ISIS Is Poised to Make a Comeback in Syria
Religious extremists will try to inherit the energy of the all-but-defeated rebellion, just as they did in Iraq after the surge.
On the surface, the Syrian civil war appears to be nearing its final stage. Bashar al-Assad's regime and its Russian and Iranian backers won the battle that mattered the most for them in July, when they drove the moderate rebels out of their last bastion in the southern Syrian city of Deraa. With that military victory, any hopes of a moderate takeover must be laid to rest. But while the rebels have been defeated, their grievances remain. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, mostly by government and government-allied forces; millions have been displaced; whole towns have been bombed out of existence. Now the situation is poised to worsen as the regime is readying its forces to attack Idlib, home to Turkish-backed rebels, jihadis, and countless civilians.
The demise of the rebellion has set the stage for jihadis allied with Islamic State and al-Qaeda to pick up the pieces. If history is a guide, they will exploit the volatile situation; they will co-opt the resistance against Assad, the surviving symbol of repression, use it to fill their ranks, and establish a permanent post in the region. The Trump administration has just one last chance to get peace talks back on track and curb extremist influence.
For years after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, dozens of armed groups of various ideological backgrounds sustained a deadly resistance against American troops. At one point, the United States seemed like it was losing the war as jihadis and others forced American troops into fortified barracks. The situation began to shift in 2007 and 2008, thanks to a counterinsurgency strategy led by General David Petraeus.
Drafting off a troop “surge,” Petraeus did not defeat the insurgency so much as transform it, converting former foes fighting an occupation into allies against the specific threat of jihadis within the broader conflict. For a time, many Sunnis saw the Americans as partners who would enable them to control their areas independently; no longer would they have to answer to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Together they turned Iraq into a much safer place.
But the U.S. did not resolve the underlying problems that had fueled the fight against American soldiers and the government in Baghdad. The U.S. did not push for the true integration of Sunni forces into the Iraqi state or secure them any real semblance of self-government. On the contrary, the U.S. stood by as Baghdad clamped down on Sunni communities to avoid a perceived threat to Shia hegemony.
Jihadis preyed on Sunni disillusionment and, to coin a phrase, rose from the ashes of the surge. By the summer of 2014, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became the Islamic State, was able to set itself up as the only true militant opposition to the government in Baghdad; all other rebel forces had been vanquished. ISIS took over one third of Iraq, and seemingly overnight it morphed into a transnational organization operating across the region.
ISIS could not have come to control such vast areas by virtue of its military strength alone. It grew so quickly because the U.S. occupying force had only deflected the insurgents’ energy, without ever resolving their complaints. ISIS effectively tapped into what one might call the insurgency’s latent energy.
In Syria, a similar process may be playing out.
In the early months of 2015, it seemed as though Assad and Iran might lose to the Syrian rebels—just as it seemed the U.S. would lose to the insurgents in Iraq prior to 2007. The rebels controlled most of the country, and were marching into Assad’s strongholds in western Syria. But then Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened. The Russians waged a relentless air campaign, and, on the ground, directly engaged local forces opposed to the regime as well as their regional backers. Turkey, once the rebels’ most committed sponsor, started working closely with Moscow to redraw the military and political map in Syria.
With time, the Syrian rebellion degenerated from a mass movement animated by revolutionary zeal into a confused mess beholden to foreign interests. Instead of waging all-out war against the regime, it focused primarily on de-escalating the conflict through local ceasefires guaranteed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The Russians succeeded in fragmenting the rebels and threw their ranks into disarray. Thus in Deraa two months ago, even though the rebels were heavily armed and boasted large numbers, they surrendered to the Russians without much of a fight. They had already crumbled from within thanks to a combination of Russian military force and diplomacy.
Often, as the Iraq example demonstrates, the demise of an insurgency helps its most extreme elements. After the superficially successful surge, ISIS gained a monopoly over political violence in Sunni Iraq; it no longer had to compete for influence and recruitment with its erstwhile violent rivals.
There are signs that jihadis associated with both ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria are similarly well positioned. Granted, local alternatives to these extremist groups still exist, but they no longer present a coherent message of resistance.
For example, Adham Akrad, a moderate rebel commander from Deraa with the Free Syrian Army, appeared in a video recently urging the government to release individuals previously given guarantees of safety by Russia. Unlike jihadis who strongly reject any reconciliation with the regime, Akrad seemed to acknowledge that he was negotiating with a dominant power.
Other rebel groups that once dominated the militant landscape in Syria —Jaish al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham — have been weakened to the point of irrelevance. Some of these forces were also rivals to ISIS and al-Qaeda. Their disappearance is a net gain for the jihadis.
Despite wishful thinking, the conflict in Syria is not over yet. One third of Syria is still outside of the regime’s control, under Turkish influence in the northwest and American protection in the east. As in Iraq, moreover, the regime’s military gains could prove temporary.
There is a vast arc of vulnerable areas that Damascus probably cannot secure: a rough terrain of deserts and river valleys extending from the Israeli borders in the southeast to Iraq in the east and then to Turkey in the northwest.
Already the two main jihadi groups, al Qaeda and ISIS, are becoming the last men standing in these rural and remote areas. It will not be difficult for them to tap into a pool of human and material resources to fight against a vicious, deeply unpopular dictatorship controlled by an Iranian-backed minority sect. To win recruits, jihadis may not even need to win hearts and minds—they need only convince the disaffected that they represent the only viable opposition left against the government. Having inherited the Syrian uprising and its energy, they could become permanent fixtures of the Syrian scene.
Again, unless grievances are resolved, insurgencies do not simply go away. They can lie dormant for years or even decades, only to re-emerge later. Indeed, the Syrian conflict over the past few years could be traced in part to the Islamist insurgency of the 1970s and 1980s waged against the current president’s father, Hafez. That rebellion was seemingly crushed after the government launched a deadly campaign in Hama, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 people. The government also embarked on a systematic and educational campaign to uproot Islamism from Syrian society. Yet many individuals who lived in exile after 1982, or their descendants, have gone on to fight Hafez’s son. And many groups integral to the current uprising, including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Nour ad-Din Zinki, and Faylaq al-Sham, could be considered the direct ideological heirs of the old Islamist insurgency.
To date, the U.S. has made serious military and diplomatic mistakes that could help the jihadists inherit the insurgency.
The Trump administration has limited its operations to eastern Syria. It has allowed northwest Syria to fall completely off its radar and given over the south to Russia. Already, the northwest has become a stronghold for two of the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchises, one focused on global jihad and another on local battles. And ISIS has its eyes on the south.
In order to win against extremists in the short and long term, the U.S. must expand its aperture, not narrow it, even as it recognizes that a military victory by Assad will make it impossible to resolve the tensions that could fuel new conflicts. Luckily, the U.S. has an important card to play: its presence in the east. From this base, the U.S. could help create a truly representative governing body that—in the future, once peace finally arrives—will have some autonomy from Damascus. The U.S. should agree to leave Syria only after it achieves a meaningful political settlement that recognizes local authority. To realize this goal, the U.S. should work with its European allies to revitalize the Geneva process.
The U.S. is suffering from serious Middle East fatigue, but an apparent victory isn’t good enough. Its choice is clear: Root out the problems that drive violent radicalism now, or fight the jihadists again in the future.