U.S. General Stephen Townsend told CBS News that the United States is in Syria “for a while” and is looking to fight another counter-insurgency war in Syria to destroy ISIS, or the Islamic State, after the fall of the group’s capital city, Raqqa. Townsend is the senior U.S. commander leading Operation Inherent Resolve, the military campaign to eliminate the Islamic State.
Most military observers expect that ISIS will return to its insurgency roots after Raqqa in the coming weeks. ISIS is also facing sure defeat in Mosul, its largest holding in Iraq, which it blitzed into in 2014.
Counter-insurgency campaigns can last decades. Colombia’s war against its Marxist guerrillas, the FARC, lasted for fifty years. The U.S. is still fighting the Taliban after 16 years of occupying Afghanistan. It was unclear if General Townsend realized he was sending the implicit message that the United States might be fighting in Syria for years to come.
The Trump administration has been unclear about its timeframe or goals in Syria beyond a desire to destroy ISIS. Trump recently missed his own deadline for a press conference updating the public on the situation.
Before becoming ISIS, the group was al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by a series of ruthless “caliphs,” or leaders, who fought a long guerilla campaign against the United States and its Iraqi allies from 2003-11. The group was decimated after the American-led “Surge” of 2007 and the accompanying Sunni Awakening when Sunni forces in the country turned on al-Qaeda and hunted them down.
Raqqa is under siege by American allies, the Syrian Democratic Force, or SDF, a combination of Kurdish and Arab fighters. Heavily armed and supported by the United States, including fire support from the U.S. Marines on the ground not far from the front lines, the SDF is taking Raqqa neighborhood by neighborhood.
But the on-ground situation is more complicated than just good guys vs. bad guys. Russian-backed forces of the Assad regime have moved closer to Raqqa from their territories in Syria’s heartland that are now firmly under Assad’s control. U.S. forces downed an Assad fighter-bomber nearly two weeks ago. That jet had been bombing SDF forces near Raqqa. The Assad regime claimed they were attacking ISIS positions, something the United States denies.
The Assad regime is blamed for most of the deaths in the six-year-long civil war, which has claimed up to 400,000 lives.
As Raqqa falls to SDF forces, the map of the Syrian civil war will remove one faction and looks ready to replace it with another; the United States.
[Featured Image by Maya Alleruzzo/AP Images