The Collapse of ISIS Has Arrived
With the liberation of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Al-Mayadin, Al Busayrah and the city of al-Qaim, ISIS has lost all of its urban command centers to either the Syrian Military, the Iraqi Military (and its allied Shia militias) or the Kurdish militias.
All that remains in ISIS’s hands are the vast desert outskirts of Iraq and Syria and a few small towns and villages in that region. One is the town of Rawa, which is the last sizeable settlement left under ISIS control in Iraq. Iraqi forces are converging on Rawa now and an offensive is expected soon. By the time this article is published, the town will likely be taken. Since the seizure of al-Qaim on November 3rd by Iraqi forces, ISIS units have moved their base of operations to the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal, which straddles the Euphrates River.
Syrian forces with the help of Iran and Hezbollah have besieged the city and are currently fighting ISIS forces. The city’s control has switched hands a few times with Syrian forces taking the city on November 9th and ISIS retaking 40% of the city on November 11th. Assad’s forces with the help of Hezbollah, Iranian special ops and Russian airstrikes are currently fighting to retake Abu Kamal. ISIS also maintains a tiny enclave perched along the Israeli Golan heights on the Syria side of the border in addition to control over a neighborhood in Damascus.
With the ISIS military structure in shambles and the self-proclaimed caliphate losing territory at a rapid pace, the group will lose most, if not all, its territory in Syria and Iraq by the end of this year, something that I have pointed out since last fall in four articles titled: The Fate of The Islamic State Part1 and Part 2, “What Happens After ISIS is Defeated?” and “ Predictions for 2017 in a Nutshell: The Middle East”.
ISIS will become nothing more than what al-Qaeda is today. This does not mean the jihadi group will no longer be a threat, but its operational capacity will be limited due to the fact that it will no longer have access to the oil fields and banks in Iraq and Syria that it once controlled.
The once powerful Salafist group that took control of huge swaths of the Middle East back in 2014 and 2015 at an alarming rate, has lost that land at an equally fast rate. What many jihadists hoped to be the rebirth of the caliphate turned out to be nothing more than a pipe dream, as ISIS expanded and stretched their forces too thin without solidifying control over seized territories.
This is a mistake that expanding empires have made time and time again. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, became too enveloped in his megalomania and desire to expand that he failed to secure control over territory and establish stable, functioning and viable strongholds to use as staging points to continue his expansion. Like other unsuccessful conquerors such as Napoleon and Hitler, al-Baghdadi was impatient with his expansion and too consumed by ideology rather than practicality, logic and rationality. His subordinates were no better and didn’t correct the mistakes of their leader.
Instead, they collectively grew drunk off power they amassed from the string of military victories in 2014 and 2015. However, they never capitalized on that power and ultimately met their just desserts. Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi may avoid death and capture for years, but he will never amount to the same amount of power he had with the Islamic State.
The issue facing the Assad Government, the Iraqi Government, the Kurds, Iran, Russia and the US-led coalition is once ISIS is defeated, is they must ensure that they remain defeated. Solidifying control over liberated areas is vital, so that this type of conflict does not arise again. What will occur afterward is a solidification of power in Iraq and Syria by Iran and Russia. Russia has built numerous military bases in Syria since their intervention in 2015 and news just surfaced that Iran is constructing a permanent military base just outside Damascus. This further cements their grip over Syria.
What is likely to happen is the development of a “Shia Crescent” that spans from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea, giving Iran direct access to one of the busiest seaways in the world. The Iran Deal, the toppling of Saddam Hussein and replacing him with his Shia rivals, as well the emboldening of Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah through the Syrian Civil War has empowered Iran in the region. A newly powerful Iran and Russia in the Middle East will alter the balance of power.
In addition to this, a rising Turkey under the Neo-Ottoman leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has led Turkey away from the secular policies that were established under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has ramped up its involvement in the struggle for power in the Middle East, putting it at odds with Iran and Russia.
The Kurds have also made gains in both Syria and Iraq, but with Iraqi Kurds independence aspirations quickly put to rest after a referendum on independence sparked a military backlash from Iraq with its military seizing territory that the Kurds had taken from ISIS and boxing them in between Turkey and Iran. The Syrian Kurds on the other hand have been able to seize a sizeable amount of territory in Syria due to Assad’s military fighting on two fronts. Their fate is yet to be seen, but we can be certain that Turkey and Iran will do everything in their power to ensure that a Kurdish state is never formed in Syria or Iraq because their own native Kurdish populations may follow suit.
The fall of ISIS doesn’t mean the end of conflict in the Middle East, simply an evolution of the fighting into different areas. Assad will likely focus his efforts on retaking the remaining pockets of Syrian opposition and Tahrir al Sham (al-Qaeda’s Syria arm). Following their defeat, it is yet to be known whether Assad will take action against the Kurds or maintain the current détente in order to deter Turkey’s further incursions into Syria. Additionally, radical Islamic terror groups like ISIS will continue to exist and be a threat to regional and global security. The rapid expansion of ISIS and its establishment of a short-lived caliphate should act as a warning to the world about interventionism and toppling governments.
However well-intentioned these interventions may be, it may be short sited to enact one before understanding the existing power structure. Upending that power structure may lead to worsening the situation in the case of ISIS coming to power following Presidents’ Bush and Obama’s handing of the situation in the region. As the last holdouts of ISIS fighters perish, let us hope that we can avoid another debacle like this in the future.