At its peak ISIS/ ISIL, which was controlling territory equal to Great Britain with a population of approximately 9 million people, is eventually nearing its end. In Iraq ISIS controlled almost 40% territory that has now shrank to 17%. Two major cities have been reclaimed from ISIS (Tikrit and Ramadi), in addition to a number of significant towns.
Encirclement of Fallujah by Iraqi Defence Forces is complete and may fall any day; fall of Mosul is a certainty in the near future. In Syria ISIS has already lost almost 20% of its territories. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with the support of Turkey and US are closing on to Raqqa to retake it. Loss of the so called capital of ISIS will practically mark the beginning of the end of ISIS rule in Syria and Iraq. Chances of ISIS consolidating its positions in Iraq and Syria are slim given the exodus of its cadres and economic strangulation by the US-led alliance and Russia. The Islamic State has been forced to cut salaries of its fighters by 50% in Syria due to “exceptional circumstances” as air strikes continue to target its revenue streams. There are signs of revolt within the rank and file and exodus of cadres from the frontline is a regular affair.
In the backdrop of diminishing territorial control of ISIS, there is another competition among the stakeholders that is intensifying – to fill the vacuum that would be vacated by ISIS. The stakeholders who are moving fast to capture maximum territory are- Iraqi Security Forces who would endeavour to regain the control over the oil producing regions of Northern Iraq, Kurds in Northern Syria and Iraq, SDF with the support of US and Turkey would attempt to take over the territory close to Turkish border and coastal area of Syria. Syrian Regime Forces with the help of Russia and Iran would endeavour to expand in North and East right up to the border with Iraq.
Even if ISIS is defeated the conflict is unlikely to end and the competition will intensify among the stakeholders to control large swaths of territory. Arab fighters have been joining the SDF’s ranks in droves, this has become possible due to incentive and sensing victory. In fact, training these Syrian Arab Coalition fighters is one of the core purposes of the 250 US special operations forces deployed to Syria in April 2016.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain have until recently sent significant resources to Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafist groups. Consequently Jabhat al-Nusra has become the best armed force among the opposition. Motive is simple – to control and lay down foundation of a Sunni State in Sunni dominated regions of Syria and Iraq.
Irony is that every stakeholder is fighting for its pound of flesh and not for the cause of the unfortunate citizens of Iraq and Syria. The stakeholders appearing to fight from the same side have different motives. However the ISIS is only an alibi for capturing the territory that would ultimately protect vital interests of each stakeholder. The interests of the stakeholders are likely to be the following:-
- Regime forces are fighting to hold on to part of Syria especially the Alawites (Shia) inhabited areas and Eastern flank of Mediterranean including Damascus. Forces loyal to Bashar Al Assad would endeavour to expand towards east to regain control of all major oil fields, including the Omar oil field, that is considered largest, with a capacity to produce 75,000 barrels a day. The Regime forces would like to regain control over Palmyra, the heart of Syria’s gas sector earliest. Regime forces with the support of Russia and Iran would endeavour to consolidate to prevent loss of any territory. It will face stiff resistance from SDF, Jabhat Al Nusara and US led alliance. The US considers that Syria has long been a major supporter of terrorist groups including Hezbollah, Hamas, and al Qaeda in Iraq and thus the regime needs to be replaced.
- SDF with the support of Turkey and US would endeavour to establish democratic state in Syria and also capture maximum territory currently occupied by ISIS. It would resist expansion by Kurds in the North and Regime forces in coastal areas and towards East as well. It is likely that it may face resistance from Jabhat Al Nusra and other factions of Al Qaeda. Even Salafist armed groups have fought with SDF and Jabhat al-Nusra over resources and control of territory, and have articulated their desire in Jihadist forums for a national rather than a global political structure in Syria. SDF would attempt to capture or gain territory that would ultimately be vacated by ISIS before Salafist Armed Group and Al Nusra can capture them.
