Issue 110: 2017 06 22: After Isis (Neil Tidmarsh)

22 June 2017

After Isis

To the victor, the spoils?

by Neil Tidmarsh

The news this week suggests that the end really is in sight for Isis as a territorial power.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader who declared its caliphate in 2014, has been killed in an airstrike on the Isis capital Raqqa, according to Russia. The Syrian Democratic Forces (an Arab/Kurdish coalition backed by US Special Forces) are fighting their way into Raqqa and have reached the old town.  In the battle to liberate Mosul, Iraqi forces have entered the Old City, their final target, and are now within reach of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, the very place where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced those pretensions to statehood three years ago.  Another Western-backed group, the Free Syrian Army, is preparing to advance on Isis’ final stronghold, the town of Deir Ezzor in the desert of eastern Syria.  Iran launched ballistic missiles at Isis bases near Deir Ezzor in retaliation for last week’s terror attacks on Tehran.

The question is no longer ‘how and when will Isis be defeated?’ but ‘what will happen now to the towns, cities and territories once held by Isis?’ Or, more specifically, what do the Kurds – who have proved to be the most successful opponents of Isis – intend to do with the territory they’ve taken from Isis in Syria and Iraq? Will they return it to the legitimate governments of those countries (if Syria can be said to have a legitimate government) or are they hoping to keep it for themselves as part of the independent Kurdish states they’re trying to build?

In Iraq, at least, the latter seems more likely.  This week Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region in Iraq, announced a referendum on independence to be held this September.  The government of Iraq would respect Kurdish independence within the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan; but Mr Barzani wants to incorporate areas outside those boundaries into his autonomous region, areas which were under Isis control but which are now under Kurdish control.  They include the oil-rich city and district of Kirkuk; Sinjar in the north, which links up with Kurdish territory across the border in neighbouring Syria; Khanaqin in the south; and Makhmur near Mosul.

Before the advent of Isis, these ‘disputed territories’ had been under central government control since 1991, and it’s unlikely that the government would agree to cede them to an independent Kurdish state.  Quite apart from their strategic and economic importance, these areas are populated not just by Kurds but also by Arabs, Turkmen and Yazidis, all of whom are hostile to the idea of Kurdish rule.  Iraq’s Shia militias have already said they would fight the Kurdish Peshmerga to stop that from happening.  The militias who recently drove Isis from the last village they held in Yazidi territory, in the north west of Iraq near the border with Syria, have accused Kurdish forces of ethnic cleansing there, claiming that the Yazidi populations previously displaced by Isis are reluctant to return to territory now controlled by the Kurds, and that the Kurds are now displacing the remaining Yazidis.

Post-Isis conflict in Iraq is a clear possibility; but in Syria it has already begun.

The Syrian Kurds have largely co-operated with Syria’s Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran since the start of the civil war.  They have fought alongside rebels only in the struggle against Isis, not in the struggle against Assad.  But their success in taking territory off Isis (with the help of the US and other Western powers) now seems to be worrying the regime.  This week, according to the Pentagon, regime forces attacked the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for the first time; a Syrian fighter jet apparently dropped bombs on SDF troops who were engaged in the fight against Isis in Raqqa.  It was shot down by a US jet.

It wasn’t an isolated incident.  Elsewhere in Syria, it seems that the regime has turned on another anti-Isis coalition, the Free Syrian Army, even though the FSA has strict instructions from its western backers not to take part in the war against Assad.  This week, an Iranian-made regime drone threatened a base occupied by the FSA and western Special Forces preparing for the assault on Isis in the eastern desert.  It was shot down by a US jet.  Last week, a US jet shot down an Assad-regime drone and hit two regime trucks when the western-backed anti-Isis coalition forces at al-Tanf were similarly threatened.  And last month, a regime convoy of suspected Iranian-backed Shia militias was hit by a US airstrike when it approached a coalition Special Forces airbase and refused to turn back.

The Assad regime is confident that the rebellion against it has failed, thanks to Russia and Iran.  It’s confident that the war against Isis has been won, thanks in part to western-backed groups such as the SDF and the FSA.  So now it appears to be preparing itself for a third conflict; the struggle for those territories liberated from Isis.  Its attacks on the SDF and the FSA could well be its opening attempts to seize the initiative in this new conflict.

Whether it will succeed depends largely on the resolve of the USA.  The US and its western allies have largely kept out of the Syrian civil war.  Their efforts in Syria have been concentrated on putting together coalitions to fight Isis.  But the regime’s recent attacks on those coalitions are drawing the US and its western allies into open confrontation with Assad and his allies.

It remains to be seen how much territory the Kurds and other successful anti-Isis forces will try to retain, and how far their US and western sponsors are prepared to back them up. Those sponsors will face a terrible dilemma, particularly in Syria: to agree to the return of those territories to Assad would be to legitimise him and to abandon their clients; but to refuse their return would risk taking sides against him. The territorial struggles over the ground from which Isis has been driven have the potential to be as dangerous as any of the other Syrian conflicts so far.


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