With regard to our allies on the ground, the Kurds of Iraq, better armed and trained than in the summer of 2014, are holding up a front longer than six hundred miles thanks to US, and more modestly French, air cover.
Since last year, they have recovered about seven thousand seven hundred square miles and made solid progress in the Sinjar district (with the support of the Kurds of Syria and the PKK). It is unlikely that they will go any farther—into non-Kurdish country—all the less so that an offensive against Mosul, for example, would be costly. There is already a lack of young Peshmerga, rotation is apparently not ensured, and the North (DPK) and the South (the PUK and the Gorran) are still highly divided in terms of armed forces as well as politically.
Absence of state tradition comes with a cost. The North of Iraq’s Kurdistan is dependent on Turkey, and the South on Iran. In 2015, the Kurds of Syria, remarkably organized and motivated, were the most offensive elements against ISIL. They are seeking to join Kobanî and Afrin together in order to have unbroken territory. This, precisely, contradicts Turkey, which is determined to establish a no-fly zone in this area, over which it would have de facto control. Helped by the United States, the Kurds are also supported by the Russians, and drawing out the conflict is their best chance to consolidate their position, even their survival, which depends partly on the duration of the war. What would their situation be in a future settlement between Turkey’s militant hostility and that of the majority of Syria’s Arabs?
Need we add that for Iraq it is very difficult, even in light of the ambiguous case of Tikrit (most of the Sunni population preferred to flee), to fight against ISIL with Shias or Kurds in Sunni territory. Sparking off Sunni resistance against ISIL would be ideal.
In his time (2006), General Petraeus had succeeded in Anbar Province by paying, organizing, and arming tribal elements to get them to fight against al-Qaeda. But they were marginalized by Nouri al-Maliki, who refused to incorporate them into the Iraqi armed forces.
In Syria, the United States has on several occasions since 2011 recruited Sunnis to fight against ISIL. In vain, in spite of years of efforts. In October 2015, the United States gave up this plan, the results of which had never been anything but disappointing. It finally had to be understood that Sunni “moderates” do not wish to die. This type of risk is taken by the Islamists and by the Kurds of Syria in the name of different, but mobilizing ideologies.
ISIL can be weakened by inflicting military defeats on it on the Syrian territory it controls, which is actually, contrary to appearances, its weak point.
A great part of the movement’s aura has come from the collapse in Mosul of Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia forces, followed by its victorious offensives against Sinjar and Iraqi Kurdistan before US air intervention. In Iraq, territorialization in a densely Sunni area has allowed ISIL administrative control over the population, to provide for its minimal needs, and to organize the young. We should note that in Syria, like in Iraq, ISIL suffered a series of reversals in 2015. Ideally, at the military level, it would have been effective for the allies to conduct blitz-type raids by special forces in order to break the adversary every time conditions were favorable.1 Looking back, there have been plenty of opportunities of this kind: Mosul, Sinjar, the breakthrough into Iraqi Kurdistan (2014), the offensive toward Palmyra (2015), and so on, but this option was ruled out.
In addition, it is important to reduce ISIL’s economic resources, particularly from selling oil, which Turkey buys from ISIL at a good price. The oil wells and their routing logistics must be destroyed.
Might it be necessary to wait for the end of Barack Obama’s term of office for a more offensive policy to be adopted at the beginning of 2017, possibly conducted by a female Democratic president? Although of course, the Islamist attack in San Bernardino (December 2015) has reminded Americans that they are involved in this conflict.
Lastly, ISIL and the Islamists need to be fought internationally —and this is no simple task—on the twofold front of information and ideological propaganda. ISIL is very effective in this area. Its influence in Africa like in Asia is significant, particularly in Libya. Its revolutionary warfare, conducted in the territories under its control where it mobilizes the young and provides the eldest all kinds of services, is also being conducted outside, in sectors that it does not control, but seduces. From this point of view, what we have to offer as an alternative is neither attractive nor operational. Ideologies die less quickly than men.
At the margins of the attacks perpetrated on four continents (France, the United States, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, the Sinai, Tunisia, Turkey, Indonesia, Belgium, and so on) in 2015-2016, other techniques have been used. For instance, sexual assaults in Cologne in January 2016, where the point was to get reactions of brutal rejection from Europeans in order to break all the communities apart and to spread the feeling that coexistence is impossible. ISIL, in this respect, has potential allies among part of the young in Europe.
The center of gravity of the civil war was focused in early 2016 on the northeastern part of the territory, along the Aleppo-Menagh-Azaz corridor, which leads to Turkey. The Russian air strikes, which have intensified, have loosened the noose around the government forces, which have moved to the offensive.
Turkey, which at home is trying to crush the Kurdish combatants of the PKK, is worried about advances of the Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG), the armed branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Their breakthrough toward Azaz could make it possible to constitute an unbroken Kurdish territory, shutting off the Turkish border. This would ruin the Turkish plan of a no-fly zone and would greatly obstruct the Islamists’ logistics. Ankara is pounding the Kurdish forces of Syria and threatens to resort to other measures despite exhortations from Washington and Paris.
Taking advantage of the relative paralysis of the past few months of Obama’s second term, during which his concern has been more focused on domestic issues, Vladimir Putin has sought, successfully, to change the correlation of forces on the ground. He has consolidated the Syrian regime while at the same time actively supporting the Kurds of Syria. These latter are also supported by the United States insofar as they are an effective combat force against ISIL. But by intensifying their advance toward the Turkish border, the Kurds of Syria have added to the embarrassment of the United States with regard to the ambiguous ally that Erdoğan’s Turkey has become.
The specter of a Russian-Turkish conflict is wildly exaggerated but the tension is real. Turkey is clamoring for an international intervention “against all terrorisms,” to which only Saudi Arabia seems to be favorable. But, as recently noted in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s capacities are limited.
Settlement of the conflict still seems as dubious as it is remote. In the current circumstances, the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime would lead to chaos similar to that in Libya. And whatever feelings one might have with regard to this dictatorship, the fact is that it currently controls at least two-thirds of the Syrian population.
The game is far from over.
As far as France is concerned, the November 2015 wake-up call in Paris was needed for the authorities to finally decide to take measures, some of which are inadequate and debatable, when not simply uncalled for. Although social harmony had been undermined for a long time, the various governments of the last decades had endeavored to keep up its appearance, and its flaws and limits have now been revealed.
France is not “at war,” a terminology that recalls the verbal inflation of President G.W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. The declaration, on the other hand, must have delighted ISIL by conferring on it a dimension that it is far from having. But the foundations of the militant Islamism that can lead to Jihadism have already been liberally diffused in France for a long time, under the umbrella of the republic’s democratic traditions.
In addition, in France we have not undertaken, either on the left or on the right, essential and unpopular economic reforms, still called for but postponed out of re-election concerns. These will be incontrovertible when we have our backs against the wall and domestic tensions will have been growing ever higher.