Islamic State fighters are on the run in Syria. But if they are defeated on the battlefield, the aftermath could still prove very messy and very uncertain.
By Chermaine Tay
Islamic State fighters are on the run in Syria, squeezed on all sides by armed opponents whose only common goal is to annihilate the militant group.
The eventual defeat of ISIS would be welcomed by their many disparate foes, who range from the Syrian regime and its international backers, to Syrian rebels and their supporters.
But while it seems only a matter of time before ISIS is driven from its strongholds in Syria, the aftermath could prove very messy and very uncertain.
Pummeled by airstrikes and attacked on many sides by its opponents, ISIS has lost about two thirds of the territory that it had controlled in Syria, according to international monitors.
Government forces are likely to continue their push to recapture contested areas such as Idlib, where opposition groups like the rebel coalition Hayet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), allegedly linked to al-Qaeda, have controlled territory.
The United States and its Western allies revile the HTS and so are unlikely to come to their defense, meaning pro-regime fighters will probably eventually retake such territorial pockets of resistance.
Threats by big powers could lead to a permanent ceasefire.
If ISIS is defeated, the opposition for its part will likely tighten its grip on its bases of control, with the Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) — a coalition of Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Christian fighters — and its allies hunkering down in regions they control, particularly in northern areas including Tal Abayad, Manbij and Kobane.
Similarly, the Bashar al-Assad regime will move to consolidate its gains in central Syria and previously rebel-controlled areas such as Aleppo.
Following the elimination of ISIS strongholds, global and regional players including the United States, Russia and Iran are likely to exert pressure on the Assad regime to come to a peace agreement with opposition forces.
Threats by these larger power brokers to withdraw support could drive both sides towards a permanent ceasefire. But peace talks are unlikely until after the regime’s re-annexation of contested territory.
The danger is that Syria will follow Bosnia and Herzegovina.
If a “new Syria” emerges, the greatest danger is not that it will be overrun by the remnants of ISIS or a similar group.
Assad’s regime has put in place a security apparatus robust enough to muzzle dissidents. And Damascus has been able to coax allies like Russia to its tarnished banner.
The real danger is that Syria will follow in the footsteps of Bosnia and Herzegovina, becoming yet another weak state held together by a strong security apparatus but beset by internal contradictions and divisions.
If Syria’s regime survives ISIS and the internal revolt, Assad or any successor cut from the same cloth will channel resources to strengthen the security apparatus and crack down on dissident speech.
But citizens in areas controlled by regime forces will continue to face sporadic attacks, including suicide bomb attacks, from vestiges of ISIS and anti-government groups such as the HTS. Already there were suicide bombings in Damascus in March and again in July this year.
Tension and conflict will persist among opposition groups.
If ISIS collapses on the battlefield, former militants with the willingness and expertise to conduct counter-regime operations will likely return and embed in the local population, increasing the potential for militant attacks in densely populated centers.
Without a clear break with the Assad dynasty, Syria’s economy could suffer if, as expected, the United States and European Union continue to apply sanctions.
Following any permanent ceasefire, the SDF and its allies might try to establish sustainable governing institutions within their areas of control while embarking on a rebuilding program. But tension and conflict will persist among opposition groups.
Already factional disputes have surfaced, pointing to possible political gridlock once a tenuous peace has been established, inhibiting the push for sustainable development.
The need to funnel resources into military spending could crimp economic growth and reinvestment in opposition-controlled areas.
Meanwhile, the Assad regime will pose a persistent security threat, despite any peace agreement. And Turkey will represent another security challenge, due to the close links between the People’s Protection Units, a primary component of the SDF, and the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
Ethnic and sectarian rivalries point to continued conflict.
Consider the parallels between Syria and neighboring Iraq. The rapid draw-down of U.S. troops in Iraq under the Obama administration left a power vacuum filled by a willing Tehran, eager to influence political developments in Baghdad.
Similarly, Washington’s reluctance to engage in Syria has emboldened Russia and Iran.
Looking forward, we are likely to see Iran better able to project power regionally, coupled with a diminished U.S. influence within the Middle East theater.
Oscar Wilde once wrote: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
ISIS has accelerated the emergence of political, ethnic and sectarian tensions in Syria, and attracted armed opposition from powerful international players, all but ensuring its military defeat.
But amidst cheering following ISIS’s setbacks on the battlefield, perhaps one should be fearful of the ethnic and sectarian rivalries that point to continued conflict even after an ISIS collapse.
Chermaine Tay is currently completing a dual master’s at Sciences Po in Paris and the London School of Economics. Previously she worked as a security specialist with International SOS and Control Risks.