By Stanly Johny
March 28, 2019
With the liberation of Baghouz in eastern Syria last week, the physical structures of the Islamic State (IS) Caliphate have now been shattered. Baghouz had been the last slice of land the IS clung on to even as its territories continued to shrink in the wake of counter-attacks. Hundreds of IS fighters had surrendered in recent weeks, while thousands withdrew to the Iraqi and Syrian deserts.
All this does not mean that the war against the IS is over. The IS is basically a terrorist insurgency and it had started moving back to its insurgency roots when the Caliphate came under attack. It still has its sympathisers, active members and sleeper cells in many parts of West Asia. Besides, it has branches in other countries which include Afghanistan, the Philippines, Nigeria and Libya. It is an ongoing story. But the neo-Caliphate announced by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in 2014 — which had erased the Iraqi-Syrian border and lured tens of thousands of youth from across the world — no longer exists. It is no small feat in the history of counter-terror operations. So who brought the Caliphate down? There have been multiple players and factors in this war, in which the U.S. has played a pivotal role. U.S. President Barack Obama ordered American air strikes on the IS in August 2014, a few months after Baghdadi appeared in Mosul and when the militants were fast-expanding their territorial influence to the south and west of Iraq.
Since then the U.S. has carried out thousands of strikes, in Iraq, Syria, Libya and even in Afghanistan against the IS. The U.S. may not like to recognise it, but Iran has also played a crucial role in this war — directly in Iraq and indirectly in Syria. In Iraq, the Iran-trained Shia militias were at the forefront of the battlefield. It was a coalition of the Shia militias, the Iraqi national army and the Peshmerga, the armed wing of the Iraqi Kurdistan, with support from the U.S. that recaptured IS-held territories in Iraq such as Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi.
In Syria, the war was more complex. If in Iraq, the national government had international recognition and support from both the U.S. and Iran, in Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which was in the midst of a civil war, lacked international support. The Obama administration initially wanted Mr. Assad to quit. There was no united anti-IS front in Syria, but the regime had done its bit. Government troops, backed by Russia and Iran, defeated the IS in Palmyra and recaptured the ancient city twice. The survival of the regime itself acted as a bulwark against the further spread of the IS from the east, where it established a de facto capital in Raqqa, to the west and the south. Had Mr. Assad’s regime fallen, one possible outcome would have been the IS overrunning Damascus, just like the Taliban captured a battered Kabul by 1996 in the midst of a civil war and the collapse of the central authority. On the other side, the most dangerous and prolonged anti-IS battles were carried out by Syrian Kurdish fighters. It is this group that ousted the IS from Baghouz last week, sealing the victory against Baghdadi’s Caliphate.
The beginning of the end of the IS was in Kobane, a small Syrian town on the Turkish border that was overrun by the IS and later recaptured by the Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The battle for Kobane threw the Syrian Kurds, who were a non-entity in the civil war till then, into the centre of West Asia’s most complex war. Though the U.S. started bombing IS positions months earlier, it saw the first major result in Kobane, after finding the Syrian Kurds as an ally on the battlefield, in January 2015. But this opened up new geopolitical complications. The YPG is the armed wing of the left-wing Democratic Union Party (YPD), which is now in control of the Syrian Kurdish region. Both the YPD and the YPG have strong ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on the Turkish side, which has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the U.S. The rapid rise of the Syrian Kurds and their military alliance with the U.S. have upset Turkey, which saw a stronger Syrian Kurdistan (also known as Rojava), as a threat that could strengthen the PKK further. This drove a wedge between Turkey and the U.S., both NATO members.
To overcome this contradiction, the U.S. founded a new coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was led by the YPG and included Arab and other ethnic militias. The U.S. argument was that it was not directly helping the YPG but was supporting the SDF in the fight against the IS. But in effect, the SDF remained the official defence force of the Syrian Kurdistan; it is this force that has been the tip of the spear that destroyed the IS Caliphate.
After Kobane, the IS experienced a series of defeats on the Turkish border region. It lost Tal Abyad, Manbij, and then further east in Raqqa, the de facto capital. There was also Der Ezzour, one of the towns captured earlier by the jihadists and where it had been well-entrenched. In all these battles, the SDF did the ground fighting, clearing block after block and street after street of IS militants. It did the same in Baghouz, bringing the Caliphate to an end.
Despite the historical role the Kurds have played in destroying the Caliphate, they face risks of further aggression than recognition. Turkey is alarmed by the SDF’s victories. It has already carried out two attacks inside Syria, first to capture an IS stronghold on the border (which in a way stopped the Kurds from capturing that territory) and then drive Kurdish rebels away from Afrin, a border town. Turkey wants to create a buffer between its border and the Syrian Kurdistan. It has also threatened to attack the Syrian Kurdish militias, calling them a “terrorist army”. Iran, which backs both the Iraqi and the Syrian governments, is wary of the Kurds as it has its own Kurdish problem. Recently, Turkey and Iran have announced a joint military campaign against the PKK.
The Syrian government has repeatedly vowed that it will retake every inch of territory lost during the civil war, which includes the Syrian Kurdistan where the PYD, the Kurdish party, is now in charge. This means the Kurds are surrounded by enemies. The U.S. is their only ally. But President Donald Trump has already announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Now that the Caliphate is destroyed, the U.S. has no strategic reason to continue troops in Syria. But if it pulls out troops without securing a deal for the Kurds, a tragic fate could be awaiting the heroes who brought down the IS Caliphate.