What about post-ISIL Syria?

What about post-ISIL Syria?

The defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), or DEASH, has started to seem certain, after the impending fall of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

It is likely to take some more time, loss of life, destruction, and trial-and-error by the Americans, Russians, Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Turks and other forces on the field, but there are signs that the end is near for the most violent terrorist movement of modern times.

But the end of ISIL as an organization does not necessarily mean that the militants forming ISIL – other than those killed in clashes and military operations - will simply evaporate. After all, ISIL grew like a snowball after declaring itself in January 2013 with the flow of jihadi militants largely coming from other jihadi organizations in the Syrian civil war. 

The cross-border nature of al-Qaeda, from which ISIL split, enabled this new and most radical entity to attract jihadists from all over the world: From Vahabis in Chechnya to Uighurs in China, to digitally-radicalized Muslim fanatics in France, Germany, Canada and Britain. All were fueled by Saudi and other Gulf money over decades, and their return to their countries of origin has introduced the problem of “domestic terrorist foreign fighters” to international security experts.

Those who survive the anti-ISIL operations will not merely evaporate, and many will probably join other organizations. Still, the threat posed by them having control of a territory with oil fields will hopefully be gone.

But what is going to happen to Syria and Iraq after ISIL?

There are a few serious problems on the horizon. The first one is the future of the Syria regime. Despite having the support of Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad is obviously unable to control the whole country – neither its territory nor its population. Recently, the U.S. suddenly remembered its former threats about al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, after the Syrian Air Forces started to target the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) when they attempted to move west of Raqqa, promping a strong reaction from Russia too.

The future of the SDF is a second problem. The SDF mainly consists of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a violent armed campaign against Turkey for independence for more than three decades. The U.S. has been using used the YPG as its main ground force, despite objections from Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan to U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In order to assuage Ankara’s concerns about those weapons eventually being used against Turkey by the PKK, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis last week reportedly told his Turkish counterpart Fikri Işık that the U.S. was only working with the YPG in order to avoid sending its own soldiers, and would collect back the arms after the operation was over. Erdoğan replied that Turkey was tired of hollow words and claimed that the U.S.’s actions were against NATO rules. 

Ankara assumes that the PKK will demand (at least) autonomy as a reward for fighting and dying for the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Syria. Mattis on June 27 reportedly said that collecting back arms from the YPG “depends on the next mission,” adding that “it’s not like the fight will be over when Raqqa is over.” 

Similar problems are there in Iraq, where there are two Kurdish factions demanding independence. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) recently announced that it will hold a referendum for independence in September, while the PKK actually has its headquarters in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq’s KRG region, bordering Turkey and Iran. The Qatar crisis has made regional governments realize that if a Kurdish state is established in Iraq, a bigger “Shiite state” in the rest of Iraq will emerge neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

A third problem is of Israeli origin. Thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards have rushed into Syria in defense of al-Assad, as well as members of Hezbollah from Lebanon. The Syrian regime has reportedly given an air base for Iran to transport of its forces to the country, prompting Israeli concerns. This will put the U.S. under more pressure regarding its relations with Russia, and Washington’s recent statements about al-Assad using chemical weapons against civilians, a fact already known for at least five years, might be related to this. 

The U.S.’s cooperation with the YPG/PKK is a key factor, together with the presence of Iran in Syria and Iraq, in scenarios following the imminent defeat of ISIL. It is time to start thinking more carefully about this.