- Kurdish fighters popularly known as Peshmerga sees it as an opportunity to establish a Kurdish homeland with Eribil as the capital. It is likely to seize the opportunity to expand their control over Kurds inhabited areas in Iraq and Syria. It has surrounded Mosul from North and is willy nilly controlling the oil rich region of Kirkuk in Northern Iraq. Kurds are supported by the US and Russia. The US may ultimately use Kurds as leverage against Iran and Russia would attempt to leverage Kurds against Turkey. It seems certain that Kurds will capture large parts that will ultimately be vacated by ISIS and Kurds are strategically positioning their forces accordingly.
- The main reason for the US to be in war is to see that Russia’s is evicted from the Mediterranean Sea and its bases in Latakia and Tartus are taken over. Similarly the US wants to eliminate influence of Iran over Shiite Iraq and Syria. The US is using Turkey on one side against Bashar Al Assad and Kurds against ISIS. The US is keen to establish a democratic regime in Syria without Basahr Al Assad, ISIS and Al Qaeda though it has no hesitation in brining Jabhat Al Nusra on Board with conditions. At one point the US was appearing the weakest stakeholder but ultimately it seems it is succeeding even without committing troops on ground.
- Russia’s Mediterranean strategy will succeed only if it is able to retain its foot hold in Syria for which Russia has risked its military reputation by committing his Special Forces and resources. At the same time Russia sees no other alternative that can secure its interests in Syria other than Assad. It is strategic compulsion that Russia and the US have extended support to Kurds. Russia does not want to lose a potential future ally that it can be used against Turkey. At the same time the US would attempt to use Kurds against Iran since Kurds are spread over five nations in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia.
- Iran would like to secure its interests by ensuring that Shia regimes in the region remains intact and thus does not want Assad or even the Shia government in Iraq to lose further territory. At the same time it does not want Saudi Arabia and its allies to marginalise Iranian and Shiite interests. Iran supporting Assad would mean that it gets access to Mediterranean Sea for export of oil and gas to Europe. Assad’s regime is Iran’s principal ally in the Levant and, as Iranian leaders often note, effectively gives Iran a border with Israel.
- Saudi Arabia and its allies are keen to establish a Sunni Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to eliminate the possibility of Shia states in Iraq and Syria that connects Iran to Mediterranean Sea. Defeat of ISIS will hurt Saudi Arabia more than any other nation since during initial stages of conflict, the Islamic State was supported by Saudi Arabia and its allies that prevented consolidation by Shia regimes in Iraq and Syria. But considering the threat to global peace Saudi Arabia will have to allow Islamic State to get consigned to history sooner or later.
The political and geographical map of the Middle East is set to change. The real competition will remain between Russia and the US. Contours of conflict suggest the following:-
- The geographical and political boundaries of Syria as a state are unlikely to remain what it was prior to 2011.
- ISIS as a state is likely to cease but ISIS terror organisation is likely to remain and potential of its spread to Africa and Central Asia is a high probability.
- Defeat of ISIS will by no means mark the death of violent Salafist extremism, and it is likely that bulk of ISIS’ survivors may defect to al Qaeda or other Salafist groups, rather than renounce the violent movement in its entirety.
- ISIS affiliates in Nigeria, Libya, and Afghanistan are doing quite well and removing it from Syria and Iraq without eroding its support base in the three regions will be a job half done. Thus it is imperative to launch a campaign in North Africa, CAR and Afghanistan against them. Using ISIS as strategic assets will be a costly mistake.
- ISIS controls two third of Iraq and Syrian oil resources. As long as availability of oil remains with ISIS, total defeat is a difficult preposition since availability of cadres due to economic reasons will remain intact.
- Loss of Raqqa will erode the symbol of invincibility of ISIS.
- Syria and Iraq are likely to get split into Alawites (Shia) State headed by Bashar Al Assad (restricted to Western Syria), Sunni State of Iraq and Syria, Kurdistan (Peshmerga) and Shia Republic of Iraq (South of Bagdad).