Oversight Report: ‘ISIS Is Regenerating Key Functions and Capabilities More Quickly in Iraq Than in Syria’

By Susan Jones | February 5, 2019 | 7:07am EST
A Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF-OIR) convoy passes through downtown al Qaim, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo)

(CNSNews.com) - "Currently, ISIS is regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria," says the most recent update to Congress, released on Monday by the Defense Department inspector-general.

But that same oversight report says "ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months," if the counter-terrorism pressure lets up.

The quarterly report on overseas contingency operations is mandated by Congress and produced by the inspectors-general for the Defense Department, State Department and USAID. The latest report covers the October-December 2018 quarter.

On December 19, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. military would withdraw the approximately 2,200 U.S. troops stationed in Syria, a process that is now under way.

What impact would that troop withdrawal have, the Defense Department inspector general asked the Defense Department in early January.

The answers are mostly classified, but U.S. Central Command provided the following unclassified response about the impact of the U.S. troop withdrawal:

ISIS may conduct opportunistic attacks on U.S. personnel as they withdraw but will leverage the event as a “victory” in its media. ISIS remains an active insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria. If Sunni socio-economic, political, and sectarian grievances are not adequately addressed by the national and local governments of Iraq and Syria it is very likely that ISIS will have the opportunity to set conditions for future resurgence and territorial control. Currently, ISIS is regenerating key functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria, but absent sustained [counterterrorism] pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory in the [Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV)].

In the section on Iraq, the oversight report states that "security improved in Iraq’s cities during this quarter, but ISIS remained active in rural parts of the country."

According to the U.S.-led coalition and news reports, "challenges to completely defeating ISIS in Iraq include the group’s rural strength, its tunnels and safe houses, the continued trickle of foreign fighters, the difficulty in securing the Iraq-Syria border, and the lack of stability in Sunni areas."

In Syria, the report says, ISIS is becoming a "decentralized insurgency":

-- ISIS leadership retains "excellent command and control capability” in Syria.

-- The DoD OIG in December 2018 reported that ISIS’s morale was “high, fueled by religious fervor,” and that its fighters seemed “unfazed by Coalition airstrikes.” But on January 24, 2019, the coalition reported that ISIS’s morale was “trending downward.”

-- This quarter, the coalition reported, ISIS was able to effectively coordinate military offensives and counter-offensives, establish “well-founded defensive positions,” and plant a significant number of explosives in their remaining territory in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

-- Despite the loss of most of its territory in Syria, DoD officials stated that ISIS continues to attract foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. The coalition told the DoD OIG that the actual number is unknown but estimated that it is “most likely 50 per month.”

-- ISIS’s loss of territory has put increased pressure on its leadership, who have fewer places to hide, according to media reports. As a result, more high profile ISIS members have been captured or killed in recent months, although the senior-most members of the group have continued to elude death or capture.

Russia and Iran

The report describes Russia as a "destabilizing force" in Syria because it supports the Assad regime, circulates "misinformation," and partners with Iran.

But Russia also "continues to support the Syrian regime’s military operations against ISIS and opposition elements," with both ground forces and air support, the report said.

"Iranian forces deployed ballistic missiles against ISIS fighters in Syria this quarter," the report cites defense officials as saying.

Defense officials "also stated that U.S. sanctions re-imposed on Iran in August and November 2018 have had limited effect on Iran’s ability to operate in Syria. However, Defense officials said that Treasury designations imposed in late November against an illicit Russia-Iran oil transfer network in Syria could have an effect on the Iranian regime’s funding of terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah’s activity in Syria."

Additional information about Russian and Iranian activity in Syria is classified.

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