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Trump Says ISIS Is Defeated. He Is Ignoring the Bigger Picture
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President Trump says that in the coming week the US and its allies will announce that they have captured all of the land previously controlled by Isis. He claims that US-led forces “have liberated virtually all of the territory previously held by Isis in Syria and Iraq … we will have 100 per cent of the caliphate.“

The prediction has sparked a sterile and misleading debate about whether or not Isis is finally defeated, something which will remain unproven since the movement is unlikely to run up a white flag and sign terms of surrender. The discussion has – like all debates about foreign policy in the US – very little to do with the real situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq and everything to do with the forces at play in Washington politics.

In discussing the demise or survival of Isis, pundits make the same glaring omission. They ignore the fact that by far the largest stronghold in Syria held by an al-Qaeda type group is not the few shattered villages for which Isis has been battling in the east of the country. Much more important is the jihadi enclave in and around Idlib province in north-west Syria which is held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of Levant Organisation), a powerful breakaway faction from Isis which founded the group under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra in 2011 and with whom it shares the same fanatical beliefs and military tactics. Its leaders wear suicide vests studded with metal balls just like their Isis equivalents.

It is not that the US has any doubts about what HTS is – since last year, a foreign terrorist organisation despite a name change. Nathan A Sales, the State Department’s coordinator of counterterrorism, noted that “today’s designation serves notice that the United States is not fooled by this al-Qaeda affiliate’s attempt to rebrand itself.”

Over the past year HTS has expanded its control to almost all of the Idlib enclave, which the UN estimates to have a population of three million, half of whom are refugees, and can put at least 50,000 fighters into the field. The zone is surrounded on three sides by the Syrian Army backed by the Russians and on the fourth side it shares a common border with Turkey whose local proxies it has crushed. Fighting between Assad government forces and the armed opposition in Idlib has largely died away under the terms of a shaky ceasefire agreed and enforced by Moscow and Ankara.

Blindness in the west to this embattled al-Qaeda-run mini-state, which has a population the same size as Wales and a fighting force not much smaller than the British army, is explained by the fact that such an admission would reveal that the US and its allies are weak players in Syria and there is more than one jihadi group in the country. A recurrent and disastrous theme of western involvement in the war in Syria is for governments and media to focus only on part of the multilayered crisis in which they are engaged.

Pretending that Isis is anything close to the potent threat it used to be is part of the struggle between Trump and the foreign policy and security establishment in Washington. They represent what President Obama derided as “the Washington playbook” which he denounced as always looking to military solutions and always overplaying its hand in fighting wars that never end.

This skewed vision of the Syrian conflict – with its over-emphasis on whether or not the death certificate of the caliphate should be formally signed – diverts attention from a more important question. In the short term, it is true that can Isis carry out guerrilla and terrorist attacks, but for all practical purposes Trump is right in saying that it has been decisively defeated. The caliphate that once ruled a de facto state the size of Great Britain with a population of eight million is gone.

A more important question to ask now is how far the whole al-Qaeda idea and mode of operating have become obsolete and discredited. Not so long ago, this militarised cult of extreme fanaticism with core beliefs derived from the Wahhabi version of Islam was extraordinarily successful. Suicide bombing on an industrial scale enabled it to turn untrained but committed believers into a devastating military weapon.

Suicide attacks as an expression of Islamic faith produced 9/11, which was the most successful terrorist attack in history: the overwhelming impact of the destruction of the Twin Towers provoked the US to jump into a trap of its own making by launching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, which had scarcely existed as an international organisation before 9/11, instantly took advantage of this overreaction. The US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 enabled the local al-Qaeda franchise to became the core of the armed resistance of the Sunni Arabs against their enemies at home and abroad.

Can these conditions be recreated in Idlib or in the deserts of western Iraq, eastern Syria or wherever else al-Qaeda type groups have their hideouts from Pakistan to Nigeria and Chechnya to Somalia? A ferociously disciplined group with experienced military leaders will always have an influence out of proportion to its size in chaotic war-time conditions.

But al-Qaeda and its clones should not be allowed to remain a bugbear, a cause of obsessive fear because of its past successes in staging 9/11, dominating the armed opposition in Iraq in 2004-09, and unexpectedly resurrecting itself in Syria and Iraq after 2011.

It once was able to offer miraculous victories to its followers but for the past few years it has been able to offer them nothing but defeat and martyrdom for a cause that has been failing demonstrably.


The al-Qaeda formula worked because it caught its enemies by surprise and this will not happen again. Early successes after 2003 required a degree of covert assistance or tolerance from Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all of whom imagined at different moments that they could channel or manipulate the jihadis into acting in their own interest.

Al-Qaeda operated through fear and fanaticism but it also required a constituency among the Sunni Arabs of Iraq and Syria which no longer exists; and for which the Sunni have paid a terrible price in the form of lost wars and devastated cities from east Aleppo to Raqqa and Mosul.

