ISIS: The Geopolitical Risk of Turkey’s Incursion into Northern Syria

Brynn O’Connell is a third year War Studies student with an interest in political economy. In this article, she examines how the recent Turkish intervention in North Eastern Syria is upsetting the geopolitical balance of the region.

Within the past few weeks, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has been making headlines due to the Turkish incursion in Northern Syria into Kurdish lands to establish a security zone. Within the first four days of  the operation, more than 100,000 people were displaced from their homes[1] and at least 750 ISIS prisoners have broken out of prison. [2] The Syrian Democratic Forces, the kurdish led army overseeing the region, has said the attack has already damaged efforts to contain the lingering threat of ISIS.[3] Amongst fears of long term damage to US counterterrorism/counterinsurgency capability, a predominant fear is the resurgence of ISIS. While before the incursion ISIS had not been making headlines like it did from 2013 to 2017, the group is far from gone. The damage done by the Turkish incursion into Kurdish lands has created a ripe strategic situation for a resurgence of the Islamic State.


Since the fall of Mosul in January 2017 and Raqqa in October 2017, ISIS has disappeared. After Operation Inherent Resolve gained traction, ISIS’s presence was felt in Libya and Sub-saharan Africa, with three “new” Islamic State affiliates: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, the Islamic State in Somalia, and the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. [4] More directly, however, was ISIS’s establishment of a force in Afghanistan operating under the name Wilayat Khorosan. Even after President Trump declared a total defeat of ISIS, the insurgency’s presence has been felt in Iraq and Syria. Five months after forces ousted ISIS from territory in Syria, the organisation began regaining strength. ISIS mobilised as many as 18,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria who have been carrying out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings, and assassinations.[5] In Iraq, the attacks slowed but never halted; in the first six months of 2019, 139 attacks occurred in Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, Diyala, and Anbar.[6] While no conventional attacks took place, this is not to say ISIS’s guerrilla operations were either ineffective or will not later giving rise to their old tactics.[7] According to an April-June Inspector General’s Report, the group was ‘resurging in Syria’ and had ‘solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq’.[8] This conclusion was formed before the Turkish incursion into northern Syria. If the region was vulnerable before the destabilisation of the region and attack on the US’s chief counterinsurgency/counterterrorism partner, it can only be more vulnerable now.


There are several key reasons why an ISIS resurgence is now much more likely now due to the Turkish invasion. First among these is that ISIS already has a solid base within Afghanistan and can borrow on its strength from Wilayat Khorosan to support an insurgency in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is most active in eastern Afghanistan with strongholds in Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghman.[9] These sit at the border with Pakistan which has provided an important resource for recruitment with disgruntled Pakistani Taliban joining the organisation.[10] It has been described as a ‘proto-caliphate’[11] as it generally follows the strategy of ISIS in Iraq and Syria of acquiring territory and installing an administration. They have clashed with the Taliban and are ‘seen as an even greater threat than the Taliban because of its increasingly sophisticated military capabilities and its strategy of targeting civilians’.[12] There are fears that this new proto-caliphate will be the launch pad of ISIS resurgence, with Moscow claiming Kunar will be the starting place of its international activities.[13] However, given the situation that has presented itself within the past few weeks, there is an emerging threat that ISIS will use its ‘launch pad’ in Afghanistan to restart the fight against the near enemy. A key difference between ISIS and Al-Qaeda central was their prioritisation of the near and far enemy. Al-Zarqawi prioritised the fight in Iraq- an idea that al-Baghdadi continued. Therefore, ISIS’s capapbilities in Afghanistan could be used to continue this tradition and amplify efforts in Iraq and Syria.


Furthermore, along with a resource in Afghanistan, to the best of our knowledge the organisation’s financial resources were not defeated by Operation Inherent Resolve. In August, 2019 The Times reported ISIS still had a war chest of as much as $400 million.[14] Essential to the success of the Islamic State was their financial self sufficiency during the peak of the caliphate. ISIS developed a civil war economy within Syria and Iraq. Within Syria, ISIS quickly established hegemony over the oil fields in Deir al-Zour so rival groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, were dependent on ISIS for oil.[15] Furthermore, they engaged in other typical civil war economy practices such as smuggling, looting, drug trading, and trafficking in cultural artifacts.[16] This was why partnering with a local ally, such as the Kurds, was necessary as ISIS had diversified revenue streams so airstrikes alone were not enough to cripple the organisation.[17] The money made from these ventures is stored within or around Iraq and Syria[18], meaning the West should assume that ISIS has the financial capabilities to bankroll a resurgence in Iraq and Syria.


