IS and political shifts in Syria, Iraq

Mahrukh A Mughal

MORE than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives in five years of armed conflict, which began with anti-government protests before escalating into a full-scale civil war. The conflict is now more than just a battle between those for against Assad. It acquired sectarian overtones, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the President’s Shia Alawite sect, and drawn regional and world powers. The rise of the Jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has added a further dimension.
So-called Islamic state capitalized on the chaos and taken control of large swathes of Syria and Iraq, where it proclaimed the creation of a “Caliphate” in June 2014. Its many fighters were involved in a “War within a war” in Syria, battling rebels and rival Jihadists from the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra front, as well as government and Kurdish forces. In September 2014, a US-led coalition launched air strike inside Syria in an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS. Russia began an air campaign targeting “terrorists” in Syria a year later, but opposition activists say its strikes mostly killed western-backed rebels and civilians. In the political arena, opposition groups are also deeply divided with rival alliances battling for supremacy. The most prominent is the national coalition for Syrian revolutionary and opposition forces, backed by several western and Gulf Arab states. Tehran is believed to be spending billions of dollars a year to bolster Assad, providing military advisors and subsidized weapons, as well as lines of credit and oil transfers.
First of all during long and tough country side warfare with Iraqi security forces, mainly newly-formed and US-trained and supplied “Golden division” the terrorist group has lost control of the so called “Sunni triangle” North-west of Baghdad-the provincial capital of Anbar-Ar-Ramadi, the region of Hit and the notorious city of Al-Fallujah. This loss makes it totally impossible for IS to conduct large military operations and raids on a near Baghdad also finally dispelling the group’s plans of general battle for the ancient Middle East city in order to make it “ Caliphates.” On the other hand, the large military operation in northern Syria by Turkey, IS was driven out of the important region of north-eastern Aleppo province.
After nearly five years, millions of people killed and some 12 millions uprooted, President Basharat Al-Assad appears likely to maintain his forces that could not end the war and regain total control. Assad’s strategy to cripple the non-Jihadi opposition that has worked to empower radical Islamist groups like the IS and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front). None Jihadis rebels have been further weakened by the recent defeat in Allepo; they remain fractious and undermined by their state backer’s divergent approaches.
The war against the ISIS is likely to continue, and there is an urgent need to ensure it will not fuel further violence and destabilization. Though IS is defeated militarily or another radical group may well re-emerge unless underlying governance issues are addressed. The group itself grew from a similar failure in Iraq. It is spreading an ideology that is still mobilizing young people across the globe and poses threats well beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, as recent attacks in Istanbul and Berlin have shown. In Iraq, the fighting against the IS has further undermined the state’s ability to govern, caused enormous destruction, militarized youth and traumatized Iraqi society. It has fragmented Kurdish and Shiite political parties into rival factions and paramilitary forces dependent on regional backers and competing over Iraq’s resources.
To avoid worse, Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government need support and pressure to rein in paramilitary groups. Success backed by the US support to retake Mosul, if mishandled could turn into failure. Besides regular forces, federal police, local groups are also involved, seeking spoils of victory. Iran and Turkey are also competing for influence by using local proxies. The longer the battle drags on, the more these various groups will exploit opportunities to gain strategic advantage through territorial control, complicating a political settlement. Iraq must establish locally recruited stabilization force along with US support, in areas retaken from the IS to ensure that military gains are not again lost. They will also need to jump-start government involving local, and locally accepted political actors.
— The writer is political analyst based in Lahore.
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