On March 24, 2019, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the capture of Baghouz, a town in northeast Syria located in the middle of the scenic Euphrates valley. This was the last remaining outpost of the Daesh (IS) in the embattled country after the quasi-state lost control of its capital Raqqa in October 2017.
Daesh was first formed in Iraq in 2004 as a branch of Al-Qaeda and in 2006, established itself as an independent “Islamic State of Iraq.” The terrorist group took advantage of the civil war erupting from the Syrian uprising to spread its wings in that country capturing vast territories. In 2014, after Mosul came under its control, leader of Daesh, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself as the ‘Caliph’ and announced establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levants (ISIL or Daesh). The Daesh terrorist group soon inspired many others in the Middle East and North Africa region to emulate it.
Daesh attracted several thousand foreign fighters and inspired several ‘lone-wolf’ attacks in different parts of the world. Its atrocities, the sectarian agenda and barbarism against women forced the world and regional powers to take notice and focus on a strategy to counter its toxic tenacity. Two different coalitions began military operation in Syria to defeat the Daesh. While Russia joined the alliance between Iran and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, the US joined forces with the Kurds and helped in formation of the SDF.
The Kurdish SDF started military offensive against the Daesh on several fronts in late 2016 backed by aerial bombardments from the US forces. The first major breakthrough came in October 2017 with the fall of the Daesh capital in Syria, Raqqa and despite some interruptions, the SDF eventually succeeded in defeating the terrorist group.
Though Daesh has been defeated, the future of the Syrian Kurds hangs in the balance. The Kurdish forces have proved to be one of the most effective fighters against the Daesh. The SDF now controls almost entire north eastern part of Syria and has effectively established a de facto autonomous region, known as Rojava, in areas under its control. The Kurds have demonstrated the ability to function democratically through the Syrian Democratic Council and raised an effective fighting force in the form of SDF. Nonetheless, the challenge is to find a political solution in the post-Daesh Syria. The situation is complex and though the Kurds face serious challenges they have expressed willingness to work with the Assad regime to secure the future of Syria.
The Assad regime though insists on establishing its sovereignty over entire Syria. This can be a bone of contention between the US-backed Kurds and Russia and Iran-backed
Assad regime. Both Russia and Iran have underlined their support for the Syrian regime’s stand on taking full control of Syria, but in comparison to Moscow, Tehran is more vehemently opposed to any concession to the Kurds.
Turkey which has played a key role in formalising the de-escalation zone in northwest Syria and has been the major supporter of the Arab-dominated opposition including Free Syria Army (FSA) too is opposed to any concessions to the Kurds. Ankara sees the SDF, especially its constituent the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) as a threat to Turkish security because of its proximity with the outlawed Turkish secessionist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The US under President Donald Trump has shown reluctance to extend its military presence in northern Syria and this can complicate the choices for the Kurds.
The global as well as regional powers will have to work out a political solution for Syria without ignoring the sentiments of all major local stakeholders. The end of Daesh bodes well for Syria but the question of finding a political solution for Syria remains. If a negotiated settlement is not found soon, the remnants of the Daesh might find ways to revive their terror tactics as in the past.
Script: Dr. Mohd. Muddassir Quamar, Strategic Analyst on West Asia