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Shifting Boundaries: Anti-ISIS Forces In Syria Are Redrawing the Country’s Map

By Rudroneel Ghosh

August 24, 2016

It’s becoming apparent now that the conflict in Syria has reached a point where different actors are marking out their territories for a post-Islamic State (IS) phase. For as things stand the situation on the ground can be described as following – different actors may be vying against each other for influence, but all of them are fighting IS. As a result, IS is fast losing territory and foot soldiers.

That said, as IS shrinks on the ground over the coming few months – this however excludes the group’s ability to carry out terror attacks in foreign countries; something that was exemplified by the group’s recent attack on a wedding party in Turkey’s Gaziantep – conflict between the various stakeholders in Syria will intensify. This has been best exemplified by events this week. First, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia – which is backed by the US in the fight against IS – took control of most of the north-eastern Syrian city of Hassakeh. It did this by launching a major offensive against Syrian government forces in the city.

Now, both Damascus and the YPG are fighting IS. The two have also reached tacit battleground understanding in certain areas. However, the recent battle between the two for Hassakeh shows that the YPG is also using this opportunity to actualise its dream of an independent Kurdish territory inside Syria. And this is not just irking Damascus – neighbouring Ankara too is perturbed by the Kurdish advance.

In fact, this is one of the factors that motivated today’s Turkish military assault on the Syrian town of Jarablus on the Turkey-Syria border. Jarablus is currently held by IS. However, the Kurds were eyeing the town after they successfully drove out IS from Manbij earlier this month. It appears that the Turks want to take control of Jarablus before the Kurds – a fact reinforced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement that the Jarablus operation was aimed at both IS and the Kurds.

Turkey’s game-plan seems to be to create a buffer zone between itself and an eventual autonomous Kurdish territory in Syria. For what Ankara fears is that the Syrian Kurds will link up with Turkish Kurds to push for greater Kurdistan spanning Syria, Turkey and Iraq. And given that the Kurds have emerged as the most effective fighting force against IS on the ground – earning them the support of Washington – Kurdistan can no longer be seen merely as a distant possibility.

Thus, given the way things are evolving in Syria it’s clear that IS is on the retreat. However, different actors fighting IS have already begun positioning themselves for the post-IS phase. This is precisely why the international community must now double its efforts to evolve an effective mechanism that will map out Syria’s future. And this would certainly include taking a call on Kurdistan. On the one hand, an independent homeland for Kurds is a long-pending demand.

On the other hand, if Kurdistan emerges as a full-fledged state ahead of Palestine, it would be a huge embarrassment for the Arab world and create new tensions between Arab states and the West. In short, IS is losing. But the road ahead to stability and peace in Syria remains long and tricky.