Different strategies needed to win against ISIL in Syria and Iraq

Hassan Hassan looks at recent developments in the Syrian civil war

The fight against ISIL is approaching a new milestone with Syrian rebels backed by Turkey and the United States-led coalition closing in on Dabiq, a town in rural Aleppo, which is central to the group’s propaganda.

The battle to liberate the town is expected to begin this week. Dabiq’s takeover would not just serve as a symbolic blow to the group’s core claims, but it would be a fitting win before the major battles to retake Mosul and Raqqa, ISIL’s two capitals in Iraq and Syria.

The battle to retake the areas the group controlled in Syria in 2014 is still in its early stages, unlike the one in Iraq, where the extremist group has lost more than 50 per cent of its territory. So, Washington’s next moves will shape the direction of the battle in Syria, where only 25 per cent of ISIL-controlled areas have been liberated.

The Syrian battle is further complicated by theabsence of a central government with which the US can coordinate. The lack of a friendly government partner also means that one ISIL-controlled province, namely Deir Ezzor, will require special treatment because of the regime’s presence there. Sources say that the US has even shelved any plan for an offensive in Deir Ezzor altogether as a result, especially after the erroneous strike on regime soldiers there on September 17.

Given this reality, the chances for the campaign in Syria hinge on Washington’s ability to organise the various forces fighting the group. In theory, the anti-ISIL battles should be straightforward in Syria. The operation to clear up the pockets the group controls in rural Aleppo will pave the way for an offensive to retake Raqqa starting from the northern parts.

But the problem is that the US approach has a number of flaws that American officials do not seem to grasp. One that has near-term implications centres on the collaboration with Turkey, which is far more critical to the anti-ISIL fight there than it is in Iraq.

More importantly, American officials still fail to come up with a formula for a Kurdish-Arab cooperation that does not involve the support of one side’s political agenda at the expense of the other. This failure has often led to a cart before the horse situation, with US officials complaining that rebel forces were not serious about fighting ISIL, even though the US policy had led to such disinclination.

American officials often complain that Turkey has demonstrably failed to provide adequate rebel forces to fight against ISIL despite promises. Officials wonder that if Turkey could not get large numbers to fight under its own banner, how could it help recruit approximately 13,000 fighters to fight in Raqqa? This situation further reinforced Washington’s desire to work with the Kurds, including to retake Raqqa.

But rebels say America’s refusal to support a full-fledged Arab force to fight against ISIL is the cause of this hurdle. This force should not be limited to fighting, but it should also have a political umbrella that can operate and govern under the support of the US-backed coalition, as does the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

The US has shown no commitment to such a project, which rebels believe should not be beholden or part of a Kurdish ambition in any way. American officials fail to grasp this factor and continue to push for Arab representation within the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. A stand-alone Arab coalition will signal to the rebels that they have a sustainable stake in heavier involvement in the fight against ISIL, which operates in their areas after it expelled them in 2014.

Also, an independent political umbrella for such a force would provide it with the necessary legitimacy and direction to project itself as part of the opposition’s aspirations rather than as a proxy for foreign countries. In the absence of such a vision, the forces fighting against ISIL under the Turkish banner are already being seen by some rebel factions as being dragged into someone else’s war while Aleppo burns.

Criticism of these fighters mostly comes from groups such as Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS), formerly Jabhat Al Nusra, which is another reason for supporting the creation of a popular force to counter both JFS and ISIL, given that the two groups seem to be Washington’s priority.

The discord among Turkey and the US in Syria has proven to be costly over the past few months. Some towns were quickly retaken by ISIL. Some towns such as Al Rai were taken and lost several times, as a result of the lack of coordination and understanding. When the battle to retake Manbij began in June, Turkish-backed rebels suddenly stopped fighting ISIL in some areas, which allowed the group to focus on Manbij, a significant factor in the protraction and the high casualty of that battle.

Also, Turkey has shown that it could deepen or lessen the Kurdish-Arab tensions in those areas. Turkish-backed rebels, for example, participated in the battle to defend Kobani in 2014 even though the same forces fought against the Kurds there and in other areas a few months earlier with encouragement from Turkey.

The defeat of ISIL in Syria requires a different approach from the one in Iraq. Striking the right balance between the military and political challenges will be vital for the success of the campaign in this country.

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan