The Fate of the Islamic State: Part II
Disclaimer: for the purposes of understanding the ground conflict in Syria, it is recommended that readers view this map on ISIS’s presence in Iraq and Syria: isis.liveuamap
For a Better understanding of ISIS’s tactics, operations and history take a look at this video from PragerU.
The Islamic State is on its last legs. The assault on Raqqa is in full force by the Syrian Democratic Forces. In Mosul, Iraq, the 8-month long battle is coming to a close with Iraqi forces having seized nearly the entire city.
The Free Syrian Army has begun their assault on ISIS forces along the border with the Israeli controlled Golan Heights while the Assad Government's military forces have begun pushing eastward into ISIS territory at a rapid pace. With all of these fronts, ISIS forces are being stretched thin and their days look numbered.
This leaves the once powerful jihadist group with very little land under their control other than the vast desert regions of Syria and Iraq. With the current pace of the conflict, The Islamic State, which has been causing death and destruction in the Middle East and beyond for the last four years on a macro scale, has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.
Many of its leaders have been killed in combat or assassinated and its ability to project power abroad has become limited as a result of its inability to hold onto territory that it once seized. It is likely that ISIS will not make it through 2017. That being said, what does that mean for the future of Iraq and Syria and the power structure in the middle east region?
In the past month with the Battle of Raqqa underway, ISIS's self-declared capital is under siege by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The battle commenced on June 6th, and has since rapidly led to SDF gains in and around the city. Prior to this, the SDF had been slowly easing into ISIS territory in the north-central part of the country. This military operation, titled Euphrates Wrath, was targeted on seizing most of Raqqa Governorate from ISIS. The SDF closed in on Raqqa in phases (see map) to finally besiege the city of Raqqa.
Unlike the battle of Mosul, which has been raging since last October and is finally coming to a close, the assault on Raqqa has been very quick and ISIS fighters have lost ground at an alarmingly fast rate. As of this week, it is reported that the SDF has seized ¼ of the city of Raqqa. With the US providing aerial assistance and weapons to the SDF, the militia has made steady ground in its assault against the caliphate’s stronghold. ISIS fighters have been putting up fierce resistance, but haven’t been able to turn back the tide.
Once Raqqa is taken, will the SDF continue pursuing south to ISIS’s last strongholds, or will they allow the national army of Syria and allied groups retake southern Syria from ISIS? Tensions have already been growing between the two groups which have, up to now, maintained a form of détente to focus on ISIS. In the last couple weeks, there have been sporadic clashes with Syrian Army troops and SDF fighters as well as the downing of a Syrian Air Force fighter jet by the US.
This jet was allegedly strafing above SDF fighters in the vicinity of Raqqa, which Syrian Army forces have been moving closer to. The jet’s pilot was apparently warned by US Air Force fighter jets to vacate the airspace, but the plane did not heed to their demands, leading the US fighters to shoot down the aircraft. A barrage of harsh rhetoric from the Assad Government and the Russian Government towards the US followed the incident.
The Pentagon responded by saying it had no intentions of escalating tensions with the Assad government, but insisted that it made its decision to shoot down the Syrian fighter jet to protect SDF fighters on the ground.
Although the shooting down of this aircraft did not amount to much, the escalation of tensions between US/SDF interests and Syrian Government/Russian/Iranian interests are starting to simmer as ISIS’s territorial control shrinks. Once there is no longer a mutual enemy, what will happen next?
Another actor in the game is Turkey. Syria’s northern neighbor has been extremely hostile towards the SDF and their Kurdish leadership. The main component of the SDF the People’s Protection Units (YPG) are alleged to have direct links with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Turkey, a designated terrorist organization.
The US’s arming of weapons to the YPG has vehemently angered the Turks who see the Kurdish militia as a threat to national security. Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has stated that he was “never going to allow a terrorist state to be established,” and that Turkey “will make the real owners of those weapons…pay for any bullet that will be fired into our country,” in an apparent reference to the US. The diverging viewpoints on the Syrian conflict has driven a wedge into the once close Cold War era allies.
With the major changes in Turkey’s government towards a more autocratic and Islamist system, the tension could lead to a changing of allegiances, perhaps going as far as Turkey either being removed from NATO or voluntarily leaving the military alliance. For these reasons, last summer when the YPG was besieging the northern Syrian city of Manbij, the Turkish military sent infantry and tank divisions to assist Free Syrian Army forces in capturing then-ISIS held territory perched in between the two Kurdish controlled areas in the northeast and northwest of Syria.
