The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS announced Tuesday that it carried out a major airstrike in the southeastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zour, claiming to have killed 150 militants. Once commonplace, strikes like this have become relatively rare. According to the independent monitoring group Airwars, the coalition has carried out 122 strikes so far in January in Iraq and Syria and 212 last month. That’s the fewest since August 2014, the first month of the campaign, and down from a high of 1,755 last August, the height of the battle for ISIS’s capital, Raqqa.
The slowing pace of strikes isn’t surprising, because there’s not much left to bomb. ISIS has lost more than 95 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. More than 60,000 of its fighters and 120 of its leaders have been killed, and the flow of foreign fighters into Syria has nearly stopped. While it’s hard to get a precise count for how many ISIS loyalists remain in the two countries, estimates of the number of active fighters on the battlefield are between 1,000–3,000.
You would think this would be a moment of triumph for the U.S. and its allies, but it actually puts U.S. officials in a bit of an awkward spot, given that we’ve made clear that U.S. troops aren’t going anywhere. American officials vary between describing ISIS as a broken shell of its former self and a still-potent lethal fighting force depending on whether they’re taking credit for defeating it or making the case for continued U.S. deployment. As Dave Clark of Agence France-Presse noticed last week, they can sometimes do this in the very same statement:
The general line that officials and commanders have settled on is that while ISIS has been defeated as a territorial power, U.S. troops need to remain to make sure it doesn’t re-emerge. There’s some logic to this: ISIS’s predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, was similarly thought to be all but defeated a decade ago. And as the suicide bombing that killed dozens of people in Baghdad last week dramatically demonstrated, ISIS can still pose a threat, even without control of territory. But unlike in Iraq, where the U.S. can somewhat plausibly claim to be helping the government maintain stability, in fractured Syria, where the U.S. is not cooperating with the central government, the rationale for keeping 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground is a little murkier.
Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out several goals for America’s continued involvement in Syria, including blunting Iran’s growing influence, supporting the predominantly Kurdish forces that did the bulk of the fighting against ISIS, and pressuring Bashar al-Assad to step down. While it seems increasingly quaint to note it, Congress has not authorized the president to use military force to accomplish any of these goals. The U.S. was already on tenuous legal ground using the 2001 authorization to use military force against al-Qaida to go after ISIS in Syria. Continuing to use it after ISIS is essentially defeated would be ridiculous.
Congressional Democrats raised this objection in the past week. Sen. Cory Booker, who for some reason or another has decided this may be a good time to start taking strong stands on national security issues, co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the continued deployment of U.S. troops post-ISIS “will break just about every relevant law on the books.” Trump’s probably not too concerned about Democrats with self-serving legal qualms, but the changing nature of the mission also runs contrary to his own instincts, as expressed since his campaign, to keep the focus narrowly on ISIS rather than attempting a more ambitious political transformation in Syria.
The complications of this new mission were also made very clear this week by the Turkish incursion into the border enclave of Afrin, where they are battling Kurdish fighters that the Turkish government considers terrorists. The U.S. has mostly been left on the sidelines in that fight, which awkwardly pits a NATO ally against the U.S.’s closest anti-ISIS partner, the Syrian Kurds. Defense Secretary James Mattis warned today that the Turkish offensive “distracts” from the fight against ISIS. Trump also spoke to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the situation in a phone call on Wednesday and, according to the White House, reiterated that both nations must focus all parties on the shared goal of achieving the lasting defeat of ISIS. And Tillerson upped the pressure on the Assad regime Tuesday, accusing it of continuing to use chemical weapons and blaming its partner Russia for allowing these attacks to continue.
The Trump administration—and to a large extent the Obama administration before it—have mostly sought to keep U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict limited to ISIS. But the administration has also apparently come to the conclusion that pulling up stakes in Syria could lead to the emergence of new threats and that the U.S. can’t give up the leverage provided by its ground troops. And so, the fight against ISIS has to continue, even if it increasingly doesn’t involve ISIS.
“Look, we are not seeking a pretext or a justification to remain in Syria, and we are not constructing any false reality involving ISIS,” a State Department official told the Washington Times last week. “The fact is the fight against ISIS continues. It is real, it is not contrived or imaginary.”
That will look plausible enough as long as dozens of airstrikes are still being launched every month. But sooner or later, the U.S. is going to run out of ISIS to fight.