Damascus (GPA) – Last week, the Syrian government declared the end of ISIS as a territorial presence in the country, now new questions arise.
Thursday, November ninth is a day that will be in history books as the day The Islamic State Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or just IS, Daesh, etc. was finally pronounced dead as a territorial entity and the world witnessed the end of their fraudulent “caliphate” that began with a giant theft of towns and cities almost four years ago.
The official word of Syrian victory comes at a time when the army and militias on the other side of Daesh, in Iraq, have also liberated all the land stolen by the takfiri group in their 2013-14 blitzkrieg and managed to push them into a small pocket of desert along the Syrian border. Now on the western side of the remaining members of Daesh, the soldiers of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), along with their allies, Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia have managed to close in on the Salafist scraps they have chased from the final villages in Deir Ezzor province.
The End of ISIS
The SAA’s final victory came in the town of Abu Kamal, near the Syrian-Iraqi border in Deir Ezzor province. Despite the recent history of drawn-out sieges and battles over the past several years, this final showdown in Abu Kamal ended on the same day it began, with a majority of the fighters fleeing farther into the desert or surrendering.
According to one Syrian commander “There’s some fighters left but they’re few. Small numbers is all I can say.” He went on: “Some were killed and some ran away. They went towards eastern or northern villages.”
While all of these developments are good news, this is not the end of Daesh as a threat, other groups continuing to destabilize Syria, or in any way a final answer to the question of what will happen with Western-backed groups in Syria. There are several more issues that need to be addressed but these three will be key.
ISIS as an Insurgency, Not a Caliphate
The control of territory and establishment of the “caliphate” by Daesh is the one thing they made them stand out from the usual Salafi and Wahhabi terror organizations. However, as this comes to an end, it is likely Daesh will adapt into more of a concept rather than a gangster state, and an insurgency rather than what was essentially a criminal military organization.
This kind of reorganization has been seen before when groups similar to Daesh have lost control of stolen land. For examples of this, we need to look no further than groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, or Boko Haram in the central African countries of Nigeria, Chad, and Niger (where 4 US soldiers just died in a botched raid).
One thing to note about Boko Haram – which is technically a Daesh affiliate – is that much the African militant group also controlled large swathes of territory (granted, the jungle real estate as valuable as that in Syria and Iraq) only to be beaten back and adapt to a new reality. This has been the case for all of the organizations with ideas similar to those of Daesh in recent history.
There are also other Daesh affiliates that are already carrying out insurgency style warfare in countries such as Somalia, Libya, the Philippines, and Afghanistan. Daesh operations also have high ranking members, including some trained by the US, and some that are still missing. And yet, Daesh is still not the only game in town and there are multiple other fronts still currently open in the Syrian war.
Insurgents, ‘Militias’, and Proxies
While this may be the end of ISIS, and they may be relegated to a small patch of wasteland in Syria but they aren’t the only group that was illegally occupying territory. Much like Daesh, there is still the issue of groups like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) near Jordan, the other FSA near Turkey, the ‘local militias’ (aka al Qaeda) in the Golan Heights, and of course, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Most of these groups are, of course, supported by members of NATO or their allies in places like Riyadh, Doha, and Dubai, or a mix of both groups.
While the FSA was never a legitimate threat to the SAA at any time during the last few years they have spent much of their time fighting with other groups, typically those affiliated with Al Qaeda, even joining with the notorious organization to fight against Daesh at different times. This means that these fighters, who have lost much of their western funding and support, are likely to continue to gravitate towards more extreme militias that can afford to keep paying them and that have experience in insurgencies and asymmetrical warfare.
Other groups, such as the ‘local militias’ that operate in the Golan Heights, are directly paid off by regional actors such as Israel, who are interested in weakening Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran. According to Israel, these groups in the Golan are necessary as a “buffer” between Israel and Hezbollah. Now what happens when these groups are eventually defeated – which Israel will likely deem unacceptable – is still up for debate.
The largest question looming over Syria, however, is that of the Kurdish led SDF. This group is still operating in the area around Raqqa and down towards Deir Ezzor city. This group still has hundreds of US military personnel embedded within their ranks and just so happens to be located on the third side of the remaining Daesh fighters ear the Iraq-Syria border.
The SDF has already come into conflict with both Syrian and Russian forces fighting in the area around the Euphrates near the Iraqi border and this is only likely to become more frequent as Daesh disappears as a buffer between the two opposing forces.
The SDF is still illegally occupying the nearby Syrian city of Raqqa, former “caliphate capital” to Daesh. This also means Raqqa is full of embedded advisors and special operations troops from western countries including both the US and UK as well as foreign recruits from western nations. Should the Kurds decide to try and occupy Raqqa and make it their own, it is unclear what will happen when this US-backed force decides to confront Russia and Syria.
So, once again, we should celebrate the end of Daesh as a territorial power but remember this is by no means the end of the war in Syria. There is also the saber rattling from Tel Aviv and Riyadh concerning Iran and Lebanon, leaving many worried there may be more hotspots for these terrorists to flee to in the near future.