The “Islamic State” has been losing ground since October 2016, despite its heroic stand in Mosul, where the besieged, although bound to lose their battle against the disproportionately stronger Shia special forces, managed to change their inexorable defeat into a moral victory. The movement’s aura has remained unaltered, if not grown stronger.
The situation in Syria, which in the summer of 2015 seemed to have put the regime at a major disadvantage, has been reversed. There too, the Islamic State has suffered considerable losses as along the Euphrates, the battle of Al-Raqqah began and was obviously going to be long.
For all that, the fate of about twenty percent of the Iraqi Sunnis has not been settled. What will the government of Baghdad choose to do? What measures will Iran suggest? Moreover, the Shia regime will have to find a way to deal with Iraq’s Kurds stationed not far from Mosul and now controlling a larger area than at the beginning of the conflict.
A refresher on what has happened: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq since 2010, took advantage of the civil war in Syria to change his organization’s name to “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” (meaning Syria, for ISIS, or in the Levant, for ISIL). After its break with al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch in 2013, the movement became simply “Islamic State.” In quick succession, exploiting the disarray of the Iraqi forces, al-Baghdadi captured Mosul with practically no resistance, decreed the abolition of the Syrian-Iraqi border, in an unprecedented move declared the territorialization of the area controlled by his movement straddling two countries, and proclaimed himself caliph. The lightning offensive, waged from Sinjar to Iraqi Kurdistan in the early summer of 2014, galvanized Jihad sympathizers and some twenty thousand volunteers from various countries, a good part of whom crossed the Turkish border freely to join an organization that seemed on its way to victory. The Islamic State’s repressive methods were intentionally staged in a spectacular dramatization of their horror in order to spread terror (and to offset the organization’s small numbers). They were largely, and somewhat complacently, relayed by the Western media, where a number of television channels distinguished themselves with uninterrupted broadcasting of the anguish, seeming to forget that terrorism is precisely primarily a psychological weapon.
Privileging the fight against the Islamic State should not obscure that this latter is not the West’s only adversary. The major military force among those who are euphemistically called the “opposition forces,” especially in the Anglo-Saxon press (The New York Times, The Economist), is Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda, which in September 2016 changed its name and declared its disaffiliation from al-Qaeda. The movement is now called Fateh al-Sham, but a name change is easier to make than a change in nature.
In the Syrian imbroglio, the United States and Europe’s alliances with the countries in the region clearly appeared as ambiguous while Turkey effectively collaborated with the Islamic State to weaken Syria’s Kurds. The head of the Turkish state, a skillful tactician, got President Putin to occupy Jarabulus militarily, probably depriving Syria’s Kurds once and for all of control over the frontier segment separating the Afrin and Kobanî districts. Syria’s Kurds thus reached the limits of their possibilities and potential support. As for Vladimir Putin, he was given a free hand during the battle of East Aleppo, which was fought by various Islamist movements (and very few so-called democratic elements) under the iron rule of the best organized anti-regime movement, namely Fateh al-Sham. The fall of Aleppo, which actually involved only twenty percent of the city, was presented by the majority of the Western media as a bloodbath. Was this deliberate disinformation?
As things stand today, the true winner in the region is Iran. As a consequence of the US intervention in 2003, Iraq is under Shia control, and Iran has a strong indirect presence in the country given that it trains the militia there. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, thanks to the support of Iran and its allies (Hezbollah), and, particularly, of Russia, was in a better position than it had been in the five previous years. Iranian militia (the Quds Force) took part in the fighting while Iran trained thousands of combatants on the ground. In addition, militia from Iraq and from Afghanistan (Afghani Fateniyoun recruited among the Hazaras), and Shia Pakistani militia (Pakistani Zainebiyoun) will obviously remain in Syria for a long time. In other words, a denominational recomposition of an essential part of Syria is quietly occurring as we watch. The regime is relentlessly running the Sunni population out of the country’s western areas and replacing it with Shiites. It is difficult to evaluate the ongoing changes (in 2011, there were some sixteen million Sunni Syrians and approximately eight million people of other denominations, but the regime is working on reducing the share of Sunnis).
Iranian successes are due in particular to the cohesion of the Shia clergy. The period of illusions personified by Ayatollah Khomeini is over. Iran now knows that it cannot aspire to be the political leader of the Muslim world. Ahmadinejad’s excesses are things of the past. Iran’s current pragmatic approach seems to be to return to a national-interest policy, which it is implementing with the determination of what could practically be assimilated to a Marxist-Leninist party apparatus.
The Sunnis, for their part, are lacking in coordination—this is one of their clergy’s characteristics—and are divided. The Muslim Brotherhood is supported by Turkey and Qatar, while Saudi Arabia has been exporting its Wahhabism for more than forty years. Locally, in Syria, the Islamist movements are rivals and the Islamic State’s decreasing influence has bolstered Fateh al-Sham. Since the summer of 2014, the Islamic State, despite its self-promotion capacities (substantially helped by Western television), has been playing a poker hand that at the end of the day has put it on everyone’s wrong side. The noose is tightening around Al-Raqqah. The Islamic State’s above-mentioned territorialization, a large part of which consists of desert areas, has been blown apart; the Syrian-Iraqi border is still there, Mosul has gone under, and Al-Raqqah is about to follow. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has lost its al-Bab stronghold, which was reconquered with some difficulty by the Turkish army after three months of combat. A major part of the other Islamist movements of Syria recently (in 2017) formed a coalition called Tahrir al-Sham including Fateh al-Sham, a wing of Ahrar al-Cham (Salafist), and the Free Syrian Army.
