknowledge had we actually enforced our immigration laws the entire 9/11 cabal could have been thwarted completely or significantly minimized.

The natural border between the US north and south — well, apparently it serves more as a conduit, than a border.

360 sovereignty is really the issue part of that is respecting the borders of others as well as respecting and ensuring our own.

#17 Comment By Stephen J. On January 19, 2019 @ 2:50 pm

War is a business, peace is less profitable.

[8]
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[9]

#18 Comment By What Matters On January 19, 2019 @ 10:11 pm

@TomG “If only Trump could articulate the case as Ritter does and prove the stupidity of the Graham-Rubio-MSM crowd. [but he ] has more conviction over the wall than de-escalating the mid-east mess”

They are related. It’s a question of what’s more important, the demands of our Middle East client states or our own border security?

Trump should take the troops out of the Mideast and put them on the border. He should also tell Congress to give him the $5 billion he wants for border security out of the $40 billion Congress plans to give Israel.

That would be an “America First” policy. Instead we’ve got an “Israel First” policy, from both Trump and Congress.

It’s outrageous, and it’s got to change. Our government is supposed to protect AMERICA.

#19 Comment By Game Over On January 20, 2019 @ 8:25 am

There’s no surer sign that ISIS has been defeated than this guy McGurk whining in the Washington Post about losing his job as Big Chief Makum ISIL Go Boom.

Someone on the internet saying they’re ISIS will be claiming responsibility for blasts and killings from here to eternity, but the heavy lifting is done, and the locals can damn well do the mopping up. The last thing we need is some chickenhawk bureaucrat imagining that his fleeting terror brief was a permanent rice bowl. McGurk never should have been brought in. He was personally involved in some of the stupidest, most costly and destructive decisions to come out of our seventeen year long Mideast wars, including stupid decisions that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place. Now he has the nerve to accuse Trump of allowing ISIS to return.

You never win with these jerks. Nothing’s ever their fault, even though they had relevant authority and responsibility when things went south.

Anyway, good riddance. Here’s hoping McGurk stays gone. Too many other ****-ups from the Bush II and Obama administration are working for Trump.

#20 Comment By Drew On January 22, 2019 @ 5:23 am

This analysis is not quite correct, in that in relation to Manbij Mr Ritter is basing erroneous ideas about the autonomous councils there not on fact but on given opinion (‘weak and ineffective’ – well they must be… because they don’t have rulers, make sure that women form 50%+ of every council, and make every decision democratically at grass-roots level!). This betrays his statist bias, because the few reporters who have actually bothered to conduct in-depth studies of the unique social experiments going on in Rojava have come to very different conclusions.

This bias therefore misguides Ritter’s otherwise astute analysis of the situation. Because if the Kurdish-led social transformations going on were really so ‘weak and ineffective’ then Turkey would hardly be chomping at the bit to invade. Erdogan wants to invade primarily to crush the threat of a good example in his own country. So Erdogan and his intentions are the main key to the ‘revival’ of ISIS at this moment, not so much US intentions, and given the history of it happening in the past, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some level of opportunist IS/Turkish government collusion going on in the recent attacks, whether tacit or overt.

This is not an argument to ‘stay on’, which would be an equally catastrophic decision. The US is in Syria illegally, as it has been from the start. It for sure needs to accept defeat of its imperial ambitions and leave the region, and quickly. But this must be conducted in a responsible manner, and cannot allow the Rojava experiment that it ‘protected’ for a while (and for its selfish ends) to be liquidated/’ethnically cleansed’ by the Turks and their Islamist auxiliaries.

And the easiest way out for the US with full honor is of course the course it is least willing to take – namely to allow Syrian government forces to replace US ones at the Turkish border. This change could be done very quickly, with both YPG and Syrian assent and Russian air cover replacing the US umbrella, and Turkey would not dare to invade while it was taking place.

Unfortunately, it’s the one option that Trump and US imperial power in its hubris can’t possibly entertain.

#21 Comment By did On January 22, 2019 @ 10:01 am

This brilliant analysis begs for the obvious question. If US withdrawal from Syria is the death sentence for ISIS in Syria why does President Trump seem to prevaricate? If he is willing to close our government over the funding of a wall why is he not publicly as firm about demanding a speedy withdrawal from Syria? Why does he allow Secretary Bolton to state that we will remain in Syria until ISIS is wiped out?
I can think of only one reason. A victory of Assad cannot be tolerated.

#22 Comment By didi On January 22, 2019 @ 10:02 am

This brilliant analysis begs for the obvious question. If US withdrawal from Syria is the death sentence for ISIS in Syria why does President Trump seem to prevaricate? If he is willing to close our government over the funding of a wall why is he not publicly as firm about demanding a speedy withdrawal from Syria? Why does he allow Secretary Bolton to state that we will remain in Syria until ISIS is wiped out?
I can think of only one reason. A victory of Assad cannot be tolerated.

#23 Comment By james ha On January 22, 2019 @ 12:21 pm

leaves out entirely the fact that ISIS commanders are routinely airlifted to safety in the nick of time by uncle samuel’s helicopters.

#24 Comment By Jay12 On January 22, 2019 @ 12:30 pm

Trump needs to deal carefully with the military. He needs their support against the left, who would openly use violence to start a coup if they thought they could. Trump has done an excellent job navigating this by showing the military that he supports their work, respects who they are, but slowly wants to transition them away from using the American people’s wealth to leverage power over the third world with social engineering experiments. I wish I had not served in the Clinton era when we started bombing Iraq in 1998, ensuring that Saddam would never accept more inspections. Trump has articulated an agenda for more clearly than any of his four predecessors, which is simply that American wealth should not be used to leverage power for an elite abroad. I wish I had served at a time when I was actually serving the taxpayers, citizens and the constitution.

#25 Comment By PG On January 22, 2019 @ 3:46 pm

The blood of these American soldiers is on Mattis’ , Graham’s and Bolton’s hands. If they had not foot dragged and did a quick withdrawal like Trump wanted, these soldiers would not have been in harms way. Assad is perfectly capable and willing to take out ISIS now that the CIA funded rebel program has been wound down. Let his soldiers bleed to return peace to their country.

#26 Comment By Dave Sullivan On January 22, 2019 @ 5:26 pm

So much intricate analysis….try this….the US marine 155mm cannons leveled someplace and murdered someone’s family. Some local wanted justice and was worried the US might leave before he could get to it. Boom