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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Syria: the future

IS appears to have suffered further set-backs in Syria, with the announcement by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF – a US-backed cooperation of anti-Assad Syrian fighters, and Kurdish militias) that they had seized al-Omar oil field in the East of Syria, close to Deir ez Zour, from the terror group.

SDF announced late last week that it had defeated IS in Raqqa – once the ‘capital’ of IS’ self-proclaimed caliphate – though it should be noted that while the city is now under SDF control, a relatively large number of IS members remain on the ground.

Russia and the Syrian army of Bashar al-Assad have also been fighting IS in Deir ez Zour, though to the West of the city.

The reversals IS have suffered in recent weeks – in Iraq and Libya as well as Syria – can be welcomed (though they should not yet be celebrated as outright victory), but they should also raise some questions.

First, if its ‘caliphate’ is indeed no more (some suggest that it might try to launch a new one in the Philippines, but the islands hardly have the cachet for Muslims that Syria and Iraq have), then what will IS do next?

Second, if IS is ‘removed’ from Syria (and it is not, yet), what might happen next in the state?

The answers are likely to be connected, in a number of ways.

First of all, there are a large number of foreign IS fighters in Syria (in Raqqa, the foreign fighters remained in the city, while the Syrians agreed to leave). Some, including MI5 (UK) director general Andrew Parker, believe that they will all attempt to return to their home countries, and plan terror attacks there.

This is a possibility. IS does need some kind of ‘response’ to its large losses in recent months, and it may also not have a very strong control over the activities of its ‘members’, either of which could easily lead to an ‘outpouring’ of attacks in Europe, North Africa and South Asia.

Secondly, there are a large number of Syrians and Iraqis who fought for IS in both states. Some of these did so largely because their families – wife, children, parents, etc. – were kidnapped by IS and they were told they must fight, or their loved ones would be killed.

Where those people can escape the clutches of IS, it is likely that they will attempt to return to ‘normal’ life.

But of course, life in war changes people, and even if they do not wish to ever see an IS member again, let alone be a part of the organisation, some of those people may decide that the life they have lived for the last 1-5 years is the life they now feel most comfortable within.

It is also worth noting that many, if not all, of these people will experience enormous difficulty in returning to a ‘normal’ life. Neither SDF nor Assad’s forces have sympathy or admiration for IS, and those who fought for it – even those who were forced to – may well face approbation and/or active hunting down in the post-IS Syria. They may keep fighting, not because they want to, but because the alternative is death.

Equally, a number of Syrians and Iraqis did not get ‘forced’ into fighting for IS. Because while IS actively recruits international fighters, its most common method of growth and conquest in Libya, Syria and Iraq was not invasion, but the recruitment of fighters from other militias (notably Al-Qaeda, which opposes IS everywhere it meets it) and the ‘takeover by stealth’ of the places in which they were active.

These fighters face no chance of rejoining their original militias, but are very unlikely to have ‘lost interest’ in the ambition and ideas they felt they were fighting for as part of IS.

Thirdly, IS itself has been significantly weakened in the eyes of potential members, by its reversals in recent weeks and months. They can no longer claim that they are ‘taking the fight’ to ‘the West’. But action in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other places, as well as attacks on parts of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, have always been a part of their ‘call to arms’. It seems unlikely that this will stop simply because the caliphate is no more. Indeed, they may decide they need to ‘step up’ their ‘campaign’.

To leave IS aside for a moment, the group’s nominal ‘removal’ from the Syrian Civil War will only reduce the number of competing factions from four to three. Other so-called ‘Islamist’ militias remain, while the SDF (whose alliance of Kurds and Syrians may not prove so stable without the unifying factor of IS as a shared enemy) and the pro-Assad forces (the Syrian army, Russian air force, Hizbollah, Iranian army and a large number of foreign militias) are likely to continue to fight one another.

Though Assad and Russia may believe that the removal of IS will ‘free-up’ soldiers and materiel to battle the SDF and other groups, the same thing certainly applies to their rivals. And though the US may be reluctant to openly fight Russia in Syria, and though Turkey (which also backs anti-Assad fighters in Syria) appears to be creeping closer to Russia, both still oppose Assad, and neither are yet so deeply engaged as Russia, so both can ‘withdraw’ a little without the SDF losing very much.

The problem is that the ‘defeat’ of IS does not appear to be very likely to ‘end’ the activity of self-proclaimed ‘Islamic’ extremists in Syria. It does not even, necessarily, look very likely to end the activities of IS in Syria.

Simultaneously, it is now extremely hard to see Assad, Russia, Iran and Hizbollah ceasing fighting until all opposition to Assad is crushed, but that looks little easier than it was five years ago – albeit that Assad has made significant advances in that period.

But a Syria with Assad still in charge is unlikely to be peaceful. The SDF is very likely to continue to fight, and if it can, IS – or whatever iteration of its aims comes after it – is likely to do the same.

Even in the event of an Assad ‘win’, therefore (and that looks like the current most likely outcome), not only will the vast majority of people we work with not be safe to return to Syria (having fled Assad at least as much as having fled IS), it is extremely likely that the state will almost immediately enter a prolonged period of desert guerrilla warfare, as Assad’s opponents – unable to live as citizens of the ‘new’ state – continue their fight, and the extremists, whether willingly or because of circumstance, do the same.

It is significantly easier to ‘win’ a war fought in cities, against people who occupy large structures, and can be effectively targeted in confined spaces. Yet the Syrian Civil War has lasted almost seven years, and shows little sign of ending soon.

As a result, any period of guerrilla warfare is likely to last far longer – perhaps 10-15 years. The so-called ‘end of IS’ is not the end of conflict in Syria.

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