Sunday,18 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Sunday,18 November, 2018
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

IS defeated in Syria, then what?

With the Islamic State group decimated in Syria, analysts are asking what major world powers will do next, now that the reason for their intervention in the country is gone, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus


 Syrians dig through the debris of a building in Aleppo (photo: AFP)
Syrians dig through the debris of a building in Aleppo (photo: AFP)

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Earlier this month, Syrian regime forces took control of Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria and the few remaining Islamic State group (IS) remnants fled the city. Syrian and Russian media were quick to declare victory of the regime over the terrorist group in Deir Al-Zor, claiming the Syrian army achieved what no one else could. But they neglected to mention that the regime’s army was but a fraction of the forces that overtook the city, including Iraqi and Lebanese militias loyal to Iran supported by irregular militias loyal to the Syrian regime, as well as Russian air power and sometimes air strikes by the US-led international coalition.

IS was obliterated from Deir Al-Zor and most of its fighters have vanished, without any footage of them surrendering even though the regime and Russians claimed they were in the thousands. The same happened in Raqqa, which US-backed Kurdish militias took over after the city was decimated in battle and expelled IS fighters – who also disappeared without trace.

The takeover of Deir Al-Zor by the regime and its allies resulted in displacing tens of thousands of civilians who fled during fierce air strikes and battles on the ground. But fleeing did not save them because they were surrounded by militias from the Kurdish Democratic Syria Forces who prevented them from going too far and forced them to remain close to the death zone.

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces supported by militias from the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces took control of the last key city under IS control on the Iraqi side of the border, and areas under IS control diminished to a Syrian border town, an Iraqi village on the banks of the Euphrates, and some patches in the desert.

Regime forces, supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian air power, quickly moved onto the city of Bukamal on the border with Iraq, which is the last IS bastion in Syria. Once the group is defeated there, it would be the end of the terrorist group in Syria and a total defeat of the “Caliphate” that IS declared.

The quick disappearance of IS in Raqqa and then Deir Al-Zor raised suspicions that statements by Russian Chief of Staff of the Army Valery Gerasimov failed to dispel, even though he declared that 54,000 combatants in “illegal formations” were killed in Syria, including 2,800 Russian combatants and 1,400 from countries neighbouring Russia.

Once Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor were cleansed of IS the international coalition declared air strikes in Syria and Iraq dropped 70 per cent in October compared to the previous nine months because IS lost control of large swaths. But the US has not revealed its next move after its original purpose – destroying IS – appears almost complete. Neither has Russia, especially since it also cited fighting IS as the main reason it has a military presence in Syria.

The regime grew bolder after Deir Al-Zor. President Bashar Al-Assad declared the army and its allies will continue fighting in Syria and march towards Raqqa to fight the US-backed Kurdish forces there because they want to divide and weaken the country.

The military reality on the ground in eastern Syria entirely contradicts the US’s declared intentions and Russia’s undeclared intentions, namely to curb Iran’s influence and power in Syria and limit Tehran’s growing influence. With militias affiliated to Iran controlling Deir Al-Zor and the Syrian-Iraqi border on both sides, the Iranian Shia Crescent is complete, and unobstructed passage from Tehran to the Mediterranean is possible.

Washington is watching the completion of the Iranian Crescent in silence, which raises many questions about the US’s indifference to Tehran connecting with Beirut, especially since Iraqi Shia militias linked up with their counterparts in Syria under air cover by the Iraqi Air Force that is allied to the US. The most the White House has done is offer monetary rewards for any information on two “terrorists” from Hizbullah, while the group escalates threats against any opponents in the region beginning with the US and ending with Israel, including Saudi Arabia, Syrians and others.

Some are optimistic and believe eastern Syrian will be the launching ground for a fierce fight against Iran and its militias that will gradually extend to neighbouring countries. Others, however, are pessimistic about the US’s passive position and believe talk of war drums is exaggerated because the US is unwilling to take a risk in eastern Syria to avoid direct confrontation with Russia. Meanwhile, others believe the US does not actually want to stunt Iran’s age-old ambition of dominating the Middle East by land and sea, through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. And thus, it has provided the logistical support they need, whether in the Syrian desert or across the Iraqi-Syrian border. There are many attempts to understand the US’s policies in eastern Syria.

Writer Iyad Al-Jaafari asserts there is “yet another interpretation in which the Americans want everyone in the region to become more entangled through more attrition as the war rages on. Instead of confrontations subsiding in Syria, they must flare up again and possibly even reach Lebanon and threaten the Gulf. This means more military and financial depletion of the Iranians, Russians, Turks and Gulf countries through buying more arms and paying more for US protection. In order to achieve this, a logistical margin must be allowed for arms and fighters to travel from Iran via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. Thus, Bukamal is a critical link for this operation; it is a US trap for the Iranians, even though Tehran believes it is a victory.”

While countries interfering in Syria ponder what next after their raison d’etre in Syria is almost extinguished, the presidents of Russia and the United States met on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam. They agreed the Syrian conflict cannot be resolved militarily and that a final political settlement must be found within the framework of the Geneva process and UN Resolution 2254, which stipulates changing the constitution and holding free and transparent elections under UN supervision. They also discussed humanitarian, military, security and other issues on the ground, but did not discuss disagreeable issues about what to do next after crushing the terrorist IS group. This confirms they will remain in Syria until further notice, even with IS obliterated and its last fighter declared dead.

All the parties that took advantage of the “bogeyman” of IS can once again benefit from the decline of the group and focus on interference by Iran or Iraqi and Lebanese militias, to drum up domestic support for more intervention either by over-exaggerating the risks of withdrawing from Syria and leaving it open to Iran’s colonialist ambitions, or as a stage for settling scores and regional conflicts between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. Or, perhaps, that staying there is an absolute necessity because Syria is home to all the forces of evil and violence, and is at the crosshairs of infinite regional and international interests. The last assumption could possibly be the most accurate.

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