International players jockey for position as Daesh defeat nears
As the month that will see the conflict in Syria enters its eighth year began on Friday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the start of its “final assault” on the last Daesh enclave at Baghouz, on the Iraqi border. This enclave is believed to contain about 400 Daesh fighters, though there could be as many as 1,000.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, about 50,000 people, including 5,000 Daesh fighters, have left their havens in eastern Syria over the last three months. The militants are of diverse nationalities: Though most come from Iraq, others are from Russia, other Arab states and even the Philippines. While the Iraqis, mainly from Anbar province, are expected to go home through the porous border, others are seeking to escape either to Turkey or even to Idlib, which is presently dominated by Hayat Tahrir Al-Shams (HTS), the former Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Turkey has a tough approach to militants using its territory to go home and has announced the arrest and incarceration of several hundred of them over the last two years. But observers are skeptical, with Turkish commentator Fehim Tastekin saying Daesh fighters “enjoy lenient treatment” in Turkey, with most only subject to “shallow investigations,” while many don’t get caught at all.
The escape route through Idlib is more complex. HTS, headed by Abu Mohammed Al-Julani, continues to view Daesh with the same hostility that its leader felt for his former mentor and Daesh chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi when he was in charge of the group’s predecessor in Iraq.
As the SDF engages in its final assault at Baghouz, other maneuvers are taking place among the principal international players to ensure their interests are protected in this endgame scenario.
US President Donald Trump continues to sow confusion and uncertainty, causing equal bewilderment among his antagonists and his senior officials. Having announced in mid-December the immediate withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria, he modified the time-frame to April or May under pressure from his staff. He then said US troops would be stationed in Iraq to monitor Iranian activity, evoking strong Iraqi statements asserting national sovereignty.
Amidst this uncertainty, the three partners in the Astana peace process — Russia, Iran and Turkey — are attempting to look after their interests.
Then, in a partial reversal, he said on Feb. 22 that 400 US troops would remain in Syria. It is now believed that 200 of them will be in Syria permanently as part of a multinational NATO force numbering between 800 and 1,500, mainly from Europe. Their role appears to be to prevent the resurgence of Daesh and to prevent Turkey from maintaining a military presence in northern Syria to monitor Kurdish activity. This clearly contradicts the arrangement Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had arrived at in December, in which Turkey would maintain its troops in northern Syria to prevent Daesh from reviving itself. The other 200 US soldiers are expected to be at the Al-Tanf crossing with Iraq to prevent the “Shiite superhighway” linking Tehran with Damascus and Beirut.
Amidst this uncertainty, the three partners in the Astana peace process — Russia, Iran and Turkey — are attempting to look after their interests. The fourth summit at Sochi last month reflected both the competing interests of the three partners and the compulsions that drive them to work together. All three welcomed the departure of US troops as contributing to “stability and security” in Syria. They also agreed on the early return of refugees and the restoration of services.
After this, their differences became clear: Turkey wanted an endorsement of its proposal to set up a “safe zone” in the north, patrolled by its troops, to control Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. But both Russia and Iran, believing this would threaten Syrian unity and integrity, insisted that the areas vacated by the Americans be occupied by Syrian government forces. Russia also offered that its military police would patrol the border to check for Kurdish militant activity.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani spoke up for the Kurds, saying that “Kurdish rights should be ensured in the future of Syria.” Russia, meanwhile, is encouraging the Kurds to engage with the Assad government. To ensure sustained Iranian support amidst these uncertainties, Bashar Assad paid his first visit to Tehran in eight years on Feb. 25.
As Daesh is facing territorial defeat, regional commentators have started reflecting on what gave birth to this violent scourge and where it is likely to go. Some commentators are pointing fingers at unnamed intelligence agencies that wish to keep the Arab world divided and in conflict.
Daesh fighters who escape from Syria are expected to relocate to the Western Sahara, Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Some observers believe they could also head to the Pakistan-Iran border under Pakistani patronage to attack Iranian targets. This is a congenial space for extremists, while the Islamabad government might seek to ingratiate itself with the Americans through an aggressive anti-Iran posture.
While Daesh may have lost the “caliphate,” it will continue to resonate with frustrated and marginalized youths in the Middle East and beyond. The latter, as lone wolves, will continue down the path of wanton destruction, even as states maneuver thoughtlessly to maximize their own advantage.
- Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.