December 2018 was a milestone in the fight against Daesh. U.S. President Donald Trump announced the group's defeat around that time. Believing that fighting Daesh was the only reason behind the U.S. military's continued presence in Syria, Trump concluded that it made little sense for Washington to stay there. In a recent phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump had shared his intention to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. How to keep American-controlled areas safe was an important question. After all, the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG) terrorists operating there posed a serious threat to Turkey's national security. Erdoğan and Trump thus agreed to set up a safe zone in northern Syria.
The Pentagon, however, was not on board. Military spokespeople stressed that Washington needed to keep its troops in Syria, where Daesh, they claimed without evidence, remained active. Obviously, the Pentagon wasn't actually concerned about Daesh. It was preoccupied with the question of keeping PKK/YPG militants safe. Over the following months, the public debate on the proposed safe zone shifted away from the counter-Daesh campaign and focused on who would be in charge. The U.S. military, not wanting Turkey to control the safe zone, made several (unsuccessful) attempts to form an international force.
During this period, Ankara slowly ran out of patience and took steps to launch a unilateral incursion into northern Syria. Those developments compelled U.S. military commanders to negotiate terms with their Turkish counterparts and announce an agreement, albeit vague and ambiguous on critical issues, regarding the safe zone. In its objections to Turkey's unilateral incursion, the PKK/YPG terrorists took a page out of the Pentagon's playbook to warn against the Daesh threat. The group's argument was hardly convincing, as Daesh had lost its entire territory in Iraq and Syria, along with its revenue sources and stream of recruits. Both the Pentagon, which wanted to stay in Syria, and PKK/YPG militants, who wanted the Americans to stay, fearing a Turkish incursion, needed better excuses.
Nowadays, those "better excuses" are in the making. U.S. think tanks and the Western media keep warning that Daesh could regroup and target certain countries. A recent report by the Rand Corporation, called "Return or Expand? The Finances and Prospects of the Islamic State after the Caliphate," was particularly interesting. It stressed that Daesh could stay in business despite losing its tax base and oil revenues, and the United States needed to stay in Syria to take necessary precautions – including the use of force. According to another recent leak to the media, Daesh seeks to regroup in countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
How serious is that threat? It is true that Daesh might want to restructure after losing its territories and carry out terror attacks in certain countries. Especially in the West, racist terrorism targeting Muslims creates a fertile ground for Daesh to get back on its feet and recruit. However, the group will never be as influential as it once was in Iraq and Syria – thanks to the experience that regional powers have accumulated in the fight against Daesh. It is noteworthy, however, that some governments and organizations seek to exploit Daesh for their own gain. The terrorist organization PKK/YPG, for instance, reportedly released some Daesh militants to stop Turkey's imminent incursion, facilitate attacks against Turkish citizens, and promote the idea that Daesh remains a serious threat. According to sources, the terrorists arranged fake Iraqi passports for freed Daesh members. In an interview last year, Talal Silo, the YPG's former spokesman, had told me about the tacit cooperation between the PKK/YPG and Daesh. According to Silo, the PKK/YPG issued identity papers to Daesh militants and allowed them to move freely in northern Syria in return for carrying out attacks against Turkey.
If Daesh becomes more active in northern Syria soon, it won't be because it is getting back on its feet. Instead, it will reveal the objectives of the governments and organizations seeking to use Daesh to further their agendas.