Two days after Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad, the U.S. troops in Iraq to fight the Islamic State are now focused on their own defense, guarding American bases and the U.S. Embassy from an expected Iranian response. The fight against the militants is now on hold, and a Trump foreign policy achievement is in doubt.
“When we looked at this operation we knew there would be consequences,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We knew there’d be risk.” But he said the threat of attack on U.S. interests was too great to not act.
The Islamic State evolved in Syria after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011; its fighters swept back across the border in 2014, captured wide swaths of western and northern Iraq and imposed brutal rule over a self-declared “caliphate.”
A U.S.-led coalition finally ousted the group from the last of its territory in Syria in March 2019, but thousands of fighters scattered throughout the region and continue to pose a threat.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper agreed on Tuesday that “the suspension of activities in Iraq” against IS was foreseen as a possible outcome of killing of Soleimani.
Two days after a missile launched from a U.S. drone killed the general in Baghdad on Jan. 3, shortly after he arrived, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq announced a pause in its years-long partnership with Iraqi forces against IS remnants. The focus shifted to protecting coalition troops and the U.S. Embassy, in anticipation that Iran would try to avenge Soleimani’s death by attacking.
Ketti Davison, a retired Army intelligence officer with experience in Iraq, said there is no doubt that the fight against the militants has been undercut.
“The counter-ISIS campaign was already strained,” said Davison, an intelligence expert at the Institute for the Study of War. The effort in Syria has been hampered since Turkey invaded northern Syria in October, complicating U.S. cooperation with Kurdish fighters and giving the Russian military a wider role in the country.
Just Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed up in Damascus for a meeting with President Bashar Assad. Official statements during the previously unannounced visit made no mention Soleimani, but the timing was conspicuous.
The Iraq campaign also has been sidetracked by recent civil unrest that diverted the attention of Iraqi security forces previously focused on IS.
“The counter-ISIS mission is truly at risk, not just in the short term,” Davison said, adding, “It’s hard to see how we can stay on the offensive with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIS in this kind of circumstance.” To complicate matters further, the U.S. military presence in Iraq forms the logistical support foundation for U.S. efforts in neighboring Syria.
The U.S. has 650-750 troops in eastern Syria working with a local group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces to continue the fight against the Islamic State. It was unclear Tuesday the extent to which the suspension of U.S. and coalition support operations in Iraq will limit operations in Syria. Esper said he has received no indication from commanders of a “material impact” in Syria.
Trump on Tuesday called Soleimani “a monster” who deserved to be killed, adding that Soleimani was planning “a very big attack.” He and others have said U.S. intelligence showed that danger clearly, but they have not provided details.
And in the aftermath, the durability of the defeat of IS in doubt, and the extremist group has new breathing room.