Key words: ISIS, al-Qaeda, Turkey, Russia, US, Iran, Israel, Hezbollah
Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai
Who is losing in Syria? The immediate answer would be “Islamic State” (ISIS). But the reality is more complicated than that simple answer.
Yes, ISIS is losing its territory, oil and gas fields and the other assets the group acquired since 2014 in both Iraq and Syria. In two years ISIS had become the richest non-state actor in the world, holding billions of dollars from bank looting, energy revenues, taxes, extortion, selling antiquities and other sources. ISIS benefited from the existing infrastructure (injecting minor changes) and imposed its own ideological laws and rulings. The ISIS war caused the destruction of Sunni homes and wealth above all, but also the homes of other ethnic minorities who faced death under the rule of the terrorist group in “caliphate land”.
Today the two superpowers, Russia and the US, are racing each other to recover and occupy the land once under ISIS control. ISIS is boxed into a limited area from Deir al-Zour in the northeast Syria to the Syrian-Iraqi borders of al-Qaem and the Euphrates valley. ISIS is also present in the Syrian and Iraqi desert, an area the group lived in since 2003 and knows perfectly well. The group was able to travel in this desert for years, hide in it and it was like home for its militants for years. The rough weather and topography offer an excellent shelter and a continuing possibility for ISIS to operate for a long time, carrying on its insurgency against both Iraq and Syria and other forces (US, Turkey, Russia) willing to stay in their respective countries.
ISIS is fighting today in the Syrian al-Badiya (steppe) and in rural Homs, trying to slow down the advance of the Syrian army and its allies towards the besieged city of Deir al-Zour. The Syrian army is determined to break the siege imposed by ISIS around the city for over 30 months, and that will push ISIS further south-east towards al-Qaem.
Even though it is losing ground, today ISIS has learned a lot from its own mistakes on how to run a “state”, and has developed the art of war despite relying almost exclusively on suicide attacks and VBIEDs (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices) and suicide bombers (Person Borne IEDs). The group won’t disappear but may use the present side lining to rise again, depending on the level of tension in the Middle East (notably between Saudi Arabia and Iran).
One of the main reasons why ISIS is losing the war is due to the ISIS “lieutenant” Abu Mohamad al-Joulani, who was sent to Syria in 2011 to establish a base in Bilad al-Sham among other senior officers. Today Joulani is the head of al-Qaeda in Syria (under the name of Hay’atTahrir al-Sham) because he wanted to lead his own group. This kind of ambition in fact saved the Middle East from overwhelming control by ISIS. Al-Qaeda Central highly benefitted from al-Qaeda (AQ) in Syria, which helped to boost the group to a level never reached even when Ussama Bin Laden was leading it.
Today, despite the heavy presence of al-Qaeda in Idlib (AQ is also present in other areas in smaller numbers), the group will experience the same fate as ISIS once the war ends. It is true that AQ managed to infiltrate Syrian society, gathering unique experience in warfare and becaming a reference and a concentration for most of AQ around the Middle East. It is also possible that many ISIS members will migrate to AQ. Never the less, Jihadists and Salafists have no place to stay any more in Syria (and Iraq) and will no longer be allowed to occupy any territory. These Jihadists will go underground to continue their struggle and insurgency where they (ISIS and AQ) might actually unite their forces now they are both hunted down. Even so, these groups can have no long-term strategic objective, since the population has experienced their rule and definitely won’t voluntarily accept their return to power.
The “Syrian Revolution”:
The Syrian Revolution has lost everything since 2011, when the Jihadist Salafists landed in Syria to kidnap the population manifestation, with its requests for reforms and democracy. They forced other parts of Syria, like Aleppo, to join them even one year after the beginning of the manipulated armed uprising to overthrow the Syrian regime. Today there are no longer any Syrian revolutionary delegations, only Riyadh, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt delegations and proxies.
