In this edition of Wilson Center NOW we are joined by the Polar Institute’s Michaela Stith, Evan Bloom, and Ambassador David Balton. They recap the just-concluded Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Reykjavík. They also discuss what lies ahead for the organization and the region with the passing of the Council’s two-year chairmanship from Iceland to Russia. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Council.
Facing one of the most challenging moments in Colombia’s history, Colombian President Iván Duque engaged in a wide-ranging conversation in an event co-hosted by the Wilson Center and the Inter-American Dialogue. In recent weeks, Colombia has witnessed massive street protests along with acts of vandalism, looting, police violence, and road blockages. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the Colombian economy, leading to increases in unrest, poverty, and unemployment.
President Duque discussed factors that are driving the current turmoil and the government’s efforts to calm tensions, including through a national dialogue.
In recent years, the rise of China has transformed the international system, and the downturn in U.S.-China relations increases tensions across a range of issues, from Taiwan to the South China Sea to human rights. Addressing these issues and crafting tailored policy responses will require nuanced and informed analysis of China from the U.S. academic community. With the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Wilson Center aims to bridge the gap between academia and policy by bringing together a cohort of rising scholars focused on China to undertake crucial, year-long research projects on China in our Wilson China Fellowship. The results of our first cohort’s work are featured in this publication: The 2020-21 Wilson China Fellowship: Essays on the Rise of China and Its Implications.
The military has taken power in Myanmar. What does this mean for democracy in the country and for minorities? Prashanth Parameswaran and Lucas Myers from the Wilson Center’s Asia Program help us ground truth.
In this edition of Wilson Center NOW we are joined by Wilson Center Diversity & Inclusion Council Co-chair Shahrazad Hired, Wilson Global Fellow Michael Forster, and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at AmeriHealth Caritas Karen Dale. They discuss how the Black Lives Matter movement has redefined and renewed focus on diversity and inclusion initiatives in both the public and private sector.
The coalition is engaged in a combination of training, equipping and advising local forces in counter-insurgency and the counter-terror environment; stabilization funding; and various political and governance programs. It is also involved in military actions, including both airborne and special forces operations against particularly dangerous targets. This includes targeting in Syrian areas beyond SDF territory in the northeast.
The United States provides the military leadership and much of the staff of Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). It also informally runs the political coalition to defeat ISIS through American management of the Coalition political secretariat. It provides almost all the troops on the ground in Syria and a smaller but significant share of the coalition troops in Iraq, which were in flux at the end of 2020. U.S. airstrikes are relatively rare compared to the almost 10,000 annually at the height of campaign. The coalition conducted well over 30,000 between 2014 and 2020. The majority of airstrikes have been by the United States; the U.S. percentage is even higher now.
Iraq and the local Syrian partners—the SDF and the Syrian Democratic Council—play the key roles in ground operations, stabilization, and hosting coalition forces. The next largest commitments are by France, Britain, and Germany, who have provided significant ground forces. Britain and France have also provided considerable airpower and special forces for training and direct action military operations. A broad range of other European countries—from the Benelux countries, Scandinavia and Italy—are also very active on the ground and in the diplomatic superstructure of the coalition.
As long as there is a significant ISIS presence in Iraq and Syria, the United States and especially its European allies, who have been subjected to waves of ISIS-planned or -inspired terrorist attacks, will not consider standing down Operation Inherent Resolve or abandoning the political superstructure, which includes task forces that deal with foreign fighters, reconstruction, terrorist financing and social messaging. In 2019, President Trump proposed that NATO take over many of the functions of the CJTF-OIR. NATO agreed to expand its presence in the NATO Mission Iraq, or NMI, perhaps by as much as 100 percent in personnel, above the few hundred that were deployed in Iraq in 2020. NATO also agreed to take on additional training as well as headquarters planning and intelligence support functions.
But many coalition partners—beginning with Britain, France and Germany and including others that are also NATO members—have pushed back on NATO taking over the bulk of CJTF-OIR missions for at least four reasons: First, the coalition has had proven success, especially compared to similar international efforts in Libya, West Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. Second, the CJTF has capabilities that NATO is highly unlikely to authorize or that will face political problems when it comes to command-and-control operations, notably in Syria and the direct coalition strikes on ISIS targets. Third, the coalition is more flexible than NATO when it comes to making decisions. With no fixed rules in the past, the United States and key partners routinely determined what had relative consensus, then consulted with members, but ultimately made the final decision. If NATO took over, its operations would need unanimous consent, with several potential challenges, from Germany’s strong pacifist tendencies to Turkey’s national interests on Kurdish issues in both Iraq and Syria. Fourth, the coalition military presence in Syria is dependent on the SDF being capable of hosting coalition forces (in the face of opposition from the Syrian government, Turkey, Russia and Iran) and Iraq being willing to continue hosting coalition forces (in the face of opposition from Iran and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias).