Turkey has begun a major sweep operation within its borders against the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party); according to the United Nations, at least three hundred fifty thousand persons have been forcibly displaced and about thirty south-eastern cities partially destroyed. On the heels of a failed coup attributed to the Gülen movement, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embarked on a political cleansing of all the sectors hostile or opposed to him—the army, including a large number of generals, the police, judges, politicians, professors, and journalists—in a Stalin-type purge where denunciation played a leading role. At the outcome of a referendum in which a little more than fifty-one percent of the votes favored a constitutional amendment, power was concentrated in Erdoğan’s hands. One of the president’s goals is to de-secularize the army, a long-standing bastion of Kemalism. Repression is ongoing against the PKK, which made the mistake of wanting to fight losing battles in urban areas. The Turkish president intends to intervene further in Syria and in Iraq in order to strike elements of the PKK who have retreated there and those of the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party), perceived as a danger to Turkey’s security. By occupying Kobanî, the USA has signified that an intervention by Ankara in Syria is out of the question. Similarly, Russia sent troops to the district of Afrin to protect it from Turkish threat. Erdoğan then tried to impose his will by air and was blocked by the refusal of the USA, attached to protecting the forces leading the battle of Al-Raqqah, in which Syria’s Kurds are of prime importance. Suddenly, Turkey, otherwise facing serious economic problems—a nearly twenty percent fall in its currency, declining tourism, few investments, and modest economic growth—was left isolated. The Turkish leader, after having copiously insulted the Europeans (whom he can blackmail over the refugee issue), turned again to Russia to get sophisticated weapons so he could show that he wanted to preserve his freedom of action. His intention is to buy an S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which is incompatible with the NATO systems. He is ultimately aiming for an arsenal guaranteeing him as much independence as possible. How far Erdoğan can go down this path remains to be seen.
In April 2017, the Syrian regime used sarin gas in Khan Sheikhan, killing eighty-seven according to French sources and triggering panic among the populations, forced to take refuge to the north in the direction of ldlib. The USA responded to the gas attack by firing fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles. Thus, Donald Trump showed that, contrary to his predecessor, he would not let Syria “cross the red line” without reacting. That’s as far as it went; it was a public warning intended to show US determination (the message was also for North Korea).
Turkey’s alliance with Russia is circumstantial and mostly reflects interests of a tactical order. For Russia, moving Turkey away from NATO can seem tempting. Ankara’s alliances in the past decade have been erratic, and after having entertained a plan to take the lead of Sunnism in the Middle East, Turkey is left with no allies in the Arab world. Its relationships with Europe are contentious, and those it has with the United States have lost their former cordiality. Russia is attached to its alliance with the Syrian regime. It is firmly established in Syria with a naval base in Tartus, an airbase in Khmeimim, and a spy base in Tel Al-Hara (province of Daraa).
Moscow, while helping an Alawite state preserve power, does not wish to be seen as pro-Shia, particularly in the eyes of its neighboring Muslim countries. In 2016, a conference of Sunni scholars was held in Grozny (Chechnya) in the presence of the Grand Mufti of Egypt and the Grand Imam of al-Ahzar, which condemned Jihadism, Salafism and Wahhabism.
Saudi Arabia is currently Iran’s main adversary while Turkey remains its major historical rival. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both seeking regional preeminence, a rivalry kindled by religious opposition.
Serious incidents had taken place in Mecca in September 2015 and relations with Iran further deteriorated in January 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed nearly fifty Shia clerics including Imam Baqir al-Nimr.
Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia decided in 2016 to intervene in Yemen to try to crush Iran’s allies there, namely the Zaidi Houthi sect that dominates a large portion of the western part of the country (Sanaa, Taiz, and Al Hudaydah). Despite bombings causing a situation qualified by the United Nations as the largest humanitarian crisis in seventy years, Saudi Arabia and its allies have not succeeded in crushing the Houthis, who are particularly helped by the Alpine geography of their area. Only the cities of Sanaa and Ma’rib have come under their control. In the 1960s, in the same theater, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s troops, forty-thousand strong, had already been severely defeated by the mountain tribes. The Saudi intervention appears to be doomed to fail even though Saudi Arabia has had the Gulf Cooperation Council lined up behind it since 2016. The United Arab Emirates have however remained cautious in their support, starting with Dubai, where Iranian influence is significant. The Sultanate of Oman is playing more of a mediation role.
The United States obviously intends to play an important part in the region. Its public warning shortly after Damas’s use of toxic gases is only one illustration of this. In Iraq, the United States has nearly six thousand soldiers set to stay in order to weigh in on the country’s destiny. In Syria, Washington is keeping Erdoğan’s infelicitous initiatives in check. US special forces are training Syrians and are keen on their playing a part against the Islamic State.
The core of US military under the current presidency, including James Mattis, General McMaster, and John Kelly, is solid and determined. In any event, with the price of oil at around fifty-five US dollars a barrel, the United States remains the economic kingpin.
During his visit to Riyadh in June 2017, Donald Trump, after having saluted his excellent Saudi ally and negotiated a very important arms sale, pointed with his usual blustery insight to Iran as the state at the origin of international terrorism of Islamist inspiration. At a time when Saudi Arabia is claiming to represent human rights in the United Nations, nothing less could be expected. The Iranian election is suggesting more subtle developments.
July 1, 2017