By Jason Thomas
November 13, 2017
Even before ISIS had been driven from its de facto Syrian capital Raqqa, Russia, Iran and Turkey had filled the gap — their plan all along. Once again, the West has proven effective at winning tactically but poor at the long-term strategic game. For these regional powers the ISIS fight has always been a prelude to a greater contest. Tragically, we have been here before when, after World War I, Arab expert and British ear to the sheiks across Mesopotamia, Gertrude Bell, was advising Whitehall on how best to stabilise the Middle East to help prevent the establishment of an Islamist state.
The recently declared de-escalation zones inside Syria (along the Jordanian border, in eastern Ghouta, to the north of Homs and Idlib bordering Turkey) are a geo-political euphemism for Iran and Russia to consolidate their strategic footprint at the expense of the US. While Turkish forces have previously watched the Syrian crisis from their border, they have now crossed into Syria to carve out an area of control — also known as a de-escalation zone. From here they can engage Kurdish militants and stifle any attempts at their self-determination.
Iran can continue its march to become the most powerful player in the region. Yet, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to tolerate Iran’s increased hegemonic gains and as with the war in Yemen, the situation in Syria and Iraq could give Sunni extremists a new focus for violence. While it is unlikely that US forces will directly engage the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, what cannot be ruled out is a new proxy war ¬between Russian-Iranian-Syrian groups against Western backed-rebels to occupy the “grey zone”.
Then there is the complex web of support of rebel groups on the ground. Think of a colourful, squiggly, crayon drawing by your two-year old — that resembles the network of alliances in Syria and Iraq.
The West has been supporting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), largely based in northern Syria and who do not support their Kurdish brethren across the border in northern Iraq. The YPG has done most of the fighting against ISIS as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. As the US learned from their support of the Mujahideen against the Soviet Union in its invasion of Afghanistan, turning the arms and funding tap off can leave these non-state violent actors looking for alternative backers with unintended ¬consequences.
Many of the initial Western-backed “moderate” rebels were ¬hijacked by much better Jihadi fighters. Under former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, weapon drops to the Free Syrian Army became an arms bazaar for Jihadis and the re-supply pipeline from Libya became one of the worst-keep secrets of the Obama administration.
Significantly, the YPG is tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), labelled by Turkey (a NATO ally, keep in mind), as a terrorist group. Meanwhile Turkey has been allowing Western planes to use its airfields from which to launch strikes against ISIS. US-¬allied Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supporting Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam — no fans of the West but sectarian haters of Iran.
In Iraq, the US and its allies have been supporting the Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces, but Iran has also been augmenting Iraq’s efforts, through the Popular Movement units, comprising 40 militias. It would be naive to think these militias will simply drop their weapons, and go home to driving taxis, studying chemical engineering or farming.
What may surprise many in Australia is that as the YPG has driven out ISIS, it has allowed the Syrian government to return and restart delivering basic services. Remember, the US-backed Coalition is against the Syrian regime. Back in 2013 the US Defence Intelligence Agency, under General Mike Flynn, determined that the Syrian regime would survive the crisis. Meanwhile Iran and its Hezbollah, along with Russia and China, have been supporting the Syrian regime against Sunni rebels.
As this has been playing out, there is at work an equally complex array of Sunni-Jihadist groups, including al-Qa’ida’s affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). These groups need a cause to remain ¬relevant, in the highly competitive Salafi-Jihadi global insurgency, for members, activists and financing. All this has left the Assad regime in a solid position and thousands of hard-core, Western-hating jihadists free to flee like spores in the wind.
While attention has shifted off Iraq, the situation is far from stable and will require the ongoing presence of US forces. Remember the most hardened ISIS military strategists were all Baathists under former Iraq president Saddam Hussein. After the second Gulf war many fled back to their home towns along the Upper Euphrates, where they are likely to be found again. This is not Iraqi government friendly territory. There are also large swaths of territory along the Jordanian border offering a haven. Many of the factors in Iraq that allowed ISIS to spread remain unresolved in terms of sectarianism and corruption. Here again, the US and Iran are in a tussle for influence. On top of all that is the physical destruction of key population centres such as Mosul.
ISIS is not defeated ideologically, and there is much wishful thinking that once it loses territory it will not be seen as an attractive Salafi-Jihadi franchise. Its “end-of-times” vision easily accommodates defeat and its symbolic narrative can be reframed for a renewed focus on the West. Ever since al- Qa’ida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri helped establish the Islamic Jihad in Egypt during the 1990s, the Salafi-Jihadi insurgency has not been defeated — it just morphs into a new menace.
On the one hand Australia will want to support our most important ally, but on the other, we need to consider relocating military ¬assets closer to home where these foreign fighters are reassembling. With ISIS virtually defeated in Syria and Iraq, it would be unclear exactly who Australia would be fighting for — and against.
Dr Jason Thomas teaches risk-management at Swinburne University and is director of Frontier Assessments.