Since its founding, the Islamic State has consistently expanded and contracted in order to achieve its objectives. To discern how ISIS might continue to expand, it makes sense to trace Al Qaeda's trajectory, which followed a similar pattern in the 2000s.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proposed to suppress any ISIS resurgence in Syria, oust Bashar al Assad, reduce Iranian influence, continue to back a Kurdish-dominated enclave, and reassure Turkey. It's important to understand why such an “all of the above” approach would not be workable.
Iran is extending its influence throughout Syria as the Islamic State's influence declines. To counter Iranian efforts and the inevitable similar actions of other countries, the United States should dedicate significant resources to crafting its own strategy to prevent Tehran from taking advantage of the current conflict and humanitarian crisis.
Iran has spent billions of dollars in its quest to be a regional leader, but its main achievement has been to spark instability across a wide swath of the Middle East. Ordinary Iranians are struggling and protesters are urging a retreat from costly foreign fights and more aid at home.
The Assad regime's defense against insurgents in Syria's ongoing civil war is being provided by forces imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Lebanon and Iraq. Most of these fighters are being trained and equipped by Iran. Could this network of foreign fighters help Iran establish a greater presence beyond the Middle East?
Russia alone can neither guarantee the future security of Syria nor mobilize the resources to enable it to recover and rebuild. Only by linking arms with the international community to edge out Iran, forge broader-based governance and spur economic growth can Russia hope to achieve lasting success in Syria.
ISIS has a tried-and-true playbook for bringing itself back from near death. Just a few years ago, it managed to resurrect itself after apparent defeat. And the history of that resurrection should serve as a warning of what may be coming now.
It is time for the U.S.-led coalition to figure out what its next counterterrorism steps should be, even as it continues to work toward stabilizing the country and navigating the path toward a political settlement with the other major powers involved.
America should encourage Tehran and Riyadh to settle their differences, not facilitate aggressive Saudi action. Otherwise, the region will be plunged into an even bigger crisis—without an end in sight.
A Syria and Iraq free of ISIS do not, unfortunately, free the West from the ISIS threat. Instead, ISIS is likely to either disperse, with its followers prepared to carry out a range of further attacks, or attempt to regroup in the fragile states of Africa.
The U.S. and others have a major interest in ending the Syrian civil war, helping the millions of displaced Syrians, and preventing the re-emergence of the Islamic State. But they are naturally reluctant to assist rebuilding a country run by Assad and supported by Russia and Iran. What are their options?
ISIS's oil revenues declined from a peak of $40 million per month in 2015 to $4 million per month as of early October 2017. Despite the massive reduction, it's still a substantial amount of money for a group whose expenditures decrease with the size of the population and territory it controls and decreased recruitment.
Al Qaeda in Syria cut ties with its parent organization to portray itself as a legitimate, capable, and independent force in the Syrian civil war. The group appears dedicated to helping Syrians prevail, and now that ISIS has lost its capital in Raqqa, al Qaeda may be the only group viewed as militarily capable of challenging the Assad regime.