Al-Qaeda no longer works as a winning formula, but this does not mean that its destructive capacity is exhausted. Its track record of savagery was such that its limited attacks can still provoke almost unlimited terror among potential victims. I was in Baghdad last year when Isis kidnapped and killed some half dozen police on the main road north to Kirkuk, provoking a wave of fear out of proportion to what had happened among my friends who started to recall past massacres by Isis.

Casual remarks by Trump such as saying that the US might keep troops in Iraq in future to watch Iran will continue to keep the pot boiling which is to the advantage of al-Qaeda. But the all-conquering warrior cult whose columns of fanatical fighters were wining Napoleonic victories in 2014-15 has gone for good and cannot be recreated.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, ISIS 
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  1. Sean says:

    There are still a lot of Sunnis who object to Assad ruling them.

  2. I think you obviously have mis-read Trump. His statements were a face-saving (for the United States) thing. Who cares whether ISIS is defeated totally or not? No one in the US does, save for looney neo-cons, ignorant war mongers, and ignorant rubes.

    Saying: hey, we got ’em, time to get the hell out of there.

    That’s smart.

  3. tyrell says:

    You forgot about the covert usa assistance for the al Qaeda groups. They and Isis were supposed to be useful fools in a regime change exercise. It failed.

  4. A recurrent and disastrous theme of western involvement in the war in Syria is for governments and media to focus only on part of the multilayered crisis in which they are engaged.

    This seems to imply that there is a non-disastrous way to be involved, I disagree.

    Syria, like the rest of the Middle East is a disaster on its own merits, whether we are involved or not. I think our involvement is just an attempt to keep the lid from blowing off. If anyone thinks this “problem” has a solution (short of depopulation and evolution) they need their head examined.

    Future historians, after the lid has blown off, will argue whether it blew because it was inevitable, because we got involved in the first place, or because we tired of the task of keeping the lid on. That will keep them busy, I guess.

  5. eah says:

    He Is Ignoring the Bigger Picture

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

  6. Renoman says:

    If Trump gets out of Syria Assad will take care of ISIS, Iraq is America’s mess just go there and stir that pot, the Americans have a Base that covers 80 football fields of territory there so they’ve pretty much decided to let that be home base, well OK the infestation has to be somewhere but leave Syria alone. It was a working relatively civilized Country before all this crap started and will again if they ever leave.
    Screw Israel they’re the ones that wanted Syria for themselves well newsflash, they lost, get used to it.

  7. Cockburn posits a problem, but fails to propose any kind of solution. Which is probably logical given the Mideast’s endless moslem quagmires. The best policy is therefore to get out completely from direct involvement, let all sides waste their lives trying to destroy each other, and contain only at the boundaries wherever and whenever expedient.

    Steve Sailer’s ‘Invade the world, invite the world’ is a succint and devastating critique of US policies since WWII. The questions are then, how does any one man not only put a stop to such a destructive juggernaut, but then also repair the damage left in its wake? That is a herculean task for any one President including Trump who, although his heart’s in the right place, is hampered by his belief in Civic Nationalism Magic Dirt, and still doesn’t understand the depths of leftist control, corruption and hate througout US institutions including especially the courts. That he has even announced a pullout from Syria is a seminal event, perhaps even a turning point in foreign policy. If he can pull off but a tenth of what he proposed to do before being elected, he will be hailed as one of the greatest Presidents of the last 180 years.

  8. Cockburn just confirms by his “journalism” that he is simply a hack for the western power structure.

    He fails to mention that the the US has no right in international law to be in any part of Syria whatsoever. Cockburn is a privileged liberal propagandist who is so deranged by his desire to criticise Trump that he totally overlooks this fact.

    Besides, the West and its allies created ISIS.

  9. “Suicide attacks as an expression of Islamic faith produced 9/11”
    Patrick, why are you still drinking the Kool-aide ?????????

    If you cannot be honest and transparent about the foundation of Al-Qaeda and its
    Western Intelligence Agencies+Mossad+Gulf State Money+Pakistani ISI ROOTs,
    how can you honestly and accurately write about all the madness that has transpired.

    Why not, just sweep that little factoid under the rug, and lets debate the
    “number of deck chairs on the Titanic”

    What we have in the beginning of the 21st century is Eternal Chaos for Fun and Plunder and the benefit of (i) the fiat US dollar/reserve currency; (ii) the private central banks; (iii) the MIC; and (iv) the Greater Israel project, i.e. reoccuring genocide so that atheists and religious nut jobs can together claim g_d gave them oil.

    Same horse manure different decade, century,…………….

  10. eric says:

    The United Nations , NATO , NWO , Main stream media or even the establishment of most of the western worlds governments have the same problem with the Muslims . The very same problem the old Roman empire had with the Christians . The rulers of the Roman government just could not defeat some body that would rather die than be defeated . The Rulers will have to trick the Muslims into accepting The new Holy Islamic empire , Just like The old Romans founded the Holy Christian empire .

  11. eric says:

    Muslims have much the same beliefs that Christians had . Only Islam is much stronger because they believe they have to kill you if you refuse to believe Where as Christian only said You have to kill them to stop their belief . Do you notice this is a big difference .

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