The defeat of Isis is imminent: their last pocket in Mosul is about to be wiped out, Raqqa is being encircled and even Deir ez-Zor is under pressure. As Niklas Albin Svensson discusses, however, the end of Isis in Iraq and Syria has begun a struggle amongst the imperialists and the various regional powers to carve out spheres of influence in the aftermath.
The defeat of Isis is imminent: their last pocket in Mosul is about to be wiped out, Raqqa is being encircled and even Deir ez-Zor is under pressure. The end of Isis in Iraq and Syria has begun a struggle to carve out spheres of influence in the aftermath.
Isis has been the main fundamentalist jihadi force in the Middle East since 2013. Originally the Iraqi Al Qaeda affiliate, its (forced) merger with its sister Al-Qaeda group in Syria resulted in the most well-funded and well-organised jihadi group in the Middle East. It was able to gain control over a large section of the arms, jihadi volunteers and money that was flowing into Syria from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the US in the wake of the mass protests against Assad in 2011. Its capital was based in Raqqa but its most significant victory was the capture of Mosul in 2014. Now, it is besieged on all fronts.
Mosul has largely been reconquered by a coalition of the Iraqi army, aided by Shia militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Raqqa is being encircled by the PKK led SDF, backed by the US. The US and its proxies are also attempting to reach the oil rich Deir ez-Zor from the South-West and South-East. The Syrian government, for their part, are scrambling to catch up with US-backed groups and is pushing towards Deir ez-Zor from Palmyra and towards Raqqa from Aleppo, with the backing of Russia. To all parties this appears to be the beginning of the end for Isis.
The de-escalation deal
As a result, the imperialist powers are scrambling to dominate the important cities and oil rich desert that was formerly under Isis’ control. It is in that context that a de-escalation zone deal was recently struck between Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Russia, together with the Assad regime, has effectively squashed the most important pockets of opposition in the West of Syria. The metropolitan and industrial areas are now by-and-large under Assad’s control, as well as the access to the sea. The deal allows the presently rebel-controlled areas to remain so, with the exception of groups directly linked to Al Qaeda (The Nusra Front, for example) and Isis. A number of groups will also be resettled in the Idlib province.
It also effectively delivers bits of Syria into Turkish control. As a “guarantor”, Turkey will now police the Idlib province and a large area in Northern Aleppo province, separating off the two Kurdish parts from each other. The Turkish have thus given themselves a forward position from which to keep the Kurds of Syria weak, but also to keep the Assad regime weak, by keeping the various Islamist groups alive under Turkish protection in Idlib. In return, Turkey will reign in anti-Assad forces, which will deal a major blow to any groups that want to continue to fight Assad.
The main loser in the deal is Saudi Arabia, which sees its influence minimised as all the bulk of the Islamist forces will now be under Turkish control. In effect, Saudi Arabia has been pushed out of Syria with this deal. The other loser is the US, which was not given a seat at the negotiating table – the plan was only presented to them for approval after it was drawn-up. The Russians, in particular, would like to push the US and the UN security council to give its stamp of approval to this division of Syria, and the parties have given themselves a month to negotiate and work out the finer details. In the mean time, Assad and the Russians are attempting to establish de facto control of Daraa.
The rise of Iran
The Iranian regime has become one of the beneficiaries of the war in Iraq. Having destroyed the regime of Saddam Hussein, the US army effectively removed the greatest barrier to Iranian expansion into Iraq. Now, the Iran-backed Shia militias have become the most important fighting force of the Iraqi regime, and are effectively the main forces of the Iraqi government. With a loyal regime in Baghdad and, friendly relations with Damascus and significant influence in Lebanon, Iran is attempting to establish a corridor under its control from the Mediterranean all the way to the Persian Gulf and Iran.
For this purpose, Iran has deployed both Hezbollah and Iraqi militias in support of Assad in Syria. At the moment, Hezbollah forces are making a push towards the Iraqi border, through territory held by US backed rebels near Al Tanf, which is one of three roads between Iraq and Syria (the one through Deir ez-Zor is controlled by Isis and northern one by Kurdish forces). The US and their rebel allies are key to keep the road under their control, and the US even has a base in Al Tanf, which has been used to train rebel fighters. This has led to clashes, including US airstrikes against regime forces a few days ago.
The US is attempting to contain Iran. It has been forced to hand over control over the bulk of Iraq to Iran, but it is desperately scrambling to stop Iran from dominating the region. Control over Deir ez-Zor and Al Tanf are decisive, as US control of those points would stop Iran being able to move troops and resources between itself and Lebanon. At the very least, it would force Iran and Assad into negotiations.
The Russians are also not willing to hand control completely over to Iran and Assad. It has effectively agreed (at least for the time being) to US control over Al Tanf. Hezbollah, Assad and Iran are clearly intent on capturing Al Tanf, with or without Russian assistance.
The race for the Euphrates
The de-escalation deal between Assad, Russia, Turkey and Iran became a necessity as US-backed forces were advancing on Isis. The Kurdish SDF was encroaching on Raqqa and the Shia militias and the Iraqi army were finishing up in Mosul. Assad needed to free his forces to move against Isis, which he has largely left to their own devices since the beginning of the civil war. In fact, Isis provided a convenient distraction from Assad’s point of view, forcing the US to collaborate with him and his allies, in particular Iran. Now, however, the Euphrates threatens to be over-run by a combination of Kurds in the north and US-backed rebels in the south. The oil rich Deir ez-Zor province is being surrounded by these forces in Syria, although Iranian backed Shia militias are advancing towards the area inside Iraq.
