MESOP MIDEAST WATCH BACKGROUND: ISIS would watch a Turkish invasion of Syria ‘with glee’

By MATT BERG politico 12/23/2022 04:09 PM EST

Smoke rises from an oil depot struck by Turkish air forces near the town of Qamishli, Syria, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. | As the world watches to see if Turkey really invades Syria, the Islamic State is awaiting its chance at a resurgence there. And experts warn the United States’ efforts to keep the terrorist group at bay could unravel.

Working with the Syrian Democratic Forces and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, U.S. troops have captured thousands of ISIS fighters and locked them up in makeshift prisons. It’s an ongoing battle to subdue the group, as showcased by U.S. helicopter raids in recent weeks that led to the death of two ISIS leaders and the arrest of six militants.

While it’s unlikely that a Turkish invasion would prompt U.S. troops to immediately withdraw from the region, experts say it could pressure them to leave down the line, leading to a potential counterterrorism catastrophe and “extremely, extremely bad news” for the United States.

“If we leave, that is going to be a free-for-all that will represent everybody’s worst nightmare in terms of counterterrorism ramifications,” CHARLES LISTER, director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, told NatSec Daily. “ISIS will be watching all of this with glee.”

In November, Turkish President RECEP TAYYIP ERDOĞAN vowed to launch a ground operation on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria, claiming they were responsible for a deadly terrorist attack the week prior. Kurdish groups have denied responsibility for the attack.

There hasn’t been much movement on Erdoğan’s threat, leaving observers wondering if he’ll actually follow through on the incursion. Though it’s impossible to pin down an exact date, “my gut tells me one is going to happen… in perhaps weeks, maybe a couple months,” Lister said.

Some analysts have already advocated for a complete withdrawal of troops, even before the threat of a ground invasion, claiming boots on the ground are no longer necessary to stave off ISIS, and fly-over operations could suffice.

Negotiating with Syria might not be necessary to conduct fly-over operations because the U.S. has “a NATO ally to the north of these areas, and we have forces in Iraq to the east of these areas,” RICH OUTZEN, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, told NatSec Daily.

Counterterrorism operations could likely continue, he said, but the U.S. is already struggling to keep ISIS under control. Not to mention, the SDF has already suggested that it’d pivot away from counterterrorism operations in the event of a ground operation.

Others think that’s impossible, claiming the United States would have no choice but to negotiate with Damascus to conduct fly-overs.

“Quite honestly, that’s a figment of people’s imaginations,” Lister said of negotiating with the Syrian regime. “It is never ever, ever going to happen. So we’re either on the ground doing this, or we’re out and not doing anything.”

Given past attempts to free fighters from prisons, it’s likely that ISIS would attempt to take advantage of an incursion to try again. That’s a concern U.S. officials have voiced for months as they worry an invasion could “tilt the balance and potentially enable an ISIS resurgence,” said TIMOTHY ALAN BETTS, acting coordinator for Counterterrorism and Acting Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

A ground operation would give the terrorist organization the opportunity to regain power, though a return to its strongest years in 2014 and 2016 are unlikely, CHARLIE WINTER, director of research at ExTrac, an AI-powered threat intelligence system, wrote in War On The Rocks.

Winter warned that the U.S. should do everything in its power to lessen the odds of a Turkish ground operation:

“Given the organization’s weakened (yet resilient) state, their optimism may well be misplaced,” he wrote, referring to ISIS members’ hope for an invasion in online forums in recent weeks.

“Still, it would be better for the world not to find out.”