On the military level, the same al-Qaeda leader Abu Mohamad al-Joulani confirmed specifically that there are no more than 700-800 moderate rebels in Syria. Moreover, jihadists controlling the north of Syria are forcing all radicals and moderates to join either Ahrar al-Sham (Jihadists pro-Qatar and pro-Turkey) or al-Qaeda. Ahrar al-Sham may be preparing itself to take up arms, with Ankara’s support, to impose itself on the same al-Qaeda, when the reconciliation and the end of the war in Syria reaches the right moment.
Turkey may not be aware that it has played an essential role in changing the course of the Syrian war. When Ankara decided to shoot down a Russian jet over the Syrian-Turkish borders in 2015, Russia decided to increase its involvement in the Syrian war. Russia was trying to protect its naval bases in Tartous and Lattakia by creating a safety perimeter and rejected repetitive Iranian requests to fully engage in the Syrian war and recover all territory. When Turkey challenged Russia, Moscow had no choice but to protect its reputation as a superpower, all eyes drawn towards it, with the prospect of a possible broader scale war between Russia and Turkey. Instead, Russia helped the Syrian Army and its allies to recover more land than they had been planning to occupy, and imposed President Bashar al-Assad as the unique representative of the Syrian institution.
Ankara is today occupying Syrian territory in the north of the country (from Jarablus to al-Bab), preventing also the Syrian Kurds from fulfilling their dream to establish an independent State/Federation called Rojava. The Turkish forces divided the Kurdish area in the north-east of al-Hasaka to the north-west of Efrin. Turkey is ready to push forces into Idlib to impose its control over the city and perhaps prevent a possible clash between Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda. By taking Idlib under its wings, Turkey is preventing Russia from bombing Idlib where over two million inhabitants live today. The number of civilians is increasing due to the stability the city is experiencing after joining the agreement for the cessation of hostilities established between Russia, Turkey and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The Turkish role has not ended yet: Damascus may not accept a foreign army on its soil for too long even if a stalemate is expected in Syria for many years to come. Also, Turkey will not accept the US plan to establish a Kurdish federation on its border. Therefore, more chapters are still waiting to be written about Turkish involvement in Syria.
Moscow is coming out as a winner on all fronts, with limited damage. After two years of heavy involvement (mainly Air Force and a limited number of its special forces), Russia weighted the scales in favour of President Assad. Russia has lost fewer men in two years than the US lost every month in Iraq (2003-2011).
Russia, together with its ground force allies, managed to recover main cities and rural areas, for the benefit of Damascus. However, Russia today is engaged in the Syrian steppes and walking so close to the US forces that the risk of a mistake is extremely high. Russia in fact is engaged in political talks with the US and neighbouring countries to bring in foreign troops, who would be responsible for a long cease-fire in the south of Syria, centred on Daraa and surroundings.
Moscow is expected to succeed in creating a balance between all those countries involved in the Syrian war: Israel would be satisfied to have American and Jordanian “peace keeping forces” (PKF) on the Syrian-Israeli borders; the Syrian government would walk along with Iranian and Russian PKF forces in Damascus; and Turkey is happy to stay in the north (Jarablus to Al-Bab) along with Russian forces on the perimeter. The Americans will stay in the north-east of al-Hasaka to Raqqah with their Kurdish proxies. The problem remains in Idlib where pro-Turkish groups and al-Qaeda reject the Russian presence along with Turkish forces. Moscow, along with the countries whose forces are involved on the ground, is trying to find more of a solution to the problem. This overall scenario will stop the war –after recovering many of the territories which were controlled by ISIS – and is expected to last for years to come, to the satisfaction of the main parties. The Syrian government will be involved in reconstruction for the next 5-10 years, which is certainly enough time to rebuild its strength once again.
Russia has won long-term naval bases on the Mediterranean for the next fifty years. It has managed to demonstrate its arsenal and firepower, selling weapons used in the Syrian battlefield and proving itself also as a political negotiator, successfully competing with the US in the Middle East.
