Why the liberation of Tal Abyad is a major blow to ISIS
DUBAI - ISIS’s hubris will prove its downfall. The recent liberation of the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad by a combined force of Syrian Arab rebels and Kurdish self-defence forces (YPG) is a major operational loss for the Islamic State (ISIS).
Tal Abyad was a strategic hub and a main line of communication and supply for ISIS. Its loss signals that it can no longer take for granted the security of its core headquarters in the city of Raqqa. ISIS will now be forced to employ increasingly stretched resources to defend its proclaimed home front in eastern Syria as a reinvigorated Arab-Kurdish offensive gathers momentum.
Assad regime militias in Palmyra offered sparse resistance to ISIS, as did a broken Iraqi army in Ramadi and Mosul. But the ISIS three-front war against Sunni rebels, Kurds and the international coalition is sowing the seeds of its demise.
For the first time since the start of the US-led coalition air campaign, ISIS is facing a major challenge to its exposed flank in northern and eastern Syria.
ISIS miscalculated badly when in early June it launched a surprise blitz against Sunni rebel forces in the Aleppo countryside. The rebels successfully countered and stabilised the north-eastern frontline against ISIS despite the glaring paucity of coalition air strikes against ISIS units in that area.
ISIS has vowed that it will return to areas in northern Syria that Sunni rebels successfully liberated — first from the Assad regime, then from ISIS — in early 2014.
Rather than fighting to the death, ISIS opted to hurriedly withdraw the bulk of its heavy weaponry and foreign fighters from Tal Abyad to Raqqa city.
Its remaining positions in Aleppo province, in the cities of Jarablus and Menbej, could face dual fronts from the east and west. ISIS is steadily finding itself cornered in Syria. Until now, the public discussion has centred on how to contain ISIS but its defeat seems more and more a possibility.
The victory in Tal Abyad was made possible by losses ISIS sustained at the hands of Sunni rebel forces such as Division 13, Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, the Army of Conquest and Fursan al-Haqq. ISIS faced stiff and brave resistance by Sunni rebels in Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor well before the United States and Arab allies launched the air campaign. ISIS has had to cede large swaths of territory it once controlled.
The Sunni rebel factions that comprise the Euphrates Volcano coalition played an important enabling role in the liberation of Tal Abyad. YPG media outlets hailed Tal Abyad as a Kurdish success but the reality is Sunni Arab rebel units played a major role.
Kurdish-Arab unity will play an important factor if gains against ISIS are to be sustained over time in northern Syria.
Kurdish factions also must contend with the reality that civilians in Tal Abyad will continue to heavily depend upon border crossings with Turkey.
Attempts by Kurdish separatist factions to leverage the fight against ISIS to establish Kurdish “facts on the ground” on Arab territory in northern Syria will only backfire in the long term and prove counterproductive.
Looking forward, Arab states in partnership with Turkey should build stronger ties with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani — a sober statesman who understands the importance of working alongside local Arabs against common foes. Joint training and equipping of Kurdish and Arab forces in the KRG by Arab allies and perhaps Turkish special forces is one potential option.
The irrelevance of Assad’s forces in the fight against ISIS is mirrored by the myopic sectarian vision of the administration in Baghdad. New, disruptive solutions are required if ISIS is to be truly defeated.
The international coalition must reprioritise Syria.
ISIS cannot sustain its forces in Iraq if it cannot secure its base in Syria.
The coalition must move faster in establishing a joint operations centre that offers dedicated close air support to Sunni Arab rebels in northern Syria. Kurdish fighters may offer a stinging body blow but it will be Sunni rebel forces that will ultimately end ISIS.
Washington continues to profess an “Iraq first” strategy and remains reticent to highlight its efforts in support of Syrian rebels. But the Americans and regional Arab states may have stumbled upon a formula for success in defeating ISIS: arm the Sunni rebels, provide close air support and foster cooperative Arab-Kurdish partnership.
Anything short of that will simply allow ISIS to recover and bounce back.