After the latest operations on the last major urban strongholds held by Daesh, the group is now stuck in the desert. But analysts say that doesn't necessarily mean either the fall of Daesh, or an end to conflict in the Middle East.
When a group called Daesh declared itself a ‘caliphate’ after capturing the Syrian city of Raqqa in January 2014, no one knew that it would wield such power across the Middle East. After three-and-a-half years of territorial rule in the region, the latest operations against the last major Daesh strongholds—which run through Al Qaim in Iraq and Abu Kamal in Syria—have now relegated the group to the desert.
The loss of all urban territories that served Daesh as operational centres has dealt a big blow to the group. Some argue that it could be the end of Daesh, but the group considers its recent loss of territory as the beginning of a new era, which it hopes to pursue as a “full insurgency.”
End of Daesh or beginning of a new era?
Aron Lund, a fellow with Century Foundation told TRT World, “the fact that the group is losing its territory is very important and will change the way it operates” but that doesn’t mean the group will “go away.”
The group staged attacks in Libya months after losing territory there. Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, told TRT World that the members of the group aren’t necessarily affected by the loss of territory. He says that there are Daesh operatives outside of the region, and that Daesh has managed to conduct attacks in Europe.
“They were mostly guided attacks where one actor from ISIS [Daesh] talks to them through WhatsApp or various panels,” he says.
“It will probably continue to stage attacks, like it did after losing territory and many leaders in the latter years of the American occupation of Iraq,” Lund says. “In one form or another.”
The US has been stressing the importance of completely clearing the area that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recaptured. However, a recent report by the BBC shows that hundreds of Daesh militants with trucks full of weapons were allowed to leave the Syrian city of Raqqa during a battle with the SDF. This happened as the convoy was being monitored by the US-led coalition, according to reports by the BBC on Monday.
Can Daesh be completely eradicated?
“The factors that created the 'Islamic State' are certainly still there,” says Lund. "Deprivation, marginalisation, sectarian and political grievances, instability and easy access to weapons.”
For him, grievances alone cannot sustain a group like Daesh. There also needs to be space to operate and a suitable environment. Orton underlines that the lack of Daesh operative centres could be an opportunity for other groups like Al Qaeda to establish themselves, especially in places like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
But there are no exact answers to how Daesh could be defeated in its entirety. Lund says "to eradicate violent jihadism will be almost impossible, except maybe in the very long term.”
For Orton, the Iraqi city of Haditha—where locals denied Baghdad's rule, and also resisted Daesh—is proof that it can be done. Choices are not limited to Daesh or the other groups that are currently present, which the locals don't see as legitimate groups.
“I don’t think you can ever completely destroy it, but you can marginalise it and the way is basically local governments—is to allow people to have a government they think serves their interest and protects them,” says Orton says.
Three years of territorial battles against Daesh
The pushback of Daesh from the territories they once controlled unfolded quickly. Many countries and political actors took part in the campaign against it, in hopes of taking control of the areas themselves.
A global coalition, currently including 68 countries, was formed in 2014 under former US president Barack Obama.
In Syria, the US supported the SDF, which is dominated by the PYD and its armed wing the YPG. The PYD and YPG are the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. This support angered Turkey, as the YPG defeated Daesh and took control of most parts of northern Syria along Turkey's border. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state since the 1980s and is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the European Union.
While Iran and Russia supported Bashar Assad's regime in Syria, Turkey supported the opposition's umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which has been fighting against the regime. After Daesh took control of most of Syria's border with Turkey, the Ankara-backed FSA also fought against Daesh and now controls a small territory in the north. After the first three years of civil war, Assad's focus shifted to Daesh after he had regained most of the territories back from the opposition.
In Iraq, the Hashd al Shaabi forces, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), which is a Shia paramilitary umbrella group largely funded and commanded by Iran, played a huge role as the Iraqi central government’s main tool against Daesh.
The Peshmerga forces of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq (KRG) supported the Iraqi army on the ground, and the US-led coalition's air bombardment helped the army to move forward.
Washington has declared that even though Daesh has lost its territories, the US will stay in Syria until the group itself declares they have left the area. Lund says the key actors in the Syrian war “remain very aware that the war in western Syria isn't finished yet,” despite the recent blow to Daesh.
However now, with Daesh having no options besides withdrawing to the desert and the small villages in areas along the Euphrates, the territories it left behind in Iraq and eastern Syria are being filled.
Pro-Daesh order: Fight or deal?
Even though all players in Iraq and Syria were involved in the battle against Daesh, the victory was only a first step towards their ultimate goal. Most of the cities that Daesh once captured were held by opposition groups fighting against the Syrian regime since an uprising broke out in 2011. But the cities that Daesh captured were not returned to their former captors after the group’s defeat. Whoever managed to take over the cities from Daesh, established their command over those areas.
In Mosul, the city that has served as Daesh’s capital in Iraq, Peshmerga forces managed to recapture most of the north from Daesh, with help from the US-led coalition.
In Syria, US-backed SDF forces defeated Daesh in the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa. The Arab-majority province is now administered by a council co-chaired by a leading PYD figure.
But Orton says the channels for negotiation in Raqqa are open. “The day after Raqqa fell, the regime sent a representative to the Qandil mountains (where PKK leadership is located) to meet with Cemil Bayik (one of the top leaders of the PKK)."
In the last urban stronghold of Daesh, Syria's Deir Ezzor, the fighting unfolded differently. The regime broke a three-year-long Daesh siege in the oil-rich province and advanced to the city centre, while the SDF focused on capturing valuable oil fields in a separate operation.
Orton says confrontations between the regime and the US-led coalition-backed SDF in Syria seems unlikely, even though there may be small-scale fighting along the margins.
“The PKK elsewhere in the country, like Manbij, has cut a deal with the regime,” he says, naming the SDF by referring to them as "the PKK."
“The PKK may try to keep the oil fields for themselves, and try to get income from them. But also they are all valuable tips to trade away. In a lot of ways, that's my impression of what PKK has done in taking Arab majority areas. It's just taking as much as they can so where they have to deal with regime later in exchange of some kind of autonomy within the Kurdish areas.”
Lund says, regarding the Syrian regime, which is facing military challenges in the west of Syria and an unstable situation in the east, the defeat of Daesh would mean “getting more territory in the east and restoring roads to Iraq and onwards to Iran." He points out that Tehran supported the regime since the beginning of the civil war.
Once the US-backed SDF and Iranian-backed Syrian regime sort out who should control the eastern Syria, the attention is likely to drift back to west, says Lund.
“The de-escalation zones created through the Astana process will be put to test, with Assad likely to want to use his advantageous position to extend his control over rebel-controlled territories. Turkey will also have to figure out what to do with its forces in northern and northwestern Syria, and Russian-American talks could still produce unexpected results.”
Russia, Iran and Turkey brokered a deal in May determining four de-escalation zones to reduce violence in Syria during the fourth round of Astana talks in Kazakhstan. The first round of talks was held in December 2016. Turkish and Russian troops are now based in one of those zones in Idlib, located in northwestern Syria.