Final Islamic State Defeat Brings Syria's War to a Crossroad

Updated on
  • Forces backed by U.S. and Russia face off in Deir Ezzor
  • Syrian regime has upper hand in war, controls most provinces

 Syrian government forces walk through a road in a northeastern district of Deir Ezzor on November 5, 2017, after retaking the city from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists.

Photographer: STRINGER/AFP

The defeat of Islamic State in its last major foothold in Syria also marks a crucial juncture in the country’s larger war, as rival U.S.- and Russia-backed forces that have pushed the jihadist group to the brink now turn to consider each other.

The battle for the town of Abu Kamal in Deir Ezzor province ended when Islamic State fighters were driven out, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in text message today. The oil-rich eastern region near Syria’s border with Iraq had been one of the militants’ most important sources of funds, and its strategic significance resulted in a race to claim victory there. That contest has been won by the military of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its allies in Moscow and Tehran, over a Kurdish-Arab force partnered with the West.

“The liberation of the city is of great importance since it represents an announcement of the fall of ISIS terrorist organization project in the region, in general, and a collapse of the illusions of its sponsors and supporters to divide it,” Syria’s Army Command said in a statement Wednesday.

Securing Deir Ezzor adds to the gains racked up by the government since Russia’s military intervened in 2015 in support of Assad. The president now controls all Syria’s major urban centers. The rest, including the fractured beginnings of a self-administering Kurdish region in the north, is ruled by opponents. What comes next might include localized cease-fire agreements, a push toward broader peace talks, or more conflict -- or all three. But whatever it is, more than anyone else, Assad will dictate the terms.

“The demise of the Islamic State as a conventional force this year is going to give the loyalists the momentum and the opportunity to try to finish the war next year,” said Omar Lamrani, senior military analyst at Texas-based advisory firm Stratfor.

Raggedy Ending

“We’re at the end in the sense that there certainly is not going to be a rebel revolution,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who has run an influential Syria commentary forum for much of a war now in its seventh year. “There’s a raggedy ending here, with bits and pieces left.”

In September, Assad’s troops, backed by Russian airstrikes and Iranian-supported militias, broke a three-year Islamic State siege of Deir Ezzor city, sited on the western bank of the Euphrates River, and a nearby airbase. The deployment of his full range of military assets signified an intent to reimpose government authority over as much of Syria as possible, especially its major economic resources and sensitive border areas.

A counter-move began a few days later. U.S.-armed, Kurdish-led militias peeled off from their own fight against Islamic State in the jihadist capital of Raqqa to embark on a high-speed drive toward Deir Ezzor, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the southeast. They captured several oil and gas facilities, including the country’s biggest: the Conoco gas field and the Al Omar oilfield. 

The prize of Abu Kamal, though, was beyond them.

The collapse of the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” is the latest development to shift the dynamic of a brutal war of attrition that’s left half a million people dead in Syria, millions more stuck in refugee camps, and much of the country in ruins.

Difficult Compromises

Top officials in Moscow, which at some point will want a reward for its investment in Syria, and in Washington, where President Donald Trump emphasizes the importance of “killing terrorists” not nation building, may soon decide its time to prod their local partners toward the difficult compromises required to end what’s left of the war.

The Kurds, who make up less than 10 percent of Syria’s population but have built a considerable fighting force with western help, have largely avoided confrontation with Assad’s troops. They have carved out a semi-autonomous, non-contiguous region in the north and the northeast and, with U.S. backing, led the fight against Islamic State.

Stratfor’s Lamrani expects Assad’s administration to reach an understanding for minimal autonomy in the Kurdish areas, though one that falls far short of what Iraq’s Kurds have.

“They will give them the right to have Kurdish language in schools, local councils,” he said. “But in terms of security and foreign policy, those are the two things they will never give because that means your central rule is undermined.”

Confronting the Kurds

Even that level of offer probably won’t last, said Robert Ford, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014. Assad’s government might accept some kind of an agreement with the Kurds but it won’t keep it as doing so would risk other provinces making similar demands, he said. “They have to think about the precedent because Syrians will be thinking about that, too.”

“Eventually the regime will confront the Kurds. It’s a matter of time,” said Ayham Kamel, head of the Middle East and North Africa department at Eurasia Group. Turkey opposes all moves toward Kurdish autonomy in Syria’s north, fearing it would embolden its own secessionist community. The NATO ally has in recent months increasingly been aligning its policy in Syria with that of Russia.

Elsewhere in Syria, the potential for violence persists in the areas outside regime control: Idlib province in the northwest, half of Daraa in the southeast, and eastern Ghouta province just outside Damascus. But it’s unlikely to last long, according to Lamrani.

“If they take Idlib, and if they can finish off eastern Ghouta, they won. That’s it,” he said.

If the opposition is to have any substantial influence over Syria’s future, it may need to quickly coalesce around accepting painful government conditions for talks -- topped by Assad’s continuation in office, said Kamel.

“Reconstituting the Syrian political order is going to be an incredibly difficult mission,” he said. “It has to be about power sharing.”

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