Russia has partners (not sworn allies) and politico-economic interests to look after. Russia doesn’t have a solid bond of allegiance, it maintains robust relationships with Turkey, Israel, and Iran. It enjoys a good relationship with Saudi Arabia and would like to increase the level of business and economic exchange. Therefore, after ending the war it is looking to collect all the gain accumulated in the last two years by its involvement in a “clean” war, distancing itself from the disastrous result of that lost Afghanistan war.
The United States of America:
The US managed to return to the Middle East by using the excuse of fighting ISIS and the “war on terror”. Today, the US forces are using proxy forces (Kurds) as a bridge to construct military bases and airports in Bilad al-Sham and become an occupying force in the country.
The US is clearly no longer respecting its objective to fight terrorism, when its Air Force is actively engaged in shooting down a Syrian jet and bombing the Syrian Army- and even its allies on three consecutive occasions (close to al-Tanaf border). Even in 2016, the US Air Force bombed, along with other coalition allies, the Syrian Army in al-Tharda mountains overlooking the besieged city of Deir al-Zour, giving a significant advantage to ISIS.
The US forces in Syria didn’t suffer any losses because its policy and strategy today for occupying a Middle Eastern country is different from the 2003 occupation of Iraq fiasco. Moreover, it is using proxy forces, the Kurds, who seem not to complain about their very heavy casualties to please and fulfil the US objectives in Syria.
On the other hand, the US seems intent on provoking the Russians in Syria, though without reaching the critical point where Russia feels it has to react and take the matter to a point of no return.
But the US didn’t manage to stop Iranian expansion in Syria, which is reaching an unprecedented level: they even came inconsiderately close to the US forces on more than one front.
Wining on all sides, Israel is watching the Syrian war for more than 6 years while collecting the benefits:
1.Hezbollah’s unique experience gathered in Syria didn’t come without high price (thousands of dead and wounded). Also, Iran has invested a large sum of money to sustain the Syrian government, Army and the essential parts of the country’s infrastructure and has been kept very busy defeating ISIS and al-Qaeda, the two groups holding the opposite ideology of Iran-Shia, ready to exhaust their enemy and drag it into an endless fight.
2.Israel was free to bomb the Syrian main airport in Damascus in several occasion: building destroyed inside the airport are the best testimony to Israeli activity over Iran ammunition and weapon warehouses. Israel played its card safely, knowing that Hezbollah won’t retaliate as long as its cargos are targeted on Syrian not on Lebanese territory where the Rules of Engagement are different.
3.Israel is enjoying an excellent relationship with Russia and was aware that Moscow won’t allow a wider clash between Hezbollah and Israel on the Syrian border at a time when there are more important battles taking place at various important spots on the Syrian landscape and where Russia wants to make sure it is not going to fail. Therefore, Israel took advantage by nagging Hezbollah, killing few of its commanders on several occasions, destroying warehouses also outside Damascus airport and supporting the jihadists of al-Qaeda to give these a little boost to continue their fight against the Syrian Army and its allies.
4.Israel won the loss by the Syrian Army of its chemical weapons stockpile – a nightmare for Tel Aviv – that was negotiated between Obama and Putin.
5.Israel will benefit from the US-Kurds relationship in the northeast of Syria (Al-Hasaka & Raqqah provinces) where the US is establishing several military bases.
6.Israel managed to establish good relationship with the Syrian rebels and many Syrians in the south and north of the country who felt free to collaborate with Tel Aviv whereas before the war, any open contact between Syrians and Israelis was punishable with a death sentence.
7.Israel is negotiating a possible buffer zone beyond the Golan Heights: at the time of President Hafez Assad, was negotiating a full pull-out of the occupied Golan.