Another key reason to anticipate ISIS seizing the opportunity created by Turkey and the Trump administration is that they have done this before. At the end of 2006, US forces led a bottom up counterinsurgency strategy driven by co-opting the tribes in Anbar province. The efforts became known as the Anbar Awakening and for a period were very successful. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was ‘on the ropes’ from a combination of ‘JSOC raids, US surge brigades, Sons of Iraq militias, and their own lousy communications’.[19] However, this was not the end of the organisation and it would evolve to become the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and later ISIS. The organisation seized upon the political circumstances created by Prime Minister al-Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian policies and the revolutionary spirit of the Arab spring. Chief among the reasons why ISI was able to do this was a failure in counterinsurgency policy. Once those who had participated in the Anbar Awakening were ‘no longer useful to Maliki… long dormant criminal cases against the Sons of Iraq remained open… with ever-diminishing US protection, they were instead harassed and bullied by the government… anyone affiliated with the Awakening was targeted for arrest by the state on dubious or nonexistent evidence’.[20] This was a standard that did not apply for Shia prisoners[21] who were released back into society, fueling the sectarian fire. The similarities between the mismanagement of the Anbar Awakening and the mismanagement of the counterinsurgency strategy in Syria are all too apparent. A lack of US support for local allies combined with a volatile political situation creates a ripe environment for ISIS resurgence.


Perhaps the most prescient of factors for why Syria and Iraq are vulnerable to an ISIS resurgence is the question of who will enact a counterinsurgency/counterterrorism strategy. Most immediate is that the Turkish invasion has weakened Syrian Kurdish forces and has also weakened Iraq’s Kurds as there is regional consensus against the formation of a kurdish state.[22] Therefore, the Kurds are in no position to be pursuing counterinsurgency/counterterrorism operations. However, more alarmingly is the fact that President Trump has made it abundantly clear through his policy that he has no interest in pursuing what he terms as “endless wars”. The negligent framing of the deployment of 2,000 to then 1,000 US troops as a commitment to an “endless war” is outside the scope of this article, but what is relevant is that this rhetoric and policy marks a severe departure to the  ‘by, with, and through’ counterterrorism/counterinsurgency strategy developed by the Obama administration.  His decision to abandon a partner has seriously undermined US credibility as a partner and therefore has undermined US counterterrorism/counterinsurgency capabilities. Increasingly, it will become more difficult for the CIA to conduct operations such as the raid that led to the death of al-Baghdadi meaning the US tool kit for counterterrorism/counterinsurgency is reduced as well.


As far as President Trump is concerned, an ISIS resurgence is a regional problem and one for the US to not be involved in countering. This is the same reasoning that allowed ISIS to establish a caliphate in the first place. As Shiraz Maher concluded in 2014 ‘the western world looks on and sees only a conflict wihtin Islam – Sunni pitted against Shia – and asks why we should intervene… this cognitive dissonance has allowed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to revive a caliphate in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world’.[23] Today, he says from President Trump’s actions that ‘there will be a reckoning’.[24] This is the strongest factor giving way to a situation vulnerable for ISIS resurgence. The devastating effect of US air support combined with ground force operations is no longer an option on the table. What is apparent is President Trump insists that this war is outside of US strategic interests. It begs the question ‘what would President Trump had done if he was faced with the dilemma President Obama faced of ISIS insurgents beheading American civilians?’ This is an important question to consider because if ISIS seizes upon the geopolitical situation Turkey and the Trump administration has created for them, it is one he will have to answer.








[6] Ibid


[8] Ibid


[10] Gunaratna, Rohan. “Global Threat Forecast The Rise of ISIS.” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 8, no. 1 (2015): 6-11.





[15] Gerges, Fawaz A., ISIS: a History, Princeton University Press, 2017, 193.

[16] Ibid 196



[19] Hassan, Hassan and Michael Weiss, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Regan Arts, 79.

[20] Ibid 88

[21] Ibid




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