Without Isil to Unify against, There Is Little to Hold Iraq and Syria’s Factions Together

The battle for Raqqa has been declared won. The eastern Syrian city, once de facto capital of Isil’s self-proclaimed caliphate, has been captured by the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Victory has been slow in coming and has cost much. The city of Raqqa lies devoid of people and in ruins. Many civilians have been killed and the SDF suffered not insubstantial casualties. But this is a victory nonetheless.

Isil’s pretence of creating a state of its own, of constructing a caliphate, is over. Its ambition has been rendered impossible and its plans for statehood have been reduced to nothing.

But this victory, while welcome, solves little. Isil itself is still a potent threat. It remains strong in the desert region straddling the Syria–Iraq border. And it is laying the foundations of a wider insurgency for which it is more than well-prepared.

Beyond this, it is clear that the American-led anti-Isil coalition is fracturing.

The Iraqi advance on Kirkuk at the start of the week made this very clear. Kirkuk was occupied by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), whose peshmerga soldiers fought so well and so determinedly against Isil after the latter’s dramatic capture of territory across central Iraq in 2014. Kirkuk matters to Iraq’s Kurds.

They voted overwhelmingly last month to become independent, a move the federal Iraqi state opposed. In taking this tack, Iraq was backed by the United States. The Americans said any moved toward the breakup of Iraq would be to the detriment of the campaign against Isil.

That warning did not frighten Iraq’s Kurds. It could not dissuade them from endorsing independence. The same effect can be seen all across Iraq and Syria. The mission to confront and defeat the Islamic State bound many competing groups with divergent interests together. This happened with American approval, tacit or overt.

As Isil collapses, the necessity of all pulling together to defeat its terror state diminishes, and the motivation for bad behaviour only increases.

The US special envoy on the matter, Brett McGurk, makes plaintive statements imploring everyone to fall in line and prioritise Isil, but this will have less and less effective authority. The Iraqi Kurds held their independence referendum regardless.

They voted to form their own country no matter what they were told by outsiders. And now Iraq and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), often sectarian militias of which many are Iranian proxies, have moved to seize territory within the KRG in spite of the threat of American pressure.

An American adversary, Iran, has assisted a US ally in attacking another. It is shocking. It is a direct challenge to the letter and spirit of the anti-Isil campaign. And it is a threat to American influence in the whole region.

These problems are not only apparent in Iraq. The campaign to defeat Isil has made American policymakers feel justified in making decisions which only work in the short term. It has also served to justify working with evil men. These have been mistakes of the United States’ own making.

This is as true in Syria as it is in Iraq. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has spent the last six years killing civilians and oppositionists in any way it can. It simply cannot be trusted and cannot be a suitable partner. But that is, in effect, what it has become.

This arrangement is morally repulsive. And it is strategically unsound.

The Assad regime, convinced that it can reconquer the whole of Syria, is continually threatening to cross the Euphrates, which will inevitably bring it into conflict with the leading US proxies in the country, the SDF.

If this happens, the delicate and haphazard US coalition of the willing in Syria will fall to pieces, and the hope that everything could quiet down after Isil is defeated will be as nothing.

Assad has form in breaking international agreements aimed at keeping the peace. At the same time, the remaining pockets of rebels in Idlib province and the south of Syria want protecting. But the US is either incapable of or unwilling to do so. Into this vacuum step those willing to act, even abhorrently. Idlib was declared a safe “deconflicton zone”.

This should deter would-be aggressors. But it has not and will not do so in the future. Russian and regime warplanes have been engaged in a consistent bombing campaign which targets hospitals in Idlib, and did so as recently as last week with total impunity.

Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime simply cannot be trusted not to try their luck. Local forces with local concerns and grievances cannot but hope to get away with snatching at cherished ambitions while the Americans are otherwise occupied.

Though the problems with unsavoury and unreconstructed allies predate his taking office, Donald Trump’s presidency has only seen an increase in the problem. His “America First” foreign policy seems to include allowing everyone else to scrap for second place.

The US cannot simply hope that equilibriums will arise and that disparate communities will find their place within a new and stable order. An active policy is needed to maintain stability in Iraq and Syria, lest we see more of what happened to Kirkuk this week.

The American hope that nothing needs to be done and that, in Iraq and Syria after Isil, everything will sort itself out is unreal. This is fantasy thinking, and dangerous.

It is possible that the events of this week will cause policymakers to reconsider. But it is also likely that, in the jubilation and relief at the apparent defeat of the Islamic State, the United States will unwittingly allow new problems to spring up in its absence. This would be a terrible tragedy.

But given the shape of American policy over the past half-decade, this outcome is sadly all too likely.

This piece was originally published in The Telegraph.

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