The US military is ramping up operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria

ISIS may be down, but it's far from out.
Jared Keller Avatar
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Green Berets fire a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station from a M-ATV Special Forces Vehicle during a readiness exercise near At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, April 12, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. William Howard) Green Berets fire a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station from a M-ATV Special Forces Vehicle during a readiness exercise near At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, April 12, 2020. (Staff Sgt. William Howard/U.S. Army)

The Islamic State group may have been territorially ‘defeated’ in Iraq and Syria years ago, but U.S. forces continue to mop up the last vestiges of the terror network there.

U.S. Central Command announced on Thursday that the U.S.-led coalition and partner forces had conducted 43 missions against ISIS in January under Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria.

January’s operations resulted in 11 ISIS operatives killed and another 227 detained, CENTCOM said.

For comparison, CENTCOM previously announced in December that it conducted 313 missions against ISIS in 2022, with an average of 26 operations every month, suggesting the U.S. may be on pace to surpass last year’s totals in 2023.

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In a statement accompanying the press release, CENTCOM chief Gen. Michael ‘Erik’ Kurilla indicated the U.S. and its regional partners still have a lot of work to do when it comes to keeping ISIS from reconstituting itself.

“While our efforts have degraded ISIS, the group’s vile ideology remains uncontained and unconstrained,” Kurilla said. “ISIS continues to represent a threat to not only Iraq and Syria but to the stability and security of the region. Therefore, we must continue the fight against ISIS alongside our partners.”

None of the operations were conducted solely with U.S. forces (compared to 14 “unilateral” U.S. operations executed in Syria in 2022), and Kurilla praised the U.S. military’s regional partners in the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi Security Forces for taking the lead in the ongoing campaign.

“We rely heavily on the Syrian Democratic Forces for the fight against ISIS,” Kurilla said in a statement. “Meanwhile, our Iraqi Security Forces have been aggressively taking the fight to ISIS in Iraq.”

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Soldiers from 5th Special Forces Group operating at al-Tanf in southeastern Syria. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Jacob Connor, 5th Special Forces Group)

There are currently 2,500 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and another 900 service members in Syria as part of OIR to prevent ISIS from reestablishing a physical caliphate and mounting attacks on foreign soil. 

President Donald Trump originally declared ISIS “defeated” in Syria in December 2018 before announcing the (soon-aborted) “rapid withdrawal” of U.S. troops over the coming weeks, a decision that prompted then-Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign in protest over the apparent abandonment of the U.S. military’s Kurdish allies to Turkish aggression in the war-torn country.

“While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies,” Mattis wrote in his resignation letter at the time. 

Nearly a year after his departure, following Trump’s second attempt to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, Mattis had predicted that it was “absolutely a given” that ISIS would continue to wreak havoc in Iraq and Syria if the U.S. military didn’t maintain pressure on the terror group. 

“It’s in a situation of disarray right now. Obviously, the Kurds are adapting to the Turkish attacks, and we’ll have to see if they’re able to maintain the fight against ISIS,” Mattis said. “It’s going to have an impact. The question is how much?”

U.S. Army soldiers board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter while departing a remote combat outpost known as RLZ on May 25, 2021 near the Turkish border in northeastern Syria. (John Moore/Getty Images)

As it stands, ISIS continues to wage an insurgency in both Iraq and Syria thanks to small cells located in rural enclaves that mostly mount drive-by attacks on security forces between the occasional urban terror attack, according to the most recent Pentagon inspector general report for OIR.

The report detailed multiple factors outside the control of the U.S. military that make the enduring defeat of ISIS a nearly impossible prospect, including local political and socio-economic instability that “[create] environments that allow extremist groups to operate” and the meddling of third-party actors like Iran and Russia (and even NATO ally Turkey) that prevent U.S. and coalition forces from focusing on the defeat-ISIS mission.

“The volatile political landscape in northeastern Syria complicates execution of the defeat ISIS mission, CJTF-OIR said,” according to the report. “ISIS exploits operational seams between conflicting sides and any pause in operations against the group creates opportunities for ISIS to exploit at-risk populations and regenerate its military strength.”

For now, it appears that the U.S. has resigned itself to “mowing the grass” in Iraq and Syria, pruning the terror weeds of ISIS as they sprout across the fractured countries by targeting major organizational leaders alongside coalition and partner forces. And based on CENTCOM’s data, it appears that the defeat-ISIS mission has no real end in sight — for now. 

“We commend the competence, professionalism, and dedication of our Iraqi, Syrian, and coalition partner forces,” Combined Joint Task Force-OIR commander. Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane concurred. “Their unwavering efforts maintain steady pressure on the ISIS network. The U.S. remains committed to ensuring the lasting defeat of ISIS to preserve regional security and stability.”

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