By all accounts Israel, with zero casualties, is emerging as a winner on all fronts, with the exception of the advance weapons that are landing in Syria and are used by both the Syrians and Hezbollah, Israel’s fiercest enemy. These weapons are finding their way into Lebanon, nonetheless if Israel is not thinking of a third war against Hezbollah/Lebanon, the presence of these sophisticated (anti-tank, anti-ship, anti-air) missiles maybe irrelevant.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is enjoining today an advanced position in the Middle East, expanding its influence in Mesopotamia and in Bilad al-sham. Iran brought Moscow to Syria in 2015 and thousands of militants to protect its “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah): the supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon that crosses from Damascus to Lebanon.
Iran spent over $25 billion in Syria to sustain the Syrian government, supplying it with oil and paying salaries to its civilian and military institutions. Iranian cuisines established in different parts of Syria are feeding tens of thousands of soldiers and militants daily and succeeding in keeping Assad in power.
Iran disregarded the red lines with the US forces on al-Tanaf borders and pushed forces north of al-Tanaf to close the road on the US towards the north and prevented the US plan to control the entire north east of Syria.
Also, the failure of the ISIS experience in Syria (and Iraq) led to the increase of the Iranian influence because the grievances that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place are no longer standing today. Iran brought thousands of militants in Syria but also established a Syrian-like Hezbollah that will remain forlong after the end of the war.
Iran has become part of any political settlement in Syria: its protection of Assad led it into all future negotiations to end the war and managed to win over regional countries (i.e. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar and Turkey). Iran is today Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy, particularly since the Saudis clearly have no effective means to destabilise Iran, even with the help of its favourite ally, the US.
The Lebanese Hezbollah gathered huge experience in warfare in Syria that any army would dream of providing within its own institution. Hezbollah has pitted itself against many enemies who fight with different styles, motivation and ideology.
During the first battle of Qusseyr, Hezbollah started its involvement on a wider scale with a tactic that the group is now no longer adopting. The price of recovering Qusseyr was very high (120-150 killed) because its military commanders wanted a quick victory regardless of losses. Today, after having 900 killed[i] and 8,000 wounded, Hezbollah operates competently from a military ops room, coordinating attacks involving the air force, infantry, special forces and artillery on a geographical scale three times that of the Lebanon.
Hezbollah is today embedded in every single Syrian Army brigade, where its commanders and members of its special forces shadow the army in every attack over the entire Syrian war theatre.
Israel is watching Hezbollah growing in number and experience. Hezbollah has created in Syria villages similar to the one in northern Israel to train its special forces to occupy these in case of war. It has built caves in the mountains and hides its long range destructive missiles under the ground to move any future war away from the Lebanese territory and the homes in the south of Lebanon.
Hezbollah is investing over 20,000 men in Syria and is coordinating logistic, medical and military supplies, all present at once in the battle field, gathering practical experience the group never thought it was possible to acquire.
Hezbollah managed to defend Assad even before the Russian intervention and its society, back in Lebanon: it understands much more today the necessity of its involvement in Syria and how the loss of lives of its militants was necessary – according to Hezbollah families in the suburb of Beirut – to prevent ISIS from moving the battle into their homes in Lebanon.
The endless victories Hezbollah managed to register in Syria have been a clear message to Israel that is observing its performance and the growth of its capabilities, especially involving al-Ridwan Special Forces.
The balance between victory and defeat in Syria may not be easy to define. But what is clear is the fact that the war is coming to an end: it is only a question of time. Once ISIS is defeated, all parties will be forced around the negotiation table, where both rough and smooth diplomacies will be present.
The ideology that motivated ISIS to occupy parts of Iraq and Syria is clear, but the conditions that made ISIS expansion sustainable are no longer present. The Middle East is changing, though not necessarily for the better: the struggle between the various countries involved is still very much on-going.
The war in Syria is coming to an end. “War does not determine who is right – only who is left[i]”. It leaves a country in ruins, and critical animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia which will certainly smoulder for many years to come.
[i] Confidential, reliable and establish source. Previous figures of 1700 Hezbollah killed in Syria result incorrect.