NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Taking stock of the Islamic State.
It’s a terror organization supposedly nearing extinction. But ISIS is still making its presence known in the Middle East and beyond.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Even with almost all of its conquered territory in Iraq and Syria now liberated — ISIS remains a threat.
WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has our story.
JIM HENRY, REPORTER:
Syrian government forces took a break from fighting rebels last week and turned their guns on entrenched ISIS militants in southern Damascus.
AUDIO: Missile attack
And just yesterday, ISIS militants lobbed shells into the heart of the Syrian capital from a southern suburb. The blasts killed four and wounded two dozen more, according to state media.
In his State of the Union Address in January, President Trump spoke of the gains made against ISIS during his first year in office.
TRUMP: Last year I also pledged that we would work with our allies to extinguish ISIS from the face of the earth. One year later I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and in Syria.
In terms of geography, Trump wasn’t off by much, although the Pentagon later walked that figure back to about 90 percent.
The coalition has virtually eliminated ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq. But Jim Phillips with the Heritage Foundation says strongholds remain in western Syria, in addition to areas now under siege outside Damascus.
PHILLIPS: At one point they controlled territory the size of Maryland in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Now they’ve been shrunk down to about 5 percent of that. They still have some pockets of control along the Iraqi-Syrian border in the Euphrates River valley and in the desert, which is very hard to get to.
Despite the array of nations and military groups pledged to defeat ISIS, the terror group has shown a stubborn resiliency.
The Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies occasionally hit ISIS strongholds, but more often they’re attacking anti-government rebels. The same goes for Turkish troops in the region.
The U.S. led coalition includes the Syrian Democratic Forces, comprised of Arab and Kurdish fighters.
PHILLIPS: And also there’s special forces from the U.S., Britain, France and a coalition of Arab states that have contributed air power to attack ISIS— Saudi Arabia, Jordan, I think Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar to a limited extent, but most of the fighting from the air against ISIS is done by the U.S.
But strongholds still exist because the forces aligned against ISIS sometimes fight each other.
For example, U.S. special forces have had to repulse Iranian militia advancing on their position in Syria.
And in February and March, Turkey invaded northern Syria. Phillips says that disrupted the war against ISIS.
PHILLIPS: Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria redirected a number of Kurdish fighters that the U.S. has allied with in the Syrian Democratic Forces. Those fighters went from fighting ISIS with the U.S. and they were diverted to northern Syria to fight the Turks and the inconvenient truth is Turkey’s Erdogan government sees Syrian Kurds as a bigger threat to Turkey than ISIS ever was.
Turkey considers Kurds terrorists affiliated with rebels in its own country, and President Recep Erdogan this week signaled he’s ready to send forces back across the border to fight against the Kurds.
Former U.S. Ambassador Alberto Fernandez headed the State Department’s effort to undermine terrorist propaganda. He says reducing ISIS territory to zero likely will never happen. There are too many places to hide in the desert. In the meantime—
FERNANDEZ: I think a lot of what they’re doing is hunkering down. A lot of it is a return to guerilla warfare.
Fernandez says ISIS took advantage of the Syrian civil war chaos and will likely continue to do so wherever those conditions emerge.
FERNANDEZ: They’re going to shelter in the corners, the dark corners of the region. They’re going to wait their time until another country, another place is destabilized or some of the same places where they are destabilized. This is a long game for them. This is an issue of decades. This is not an issue of three years or four years, the way we in America often see these things.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.