This week the Syrian Arab Army retook Abu-Kamal, the last city of importance held by ISIS. The operation was coordinated with the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, PMU, from south of the border and with assistance by the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Hezbollah. ISIS still control areas between Abu-Kamal and Deir-Ez-Ezor and elsewhere but the terrorist organization is soon gone as an informal state due to it’s economic basis like illegal oil refenues are gone and the remenants of it’s field units being destroyed by the combined efforts of Damascus and it’s allies. But that doesn’t mean that the threat of ISIS is gone, on the contrary. ISIS will revert to gerilla warfare, terrorism and redeployment elsewhere, for instance to Libya, the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan. Many western volunteers have also been returning to Europe where they pose a grave security risk. With thousands of trained terrorists with experience of war with a world wide network behind them this will pose a greater threat to the West than a islamist state controlling territory. The latter can easier be confined whereas sleeper cells “behind the lines” are much more difficult to keep an eye on.
The end of ISIS’s Caliphate will however not bring peace to war torn Syria and Iraq. On contrary new conflicts are brewing, primarily in eastern Syria where the tension is on the rise between the US-backed SDF, which is predominantly Kurdish, and the SAA. The race is on to secure the economic assets, the oil fields of eastern Syria, and make sure that one’s positions are as strategically tenable as possible. In Iraq the Kurdish referendum for independence caused a swift military response from Bagdad and the Kurdish leader Barzani was forced to resign. The referendum was a political gamble that seems to have backfired. Thankfully so far there hasn’t been substantial bloodshed but this can quickly change. The only real friends of the Kurds in this situation is the US and Israel. The American support for the Kurds, especially in Syria, is contributing to the seemingly ever deteriorating relations between Washington and Ankara.
The US is still in possession of a large pocket of the southern border of Syria around Al-Tanf. The base was used to train moderates and to fight ISIS according to the official American narrative. The more likely strategic objective was to prevent Damascus from linking up with the highway to Bagdad, thus opening a land route between Iran and it’s allies in Lebanon, the Hezbollah. However Al-Tanf was quickly bypassed by Damascus and by reaching Abu-Kamal and the lines of the Iraqi PMU, the latter supported by Iran, this American objective has failed, at least partially. The American position around Al-Tanf makes transports from Teheran to Damascus and Lebanon more difficult, but not impossible.
Iran’s vastly improved strategic position in the Middle East is of great concern to the US, Saudi Arabia and obviously Israel. The latter hasn’t had any issues with supporting radical islamists operating on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, an area occupied by Israel to begin with, due to the fact that it is in Tel Aviv’s interests to have a bufferzone against Syria and it’s Iranian allies and Hezbollah. With the Iranians now able to bring in reinforcements over land to Syria the Israeli strategic position has taken a turn for the worse. Iran’s military capabilities are far less advanced than those of Israel, the latter having a formidable Air Force and nuclear weapons, but with Hezbollah on the borders of Israel this situation can be remedied to some extent from an Iranian perspective. Hezbollah has highly trained troops with experience from war both with Israel as well as from fighting in Syria, and receives increasingly advanced weaponary.
Hariri’s resignation in Lebanon must be viewed in the light of this. Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government and it is hardly surprising that Riyadh has projected political pressure upon Hariri. Saudi Arabia itself is experiencing substantial domestic turmoil, allegedly with two princes dead under more than suspect circumstances and a large number of high ranking officials arrested on the suspicion of corruption. However, corruption is endemic in Saudi Arabian society, what we are witnessing is more probably a political purge carried out on orders by the closest circle around Mohammad bin-Salman, the new Saudi strongman. Apart from the falling out between Doha and Riyadh after the Qataris have been trying mend their relations with Iran and Russia over the failed endeavour to topple al-Assad in Syria Saudi Arabia has also bogged down in a increasingly costly war in Yemen, both from a financial and humanitarian perspective, where the Shiite Houtis have been far from pushovers. The launch of a ballistic missile from Yemen against Saudi Arabia this week resulted in a statement from Riyadh that was an act of war from the side of Iran. Teheran refuses to admitt any involvement however Iran obviously supports the Shiite Houtis. This wasn’t the first launch of a ballistic missle however, but the rethorics coming out of Saudi Arabia indicates that Riyadh sees it as good opportunity to try to unite the Kingdom against a common enemy. In this case Saudi Arabia and Israel have mutual goals, fighting Iranian influence.
So, even though ISIS soon is gone as a Caliphate and field army, the organization will not disappear. Instead it will become increasingly difficult to combat. The Kurdish question will become ever more important as the chess pieces are being reset on the Middle Eastern chessboard. National players in the region like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, together with various proxys like SDF and Hezbollah together with global players like the US and Russia, brings the tensions in the Middle East to even more dangerous levels.
Peace will not come with the end of ISIS as a Caliphate.