The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, has already declared that the ISIS ‘Caliphate’ is over. He took the opportunity to say so last week when visiting the remains of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul after Iraqi units fought their way into the Old City. The mosque was where three years ago the ISIS leader al-Baghdadi had declared the caliphate. ISIS blew it up during a retreat last month.
You can make the argument that losing Mosul was the end of the ‘Caliphate’ given that it was by far the biggest urban area under ISIS control. However, symbolically the blow to the terror groups pride, and prestige, may be greater when they lose Raqqa in Syria as this is the spiritual capital of the ‘caliphate’.
But then what?
The non-Arab foreign fighters who survive and can make it out, (which seems likely to be a limited number) will scatter back to Europe, Central Asia, and elsewhere. Some of the non-Syrian/Iraqi members may try to get back to their countries, and the Syria and Iraqi fighters can be expected to head deeper into the Euphrates Valley and conduct a terrorist war from there. ISIS will continue to control pockets of territory there, and down south near the Jordanian border.
The tribes in the Raqqa region can be expected to wait a short while to see which way the land lies. When the Syrian civil war first broke out they tried to stay on the side-lines, then swore allegiance to the Assad regime, and then, after the town fell to jihadi dominated rebel groups, they switched allegiance to them. Finally, in early 2014, when ISIS took the area they switched again. This does not betray hypocrisy, it is more a reminder that the tribal system in the region remains strong enough to remain loyal to itself and its survival.
That is why who takes Raqqa, and how long they stay there, is important.
The majority of the fighting is being done by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)backed by western Special Forces and coalition air power. The SDF is a force of about 50,000 fighters of which about 30,000 are Arabs with most of the rest comprising Kurds from the YPG.
This is problematic for several reasons, not least because the YPG is by far the most experienced, trained, capable component of the SDF. If the YPG stays on in Raqqa it risks eventually becoming seen as an ‘occupying’ force by the local predominantly Arab population, and it would immediately be seen as a threat by the Turkish forces to the north who are now well inside Syria. Turkey views the YPG as a branch of the PKK which Ankara regards as a terrorist organization aiming to carve out an independent Kurdish state which would include large parts of Turkey. One of the reasons Turkey crossed the border was to ensure that territory held by Kurds in north-western and north-eastern Syria could not be joined up to make contiguous Kurdish territory.
Syrian and Iraqi Arabs would also be suspicious that the YPG push so far south was part of the bid to create ‘Kurdistan’. Conversely the YPG fears Turkish influence in Raqqa would stymie any plans it has, as would a scenario in which Assad’s forces regained control if it.
So, the relationship between the Kurds and the Arab contingents in the SDF is crucial.
Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy is from eastern Syria, there are few people with his depth of knowledge of the complexities of the region. In a recent article, he spelt out some of the details of the make-up of the SDF:
“The core of the Syrian Arab Coalition within the SDF includes two main local militias. The first one is the Sanadid Forces, which joined the SDF in October 2015. The group, previously known as the Army of Dignity, is led by Hemaydi Deham al-Jarba, the tribal sheikh of the Shammar tribal confederation, one of the largest tribes in Syria. The group had forged an alliance with the YPG in 2013 when the two controlled areas along the Syria-Iraq border before they were expelled by the Islamic State a year later.”
Hassan knows that this alliance is fragile and depends on what happens next. His article explains how the Kurds, as well as seeking to block the Turks, also want to control the dams in the region thus securing their water and power requirements, and also boosting their bargaining power with the Arabs when the end game in Syria comes into view.
The Syrian Kurds and non-ISIS Sunni Arabs of northern Syria are not natural allies. Their immediate enemy in close proximity is ISIS. Get rid of ISIS in the area, and there is far less to hold them together.
The ‘caliphate’ is over, it’s just a case of where and when you declare its demise, but this removes just one factor in this complex war. Syria’s agony will continue, but it’s possible that after Raqqa the vague outlines of the end game might be slightly clearer.