On the Eve of the Battle for Idlib: The State of Play in Syria and Iraq
Two ideas that have become quite prevalent are that the Islamic State is defeated or on its way to defeat and that the Syrian war is winding down. Both are gravely mistaken.
Islamic State resurgent
With the Islamic State (ISIS, alternatively known as IS, ISIL, or Daesh) driven from its Iraqi “capital”, Mosul, in July 2017, and its Syrian counterpart, Raqqa, in October 2017, the caliphate was virtually destroyed. There is still a pocket of territory along the Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria around the town of Hajin, but the American-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS is planning to deal with this in due course. Virtually every identifiable leader of ISIS, excepting only the caliph, has been eliminated. And the wave of foreign attacks has significantly slowed; the anticipated flood of jihadi returnees to Europe did not come to pass – or not yet.
There are a number of problems with this sanguine picture.
First, when these metrics – territory, leaders killed, finances, foreign volunteers, and external operations – were used the last time, after the Surge and Awakening had apparently defeated the Islamic State movement in 2007-08, they led to the failure to detect that ISIS was gaining strength.
The truth is that ISIS, even now, is far stronger than in 2008 after it had been seemingly eradicated. ISIS is at least as strong as it was in mid-2011 when it was resurgent in Iraq, and possibly as strong as it was in 2012-13 after it had broken key operatives out of prison and began forming shadow institutions in advance of the caliphate declaration in 2014. ISIS’s key institutions – above all its security apparatus – have held intact.
All this is before even considering ISIS’s foreign operations: ISIS is now a global terrorist organisation in a way it was not before. It is able to strike at targets on Western soil, and with the journeying of key operatives from the “centre” to battlefields like Afghanistan, Egypt, and Yemen, ISIS has a brand and bases to ensure its safety and survival long into the future.
The resilience ISIS has shown since it lost its pseudo-statelet in Syria and Iraq is not an accident. The group made a show of force during the battle for Mosul, as commanded by its leader, but in Raqqa it pursued its more usual tactic of retreating from urban areas in the face of overwhelming opposition. ISIS took a strategic decision to move from governance to insurgency in October 2017. Since then, in its weekly magazine, Al-Naba, ISIS has documented the growing strength of its insurgency across the Sunni-majority areas of north and central Iraq.
Nor is this a post-Mosul or post-Raqqa development: Al-Naba was describing ISIS’s advances in purportedly-liberated areas of Iraq as early as 2016, just months after ISIS started losing ground. By early 2017, the strength of the ISIS insurgency in Iraq was clear.
The Iraqi security forces (ISF) are more-or-less holding the cities, not least because ISIS is not yet contesting that space. The focus has not really been on ambushes and roadside bombings against ISF daytime patrols. Instead, ISIS’s current campaign in Iraq looks very similar to the 2010-13 period. ISIS rules the city streets by night, and the rural areas, where ISIS has its strategic depth, are once again slipping under jihadist dominance. ISIS’s Sunni rivals – tribal leaders and others who have sided with the state – are being cut down, even in broad daylight, often in their homes. “Fake” checkpoints are springing up – a serious demonstration of confidence. The checkpoints are a lucrative source of revenue, and without the expenditure of running a state a little money can go a long way.
For the moment, it seems unlikely that ISIS will re-attempt the caliphate; rather, it will continue to extend its reach and legitimacy. The Iraqi Government’s anti-ISIS campaign did not distinguish well between the defeat of ISIS and the defeat of the Sunni community that ISIS claimed to represent. The jihadists were defeated by a grinding military operation that devastated the city and inflicted a serious toll on civilians, not because the Sunnis were persuaded to reject ISIS for a better political option. Iraq’s political life now is a mostly-Shi’a scramble to divide the spoils. That Iran’s proxy militias exert such influence over this scene has given ISIS a reservoir of sectarianism to feed on. ISIS has attacked the Iranian regime in its capital city – a feat al-Qaeda never managed, not least because al-Qaeda’s core leadership remains sheltered in Iran by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). As the lawlessness of Iran’s militias escalates and the memory of ISIS’s barbarism fades, the political space in which ISIS can manoeuvre widens.
The Turco-Kurdish nexus
These dynamics – of a local population humbled by force and subjected to the rule of actors they consider alien occupiers in the aftermath of ISIS – are very much at work in Syria too, as is ISIS’s irregular warfare in liberated zones. Also just like Iraq, the problem was baked into the Coalition’s strategy from the beginning.
