ISIS’s last stronghold falls, crucial role played by pro-Iran forces
Tunis- With the capture of the border town of Abu Kamal, the Syrian regime and its international backers look to have taken the last redoubt in Syria of the Islamic State (ISIS). But the distant threat of further conflict with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Turkey looms.
The seizure of ISIS’s final Syrian stronghold came as more of a whimper than a bang, with the UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reporting that regime militias established a corridor out of the town for jihadists to retreat into the empty lands of Deir ez-Zor governorate and the waiting SDF.
“The last stronghold of Daesh (ISIS), Abu Kamal, is free of the Daesh organisation,” an unidentified commander in the regime’s military alliance was quoted by Reuters as saying, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Hezbollah, he continued, had proven itself “the foundation in the battle of Abu Kamal.” He said hundreds of the elite forces of the Iran-backed Shia group took part in the battle.
With ISIS hobbled, there are signs that the Damascus regime is shifting its attention to Turkish positions in northern Syria, as well as the precarious fate of the US-backed Kurds.
Speaking to Lebanese TV channel, al-Mayadeen, senior adviser to the Assad regime Bouthaina Shaaban characterised US and Turkish forces within Syria as “illegal invaders.”
“Turkey today is a coloniser country, its forces on our soil are illegal, just as the American forces are on our soil illegally,” she said. “We will deal with this issue as we deal with any illegal invader force on our lands.”
However, after seven years of warfare, few are confident the regime is preparing itself for conflict with a major power.
“No one’s looking to start a fight right now,” RAND Corporation political analyst Ben Connable said in a telephone interview. “However, anything could happen. You’ve got a pretty toxic mix of people there and let’s not forget other jihadist groups within the disputed areas, such as Ahrar al-Sham… Anyone who predicts what might happen in the next three weeks really is taking a chance.”
Precisely how many Turkish and US troops are present within Syria is unclear.
A convoy of Turkish armoured vehicles entered Idlib province in northern Syria in early October, ostensibly to police the de-escalation zone agreed there by Turkey, Russia and Iran.
The United States first officially deployed troops in support of Kurdish forces in Syria in 2016. The Trump administration has admitted to 503 soldiers being in the country but the Washington Post reported in late October that a US general said there could be as many as 4,000 US service personnel supporting the Kurdish-dominated SDF. Either way, any confrontation between the forces stands to be significant.
Other than the regime and its allies, the SDF has proven itself the only force within Syria capable of checking ISIS’s ambitions, seizing the jihadist group’s self-declared capital of Raqqa in October. At the time, the SDF was keen to talk of the city as falling within a potential Kurdish homeland, a possibility hinted at by the Syrian foreign minister in September.
However, with the war’s impetus shifting away from the Kurds and their American allies in favour of the regime, notions of a Kurdish homeland within a federal Syria look less likely.
“Everything is up to the Syrians and to discussions between Syrians and there cannot be a discussion on the division or cutting up of a part of the country or on so-called federalism,” Shaaban said to al-Mayadeen.
Pointing to the Kurdish region of Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was swiftly reclaimed by Baghdad with the tacit support of Iran and Turkey after a Kurdish independence referendum, Shaaban said its fate “should be a lesson.”
While Kirkuk does serve as an analogy for Kurdish ambitions within Syria, its application is limited.
“In Iraq, you really have a strong central state that can do that (take and hold Kirkuk),” Connable said. “In Syria, we’re a long way off that. You’ve also got to consider just the sheer exhaustion of the participants. It’s really not clear if they’re ready for a fresh fight.”
With the Assad regime emboldened, there are few certainties in Syria and assumptions by Ankara, Washington and the Kurds of the Rojava seem far less certain.
Elsewhere, as Saudi Arabia carves out a new course for itself across the region, what ground it and its proxies might be willing to cede to Iran and its allies in Syria remains a matter of conjecture.