The SDF holds between 8,000 and 9,000 prisoners, and possibly more. Between 2,000 and 3,000 are Iraqi; between 4,000 and 5,000 are Syrians. Somewhat less than 2,000 are from a third country. A few hundred prisoners from third countries have been repatriated. Many of the remaining prisoners are from Europe, where there have been few repatriations, except two to Italy and some to Russia. The SDF has run low-level Syrian ISIS fighters—perhaps a few hundred—through the local judicial system in northeast Syria. Some have been released to local communities; some have been sentenced. The local judicial capacity has problems. In 2019, about half of the Iraqis held by the SDF were sent back to Iraq, but various problems have blocked a second tranche. I am unaware of any executions of ISIS fighters by the SDF.
Relatively secure, as shown by the lack of breakouts by ISIS fighters during the chaotic Turkish incursion in October 2019. Both the prisons and the al Hol camp for ISIS family members are certainly breeding grounds. The SDF has tried rehabilitation of local Syrian fighters, but again the numbers are just in the hundreds.
Iraq holds thousands, including roughly 2,000 prisoners sent by the SDF in Syria to Iraq. Repatriation from Iraq has gone somewhat better as it has an internationally recognized government to deal with the issue. The Iraqi judicial system is generally harsh with ISIS fighters, and some have been executed.
Iraqi prisons are relatively secure, given the absence of major outbreaks. But they are not as good as the SDF facilities. I’m unaware of any significant Iraqi rehabilitation of ISIS fighters. Iraq does not have a history of successful rehabilitation. Jihadi fighters who are released often return to ISIS or comparable groups.
Almost 70,000 family members are held in al Hol. Only a small number have escaped. Some have been allowed to return to their Syrian communities. Almost half of the 70,000 are Iraqi. Despite negotiations between the SDF and the Iraqi government, administrative and other issues have blocked significant transfers. There have only been a few official transfers of family members as well as informal “movement” of family members.
Absolutely, ISIS is engaged in indoctrination and presumably preliminary recruitment in the camps. The goal is to form a new generation of ISIS leaders and fighters.
The dangers are manageable, assuming that the overall capabilities of the coalition to defeat ISIS, the SDF, and the Iraqi military are maintained. The indicators would be any major disruption in Iraq or Syria that leads to one of two situations: First, the departure of the United States and others in the coalition. Or second, major conflict between Sunni Arabs and Iran or its allies. Either could lead to a rapid spread of ISIS ideology, recruits, and eventually terrorist capabilities.
Yes. They are engaged in the usual violence, intimidation and indoctrination of people already well-prepped for such indoctrination because they lived in areas formerly ruled by ISIS.
A physical caliphate like the one ISIS ran between 2014 and 2019 is highly unlikely. But a major terrorist movement rising to a major insurgency, such as al Qaeda in Iraq between 2004 and 2007, is quite possible under the right conditions.
ISIS is struggling to maintain operations along the Kurdish-Arab ethnic fault lines in Iraq as well as along the Euphrates River in northeast Syria. In both areas it is engaging in low-level insurgencies, with a limited ability to hold terrain or launch complex attacks. ISIS is more significant in the government-held areas of Syria, especially in the Badiya desert south of the Euphrates and east of Palmyra. It intermittently holds some terrain there and is frequently able to cut off local communications. Its main targets are local tribal and community leadership and local security forces. Aside from attacks, its main activities are intimidation and financial shakedowns of local merchants and farmers. It is also trying to develop international capabilities, such as training and dispatching terrorists beyond Syria and Iraq. ISIS is also very difficult to totally annihilate, given both sympathy from and its intimidation of the local Arab populations.
ISIS still has highly sophisticated social media platforms. Its appeal to potential recruits appears similar to the period of the caliphate. It is distinguished from al Qaeda by the emphasis on acting in the here-and-now and jihadist writings that serve the ISIS cause.
Its local recruitment in Iraq and Syria is also fueled by its anti-Shiite ideology and opposition to the (apostate) government in Damascus and the (Shiite-dominated) government in Baghdad. Funding is primarily generated by local shakedowns, smuggling and other economic activity by ISIS cells.
Very little is known about him. The general assumption in the campaign to defeat ISIS is that the top leadership is much weaker since al Baghdadi’s death in 2019. But the organization still generates sufficiently motivated and experienced mid-level lieutenants to sustain operations at current levels.
There is some sort of Shura Council, but its role is obscure. It does have a strategic plan, with an emphasis on operations along the Iraq-Syria front and in particular in Diyala province in Iraq.
This is both a sociological question and one for terrorism experts. ISIS, or Daesh, was a byproduct of both the Arab Spring in 2011 and the failure of traditional security mechanisms to stop the expansion of Iran and Shiite Islam into Sunni Arab areas. There may be no fourth generation, given the current situation—relative stability throughout the region compared to the period between 2011 and 2020; relative containment of Iranian advances in the Arab world; and greater limits on the dissemination of jihadist ideology, influence and resources out of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The resiliency of the organization—both the level of fighting forces and its roots in local communities. Both were not insurmountable but required both time and extraordinary military and other resources.
There are four obvious challenges and one wild card: First, ISIS and al Qaeda in West Africa; second, ISIS and al Qaeda in Afghanistan; third, ISIS strength in the government-controlled areas of Syria; and fourth, the perpetual risk in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq of an outbreak of jihadi resistance against the Shiite-dominated government and Iran’s influence. The wild card is a mass casualty event—masterminded or launched by ISIS or al Qaeda—outside of the Middle East.