Other than oil, Deir ez-Zor also contains one of the three border crossings between Iraq and Syria, making it of strategic and economic importance to both Iran and Assad. The US, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel all have an interest in stopping Assad getting control of the province and its border crossing. From a Turkish point of view, the most important question is the weakening of the Kurds; thus, for them the decisive question is that the Kurds don’t get control of the area. Freeing Assad to capture Isis territory is therefore in their interest.
The defeat of Isis under these circumstances only prepares the way for bloodier conflicts in the future, with no resolution in sight.
A new front
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is planning to open up another front in the battle against Iran. The Sunni tribes of western Iraq (across the border from Al Tanf and Deir ez-Zor) played a significant role in Isis’ early success against the Maliki regime, but later abandoned the organisation. Saudi Arabia are now arming Sunni tribesmen to the teeth, and another uprising is expected as soon as Isis is defeated (at least in Iraq).
Trump has just announced his backing for Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran measures with a state visit and a $110bn arms deal (much of which was approved under Obama). The British Prime Minister has made similar moves over the past 9 months. The weapon deals include a lot of weaponry that could be used to target Iranian ships and aircraft. The Saudis, but also other Gulf States like the UAE are stockpiling arms in order to counter Iran.
Before Trump’s state visit, the Saudis openly threatened war on Iranian soil and have been supporting reactionary opposition groups inside Iran for some time. In this context, Trump’s speech this weekend was an open declaration of support for Saudi action against Iran, practically a blank cheque. Whether or not the Saudis will make good their threat of taking the war into Iran, it certainly means an intensification of the war in Yemen and the opening of another front in Iraq.
This will likely be the end of the centralised Iraqi state. It will plunge Iraq into another stage in this bloody proxy war between the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The country is already divided in two, with the Kurdish authority in the north only paying lip service to the Bagdad regime. The remaining part is now to be divided on Sunni-Shia lines, deepening a sectarian conflict that has plagued the country since the US invasion of 2003.
The end of Isis?
Although Isis might come to an end, a host of Islamist groups are sprouting to take their place.
In Syria, they are busy changing their names. The Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate has, for example, recently managed to get itself off terror lists in the US and Canada by rebranding for the nth time. Without a doubt this has been done with the tacit approval of the authorities of both countries. Turkey has effectively taken a number of these Islamist groups under its protection in Northern Syria, ready to use them against the Kurds, Assad and Iran when it suits them.
Saudi Arabia is cultivating another insurrection in Sunni Iraq, undoubtedly with similar sectarian colours to Isis. They are also keeping Al Qaeda groups alive in Yemen. When Trump some years ago accused Saudi Arabia of being behind 9/11 he was in part correct. The Wahabi Sunnis of Isis and Al Qaeda all have links to Saudi Arabia, receiving the direct support of the whole regime or at least parts of it, and there is no sign of that ending, for all their talk of fighting “extremism” and “terrorism”.
Africa is emerging as an increasingly important battleground between the West and the bastard children of the Saudi regime. French and US forces are fighting Boko Haram and other Islamist forces in Mali, Niger and Chad. The struggle in Somalia is also intensifying and Trump has given the US military increasing scope for intervention in the country in its fight against Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab. Tunisia is also struggling to contain Islamists, and is likely to have its troubles magnified as Tunisian Isis fighters in Syria and Iraq filter back (estimated to number 5,000).
Many of the fighters that make up Isis are veterans of previous conflicts, shifting between conflict zones in West Africa, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq. They are like a roving band of zealous guns for hire. Likely they will reappear in other conflict zones, or commit terrorist deeds in the West.
The cost of imperialism
The conditions that prepared the way for the Isis are only getting worse. The mess created by Bush’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan was compounded by Obama’s reluctant intervention in Libya, and more enthusiastic intervention in Syria. The destruction of the Iraqi state has had disastrous consequences for the whole region. Imperialist interventions in the failed revolutions in Libya and Syria have only added to the mix of instability.
Most of the world is divided up between the major imperialist powers, with the US and its allies taking the lion’s share. The relative power of US imperialism is declining because of political blunders as well as a comparative lack of competitiveness of its industries. Into the breach step minor powers, like Iran and Turkey as well as more traditional powers like Russia. The inability of the US to impose its will on the region has left a vacuum that different powers are scrambling to fill, with devastating consequences for the masses.
The death toll in Syria has reached 400,000 and is likely more than 270,000 in Iraq. Aside from the loss of life, 5 million people in Syria have been forced flee their homes (25% of population) and 3 million in Iraq (10% of population). The economic devastation is immense. The financial cost of the civil war in Syria was estimated at $237bn by the end of 2015, and economic output has halved. This is partly due to sanctions. The wars in Iraq and the collapse of oil prices have meant that GDP per capita is almost down to the level of 1989, with much of the nation’s infrastructure in a mess. The recent collapse in GDP spells further disaster for the masses in Iraq and will fuel future conflicts.
As the imperialist powers compete for influence over the war-torn region, the suffering of the masses will increase apace. The working class in these countries is being destroyed and atomised. In its place barbarism is asserting itself more and more. Old tribal structures and religious ideas that ought to be confined to the European Dark Ages are experiencing a revival. For the majority of the population, the situation is desperate.
The capitalist system in its period of senile decay is bringing in its wake catastrophe after catastrophe. More and more countries are swept into an increasing maelstrom of conflict between the imperial powers. Only decisive action by the working class can bring an end to this horror.