Analysis

The More ISIS Loses Ground, the More Lethal It Becomes

Its forces in Raqqa are prepared to use same defensive tactics the organization used in Mosul, including roadside bombs, mines, booby-trapped houses and car bombs, all with goal of causing as many casualties as possible

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters on their way to Raqqa, Syria June 6, 2017.
RODI SAID/REUTERS

Reports by the Syrian Democratic Forces about the opening of their assault on Raqqa, ISIS’s Syrian capital, radiate optimism. “Raqqa’s capture is a matter of days, not weeks,” a senior Kurdish official was quoted as saying on a pro-SDF Facebook account. Another report said the forces have advanced 1.5 kilometers into Raqqa in just two days and are now “two kilometers from the city center.”

These reports strongly resemble initial reports from the assault on Mosul in Iraq, and are probably no more credible. Mosul, of course, still hasn’t been fully liberated from Islamic State, and the fighting rages on in its western portion.

Raqqa is admittedly smaller than Mosul and has only some 300,000 residents, compared to over a million in Mosul. But the more ISIS’ territory shrinks, the more determined it becomes to protect its assets.

Its forces in Raqqa are prepared to use the same defensive tactics the organization used in Mosul, including roadside bombs, mines, booby-trapped houses and car bombs, all with the goal of causing as many casualties as possible. And by executing civilians and preventing them from fleeing, it will bolster the human wall behind which its fighters hide. ISIS also uses drones and anti-aircraft missiles, but its forte is urban warfare, which causes heavy casualties among both combatants and civilians.

As in Mosul, the fight against ISIS in Raqqa combines local forces with an aerial umbrella from the U.S.-led coalition. But unlike in Mosul, the Kurdish contingent’s role in Raqqa is causing major tensions between Turkey and America.

Turkey always opposed the Syrian Kurds’ participation in the war on ISIS, and especially America’s massive arming of them. But a leading Turkish columnist defined the May 16 meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “the most unsuccessful Washington visit ever.”

In an article for the Al-Monitor website, Cengiz Candar said Erdogan wanted Trump to do three main things: change America’s policy toward the Kurds’ People’s Protection Units and declare them a terrorist organization; extradite preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of being behind a failed coup last July; and release Reza Zarrab, a key suspect in a 2014 corruption case that allegedly involved Turkish ministers and even members of Erdogan’s family.

Trump gave Erdogan less than nothing

But not only did Trump reject all three, he even increased arms shipments to the Syrian Democratic Front, which is composed mainly of Kurds. He wasn’t impressed by Erdogan’s warning that once ISIS falls, these weapons could be used against Turkey or given to other terrorist organizations.

This dispute prompted Turkey to threaten this week that it will respond with force if the fighting in Raqqa endangers its security. This warning was aimed at the White House more than at the Kurds. “You can’t fight one terrorist organization by bolstering another terrorist organization,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said.

But the Turkish-American spat is likely to prove a sideshow compared to the lack of any agreed plan for what happens after ISIS is defeated in Mosul and Raqqa. The most immediate question concerns what the organization will do once it’s ousted from its territory. Will it return to being a group like Al-Qaida, focusing on terror attacks in Arab states and the West? And where will all the foreign fighters who flocked to Mosul and Raqqa go? Will they set up terrorist organizations in neighboring states?

The answers to these questions are crucial, because if ISIS disperses throughout the Arab world, this will place a heavy burden on Arab governments. They will then have to fight beefed-up terrorist organizations on their own, whereas in the current war the great powers play a major role.

Granted, almost all Arab states have battled terrorist organizations in their own territory for decades. But when attacks could be blamed on ISIS, governments could claim they weren’t solely at fault, and that once ISIS was eliminated, local terror would also subside.

If these governments are forced to assume primary responsibility for fighting terror, it will undermine their stability and ability to run their countries, and enhance the terrorist organizations’ ability to set the diplomatic and economic agenda in these countries. Arab governments are also likely to have trouble building military coalitions with other states, in the Middle East or outside it, because unlike in the war against ISIS, where most Arabs viewed foreign involvement as legitimate, foreign involvement in these states’ internal affairs would likely spark fierce public opposition. As evidence, consider that not a single foreign Arab army is fighting in Syria or Iraq, even though many non-Arab countries have troops there.

The only place where foreign Arab forces are fighting is Yemen, where the Saudis and, to a much smaller extent, the Egyptians are engaged. But there the goal is blocking Iran, not terrorist organizations (even if the Saudis define Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists). Even Cairo’s airstrikes on Libya following terror attacks against Christian sites in Egypt were seen more as a show of retaliation than as organized warfare against ISIS’s bases there.

After ISIS gone, battle for spoils begins

Another explosive issue, which is no less important, will be the battle for control of the areas liberated from ISIS and this battle’s regional ramifications. Russia’s efforts to broker understandings between the Assad regime and rebel militias in Syria have so far failed, nor does any breakthrough look likely since their disputes have nothing to do with ISIS. The regime controls more territory than it did six months ago and won a major victory in Aleppo, but the rebels haven’t yet been defeated militarily, nor are they yet prepared to make political concessions. Even an agreement in principle on establishing safe zones in Syria hasn’t been implemented, because the borders of these zones haven’t yet been defined.

In northern Syria, a battle could erupt between Syrian Kurds and Turkish forces, since the latter will likely try to prevent Kurdish control over Raqqa and the Deir Ezzor region. Iran, for its part, has been working to strengthen its foothold in southern Syria, near the Jordanian border.

America has launched airstrikes against pro-Iranian militias in Syria twice in recent days. But the question is whether it will continue operating in Syria once ISIS is defeated – or more accurately, whether Russia will let it – given that the battle against ISIS has been the pretext for U.S. military operations there. It’s not yet clear what role, if any, Trump sees America playing in Syria once ISIS is gone, or whether he intends to interfere in the battle to divide the spoils that will erupt between Iraqi Kurds, Shi’ite militias and the Iraqi government after Mosul is liberated.

The examples of Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation ended, Libya after dictator Muammar Gadhafi was toppled, and Iraq after American forces withdrew in 2011 all show that America tends to lose interest in countries where it fought once it achieves what it defines as victory. Syria, which is militarily dominated by Russia, and Iraq, which is subject to Iranian dictates, aren’t likely to change this pattern of behavior, nor is Trump exactly the president most likely to come to the rescue of failed states.