Come from Iraq in 2012, the Islamic State of Iraq would have many advantages in Syria: proximity of the Turkish border, which volunteers for the Jihad were allowed to cross, and contacts with the Turkish intelligence service (MİT) eager to undermine the Syrian Kurds’ PYD. This would be particularly obvious during the long siege of Kobanî, where a few thousand Syrian Kurd male and female combatants held their ground for months against better armed and more numerous ISIL troops, now supported by Ankara.
In June 2013, ISIL broke away from Jabhat al-Nusra. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda Central, declared that Jabhat al-Nusra was the only legitimate movement in Syria. In January 2014, ISIL clashed briefly with other Islamist movements. Al-Raqqah became the epicenter of ISIL power in Syria. In September, ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra clashed. To Turkey’s great displeasure, the United States decided to support those defending Kobanî by bombing ISIL forces.
While until the end of 2013 Bashar al-Assad’s regime appeared to have the upper hand, the Syrian army seemed to have run out of steam in 2014. According to the Syrian Human Rights Watch (under control of the opposition), from March 2011 to June 2014, or in three years, the number of casualties caused by the conflict amounted to one hundred sixty thousand, including forty thousand “rebels,” fifty thousand Syrian soldiers, and fifty thousand civilians.
In the north, Turkey’s influence is significant. Considering that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was doubly concerned, the situation has been followed closely. At the November 1, 2015 parliamentary elections his party obtained a better national score (more than 49 percent) than he had gotten in the previous summer’s presidential elections (41.9 percent) by exploiting the ultranationalism of part of the Turkish electorate and by granting himself the greatest amount of television air time while striking his Kurdish adversaries, namely the combat movement, PKK, and Selahattin Demirtaş’s Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a democratic parliamentary movement. Erdoğan wished to weaken the Kurds of Syria so as to prevent them from establishing an autonomous unbroken area between Kobanî and Afrin. This was where Turkey planned to establish a no-fly zone. To get it, Ankara allowed the United States to use the NATO Incirlik Air Base again, and committed, in theory, to striking ISIL. Russia would later de facto oppose the plan. Turkey would respond by shooting down a Russian airplane.
Otherwise, in agreement with Saudi Arabia (which had so far refused to assist movements sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood) and Qatar, Turkey actively helped all the Islamist movements federated under Jaish al-Fatah (March 2015) and unofficially, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham.
In June 2014, ISIL achieved a spectacular breakthrough in the direction of Iraq, held by the army of Baghdad. Sometime earlier, it had already seized Fallujah in Iraq, a Sunni bastion. About two or three thousand ISIL soldiers moved toward Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to fight it out against Nouri al-Maliki’s much more numerous armed forces. Al-Maliki had completely alienated the Sunnis with a policy of exclusion, which had been a mistake, but then he made an even bigger one: his armed forces, undermined by corruption, incapable of fighting, disbanded and left quantities of material behind. In their rush to run away, they even left with ISIL the capital they had from the state bank.
It would not be long before ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would use this easy victory to proclaim himself caliph. Sowing terror, ISIL penetrated the Sinjar area where Masoud Barzani’s KDP troops, poorly trained, poorly armed, and surprised, made a hasty retreat, leaving Sinjar’s Yazidis to their fate. After perpetrating massacres and kidnapping women and children, whom they would later sell as slaves, the ISIL columns penetrated actual Kurdish territory in early August, threatening Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and the place of Masoud Barzani’s KDP headquarters.
A quick intervention on August 8 by the US Air Force would stop ISIL’s victorious offensive in its tracks. Meanwhile, the success of the fall of Mosul, the political impact of the terror in Sinjar, and the progression of ISIL elements into Kurdish territory set an impressive attraction trend. Candidates for the Jihad hailed in numbers from the Maghreb, Western Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Caucasus to join a movement that had been able to impose itself in a spectacular way and gave the feeling that victory was at the tip of the rifle.
Working the social networks with great command and imposing themselves in the media and social networks, sometimes with a policy of terror, sometimes by dramatizing horror, ISIL fascinated Western television, which relayed their propaganda abundantly. This contributed to the organization’s aura and to destabilizing spirits in the West. With the help of television ratings, the game was all on ISIL’s side and its most effective achievement. At the strictly military level, ISIL’s progress had been modest (in a year, Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria), but its ideological and psychological impact was now considerable.
In a less spectacular way but militarily more effective, the Kurdish forces of Syria managed in 2015 to seize the strategic position of Tell Abyad, made a successful offensive toward Al-Hasakah, and linked the two districts of Al-Qamishli and Kobanî. Al-Raqqah will be one of their next objectives. Above all, the PYD aims to extend this linkage to the district of Afrin. If they are successful, the Kurds of Syria will have an unbroken autonomous area, ruining the Turkish plan for a no-fly zone. Seeing that Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces were running out of steam, Russia decided to intervene directly.
