ISIL on the brink, challenges await in Syria

ISIL’s few remaining enclaves are primed to be run over. However, the defeat of ISIL brings with it a number of considerations in regard to the Syrian Civil War. 

Background

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS or Daesh, is a Salafi jihadist militant group that adheres to a fundamental doctrine of Sunni Islam. Gaining prominence by claiming the reestablishment of the Caliphate in 2014, the group remains an unrecognized proto-state. By January 2015, the group controlled vast swathes of Iraq and Syria, participating significantly in the Syrian Civil War. 

In October 2016, Iraqi armed forces launched an offensive targeting ISIL positions in regions surrounding the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The offensive marked a turning point in the fortune of the group, leading them to lose Mosul and their foothold in Iraq.

The Syrian Civil War has occupied the politics of the Middle East since 2011. Sparked by the Arab Spring, President Bashar al-Assad has resisted opposition. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian government and its allies, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority KurdishSyrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front and ISIL. In addition to these groups, a number of countries including the US, Israel, Russia and Iran have vested interests in the outcome of the war. 

The drive to neutralize ISIL has carried on from Iraq into Syria. Iran and Russia, key allies of Assad have targeted ISIL positions. The US has supported the SDF, initially seeking an end to Assad’s rule, and has consistently targeted ISIL. By 2017, Iraq, Iran and Russia had all declared victory over ISIL. On December 19, 2018, American president Donald Trump declared ISIL to have been defeated. Despite these statements, ISIL occupies a few enclaves in Syria.

Analysis

On March 12, 2019, the SDF said that ISIL faced imminent defeat as scores of jihadist fighters and their families surrendered in Baghouz, Syria. The SDF had laid siege to the area for weeks but held off on a final assault in order to allow thousands of civilians, including the wives and children of ISIL fighters to leave. Resuming the attack on March 10, the SDF had launched a final attack to secure Baghouz, augmented by US-led air strikes.

On March 12, 2019, SDF official Mustafa Bali said on Twitter that the number of ISIL members who had surrendered stood at 3,000. The coalition, in an email dated March 12, said that there were a “few hundred” foreign ISIL fighters in Baghouz, who likely intend to fight to the end. A number of ISIL fighters have been confirmed killed so far in clashes, with an unknown number neutralized by coalition air strikes. 

The final assault against ISIL represents a push by parties that seemingly do not see eye-to-eye. Traditional foes such as the US, Russia and Iran have been united in their objective to remove ISIL from the Middle Eastern equation. The quelling of ISIL throws up a number of issues, especially given that the Syrian Civil War continues to be waged. 

Turkey, a regional power, remains opposed to US-backed SDF forces, a result of its Kurdish majority. Israel, another regional power, is opposed to the presence of Iranian troops in Syria, a result of its perception that the Shiite state is its most pertinent existential threat. The alleged atrocities of Assad will remain unpunished should his government continue to rule from Damascus. Donald Trump has indicated his intention to reduce American involvement in the conflict, a notion that has garnered rebuke from many decision makers and strategists, including within his own administration. The plethora of interests in Syria yields a region uniquely susceptive to global Realpolitik, with variables that affect power interests far beyond its borders.

Counterpoint

It is important to note that the main reason for ISIL’s potency is the ideological nature of its stance. The seat of the Caliphate is an important normative Islamic position that has remained vacant since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.ISIL’s founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared ISIL the global caliphate, its demise in the Middle East carries the potential to ferment support worldwide, as evidenced in the Philippines.

Assessment

Our assessment is that while the vanquishing ISIL is an important military achievement, its absence in the calculus of the Syrian Civil War is likely to upset the balance of power in the region.