ISIS is actively regrouping and is regenerating more quickly in Iraq than in Syria, the US-led operation against the insurgent group has warned in a new report.
Even as US-backed forces battle for the last pockets of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, the Operation Inherent Resolve quarterly report on the campaign says that the group could start regaining territory again within six to 12 months without continued pressure.
US President Donald Trump announced just weeks ago that ISIS had been defeated and that he was withdrawing American forces from Syria. The report, coupled with a Senate vote on Monday criticising the surprise withdrawal, is yet another blow to the president who has received severe backlash from allies as well as his own officials over the move.
“ISIS remains an active insurgent group in both Iraq and Syria,” the report said, adding that by their estimates there are still some 2,000 fighters in east Syria where American forces operate.
“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],” it added.
Of the 88,000 square kilometres of territory that ISIS once held, it now controls less than 50 square kilometres, the top commander of US forces in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, told a Senate committee on Tuesday.
"It is important to understand that even though this territory has been reclaimed, the fight against ISIS and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed," Gen Votel said.
In Iraq, there are still ISIS attacks in rural areas even though overall security has improved in recent months. In Baghdad, the once heavily fortified Green Zone enclave for government bodies, international organisations and embassies has been opened up for the first time in years.
Although the security situation is improved, the report warns that more needs to be done to improve the quality of life for Iraq's Sunni population.
“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,” the report said.
Analysts have warned that the ongoing post-battle crackdown on accused ISIS supporters has become a form of Sunni collective punishment. Hundreds have been sentenced to death for belonging to the extremist group at trials lasting mere minutes and often based on confessions rights groups say were extracted under torture or from witnesses they say could be unreliable.
The inclusion of Iran-backed and Shiite-majority Popular Mobilisation Forces into the Iraqi security forces has also led to warnings that government-sanctioned sectarian militias are exacerbating tensions.
Mr Trump's December announcement about withdrawing troops from Syria came as a shock to both US allies and his own officials. It led both Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and the US's top envoy to OIR Brett McGurk to resign. The withdrawal was later delayed but as Monday's report pointed out, it is now an ongoing process.
It also says that it is likely ISIS will continue to carry out opportunistic hit-and-run attacks on US forces and use them to claim "victory" in the media.
Four US troops were killed in an ISIS claimed suicide attack in northern Syria in mid-January. The bomber struck a restaurant in Manbij, killing at least 16 people.
Later this week the US will host the foreign ministers from the 79-member American-led OIR to discuss next steps as the US insists they are still aiming for the “enduring defeat” of ISIS. How the operation will shift and change as the militants lose their last territory but endure as a lingering insurgency is a major question the OIR now faces.
At almost the same time the report was released, the US Senate was approving an amendment critical of Mr Trump’s Syrian and Afghanistan withdrawal. Sponsored by Republican leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell, the amendment sailed through 70 votes to 26 (of which only three were Republicans).
The article warns that the "precipitous withdrawal of United States forces" from either country "could put at risk hard-won gains and United States national security."
The bill and its easy passage show the deep discontent caused by the policies within the president’s own Republican ranks.
The article is part of a broad foreign policy bill currently being debated that will include additional support for Israel as well as Jordan and includes sanctions on Syria for war crimes.