Caliphate Gone; Iraq and Syria Still Fear ISIS Remnants

Two years later, conditions are still right for group

A full-fledged war spanning both Iraq and Syria destroyed the ISIS Caliphate, and by March of 2019 the organization had gone from having a substantial de facto state to being essentially landless. The group still has thousands of fighters to this day, but they’re mostly stuck in the desert.

Two years on, the war is still over, but hardly a day goes by that there isn’t a mention of ISIS returning. It’s not wild ungrounded fear: ISIS still has those thousands of fighters in the deserts. They’re still ready and willing to ambush government targets. Most of all, the secular and religious divides that ISIS flourished in in the first place are largely still there, waiting to be exploited.

We don’t see a lot of signs of ISIS making inroads in the battle for hearts and minds, but then this wasn’t ever hugely visible in the first place. In Syria in particular the group has shown itself a lot more aggressive in trying to establish footholds outside the deserts, which may indicate that they feel the time is ripe.

In Iraq there is less fighting, but the government is talking about the fear of ISIS more. That’s likely a narrative to justify keeping foreign troops in Iraq, after previous pushes for them to leave, because ISIS is gone, the call now is for the Americans to stay, because ISIS might not be gone.

With limited ISIS presence, especially in Iraq, that’s a tough case to make. The small engagements are hardly the type that need foreign troops to handle. If anything, the foreign presence tends to inflame tensions and make the situation less stable. Getting rid of the occupation could mean beating ISIS by never having to fight them.

ISIS had more fighters to start with in Syria, but many of the same factors are at play. Foreign troops, Russia, American, and Turkish, are all potential foes for ISIS, while a feeling of powerlessness in the Sunni Arab parts of the country give ISIS potential recruits and supporters.

Neither of these situations means ISIS is poised for a resurgence, or that another anti-ISIS war looms, but the remaining societal problems are enough to keep the fear of that going.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.