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ISIS gets thousands of its people back and a PR gift too – thanks, Donald

Supporters of the brutal movement are walking out of prison camps in Syria, but it’s the propaganda bonus that may be most significant.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
25 October 2019
Soldiers holding a flag
Syrian soldiers at a previous US base in northeastern Syria
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Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Who benefits from Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw most of the US troops in Syria? The troops themselves aren’t getting to go home just yet: they are first moving across the border into Kurdish Iraq. Russia, Turkey and the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, have enjoyed more immediate gains. But the most unwelcome beneficiary, from a US point of view, is the entity that Trump said he had defeated in February.

Russia has wasted no time in making a deal with Turkey that allows its ground troops to patrol the buffer zone. The numbers will not be large so the costs will be low: the gain lies in the symbolism of Russia replacing the US, which will be greatly welcomed in Moscow.

Russia’s toehold in the Middle East has now become a footprint, with air force units in Syria, an expanding naval base at Tartus on the country’s Mediterranean coast and, now, ground troops in the north-east. It brings Vladimir Putin much closer to his aim of regaining influence in the region at the lowest possible cost and without getting mired in an unwinnable war.

There is a fourth gainer from Trump’s decision: ISIS

The Assad regime, too, is benefitting from Trump’s gift of a substantial part of the Kurdish north-east. The Kurds have reluctantly welcomed its military units as a vital counter to the increased influence that Trump has handed to Turkey. Meanwhile, US forces are starting to withdraw, although a thousand will be based in north-west Iraq for the moment, and there are reports that some may even remain in Syria to protect oil fields from ISIS paramilitaries.

That single possibility is a glaring indicator that there is a fourth gainer from Trump’s decision: ISIS. Moreover, its potential for a second coming has weird and worrying echoes of what happened when its predecessor, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), had supposedly been defeated by 2011 but returned with a vengeance within three years. The echoes become even stronger when we see that both the past and present situations revolve partly around prisoners and prison breakouts.

AQI’s fall, ISIS’s rise

Going back to the early years of the Iraq War in 2003-4, the most violent opposition came with the growth of an al-Qaida offshoot led by a particularly determined and brutal Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. AQI was the greatest problem for US forces and from 2005 the latter mounted a sustained and heavily resourced series of special forces operations, known collectively as Task Force 145, that included elements of the British SAS. Zarqawi himself was killed in 2006 and by 2008 the conflict was easing.

AQI had not gone away, merely to ground

In that campaign some 4,000 AQI paramilitaries were killed and at least 10,000 captured. Many captives were handed over to the Iraqi government for long-term detention as Barack Obama withdrew US troops by the end of 2011. Several thousand of the prisoners were detained in high-security prisons, one of the toughest being the notorious Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, which had around 500 of the most determined AQI supporters.

Contrary to US and Iraqi government expectations, though, AQI had not gone away, merely to ground. By early 2012 it was regrouping in Iraq while also growing rapidly in Syria, largely in reaction to Assad’s brutal repression of dissent. By July 2013 a new grouping – ISIS – was ready to start an audacious series of prison breaks to release thousands of AQI supporters, many of them the most experienced and dedicated of its fighters.

Operation Breaking the Walls’ was devastatingly effective, with 500 prisoners broken out of Abu Ghraib in that month, and 1,500 out of prisons in Mosul and another 300 from Tikrit some months later. In all, several thousand are believed to have been freed, most of them experienced in fighting very well-equipped US and British forces. They added hugely to the hard core of underground supporters, and were key to the rapid spread of ISIS across northern Iraq and Syria by mid-2014.

Bombs, bullets and propaganda

Five years later we have similar circumstances, though with some significant differences. The numbers held in Kurdish-controlled detention centres in Syria are similar to those in Iraq in 2008, but may not be as valuable to the ISIS leadership as before: ISIS is reported to have as many as 18,000 members still at large in Iraq and Syria, including 3,000 foreigners.

Even now, ISIS continues to mount attacks, mainly on government forces and especially in Iraq. A particularly brutal part of its campaigning, though, is the assassination of local village headmen to intimidate potential government informers, as many as thirty having been killed in Iraq last year alone. Meanwhile, it continues to maintain and spread its influence across North Africa, the Sahel region and Afghanistan.

That said, prison breaks are proving significant, aided by the chaotic circumstances as Kurdish forces have to withdraw from the border areas close to Turkey. Last week over 850 ISIS detainees were reported to have escaped from Ayn Issa camp in northern Syria; many others have simply walked out of camps elsewhere as the Kurdish guards have left to return to guard their families in the face of danger from Turkish-backed militias.

In the end, the escape of a couple of thousand ISIS members from prison camps in Syria may not be as significant as it was in Iraq six years ago. More important is the symbolism of what has allowed them to escape: the US withdrawal. ISIS media operatives have been given an unexpected propaganda bonanza. They can frame Trump’s decision as the forced retreat of the supposedly all-powerful ‘far enemy’ from an Arab country.

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