The Department of Defense Office of Inspector General has posted the quarterly report to Congress on OIR. The report covers the period of April 1, 2019 to June 30, 2019.
The report is entitled Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve | Quarterly Report to the United States Congress | April 1, 2019 – June 30, 2019. It covers the overseas contingency operation to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and summarizes the quarter’s key events.
The report finds that ISIS is continuing its transition from a territory-holding force to an insurgency in Syria. It says that ISIS has solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq. ISIS is conducting suicide attacks, assassinations, abductions, and arson of crops in both countries.
ISIS personnel strength appears to be, according to the report, about 16,000 total – within Iraq and Syria. Some of these personnel are referred to as ‘foreign fighters’. In addition, ISIS has reestablished its financial networks in both countries. The jihadist group also continues to utilize an extensive worldwide social media effort for recruitment of fighters and to maintain and enhance support.
U.S. Reduction in Forces. The partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria (known as Operation Deliberate Resolve) has decreased the support available to partner forces (SDF and other smaller groups). This withdrawal is taking place at a time that the SDF need additionally trained personnel and more equipment to defeat the ISIS insurgency. The nature of the conflict – now an insurgency – has changed the type of training and equipment needed by the SDF.
Coalition Assistance Requested. The U.S. is seeking increased coalition support to offset the reduction in U.S. forces. The U.S. has requested assistance from 30 other countries; the UK and France have agreed to help. Germany said ‘not so much’. Although not cited in the report, it is estimated that there are about 1,000 U.S. military personnel in Syria.
U.S. SOF. The bulk of these troops are likely members of U.S. Army Special Forces with their attached enablers. The SF teams are part of the Special Operations Joint Task Force – OIR – which is a component of the Combined Joint Task Force – OIR. One of the missions of the SOJTF-OIR is to perform “. . . partnered training, equipping, and reinforcing of the SDF to enable the SDF to conduct counterinsurgency operations.”
In addition, U.S. forces assist with security during raids of ISIS members or facilitators as well as in some detention operations. Other U.S. ground and air assets are also employed in support of the SDF.
SDF Needs More Assistance. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are unable to sustain long-term operations against IS jihadists. The SDF is limited in personnel, equipment, and intelligence to confront the ‘resurgent cells’ of IS. In particular, it needs to further develop its human-based intelligence capabilities. There is the possibility, if further U.S. cutbacks take place, that the SDF may look for partnerships with Russia or the Syrian regime.
IDPs. The camps that host thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) – the two largest are Rukban and al Hol – are lacking basic services. The al Hol camp is a security concern due to the 45,000 ISIS family members and supporters that reside there. The U.S. is urging other nations to repatriate the ISIS foreign fighters and supporters – for security and humanitarian reasons. ISIS has established cells within the al Hol camp to spread its ideology as well as aid in recruitment. IDPs are prevented from leaving the camps to return home due to ongoing lawlessness and violence elsewhere in Syria.
Detained ISIS Fighters. With the defeat of the ‘territorial’ Caliphate the SDF captured thousands of ISIS fighters. There are about 10,000 detained fighters – 2,000 classified as ‘foreign fighters’. They are held in ‘pop-up prisons’ in northeast Syria. Most countries are reluctant to repatriate their citizens who have been captured by the SDF. This is putting a strain on the SDF and Kurdish administration.
Uncertainty. Not addressed in the DoD IG report is the political uncertainty of whether or not the United States is in Syria for the long haul. There is the possibility that the U.S. president would turn Syria over to the third party countries currently involved – Turkey, Iran, and Russia. In fact, several months ago he said that Turkey could finish off ISIS. This followed his announcement in December that the U.S. would withdraw all forces from Syria. Certainly the statements and ‘tweets’ of the U.S. president has caused deep concern within the SDF and YPG.
IS Insurgency Continues. ISIS has regrouped in provinces north and west of Baghdad. IS has reorganized its leadership and has established safe havens in rural Sunni-majority areas. The strength of IS in Iraq got bumped up as a result of fighters fleeing the impending defeat of IS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) in Syria this past spring. As ISIS saw the future demise of the ‘territorial’ Caliphate it began its transformation into an insurgency.
ISF. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are still having difficulty getting on top of the IS insurgency that exists in Iraq. The ISF can conduct offensive operations to ‘clear’ an area of insurgents – but they lack the capability to ‘hold’ these areas. So the typical ISF operation, while successful, is a ‘short-term gain’ with a minimal effect. This is especially true in some of the more remote areas of Iraq – such as the Makhmour Mountains in Ninewa province and the Jazeera Desert in Anbar province. So the insurgents flow back in to the ‘cleared’ areas as soon as the security forces depart.
Diminished ISR Assets. The ISF has seen its organic ISR assets decrease by 50%. In addition, some U.S. ISR platforms have been diverted to monitor Iranian activity.
Iraqi Government Struggling. Politics and other factors are hindering the security efforts of the ISF. The government has seen changes in the leadership of the defense, interior, and justice ministries. There have been some significant protests over the lack of electricity and other basic government services – to which the ISF has to respond.
‘Peshmerga’ and ‘Kurdistan’. One of the U.S. most reliable allies in the Middle East continues to be the Kurds of both Syria and Iraq. However, the Kurds in Iraq have some deep-seated internal political divisions (KDP vs PUK). This results in separate administrative and intelligence organizations representing the two political parties. This division extends to the Peshmerga as well.
In addition, the Kurdish government is at odds with Iraq’s central government on a number of issues. One of these is some disputed territory lying between Arab and Kurdish regions. There is a security gap in this area and ISIS is taking advantage of this gap.
Departure of State Department Personnel. Threats against U.S. personnel working in Iraq prompted a severe cut-back in embassy and consulate strength. The threats are from Iran and some of its proxy forces in Iraq – principally the Iranian-backed Shia militias belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). This “. . . eroded the ability of the Embassy Baghdad and Consulate Erbil to manage humanitarian assistance and stabilization efforts in Iraq.” The number of personnel was reduced from 563 to 312. This evacuation order has also affected some of the almost 5,000 contractor personnel stationed in Iraq.
Based on a reading of the report it would be easy to draw the conclusion that the drawdown of military forces (SOF included) in Syria has diminished the ability of the SDF to kill off ISIS. In addition, the reduction of State and USAID personnel in Iraq has reduced humanitarian and stabilization efforts in Iraq. From the report: “Despite the loss of physical territory, thousands of ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria and are carrying out attacks and working to rebuild their capabilities.”
Read the 116-page report here:
DoD Quarterly Report on OIR – August 2019
Photo: Iraqi soldiers move through a smokescreen that provides concealment during an assault exercise.
(U.S. Army photo, page 2, of OIR IG Report, August 2019).