The Coalition’s anti-ISIS mission in Syria was pursued “by, with, and through” the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish guerrillas, who then added some dependent Arab units to their ranks and rebranded this supposed Arab-Kurdish coalition as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The YPG is the name under which the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) operates on Syrian soil and, whatever the ethnic balance within the SDF, the PKK totally dominates the SDF structure, politically and militarily.
The PKK was born in the late 1970s as a Marxist-Leninist organisation that combined Kurdish nationalism and a cult around its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, into its ideology. The PKK is an internationally designated terrorist organisation because of its atrocious conduct, much of it against Kurds, in the course of its separatist insurgency in Turkey. The PKK is also under sanctions for its deep and extensive role in the global narcotics trade.
Despite the propaganda of a “progressive” democracy being formed under YPG/PKK rule in the area of Syria they call “Rojava”, the government is exactly what would be expected of post-Bolshevik narco-barons. And atop this ethically dubious policy of replacing one terrorist group with another, there is the key strategic problem. Simply put, Turkey is, quite reasonably, furious at the creation of a PKK statelet on its southern frontier that is already acting as a rear base and support zone to people who massacre Turkish civilians.
The end result is that as the U.S. – rhetorically – switches from confronting ISIS to confronting Iran, it is reliant on a partner force that has friendly relations with the Iran-Russia axis. The SDF/PKK is currently negotiating its own reintegration into the Assad state in Syria, which in turn is totally reliant on Iran’s terrorist militias for survival. The PKK has said it is considering joining the Assad-Iran forces when they attack the Turkish-protected Idlib province. This is the kind of thing (since the PKK has American backing for these talks) that has alienated America’s Turkish NATO ally to such an extent that the U.S. now finds itself isolated in the Rojava enclave, with Russia, Iran, and Turkey viewing its departure as the optimum outcome.
The Russian factor
The Russian tactics that are likely to be put to use in Idlib have already been seen with the fall of Deraa in southern Syria in July. This represented the collapse of the last pocket of mainstream rebels in the country – those that had been vetted and supported by the U.S. and its allies. The forces that re-took the area included the battered remnants of Assad’s army and primarily the Shi’a Islamist troops, foreign and local, under the command of IRGC. This area is on the northern border with Israel, but Russia convinced Israel not to react to the pro-regime offensive.
The Russians had signalled that they would keep IRGC-linked forces away from Israel’s border, inducing Tel Aviv to see Russia as a partner – one with skin in the game and a willingness to act decisively, unlike America. After the rebel collapse, Moscow said what had long been obvious: they cannot compel Iran to do anything in Syria – and the evidence of any Russian will to contain Iran in Syria is also yet to materialise.
Whether or not Israel believed these promises, as some of its officials certainly seem to have indicated (and as some American officials apparently still do), the end result is the same: the West’s allies – Israel, Jordan, and Turkey – are all more dependent than ever on Russia in pursuit of their interests in Syria, or more precisely believe themselves to be.
What is needed now is a new, coherent U.S. policy that can balance between the interests of YPG/PKK and Turkey and leave half of Syria in Allied hands (i.e. those of US- and Turkish-backed forces). By contrast, the current course will only allow the Russians to play off the U.S. and Turkey against each other and have the Assad/Iran system reconquer the whole country. There are in fact some who advocate for this policy, arguing that Assad and Russia are bulwarks against, rather than enablers of, terrorism – whether the Islamic State or the Islamic Republic. Putting aside the obvious humanitarian catastrophe this policy entails, it is naïve in the extreme.
Assad’s regime is a patchwork of sectarian militias, most of them under Iranian influence if not outright control. These mafia-like entities, terroristic in themselves, can never exercise sovereignty in a manner that closes the space for Sunni terrorists, let alone provides an environment into which Western money can or should be poured in the name of “reconstruction”. This permanent instability and strategic foothold for Iran on NATO’s doorstep is a danger in its own right for the Euro-Atlantic Alliance.
In the more immediate term, if the pro-Assad coalition does not succeed in forcing Turkey to fold its position in Idlib through negotiation, and instead launches an all-out offensive, the scattering of refugees and terrorists is likely to be on such a scale that it creates a new internal security crisis in Europe.
Kyle Orton is an analyst on the Syrian conflict, which he has covered continuously since it began in 2011. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and other outlets. He tweets @KyleWOrton