With ISIS Caliphate Defeated, Syrian Democratic Forces Begin a New Chapter

FILE -- A fighter of Christian Syriac militia that battles the Islamic State group burns an ISIS flag on the western side of Raqqa, northeast Syria, July 17, 2017. U.S.-backed Syrian fighters fought Islamic State militants in the heart of Raqqa, the extremists' self-styled capital, as scores of civilians fled areas controlled by the group. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
FILE -- A fighter of Christian Syriac militia that battles the Islamic State group burns an ISIS flag on the western side of Raqqa, northeast Syria, July 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

-- Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

On March 22, the Trump administration officially announced the end of the Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate, declaring that the jihadist organization had been "100% defeated." At a press briefing, the White House distributed maps of the region showing that, for the first time since 2014, ISIS no longer controlled any territory in Syria.

"The territorial caliphate has been eliminated in Syria," said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. The Islamic State's territorial holdings in Iraq had been rolled up a few months earlier.

At its height, the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate stretched across Iraq and Syria and covered a region of approximately 80,000 square miles, roughly equivalent to the area of Great Britain. There were an additional 10,000 square miles of territory controlled by ISIS or its affiliates across North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East.

To its credit, the Trump administration revitalized and expanded the lackluster campaign that the Obama administration had been waging against the Islamic State. It paved the way for the eventual defeat of ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria, and the liberation of the territory previously under its control.

The destruction of ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria is a defeat for the caliphate. It is not, however, the end of the caliphate that was proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on June 29, 2014.

ISIS' territory in Syria and Iraq contained only some of the provinces (wilayats), among the roughly four dozen provinces, that existed within the Islamic State and whose leaders have pledged loyalty to al-Baghdadi. Admittedly, some of those provinces exist in name only. None of them have the territorial expanse, population or resources of the Islamic State's former holdings in Syria and Iraq but, technically, they still constitute a caliphate.

Western intelligence agencies estimate that, as of spring 2019, Islamic State and its affiliates control between 1,000 and 2,000 square miles of territory around the world. Most of that territory is in northern Nigeria. Elsewhere, ISIS' territories consist of little more than a series of enclaves, some of which it exercises very fluid control over.

In Sunni tradition, a caliph was both a religious leader and a head of state. The presumption is that a head of state presupposes a territorial state for them to govern. The Koran is vague on this point, however. There are several Islamic sects, most notably the Sufis, who have declared caliphates without controlling a distinct territory.

The defeat of ISIS in Syria does not bring an end to the violence there, it simply forces it to morph into an insurgency. Significantly, the senior leadership was not captured when Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) overran ISIS' last stronghold at Baghuz. The Islamic State is not going to acknowledge its defeat, announce that the caliphate has been abolished or sign an instrument of surrender, much less a peace treaty. One chapter in the history of the Islamic State has ended, and another one is about to begin. We are at the beginning of Islamic State 4.0.

Moreover, while ISIS no longer controls any real estate in Syria, that does not mean that the fighting is over. As was the case earlier, especially in Mosul, a large system of underground tunnels beneath Baghuz still needs to be cleared. Even within the town itself, SDF officials estimate there are still several hundred ISIS militants hiding within the civilian population and periodically surfacing to attack the American-backed SDF troops.

The tunnels and cave complexes beneath Baghuz run several kilometers in length and may even extend into Iraq. Baghuz sits on the east bank of the Euphrates, adjacent to the border with Iraq. U.S. officials estimate that, at one point, up to 10,000 ISIS militants might have been sheltered in the tunnel complexes beneath Baghuz. It's believed that several thousand could remain there.

Additionally, some 5,000 ISIS militants have been captured or surrendered since the assault on Baghuz began. An additional 60,000 people have been displaced. Most of these are civilians escaping from the fighting, but it is believed that there are ISIS fighters and supporters within that group of refugees. What will happen to captured ISIS militants is unclear.

According to a Pentagon spokesperson on the scene, "these folks are unrepentant ... the seeds of a future caliphate or certainly a persistent clandestine insurgency exists in these large number of people."

Moreover, according to U.S. intelligence sources, ISIS still commands the support of tens of thousands of jihadist fighters and sympathizers across Iraq and Syria.

Based on the past, it is likely that it will take several more weeks of sporadic fighting before Baghuz is entirely secured and the remaining ISIS militants are either apprehended or killed.

The Next Chapter: The Syrian Democratic Forces

Over the course of the American campaign against Islamic State, but especially since 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces have functioned as critical proxies for the U.S., supplying the boots on the ground that were responsible for the defeat of ISIS. Supported by the U.S.-led coalition's airpower, along with logistical support, arms and training from embedded U.S. troops, the SDF proved to be a competent military force. Their efforts were further supported by the presence of several hundred U.S. Special Forces troops that conducted operations both independently and in conjunction with SDF members.

On March 22, Mazloum Kobani, the overall commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, urged the Assad government "to prefer the process of dialogue." In a speech during a memorial ceremony for fallen SDF fighters, Kobani urged the Syrian government in Damascus to "start practical steps to reach a political solution based on the recognition of autonomous institutions and of the SDF's special status." In other words, to allow the Kurdish enclave of Rojava some degree of autonomy and to retain the SDF as an ongoing military force.

At the present time, the Assad government controls about two-thirds of Syria. Another one-quarter to one-fifth is controlled by the SDF, and the balance is directly controlled by Turkish military units or the Turkish-sponsored Free Syrian Army and the militias aligned with them. The predominantly Kurdish-inhabited areas of Syria amount to between 10% to 15% of Syria's geography. The campaign against the Islamic State resulted in the SDF gaining control of large areas where ethnic Kurds do not make up a significant part of the population. At the same time, the SDF was expelled from Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish province in northwest Syria, by Turkish troops and their proxies.

