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Celebrating defeat of Daesh in Syria may be premature

Feb 19,2019 - Last updated at Feb 19,2019

As the drama surrounding the so-called final battle against Daesh in Syria continues to unfold, the question on everyone’s mind is this: Has the terrorist group been defeated, as US President Donald Trump continues to claim? Certainly few agree with the US president, both at home and on the European bank of the Atlantic.

As the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) wage a penultimate assault on a few hundred fighters who are entrenched in an area that is no more than 700 square metres in eastern Syria, reports emerge of a deal that has allowed tens of terrorists to be evacuated from the besieged enclave. Other reports speak of more than a thousand Daesh fighters who had managed to slip into the vast Iraqi desert, with a cache of gold bullion worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

A number of US generals disagreed with Trump’s December decision to begin a hasty troop withdrawal from Syria. Joseph Votel, America’s top general in the region, warned this week that Daesh was far from defeated, and that US-backed forces on the ground in Syria were not ready to handle the present threat of the group on their own. European leaders also criticised Trump’s decision and warned of a vacuum that could give Daesh an essential lifeline.

But Syria’s Kurds, who have been instrumental in dislodging Daesh from key areas of the so-called caliphate in Syria, are apprehensive that they stand to lose, even as they emerge as winners. The US pullout from Syria, which one American official said will not be abrupt, leaves the SDF without a crucial backer, both on the ground and in the air. The Kurdish territory, rich in water, gas and oil, is an important prize for the Syrian regime. Russia and Iran support efforts to repatriate the rebellious region. But the Kurds, who are allied with local Arab tribes, want Damascus to recognise their right to democratic self-rule; something the government is resisting.

The Kurds have few choices left; either embrace the regime or face possible retribution from Turkey, which does not hide its readiness to move in once the Americans have left. On the other hand, the Americans say they could not protect the Kurds if they rejoin the regime, which the US does not recognise. In a desperate move, Kurdish officials have called on the Europeans to step in, but Europe is divided and its decades-long transatlantic relationship with Washington is in jeopardy.

Adding to growing US-EU tensions is President Trump’s bold threat this week to Europe to take more than 800 foreign Daesh fighters captured in Syria and put them on trial, or face the prospect of having them released ready to “permeate Europe”. The Europeans have so far rejected Trump’s demand.

In the meantime, the loose Russia-Turkey-Iran alliance over Syria is also in trouble. Meeting in Sochi last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tyyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had a tough time agreeing on a post-US pullout strategy. Erdogan’s demand that Turkey be allowed to establish a safe zone in northern Syria is being resisted by Moscow, which is sceptical over Ankara’s role in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Both Russia and Iran, in addition to the Syrian government, believe that Turkey is working with Al Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda, which has emerged as the sole power broker in Idlib.

Furthermore, the two countries disagree with Erdogan’s plans to move into Kurdish areas once the US has withdrawn. Interestingly, the US too rejects Turkey’s territorial ambitions in eastern Syria.

Such a geopolitical mess could allow remnants of Daesh fighters to regroup in isolated parts of Syria and Iraq. Experts believe that the group could devolve into smaller sleeper cells, carrying out guerilla-type warfare in both countries. But what is more troubling is the warning by head of Britain’s MI6 Alex Younger on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference this week that Al Qaeda could be resurging in Syria’s ungoverned areas. He was quoted by CNN as saying that Daesh and Al Qaeda could exploit “new technologies and [we must] make sure we are kind of ahead of them”.

This week, Syrian President Bashar Assad put a damper on the outcome of the political process, through Sochi and Astana, accusing the opposition of being “agents of the enemy”. The failure of the political process will extend the life of Syria’s civil war and will give disenchanted Syrians reasons to back extremist movements. The same could happen in Iraq, where Sunnis continue to feel disenfranchised by a dysfunctional political process. Daesh and Al Qaeda have used Sunni marginalisation in the past to dig roots in provinces like Anbar.

It is too early to celebrate the defeat of Daesh and the world must be careful not to take its eye off the group, especially as it continues to find refuge in countries in Africa, the Middle East and west Asia. Its radical ideology will continue to attract sympathiser, unless genuine political solutions are found to remedy this region’s endemic ills.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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