Editor’s Note: Haid Haid is a Syrian writer and researcher focusing on security and conflict resolution. He is an associate fellow at Chatham House, working on the Middle East and North Africa program. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
“Victory” for any particular group is likely to prove relative. A post-settlement Syria will remain fragmented, extremist groups likely will persist and evolve, instability will be great and displacement will continue.
There is a general assumption that the US-led coalition against ISIS is largely succeeding in eliminating the group. The significant increase in territories lost along several ISIS fronts lends credence to this assertion.
The group has recently lost several key locations in Syria, while the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa is increasingly under siege. These territorial losses constitute a major blow to the terror group’s military and financial capabilities – but they come at the cost of increasing local and regional tensions.
The short-term focus of the anti-ISIS strategy has led to increased US cooperation with the Kurdish-led forces in Syria, which are viewed by many in the West as the only local force capable of executing such an operation. Coalition support, as a result, has empowered these forces to establish an autonomous Kurdish region within Syria and expand their control into areas with majority Arab populations.
The amplified Kurdish influence, as well as reported violations committed by some Kurdish groups against Arab communities, have led to ethnic tensions between local communities. In 2015, the Syrian Kurds were forcibly removing people from their homes by “deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages,” Amnesty International’s Lama Fakih said in a report based on information the rights group had gathered on a fact-finding mission.
The Kurdish dominance in northern Syria also prompted Turkey – which considers these forces to be terrorists, linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and therefore a security threat – to partner in August with Syrian rebel groups and intervene militarily in Syria to fight ISIS and curb the growing power of the Kurds.
The United States, instead of addressing these tensions, has sent mixed signals in an attempt to please all its allies and mobilize them against ISIS. What has happened in Manbij provides a clear example of this policy. The United States supported the Kurdish-led offensive in August to seize the city, but it also assured Turkey that the Kurds would not run Manbij after defeating ISIS.
The failure or unwillingness of the United States to fulfill this assurance in Manbij led to a number of clashes between the Kurdish forces and Turkey, backed by its Syrian rebel allies. Kurdish forces, as a result, have recently turned over frontline villages to the Syrian army to create a buffer zone with the Turkish-led forces.
Russian and American forces have also been deployed in Manbij to keep warring parties apart.
This maneuver has succeeded in postponing a full-scale military confrontation between Turkey, Syrian rebels and Kurds. But it has also made the situation riskier.
The presence of many old enemies face to face in a small area, with no clear strategy to address the tensions between them, is turning the situation into a time bomb.
The absence of a coherent strategy on Syria from Western governments over the past six years has contributed to the increasing strength of extremist groups, according to a research paper published Wednesday by Chatham House.
The paper highlights that the West has ignored the constantly evolving social, economic, geographical, political and military factors driving people to support or join different armed groups.
The failure or unwillingness to address these root causes has allowed the groups to continue to use them as a recruiting tool. ISIS has also been able to take advantage of the chaos and local divisions to survive.
The ongoing fight, led by Western countries against ISIS, will only bring positive results if it adopts a clear, comprehensive and participatory strategy that addresses the causes of the group’s rise.
Addressing locals’ needs and concerns will increase the chances of gaining their support and successfully defeating ISIS. The root causes of the tension and grievances of both communities, Arabs and Kurds, should also be dealt with to build a genuine alliance based on shared values and equal rights.
There is also a need for initiatives to support dialogue between different Kurdish groups, between Kurds and Arabs, and between the PKK and Turkey. Without rapprochement on those three fronts, policies aimed at resolving the conflict in Syria will not succeed in the long term.
The absence of a comprehensive post-ISIS strategy will only increase the frequency and intensity of military confrontations between the different actors competing over the group’s territories.
The impending defeat of ISIS threatens to turn existing tensions and divisions into an open conflict along new front lines. ISIS, or similar radical groups, will be the only beneficiaries from such a scenario.