Published at The Telegraph
The “defeat” of the Islamic State (ISIL), signified by its eviction from Mosul in July, its impending loss of Raqqa, and an apparent resurgence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, seemed to augur a new era of stability for the Middle East. The jihadists would be gone and Iranian-backed governments in Syria and Iraq consolidated.
True, Assad murdering those who resisted him with poison gas and concentration camps, and hiding the evidence by installing crematoria, would nag at our conscience. But foreign policy is a cold-blooded business and it has been decreed that ISIL is the greatest—really the only—threat emanating from the region.
It would not be justice, but it would be peace. Or something like that.
Last week, the evidence against this accumulation of fantasy—that ISIL is nearing defeat, let alone that the region is heading for “stability” on any definition—has become rather stark. Let’s begin with Syria.
Assad has strategically broken the rebellion, with the assistance of the Iranian theocracy and its foreign legion of Shia jihadists on the ground and an unmerciful Russian bombing campaign. The final confirmation of this was the crushing of the last urban enclave held by the rebels in eastern Aleppo in December.
During that Aleppo offensive, Assad lost Palmyra to ISIL—again. The pro-Assad coalition prioritized anti-opposition action above anti-ISIL operations, as it has for the full length of this war. Assad staked his survival on the premise that the collapse of his regime would lead to a jihadist takeover—and he worked to force this binary choice on Syria and the world, assisted by Iran and Russia. This meant that Assad’s primary objective had been the elimination of the mainstream opposition, a mission in which he found ISIL to be an eager strategic collaborator.
It was always understood that this strategic partnership between Assad and ISIL lasted only so long as Syria showed signs of political life that the international community could engage; once these vital signs ceased, they would fight over the cadaver. With Aleppo’s fall, the moment for contest had arrived.
The problem for Assad and his backers in pressing this contest is that the regime remains crippled by a lack of usable manpower. This was evident from the very beginning of the regime coalition’s move against ISIL in eastern Syria, when Palmyra was retaken in March: this was only possible because of airstrikes carried out by the US-led coalition. Assad’s backers tried to make up the difference. Iranian Revolutionary Guards were conceded “officially” to be involved in Syria as a full-fledged offensive into the east was mobilized, and the Russian ground involvement has become impossible to hide, with senior Russian Generals killed and Russian military personnel kidnapped by ISIL.
The pro-regime forces intended to link up with Iranian proxies on the Iraqi side of the border and prevent American-backed forces moving into eastern Syria. There was talk of a “race” between the pro-Assad coalition and US-backed forces. In truth, the pro-Assad coalition was pushing at an open door. “We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business,” an American spokesman said. “We are in the killing ISIL business… and if the Syrian regime wants to do that,” then as far as the US was concerned they could have at it.
The regime coalition broke through the ISIL-imposed siege of Deir Ezzor on 5 September, and was apparently poised to push down the Euphrates River Valley to the Iraqi border until last Thursday. At that point, ISIL launched a massive counter-attack, striking at the regime coalition’s positions and supply lines all throughout Deir Ezzor, setting at risk almost everything gained in the last five months. ISIL even launched an operation in Qaryatayn, deep in regime-held territory, one-hundred miles from the frontiers of the shrinking caliphate.
Fighting is ongoing in many areas of Deir Ezzor, including strategic towns like Sukhna, and a salient was lost from the regime’s frontlines. ISIL remains in the surrounding villages of Qaryatayn, having been forced out of the town itself. Likely this pattern will continue and ISIL’s gains will be rolled back or given up. Nonetheless, this episode is highly instructive.
In Deir Ezzor, ISIL attacked from behind the lines of both the Iranian-led pro-Assad coalition and the US-supported “Syrian Democratic Forces”, the front group for the Kurdish PKK, in zones supposedly cleared of jihadists. ISIL dress as enemy soldiers, set up checkpoints, and seize territory from these two outside forces that are invading Deir Ezzor. ISIL then melted back into the desert where it faced an effective response, preserving its troops for another day.
The Qaryatayn raid saw ISIL infiltrate with a small number of operatives, and it was then apparently joined by a significant number of locals, who despise being ruled over by sectarian, Iranian-controlled militias. Qaryatayn is hardly the only town in Syria where this is true, and the more ISIL becomes the only outlet for resistance to Iran’s militias, the greater its audience and longevity.
These dynamics are not confined to Syria. The local Iraqi news outlet, Niqash, reported this week from liberated Mosul, which is now held by dozens of militias. “The joy of victory over the ISIL group is starting to be replaced by concern over the security chaos, acts of reprisal and revenge and arbitrary arrests,” Niqash reported. It is not purely a sectarian issue—some of the militias are Sunni—but the Iranian-controlled militias, officially integrated into the Iraqi state as part of al-Hashd al-Shabi, are the most powerful and among the most predatory.
The Shia militias, as part of the Hashd, committed terrible atrocities in the closing stages of the Mosul operation and have already committed abuses as part of the offensive to liberate Hawija, the final ISIL urban stronghold in northern Iraq. These patterns in western Iraq—a confluence of displaced populations and state absence, with no services or security from lawless sectarian militias—prevail in significant parts of central Iraq from which ISIL has been cleared, and ISIL is already recovering in these zones.
The US-led coalition has posited the near-term demise of ISIL’s statelet as the primary requirement of regional order, a view shared by no other actor involved, local or international, all of whom are far more concerned with how ISIL is defeated, rather than when. The US’s adoption of allies on the premise of exigency, rather than legitimacy, has led to military progress against ISIL that is extremely fragile since it is not tied to durable political gains.
The US-led campaign is on track to displace ISIL with Iran, a cure worse than the disease for regional stability and global security, and one that will not even succeed in suppressing ISIL. Iran, like the PKK, is a foreign actor in the Sunni Arab areas it is conquering from ISIL. These alien occupation forces cannot pacify these zones, but they will provide the sectarian fuel to keep ISIL alive long into the future.