Why the liberation of Tal Abyad is a major blow to ISIS

Friday 19/06/2015
Kurdish-Arab unity will play an important factor

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.