Why celebrating Daesh’s defeat in Syria may be premature
As the drama surrounding the so-called final battle against Daesh in Syria continues to unfold, the question on everyone’s mind is this: Has the terrorist group been defeated, as US President Donald Trump claims? Certainly not many are inclined to agree with the president, either at home or on the European shores of the Atlantic.
As the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) wages an assault on a few hundred fighters entrenched in an area of no more than 700 square meters in eastern Syria, reports have emerged of a deal that has allowed tens of terrorists to be evacuated from the besieged enclave. Other reports speak of more than a thousand Daesh fighters who managed to slip into the vast Iraqi desert with a cache of gold bullion worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A number of US generals disagreed with Trump’s December decision to begin a hasty troop withdrawal from Syria. Joseph Votel, America’s top general in the region, warned this week that Daesh was far from defeated and that US-backed forces on the ground in Syria were not ready to handle the present threat of the group on their own. European leaders also criticized Trump’s decision and warned of a vacuum that could give Daesh an essential lifeline.
Syria’s Kurds, who have been instrumental in dislodging Daesh from key areas of its so-called caliphate in Syria, are apprehensive that they stand to lose even as they emerge as winners. The US pullout from Syria, which one American official said would not be abrupt, will leave the SDF without a crucial backer both on the ground and in the air. The Kurdish territory, rich in water, gas and oil, is an important prize for the Syrian regime. Russia and Iran support efforts to repatriate the rebellious region. But the Kurds, who are allied with local Arab tribes, want Damascus to recognize their right to democratic self-rule; something the government is resisting.
The Kurds have few choices left: Either embrace the regime or face possible retribution from Turkey, which does not hide its readiness to move in once the Americans have left. On the other hand, the Americans say they could not protect the Kurds if they rejoined the regime, which the US does not recognize. In a desperate move, Kurdish officials have called on the Europeans to step in, but Europe is divided and its decades-long transatlantic alliance with Washington is in jeopardy.
It is too early to celebrate the defeat of Daesh and the world must be careful not to take its eye off the group
Adding to growing US-EU tensions is Trump’s bold warning to Europe this week to take more than 800 foreign Daesh fighters captured in Syria and put them on trial in their home countries or face the prospect of having them released ready to “permeate Europe.” The Europeans have so far rejected Trump’s demand.
In the meantime, the loose Russia-Turkey-Iran alliance over Syria is also in trouble. Meeting in Sochi last week, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani had a tough time agreeing on a post-US pullout strategy. Erdogan’s demand that Turkey be allowed to establish a safe zone in northern Syria is being resisted by Moscow, which is skeptical over Ankara’s role in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Both Russia and Iran, in addition to the Syrian government, believe that Turkey is working with Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, a branch of Al-Qaeda that has emerged as the sole power broker in Idlib.
Furthermore, the two countries disagree with Erdogan’s plans to move into Kurdish areas once the US withdraws. Interestingly, the US also rejects Turkey’s territorial ambitions in eastern Syria.
Such a geopolitical mess could allow pockets of Daesh fighters to regroup in isolated parts of Syria and Iraq. Experts believe that the group could devolve into smaller sleeper cells carrying out guerilla-type attacks in both countries. But what is more troubling is the warning by the head of Britain’s MI6, Alex Younger, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last week that Al-Qaeda could be resurging in Syria’s ungoverned areas. He was quoted by CNN as saying that Daesh and Al-Qaeda could exploit “new technologies and (we must) make sure we are ahead of them.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad this week put a damper on the outcome of the political process, through Sochi and Astana, accusing the opposition of being “agents of Turkey.” The failure of the political process will extend the life of Syria’s civil war and will give disenchanted Syrians reasons to back extremist movements. The same could happen in Iraq, where Sunnis continue to feel disenfranchised by a dysfunctional political process. Daesh and Al-Qaeda have used Sunni marginalization in the past to dig roots in provinces like Anbar.
It is too early to celebrate the defeat of Daesh and the world must be careful not to take its eye off the group, especially as it continues to find refuge in countries in Africa, the Middle East and West Asia. Its radical ideology will continue to attract sympathizers until genuine political solutions are found to remedy this region’s endemic ills.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010