The Middle East Will Crush ISIS’s Remnants Without the U.S.
Roughly two weeks after President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the 2,000-soldier U.S. ground presence in Syria, the Beltway remains in a state of shock. The resistance to the president’s pullout, from the television segments to the editorials, has seen the foreign policy elite sound dire alarms over an alleged comeback by the Islamic State.
According to them, a U.S. troop departure would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. In a January Washington Post op-ed, Retired General John Allen—the former special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition under the Obama administration—wrote that while ISIS has lost almost all of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, “the departure of U.S. forces leaves the door wide-open for the group’s resurgence.”
How relevant are these concerns? Will ISIS return to its previous strength if Americans pack their bags and leave?
Hardly. And we should not give such claims the benefit of the doubt.
There is a narrow-minded, and wrong, conventional wisdom in Washington that assumes that all problems are America’s problems and no problems can be solved unless America does the heavy lifting. In the case of an ISIS redux, however, this argument has a hole so large you can drive a tank through it: it presupposes that the rest of the region will allow such a resurgence to happen.
A useful reminder is in order: nobody in the Middle East views ISIS as a partner. Indeed, if there is anyone with an incentive to ensure that ISIS is ground down to a manageable level, it is the people who actually live in the region.
If those like General Allen and Senator Lindsey Graham are to be believed, ISIS today should be well on its way to a comeback as Arab governments sit on their hands. But this is not what is happening; precisely the opposite. Rather than shivering in fear, regional states are solidifying their own tactical arrangements to address a terrorist group that threatens them all.
Days after Trump made his announcement, the Iraqi and Syrian governments agreed to enhance their military and intelligence relationship against their shared enemy, ISIS. According to Syrian state media, Bashar al-Assad authorized Iraq to use military force against ISIS targets in Syrian territory without explicit approval from Damascus. And Baghdad, which has struck ISIS inside Syria before, was more than happy to oblige. Shortly after Assad granted approval, Iraqi F-16s bombed a building in the eastern Syrian town of Souseh that ISIS members were using as a meeting place. An ISIS presence along the Iraqi-Syrian border is a significant problem to the security of both nations, and so Baghdad and Damascus have formed a logical, mutually beneficial partnership.
Hundreds of miles away, a similar pragmatic relationship has persisted between Israel and Egypt, two countries that have had a long and sordid history of hot wars and cold peace. But for at least two years now, Jerusalem and Cairo have been collaborating against ISIS-affiliated terrorists in the expansive Sinai Peninsula.
In March 2018, TheNew York Timesdisclosed the arrangement, which includes everything from information sharing on mutual cross-border security dangers to formal Egyptian approval at the highest levels of Israeli airstrikes in the Sinai. In coordination with the Egyptian army, unmarked Israeli aircraft have struck terrorist targets on at least 100 separate occasions. In the view of Egyptian and Israeli officials, a counterterrorism partnership is a common-sense initiative—Cairo gets a force multiplier from the region’s most powerful military, and Jerusalem has more freedom to operate.
In case anyone doubted this arrangement, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi confirmed it to CBS’s 60 Minutes. Cairo, Sisi said, has “a wide range of cooperation with the Israelis.” There is no enemy against which such cooperation is more valuable than ISIS, thwarting its fantastical ambitions of establishing a caliphate.
The lesson is instructive: with or without the United States, other nations—even those that strongly disagree on other issues—will eventually discover that it is in their own interests to hold their noses and strike ad-hoc alliances in order to degrade common adversaries.
This is how great power politics works. Countries form necessary, short-term arrangements to protect their security and prosperity. It is Washington that no longer prioritizes its own interests when conducting foreign affairs, which has led it astray since the end of the Cold War to disastrous results.
With the U.S. military having successfully liberated ISIS-held territory, President Trump is rightly demanding that the region take more responsibility for its dissolution. The president expects Arab governments to continue America’s work and mop up whatever ISIS-controlled territory is left. Despite the hyperventilating in Washington, there is every reason for the Middle East to do so. And if the recent past is a guide, this is exactly what will happen.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.