The drive down to the frontlines with ISIS is long and dangerous. Our escorts from the Kurdish-led forces insisted on taking us in armored vehicles from their base in the al-Omar oilfield. There are ISIS sleeper cells all around, they explained. They come out at night to plant roadside bombs.
For nearly three hours, we bumped through dusty abandoned villages. As you get closer to the frontlines, there is little to see but miles and miles of rubble.
We stop briefly in the town of Hajin. ISIS was pushed out weeks ago but there’s no one here to celebrate. US coalition air power has obliterated much of the town. A handful of young fighters man a checkpoint in the rubble. For many of the people who lived in these areas, this is what liberation looks like.
This vast swath of desert along the Iraq border has long been insurgent territory. During the war in Iraq, fighters with al Qaeda would regroup here before crossing back to continue fighting in Anbar province.
ISIS still draws sympathy and support from some around here. The US-allied Kurdish forces who liberated the area rule over an overwhelmingly Arab population, and they are seen by those who share ISIS’s toxic ideology as murtadin, or apostates, who collaborate with the American crusader.
“ISIS is not over,” Commander Simko Shikaki said, standing on a roof overlooking the frontline in the village of Soussa. “The military pressure from them is ending, but the fundamental war is eradicating the ideology that has been engrained here for years. The ideology is harder to fight.”
To the right of our location is a coalition special forces base. Americans, Brits and French soldiers are all around this area. In the skies, coalition aircraft provide crushing air support.
Commander Shikaki said there were only a few more villages that remain under ISIS control. That territory could be taken in a matter of months. But the insurgency could continue for years, he said, regardless of whether US forces stay or go.
Yesterday’s suicide bombing in Manbij that killed at least 14 people, including four Americans, may well be a taste of what’s to come. We visited the town three days before the attack and walked around the old souq, just a couple hundred yards from the restaurant where the bomber detonated.
The town was liberated from ISIS last September, and many residents have since returned. We found a bustling town that beneath the surface is simmering with unspoken tensions, with some Arabs chafing under the control of Kurdish forces.
The veneer of security is dependent on the delicate balance of powers with a presence here. Americans. Kurds. The Turks. The regime and Russia. Many fear that the American withdrawal will upend that tenuous balance and create a power vacuum, an opportunity for ISIS to return.
On the streets of Ain Issa, another former stronghold of ISIS, Kurdish civilian leader Elham Ahmed had a grim warning of what could happen when US forces leave.
“We will go back to square one. They still have sleeper cells- every day there are assassinations, kidnappings and bombings. So with the decision to withdraw, ISIS is saying, we are going to start a new campaign.”