This intervention allowed the Russians to put their Ukrainian failure behind. Because, whatever one thinks, recovering Crimea, which is Russian, and backing the insurrectionary movements in East Ukraine had not erased the fact that they had lost Ukraine, populated with forty-five million Russian-speaking Slavs who would not be part of the Eurasian Economic Union. Admittedly, Vladimir Putin was able to stop Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO.
Richard K. Betts, one of Washington’s most prominent political observers, wrote in Foreign Affairs (November-December 2014): “In its beginning, the crackup in Ukraine was caused hardly more by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression than by unthinking Western provocations, including unbridled NATO expansion, the humiliating dismissal of Russia as a great power, and the EU’s efforts to convince Kiev to cut its ties to Moscow.”
In addition, Syria is Russia’s only ally in the Middle East today, and this is Russia’s chance to play an important role in a situation where the United States and their allies are forced, by their alliances with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to adopt a cautionary stand. For the United States, stopping ISIL in its march on Palmyra would have appeared as if it was defending the regime’s army. In this respect, Russia has much greater freedom of action and has no qualms about striking Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham in addition to ISIL. It is hard to understand why these highly subversive movements of yesterday, one of which is a member of al-Qaeda, have become respectable since ISIL supplanted them.
Russia has access to the Mediterranean through the port of Tartus and is to have a military base in Lattakia—both in Alawite territory. In addition, Russia has no interest in allowing the return of Caucasian jihadists, yesterday’s nationalists, nor of the Chechens, who are henceforth fighting under the banner of the most radical Islamism.
Vladimir Putin, who had been demonized in connection with Ukraine (the United States had systematically pushed the former USSR back to the borders of Russia), has thus had an international comeback in the Near East. While he is not regarded as a partner, he is at least a useful player insofar as he is openly fighting Islamist organizations that Westerners do not in the least wish to see in power in Damascus. The Russian intervention, without being decisive, weighs heavily in the complex correlation of forces being played out in Syria, the consequences of which are for the most part regional.
Against this background, the role of the Syrian army, for better or for worse, is currently indispensable, in addition to that of the Kurds of Syria, also particularly necessary.
Thanks to the Syrian civil war, ISIL has succeeded in gaining some political substance and in imposing itself as the most dynamic Islamist movement, bringing about an incoming rush of several thousand volunteers.
It is easy to dismiss the caricature of a caliphate and to see ISIL as a terrorist movement (an official designation that muddles a proper understanding of the adversary’s strategy).
ISIL does indeed employ terrorist-type actions, but it also uses guerrilla-warfare techniques, and like in Mosul and Palmyra, goes for traditional-warfare combat with limited, albeit frightening means, given its volunteers for death. In Iraq, the movement is busy actively building a framework for the populations by providing care, electricity, and schools, and organizing it through social control, not to mention the propaganda addressed to the younger generations, who are more malleable than the adults. On the other hand, in Syria, ISIL is essentially occupying a scarcely populated area. ISIL’s core is Iraqi and more than two-thirds of its combatants are not Syrian. Many do not even speak the Arabic spoken in Syria.
Actually, while Syria is ISIL’s battle field, Iraq, in its Sunni area, is really its backbone and its mass-population base. After years of vexations and discriminations from Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia regime, the people are favorable to them. How strong support for ISIL is, is not known, but it would be wrong to underestimate it. (After all, several hundred members of the Abu Nimr tribe were executed for having refused to pledge allegiance.) And well, ISIL plays the part of a revolutionary movement by attracting many youngsters from across the Muslim world, as well as from Western Europe, to join the Jihad.
Like it or not, the movement cannot be conveniently defined as nihilistic. Whatever the Utopia of their project to return to the real or supposed purity of the Islam of the first centuries, theirs is a rallying appeal. Was this not also true of yesterday’s “Marxism-Leninism,” in the name of which so many militants fought and gave their life?
We are dealing with a revolutionary movement condemned to lose because its goals are completely unrealistic—contrary to those of the Chinese or the Indians—but whose disturbance capacity is substantial, lasting, and preoccupying to us. It goes without saying that in this context, any ISIL military success on the ground is propaganda by the deed, and dangerous. This is why, whatever the ambiguity of our official alliances, we need to act to make sure that Islamist movements do not achieve any military victories, neither in Syria nor anywhere else.
Contrary to the Islamists, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, for which we have no sympathy at all, is not conspiring for our defeat. In politics, it is important to know who, in every given situation, is the main adversary. Otherwise, there is no doubt that the goals of our two major regional allies among the Muslim states, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are opposed to ours. And we might add, not only in Syria, but at the regional level and even at the scale of the Muslim world, diaspora included. We should finally point out that we are not directly concerned by the antagonism between Sunnis and Shias. These two rival currents are condemned, like they were yesterday and will be tomorrow, to coexist, and it is preferable that neither of them prevail decisively over the other.