While the threat of continued ISIS-inspired violence has not abated, the immediate risks posed by an expansionist Islamic State are, at least for the moment, contained. That means the alliances of convenience that characterized the campaign against ISIS are now in danger of unraveling or, at the very least, of being replaced by new alliances of convenience as the focus of the Syrian conflict now shifts to the future of the Syrian Kurds.

Syria's Kurds have made it clear that they are willing to accept the continuation of the Assad regime, provided that Damascus recognizes the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, commonly referred to as Rojava, as a de facto autonomous region in northeastern Syria. It consists of self-governing sub-regions in the areas of Afrin, Jazira, Euphrates, Raqqa, Tabqa, Manbij and Deir Ez-Zor. They also want to retain the Syrian Democratic Forces, a military force consisting primarily of ethnic Syrian Kurds, as an autonomous militia.

This is similar to the arrangement that the Iraqi Kurds negotiated with the government in Baghdad. That agreement saw Iraqi Kurdistan given a large degree of autonomy, as well as continued control of the Kurdish Peshmerga militia.

The Assad government has indicated in the past that it is open to such an arrangement but has been vague about what form such autonomy would take and its implementation. Damascus has also made it clear that it wished U.S. troops out of Syria. It has hinted that any long-term deal with Syria's Kurds might first require the withdrawal of U.S. troops from areas controlled by the SDF and an end to the role of the SDF as a de facto American proxy. The Kurds have been desperate to hang on to a continued American presence in Syria, seeing their continued cooperation with U.S. forces as insurance against an attack by either Turkish or Syrian military forces.

U.S. policy at this point is unclear. Several weeks ago, the Trump administration announced, following a one-on-one telephone call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that all U.S. troops would be immediately withdrawn from Syria. The announcement was seen by Syria's Kurds as opening the way for an attack by Turkish military forces on SDF-controlled areas of Syria. The Trump administration's announcement, which caught the Pentagon by surprise, was later modified to state that U.S. forces would be withdrawn gradually over an unspecified timeline.

Recently, the Pentagon has announced that approximately 400 U.S. troops would remain in Syria, and that the balance of the 2,000 odd troops in Syria would be withdrawn, although the timeline for that withdrawal remains unclear. Significantly, Turkish forces, which at the time of the initial announcement that all U.S. troops were being withdrawn, seemed poised to intervene into Kurdish-controlled areas, have not done so and now appear to have stood down from any significant intervention.

Turkey and Iran, which initially found themselves on opposite sides, share a vested interest in preventing the emergence of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state. Ankara and Tehran have had long-standing issues with their own Kurdish population, and both have had long-running campaigns against Kurdish separatist organizations in their respective countries.

Turkey was once determined to oust Assad, and openly supported the Free Syrian Army with cash and arms. It also, conveniently, turned a blind eye to the activities in Turkey, especially smuggling of arms, people and contraband across the Turkish-Syrian border, by jihadist groups, including the Islamic State and groups affiliated with al-Qaida. Following the intervention of Russia into the Syrian civil war, the prospect of ousting Assad was no longer viable. Ankara then turned its attention to what it considers the more pressing issue of preventing the emergence of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in Syria.

Moscow has long-standing ties to Kurdish groups in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and in the past had been closely associated with various insurgent Kurdish groups in Turkey and, in particular, the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK). It also is indispensable to the Assad government. It is in the best position to broker a deal between Assad and the Syrian Kurds, especially if the U.S. was to completely withdraw all its troops from Syria. In that case, Russia is the only other player in the Syrian civil war that is able to guarantee the safety of the Syrian Kurds.

That lesson has not been lost on Turkey, which, following the disastrous shootdown of a Russian fighter that had strayed into Turkish airspace on November 25, 2015, has been steadily cozying up to Russia. Ankara, for example, recently agreed to the purchase of a Russian S-400 air defense system. That's very strange behavior for a key member of the NATO alliance, since the Russian missiles cannot be integrated into NATO's air defense systems.

One thing is clear: The Kremlin is in no rush to resolve the issue of the Syrian Kurds. The longer the issue festers, the longer it can stoke tensions between Turkey and its NATO allies.

There is one other factor that may shape what happens to the Syrian Kurds -- the question of who will pay for rebuilding Syria. Large parts of Syria have been devastated by the 7-year-old civil war. The cost of rebuilding Syria will run to tens of billions of dollars, perhaps even a hundred billion. Neither Moscow nor Tehran, Assad's most stalwart allies, have the financial ability to underwrite Syria's rehabilitation. The U.S. and the EU have the ability, but have made it clear that no financial aid will be forthcoming as long as Assad is in power.

The one wild card in the next phase of the Syrian conflict is Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is opposed to the Assad regime. It financed both the Free Syrian Army and various jihadist groups fighting the Syrian government. Saudi Arabia also wants to limit the expansion of Iranian and Turkish influence in Syria.

Historically, the Saudis have not had much interest in what happens to the Kurds. Moreover, Riyadh has its own financial issues at the moment and may not be feeling particularly flush. Still, Riyadh has deep pockets and may agree to support the rebuilding of Syria, even if it is under a continued Assad government, as a way of limiting Turkish and Iranian influence there. It may also see supporting the Syrian Kurds as a way of further constraining Turkish ambitions in the region.

The situation in Syria remains fluid, the future of the Islamic State unknown. The issue of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state is still to be resolved. One thing is certain, however. The Islamic State is not going away. Its continuing actions and the legacy of its rule will haunt the region for the foreseeable future.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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