Analysis

Future of Fight Against ISIS Unclear Due to Trump's Undefined Policies

While the Islamic State group continues to suffer defeats in Iraq and Syria, its counterpart in Sinai is becoming increasingly active – much to Hamas’ annoyance.

An Iraqi sniper taking up position near during a battle with Islamic State militants, in Mosul, January 26, 2017.
Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

Abu Hajer al-Hashemi, ISIS’ leader in the Sinai Peninsula, has a big problem with Hamas. For the last two months, Hamas security forces in the Gaza Strip have been arresting his Wilayat Sinai activists or people suspected of collaborating with his organization (with Hamas’ political rivals picked up as part of the sweep). Hamas has also prevented ISIS operatives from entering Gaza via Sinai, determined to demonstrate that there’s absolutely nothing for ISIS in the enclave.

Hamas has a diplomatic interest, as well as a political one, in fighting rival extremist groups. Its leaders are seeking to comply with the dictates of Cairo, whereby continued cooperation between the Islamist movement and the Egyptian regime – expressed mainly in the opening of the Rafah border crossing in southern Gaza – depends directly on Hamas acting in good faith.

The rift between the ISIS-affiliated Wilayat Sinai and Hamas peaked last month when Hashemi labeled Hamas members “infidels,” instructing his men to block the transfer of goods from Sinai to Gaza through active smuggling tunnels.

According to Egyptian reports, Hashemi posted guards at tunnel entrances in order to prevent their use by Hamas – particularly disrupting the movement of diesel fuel. In response, Hamas stepped up its arrest of ISIS activists in the Strip, and is now said to be holding about 350 of them.

This confrontation has still not convinced the Egyptian authorities to lift or weaken the sanctions imposed on Hamas, which include travel bans on Hamas officials wishing to visit Egypt; defining Hamas’ Iz al-Din al-Qassam military wing as a terror group; and the imposition of severe restrictions on the passage of goods from Egypt to Gaza.

In an exceptional visit by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to Cairo last week, Egyptian officials repeated the conditions that they insist Hamas must fulfill, including handing over suspects, protecting the Gaza-Sinai border and providing Egypt with information on any suspects arriving into Gaza.

“The Gazans aren’t completely boxed in,” an Egyptian journalist working for a government-controlled newspaper, and who is close to senior officials, told Haaretz. “Egyptian intelligence agencies have a problem. It’s certain that Hamas has information on the location of ISIS bases in Sinai, especially in northern Sinai, and that Hamas is keeping some cards close to its chest. At the same time, Egyptian intelligence can’t rely on Bedouin tribes in Sinai, since these make a living by trading with ISIS. The Bedouin are also furious at the Egyptian army, which strikes out at them indiscriminately. Intelligence officials believe no one – except, perhaps, information coming from Israel.”

Haniyeh, who has been living with his family in Qatar for the last five months, cannot do the job single-handedly. Even after Egypt started opening the Rafah crossing more frequently as a confidence-building measure, there are still those within Hamas who wish to resume ties with Iran instead of relying on Egypt. Or at least to keep that option open.

A deadly attack by ISIS militants on an Egyptian police checkpoint, January 9, 2017, in El Arish, north Sinai.
Islamic State Group in Sinai, via AP

Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is maintaining his Sisyphean campaign against Wilayat Sinai. He recently announced the extension of the emergency situation in Sinai by three more months: This is the 10th time he has made such a move – in contravention of the Egyptian constitution, which permits the president to declare an emergency only twice consecutively.

Last week, the president halted all travel by Egyptians and foreigners through the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel under the Suez Canal, in order to prevent the infiltration of terrorists. He also called for tighter monitoring of “jihadi tourists,” as ISIS volunteers are called.

The terrorist group is also finding it difficult to maintain peace within its own ranks. Wilayat Sinai was formerly linked to Al-Qaida, going under the name Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, but in 2014 it swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Now, though, there are voices calling for it to return to the previous affiliation with Al-Qaida and leader Ayman al-Zawahir, due to the defeats ISIS is suffering in Iraq and Syria. And it seems the blows ISIS is sustaining there are making the Egyptian branch more active.

