The future of ISIS and their self-declared caliphate is currently being decided on the battlefields of Syria’s War while the Iraqi’s finish mopping up the remnants of resistance in Iraq. The end of ISIS’s hold on a trans-state territory carved from Iraq and Syria is close and the conclusion is not in doubt: the caliphate will cease to exist as a physical entity, not forgetting that no reputable Islamic authority outside of the Salafi-Jihadists recognised it in the first place. While it will remain as a diminished insurgency and inspiration for terrorism, ISIS has gone the way that militarised totalitarian regimes generally go: into crushing defeat at the hands of the many that they have chosen to label as unbelievers, who they were content to persecute and fight. The end may seem quick but it has in fact taken over three years so far, the final defeat is to come, and the conditions for a resurgence remain.
The range of opponents responsible for the ISIS endgame are many and make up a eclectic list of countries and sub-state actors who, frankly, do not get along and have postponed their own quarrels in order to defeat what constituted a major threat to peace in the region. The Iraqi Kurds and both Sunni and Shia militias had a hand in forestalling the 2014 advance in Iraq, and joined the Iraqi forces and the US coalition in defeating ISIS in Iraq. In Syria, the Kurd’s stood firm at Rojava, backed by coalition airpower, and then combined with Arab forces as the SDF to advance into Raqqa, the ISIS capital. The Syrian Arab Army and their Shia allies have advanced quickly eastwards with backing from Russian airpower and are competing with US backed forces to take the Deir ez-Zor governorate. Behind the Syrians, the various Shia militias and Hezbollah stands the regional power of Iran, who has invested heavily in the Assad regime. Behind the myriad Syrian Opposition groups, who also fought ISIS, stands the other regional power, Saudi Arabia.
The defeat of ISIS will be welcome to all but those who fall for their slick propaganda but it will leave the other parties involved in the Syrian War free to resolve the question of who rules Syria and what the borders of a future Syria will be. The problem here that is that all the parties fighting on the ground have expended enough blood to stain the land for years and are unlikely to give up their gains easily. Alliances formed to defeat ISIS are unlikely to hold without a common enemy to fight and divisions will likely re-emerge. Two stand out immediately as a risk.
The first is the success of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in defeating Ahrar al-Sham and other opponents in Idlib province in northern Syria. HTS is dominated by the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Al-Nusra Front, and its renaming appears to be aimed at avoiding the attentions of the US by presenting an image more Islamist than Jihadist. Its actions in Idlib province indicate otherwise as it has systematically defeated it enemies and enforced its rule in a Jihadist fashion. On the spectrum of Opposition groups HTS is at one end and the moderate Free Syrian Army is at the other. While there are still battles going on between the Government and Opposition groups elsewhere, HTS represents the most potent claim to territory from within the Opposition. The Government has already shifted its attention northward and is likely to launch a major offensive backed by Russian air power to retake the territory. HTS will stand and fight, meaning that the battle has the potential be one of the worst the country has seen.
The second is the forthcoming defeat of ISIS by the SDF and occupation of Raqqa, which has its own dangers. The SDF is a fragile alliance of Kurds and Arabs (not forgetting other minorities) and the deployment of US forces on the ground in Syria was for two reasons. The first was to provide artillery support for the advance into Raqqa, the second was to ensure that the Kurds and Arabs did not fall out amongst themselves and that the Turkish forces advancing into Syria at the time did not end up fighting the Kurds. The US solution was a risky one of placing themselves between the protagonists, which has prevented a major escalation for now. It didn’t stop Turks, Kurds and Arabs from skirmishing with each other. The circumstances will change should the Kurdish dominated SDF take control of the Arab city of Raqqa and there will be calls for their withdrawal. A pragmatic move for the Kurds would be to withdraw and consolidate their hold of their territory elsewhere. This is not guaranteed to happen and if it did, who would take control firmly enough to ensure that an ISIS revival did not occur? There is also the question of the political developments in Syrian territory where the Kurds are becoming more assertive under the watchful eyes of Turkey, who have their own intra-state battle with the Kurdish PKK, and do not distinguish between them and the YPG battling for Raqqa.
None of this is encouraging in terms of resolutions being found within the complexities of Syria’s war. ISIS will survive in a diminished form and without stability in eastern Syria there will always be a chance of a revival in its fortunes. The battle for Idlib province has already begun and while there will be the usual justifiable but unheeded howls of protest at the plight of the civilians caught up in the violence, few will care about what happens to HTS. The Kurds are another matter altogether.
The question of the status of the Kurds in the Middle East is one that affects Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, with political developments in Syria and Iraq bringing this to the fore. Next week we will take a closer look at the Kurdish question.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator