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Assessing U.S. Accomplishments In The Fight Against ISIS In Syria


Has the United States won its war against ISIS? Thousands of Syrians have left the last area held by the Islamic State. The organization that once held large parts of Syria and Iraq is now down to a single village called Baghouz. Sounds like victory, although Jasmine El-Gamal has some doubts. She's at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East adviser at the Pentagon.

JASMINE EL-GAMAL: Depends on how you look at it, whether you're looking at a temporary physical military victory or a longer-term, enduring victory. On the former, I would say that yes, we've made incredible progress. And as you're seeing in the news right now, ISIS is being driven out of its last stronghold in Syria. But if you look at the future and what it holds and whether the root causes that allowed ISIS to flourish are still there, I would say very much so.

INSKEEP: Granting that there are still ISIS fighters in some numbers, I do recall a few years ago when they had proclaimed the caliphate, and when they had a capital, and when they had a large chunk of territory that they seemed to control like a state. That seemed alone to be an immense propaganda victory for ISIS, and it was presumed that taking that away would all but destroy the organization. Is there some truth to that?

EL-GAMAL: Well, the interesting thing about ISIS propaganda is that they've been really masterful at using whatever situation they're in and spinning it to be in their favor. So when they had the caliphate, the message was, we've won. We have the caliphate. Come live here. When they don't have a caliphate, the message is, we're under attack. We need you more than ever. Come help us. This is your duty.

INSKEEP: What military capability do they have left? Or if military is not quite the word, what terroristic capability do they have left?

EL-GAMAL: Very little where they are right now in terms of heavy machinery or anything like that. But, you know, they don't really need that much to continue to sort of undertake the terrorist attacks that they have been and that they've been using as propaganda.

INSKEEP: Now, you also mentioned root causes and suggested that those have not been addressed. What are you identifying as the root causes of the creation and growth of a group like ISIS?

EL-GAMAL: So if you look at, generally, the root causes that incentivize people to join a terrorist organization like political grievances in their home country or persecution as minorities in the case of the recruits coming from Europe, lack of ability to provide livelihood for their families - all of those things very much remain in the countries of origin. If you add to that now that you have these tens of thousands of children that have been raised in ISIS land, who now are going to be going from camp to camp to camp until someone figures out what to do with them, with no dignity, no prospects for the future, that, to me, is a very, very worrying sign for the fight against terrorism.

INSKEEP: Is another factor here the instability of Syria itself?

EL-GAMAL: It absolutely is. And that's why President Trump has been convinced to leave some sort of troop presence there while asking our European allies to contribute troops, as well, to continue to make sure that the area is stabilized, to make sure that life can get back to normal.

That's mostly in the opposition-held areas. Of course, in the other parts of Syria where President Assad has regained control over most of the territory, I think you're going to see it going back to a typical situation in many of these countries where you have a strongman at the top - not much opportunity for freedom of expression or anything like that but stability and security on the surface.

INSKEEP: Jasmine El-Gamal is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East adviser at the Pentagon. Thanks so much.

EL-GAMAL: Thank you, Steve.