Shamima Begum sums up the dilemma facing security forces after the defeat of ISIS
The battle is not yet won; while the terrorist group might have lost its land, its supporters still pose a threat
With the US-led military campaign against ISIS finally drawing to a close, there is a temptation on the part of many western leaders to believe that the war has been won and that they can turn their attention to other issues.
This includes US President Donald Trump who, even before the fighting has ended, has already indicated his intention to withdraw the remaining 2,000 US troops who have been assisting forces on the ground, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to tackle the last remaining remnants of the so-called caliphate that ISIS attempted to create in Syria and Iraq.
The final push against ISIS is being concentrated on the village of Baghuz, on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq. It is believed there could still be several hundred ISIS fighters remaining in the tiny sliver of territory on the Iraqi-Syrian border, including the group’s leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, whose last confirmed sighting was in 2017. While SDF commanders, who are receiving air support from coalition warplanes, say the fight against ISIS is “99 per cent complete”, the advance has been halted on several occasions by ISIS fighters using suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices to delay their inevitable defeat.
Victory over this last pocket of ISIS resistance will bring to a close a military campaign that has lasted for four-and-a-half years, starting when Al Baghdadi announced the creation of his caliphate from the pulpit of the Al Nuri mosque in Mosul in 2014. Since then tens of thousands of ISIS fighters – many of them foreign recruits – have been killed as the US-led coalition, backed by western powers such as Britain, as well as many Arab states, has waged a relentless campaign to destroy the group.
The success of the coalition’s effort can be measured in the fact that the would-be caliphate, which at its height covered an area the size of Britain in Syria and Iraq, with about 10 million people living in its territory, is now all but extinct.
Given the size of the challenge the US and its allies faced at the outset of the campaign, when ISIS forces were even threatening to overrun the Iraqi capital Baghdad, the defeat of ISIS represents a significant achievement for the coalition, one that shows it is perfectly possible for the West to undertake successful military interventions in the Arab world.
After all the political controversies surrounding the recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the coalition’s success against ISIS is an example of how military interventions can achieve their goals – so long as they are undertaken with the right mix of military assets.
The major issue with the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan was that they involved the deployment of large numbers of ground troops – in excess of 100,000 in each case – which only succeeded in inflaming local hostility.
In the ISIS campaign, though, the US and its allies have relied heavily on local fighters such as the SDF to do the lion’s share of the fighting and have confined their involvement to providing air support and special forces that help and assist local fighters to achieve their objectives.
This more considered approach means that the coalition has succeeded in achieving victory over ISIS without attracting any of the political fallout that has been generated by other recent conflicts in the region and could well provide the template for any future military interventions, depending, of course, on whether the circumstances merit a similar approach.
Shamima Begum's desire to return to Britain presents the authorities with numerous challenges, as do the thousands of other foreign fighters currently being held in captivity
While the defeat of the ISIS diehards on the Syrian border should mean the main military effort draws to a close, there nevertheless remain a great many other issues that need to be resolved, not least what is to be done with the thousands of foreign fighters and their associates that have surrendered or been captured by coalition forces, and now await an uncertain fate in Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria.
The plight of the survivors of the group's short-lived reign of terror has been brought into stark relief by the discovery of a British girl who fled from her home in London’s East End to Syria, together with two other teenage girls, to join ISIS four years ago, and is now sheltering in a refugee camp.
Shamima Begum, who is now 19 and pregnant with her third child, became an ISIS bride, but now says she wants to return to Britain so she can have her baby in a safe environment. Her experience in Syria provides a rare insight into the lives of ISIS brides.
One of her friends who travelled with her to Syria was killed in a coalition airstrike and her two other children have died from diseases contracted while living in ISIS territory. She recalls seeing a severed head in a bin and says she has no remorse about her actions.
Her desire to return to Britain therefore presents the authorities with numerous challenges, as do the thousands of other foreign fighters currently being held in captivity, including the notorious “Beatles”, a group of British-born extremists who are accused of carrying out a number of gruesome executions.
Abandoning them to their fate in Syria could result in them ultimately escaping and joining other ISIS remnants to regroup and launch further terrorist attacks. Allowing them home, on the other hand, could prove problematic, as law enforcement officers could find it difficult to obtain sufficient evidence to convict them of any wrongdoing.
Certainly, while the main combat effort against ISIS might be drawing to a close, much work still needs to be done in the conflict’s aftermath to ensure ISIS is not allowed to return in a different manifestation. The terrorist group, while it has suffered a significant defeat, nevertheless remains resourceful and determined to reinvent itself.
So rather than turning their backs on the Syrian conflict, western politicians need to concentrate their efforts on making sure the world never again experiences of the horrors of an ISIS-run caliphate.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor
Updated: February 14, 2019 07:26 PM