With the death throes of resistance in Aleppo and the offensive on Mosul, Islamic State might seem to be close to defeat, but Kim Sengupta warns that it remains dangerous
As 2016 ended, the international scourge that is Islamic State appeared to be in retreat. Syrian government forces were triumphant in Aleppo, thanks to significant help from Russia, Iran and Iranian-backed Shia militias, apparently leaving the way open to attack Raqqa, the capital of the Islamists’ ‘caliphate’. Meanwhile, another alliance was fighting street by street to drive IS out of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
The militants’ response? They took the opportunity of their opponents’ engagement elsewhere to recapture Palmyra, the ancient city where they had destroyed priceless heritage before being expelled in March 2016. Not only did it demonstrate that IS retains the ability to carry out successful attacks, it also laid bare the inadequacies of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces without Russian and Iranian support.
As for the Mosul operation, involving Iraqi government forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi and Iranian militias, Western special forces, and Western air power, military commanders were openly predicting that it might take well into 2017 before the city fell. The Islamist group even struck back, regaining a few of the areas it had lost.
One reason that IS remains dangerous is that its opponents are far from united. The offensive on Raqqa was being carried out by three forces also engaged in a bitter struggle against one another – rebel Sunni fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with Turkish military backing; a Kurdish-led alliance, with American advisers and air support; and the regime’s army, with Russian backing. But on the way these rival groups have been fighting each other as well as Isis. Their immediate aim had been to take al-Bab, or The Gate, the last remaining large town held by Isis before Raqqa, and a crucial strategic point for the final campaign against Isis, but their jockeying for strategic advantage has delayed the offensive.
The events of one fortnight in November illustrates the tangled nature of the conflict. Opposition fighters, supported by Turkish armour and warplanes, captured three villages, while at the same time launching attacks against the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The outcome was inconclusive. The SDF, led by the Kurdish YPG militia with Arab groups in its ranks, captured two villages west of al-Bab from IS with the help of US air strikes. But it also destroyed a Turkish tank in fighting against the rival opposition group.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime forces that both the above two groups oppose also seized villages around al-Bab from IS, helped by Hizbullah Shia fighters from Lebanon and a pro-Damascus Kurdish group, Kafr as Saghir Martyrs. The Turkish-backed rebels maintained that the SDF provided fire support for the regime forces – more evidence, they insisted, of collusion between President Assad and the Kurds.
So capturing Raqqa may take time, and even its fall would not mean the end of IS. The group’s ranks have been swelled by Iraqi Sunnis angered by the actions of the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. Iraqi Shia militias are constantly accused of carrying out massacres when they move into Sunni territory. With reports that some have joined Syrian regime troops and other Iranian-backed militias in Aleppo to execute Sunnis, whether fighters or civilians, on the streets and in homes, many Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis inevitably feel they have nowhere to go but to IS.
The sectarian nature of the bloodshed is hardly hidden. Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, wrote on Instagram that Iran’s aim was to cleanse ‘apostates and terrorists’ from Syria and Iraq. Akram al-Ka’abi, the leader of the Nujaba Front, an Iraqi Shia paramilitary organisation, has exhorted his followers to avenge massacres committed by Sunnis at the time of Islam’s division following the death of the Prophet Mohammed.
Sectarian and ethnic factors were already creating Sunni resentment even as IS was in retreat. The Kurdish YPG has been accused by a number of human rights groups of killings, and driving Arabs and Turkmens out of their villages, as they advance through northern Syria. ‘In some cases entire villages have been demolished, apparently in retaliation for the perceived support of their Arab or Turkmen residents for the Islamic State,’ Amnesty International said. It added that the YPG had frequently threatened to call in US air strikes unless villagers left their homes. Robert Ford, a former American ambassador to Syria, told a Senate hearing in Washington, ‘In some cases Syrian refugees who flee don’t go towards the Kurdish areas, they run away from them and into Islamic State territory.’
Isis has suffered losses of 30,000 to 50,000 fighters, and an increasing number of defections. But some of the 27,000 foreign fighters believed to have joined Isis since the start of Syria’s civil war five years ago, between 5,000 and 7,000 of them coming from Europe, will survive. The largest contingents, from north Africa and the Gulf, will attempt to go back to their countries and spread violent fundamentalism. The Muslim volunteers from the West will seek to bring the jihad home, as they have already done in France and Belgium. Ministers and security officials from the US and Europe are now meeting regularly to work out how to meet this threat.
There will also be Syrians and foreigners who will seek to continue fighting with other rebels. It has been a common practice during the civil war of different khatiba, or battalions, to emerge and coalesce, and for fighters to move from one group to another. Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is in control of large stretches of Idlib province. Fighters evacuated from Aleppo headed there, joining a stream from other parts of the country where the regime has recaptured ground, helping to build a new opposition base.
There is evidence that a new flow of weaponry, funded by sources in the Gulf States, is getting through to the rebels.
Al-Nusra, in response to Qatari pressure, has claimed that it is severing links with al-Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. But rebranding has not saved it from being bombed. It continues to be designated a terrorist organisation by both the US and the Russians.
The regime will have to take back Idlib if it is to reconquer northern Syria. But holding the countryside afterwards would be a huge undertaking for a force which is overstretched and, as we know, not the most effective. Unless he is helped by the Russians, and the Iranians are prepared to leave a large army of occupation, President Assad will find it difficult to cope with a guerrilla campaign.
As it loses territory and its ‘caliphate’ continues to shrink, the Isis leadership is preparing its adherents for the loss of urban centres and exhorting them to continue the fight in the desert. It reminds them of what happened in Iraq in 2008, when a ‘surge’ of US forces and mobilisation of the tribes against al-Qaeda, the ‘Sunni Awakening’, almost defeated the jihad. But it survived, and was reborn as Islamic State.
A recent editorial in al-Naba, the IS newsletter, declared ‘The crusaders and their apostate clients are under the illusion that they will be able to eliminate all of the Islamic State’s provinces at once, such that it will be completely wiped out and no trace of it will be left… [But] the crusaders will have to wait a long time: until an entire generation of Muslims that was witness to the establishment of the glorious Islamic State and the return of the caliphate is wiped out.’