Watching with envy

Sissi can only envy the success of Iraq’s army, which is working with coalition forces and the Kurds. They have routed ISIS in the eastern parts of Mosul and are beginning to advance on the city’s western sections. ISIS forces are now concentrated in the alleys of western Mosul. Reports from the eastern Iraqi city indicate that many ISIS members have shaved off their beards and changed their clothing, while hiding their weapons. Some have even joined the convoys of refugees fleeing toward Syria or the Kurdish regions, hoping to evade Iraqi forces.

Life is beginning to return to normal in eastern Mosul, with dozens of schools reopening and tens of thousands of pupils resuming their studies. Iraqi policemen and Shi’ite militias are maintaining order, the latter often using brutal methods. It’s hard to gauge when the fighting in Mosul will end, since the future of U.S. military aid is currently unclear due to the uncertain policies of President Donald Trump.

Trump declared that he will strive for a rapid campaign and decisive victory against ISIS, but it’s unclear if he’s willing to increase American military forces beyond the 7,000 who are already there (mainly as instructors and trainers for local forces).

Trump also has no clear definition of what a victory would actually look like: would capturing Mosul and Raqqa constitute victory? How does he envision engaging the Iraqi and Syrian governments? And what happens the day after these cities are liberated?

Iraq's special forces troops holding a flag of the Islamic State group, during a parade to celebrate the liberation of the eastern side of Mosul, January 27, 2017.
Khalid Mohammed/AP

All the players fighting ISIS are waiting for answers to these questions. ISIS is also waiting, since it has to contend with economic hardships – including the inability to pay its fighters on time.

In Syria, too, ISIS is losing control of areas it has held up till now. It is fighting the combined forces of Turkey, the Free Syrian Army, Russia and the Syrian regime. Many villages and towns along the Syrian-Turkish border have been liberated from its grip, and it has been replaced by local councils and militia forces backed by Turkey.

It seems the group is trying to consolidate its hold on its de facto capital of Raqqa, as well as expanding in the Deir el-Zour region on the Iraqi border. A focused military drive by Russia and the United States is expected in that area soon, in an attempt to finally uproot the organization from its economic base.

ISIS continues to hold the historic Syrian city of Palmyra, and even recaptured ground around the city of Al-Bab, near which it is engaged in heavy fighting with the Turkish army.

ISIS' main triangle of operations in Syria, Iraq and Egypt make it difficult to assemble a focused and effective multinational force that could operate on one front. This makes it necessary to rely more on local forces – including rival militias and regular armies that, at least in the case of Egypt and Syria, are incapable of toppling the organization.

Syria may see a cease-fire if Russia succeeds in convincing all sides to lay down their arms. But even if this happens, it won’t make militias join the fight against ISIS or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front). These militia groups will prefer to restock their arms and ammunition, and get ready in case the fighting against the Syrian regime resumes.

For many years in Egypt, there has been talk of the need for a new approach toward Bedouin tribes in northern Sinai, and of the need to invest in economic and civilian development of the region, in order to encourage the Bedouin to fight ISIS. Unsigned leaflets have been distributed recently, calling on Bedouin men to join Egyptian fighting units as soldiers, not as collaborators who at best provide intelligence.

But when the Egyptian army indiscriminately shells El Arish in northern Sinai, demolishes houses or randomly arrests hundreds of civilians, it’s doubtful whether this necessary shift in Bedouin attitudes toward the regime will take place.

The difficult relations between the Iraqi, Syrian and Egyptian regimes, and populations that could take part in the war against ISIS – or at least not assist it – highlight to what extent the war on terror depends on local political agreements, without which even skilled armies will find it difficult to claim decisive victories.

The way things look in these three countries, it’s doubtful whether such agreements can be reached – since they would require considerable concessions by the regimes, huge investment and a willingness to share power with political rivals.

ISIS will be able to continue taking advantage of these rifts in order to survive, as it has until now.