This was in order to stop the Kurds from controlling the entire border region with Turkey. It is more than certain that the YPG would have taken control of this area if the Turks had not intervened, as Assad’s forces were preoccupied with the Battle of Aleppo at that time. To this day, the Turkish-backed faction of the Free Syrian Army still maintains control of the small territory in between the two Kurdish cantons and north of Syrian Government controlled territory.
For the time being, it seems like this will be the status quo, as the Turks will likely send their military over the border again if either the Kurds or Assad’s forces try to seize the territory.
On the western front of the conflict, Assad’s military forces have been making sweeping gains against ISIS, seeing that they have secured control over Aleppo. Syrian government forces have moved southeast from Aleppo to close the gap between themselves and SDF forces, which has led to the aforementioned clashes between the two groups. In the south, Syria’s military has pushed eastward from the ancient Roman ruins of Palmyra, which had switched hands multiple times during the conflict with ISIS.
With the Syrian Opposition/Free Syrian Army enclosed in their small enclaves, Assad’s forces have been able to take the fight east of their once limited coastal areas of control and have had massive success in doing so within the last month. As Assad’s forces and the SDF simultaneously race to seize as much ISIS territory in the south of the country, they will inevitably have more run-ins and clashes.
The only question is whether these clashes will remain sporadic or grow into a fully-fledged conflict. The latter probably is unlikely, as Assad’s forces will likely begin to re-shift their focus on taking back territory from the Syrian Opposition/Free Syrian Army in Idlib, Homs, and the greater Damascus area.
The Syrian Opposition
In regard to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), their ability to project power against the Assad Government has diminished significantly and they have been routed to disjointed enclaves in the Idlib, Homs, and Damascus Governorates.
Despite this, the Southern Front of the FSA have managed to fight ISIS in its own small enclave on the Israeli border region near Golan Heights. These gains, while having little impact on the conflict as a whole, still show that the Southern Front have capable military operative abilities at this point in the war.
However, this will handily play into the hands of the Assad Government, as they will allow the Southern Front to take out ISIS in its small enclave along the Israeli border while they focus on operations elsewhere. This gives Assad the advantage of not having to expend any military forces or resources in that corner of the conflict. Once ISIS is wiped out from that region, Assad’s military can swoop in and take out the fatigued Southern Front forces who did all the hard work.
ISIS’s Last Stand
Once ISIS falls in Raqqa and Mosul, they will be relegated to the desert border regions of Iraq and Syria, which will take longer for both nations’ respective military forces to take out. However, with the loss of its major hubs and access to oil fields to fund their operations, ISIS will be unable to project much power in the region or world.
Most of its senior leadership has moved to the remote desert city of al-Mayadin, likely to be the site for ISIS’s last stand. Whether it is the Assad Government, the SDF or a combined force of both, the seizure of al-Mayadin will probably not be a grand last stand that the jihadists of ISIS would hope for. At that point, their resources will be thin and forces ragged and fatigued. In all likelihood, the last stand of ISIS will be a quick and decisive victory for whoever mounts the attack and will be a pathetic loss for the remaining ISIS holdouts.
What Happens After ISIS?
At this point, we are unsure as to whether Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi has perished as claimed by the Russian Government. His death has been announced numerous times in the last few years only to find out that he is in fact still alive.
Regardless of Baghdadi’s status, many of ISIS’s key leaders have been killed, probably explaining the rapid losses by the self-proclaimed caliphate in recent weeks. The defeat of ISIS will lead to a fractured Syria. In the aftermath, as Assad’s Government wipes up the last remaining holdouts of the Free Syrian Army, the SDF will have the ability to solidify its power in the regions that it has seized control of, effectively creating two governments in Syria.
The odds of Assad mounting a full-fledged assault against the SDF after defeating the remnants of the Free Syrian Army would be strategically disadvantageous after such a long conflict. As to whether Turkey intervenes to stop the new Kurdish-led state is yet to be seen.
If this does happen, we could very well see an unlikely alliance between these two Syrian governments, as neither is fond of the Turks in Syrian territory. Russia, Iran and the US might find themselves in strange positions at this juncture.
At this stage, all of this is mere guesswork, but time will tell as to whether all, some, or none of what was predicted in this article will come to fruition.
The Syrian conflict and the war against ISIS is one of the most multi-faceted, complex conflicts that the world has ever seen. Not all I wanted to cover could fit into this article, but as the conflict goes on I will pen more articles pertaining to the developments in this seemingly never-ending Middle eastern bloodbath.