The Syrian Civil War may soon be entering a new stage. Unfortunately, for Palestinians taking refuge in Camp Yarmouk near Damascus, those who have not been able to flee will be subject to the oppression of the Islamic State. Fortunately, for those battling the Assad regime for control of Syria, there may be one less enemy on the battlefield very soon.
As the Islamic State’s push into the refugee camp made the news, Iraqi troops were celebrating victory over the Islamic State in the city of Tikrit. Given mounting victories by various groups fighting IS, most notably the retaking of Kobani by Kurdish fighters, and the economic infeasibility of the Islamic State “caliphate, IS may be pushed out of Iraq and corralled into a major battle with the Assad regime. What is slowly unfolding is, of course, similar to the strategy this writer proposed in the summer of 2014.
The question is whether the Islamic State will attempt to hold onto all of the territory it controls or divert reinforcements to key cities like Mosul and Damascus while they have a chance to do so. Following their failure in Kobani, the Islamic State will likely be reluctant to commit too resources to one city. After all, it just makes them an easier target for Coalition airstrikes and they have learned some lesson from their experience.
Should the Islamic State choose to flee and live to fight another day, they would essentially have to give up their control of any given city. In turn, they would transform back into a traditional terrorist group utilizing guerrilla tactics to dispute large areas of territory. This would mean the Islamic State would be far more difficult to dislodge from the territory they now control as their enemies would have to switch to an anti-insurgency mission, which even America struggled with. Of course, this would leave individual cells vulnerable to reprisal by those they abused when they controlled much of the country.
On the other hand, IS could choose to reinforce places like Mosul. In truth, the Iraqi army and the various militias fighting the Islamic State would likely struggle for some time to retake a city like Mosul, if the Islamic State decided to reinforce the city. Meanwhile, coalition airstrikes would certainly cause a great deal of damage to the city, but their effectiveness would be severely hampered.
With the objective of the caliphate collapsing, IS has to recalibrate its priorities. Syria with its far larger Sunni population would probably offer them the best option for rebuilding a smaller version of their caliphate. As the Islamic State was unchecked until Coalition airstrikes halted their progress, their top priority should be finding a way to avoid airstrikes. Moving toward Damascus is the best way to do just that. After all, the US and the rest of the Coalition have no interest in protecting the Assad regime.
Not only would it allow the Islamic State to retreat from the devastation of Coalition airstrikes, their capture of Damascus would drive Assad from power and put IS on a better footing with other rebel factions. In many respects, it would allow the Islamic State to complete its mission to free Sunnis from the oppression of other religious faction. At the same time, the fall of the Assad regime would be a defeat for Iran and Hezbollah.
With that in mind, an IS shift into Damascus can only be beneficial to Western interests, if it eases the security threat to Iraq and the rest of Syria enough to address festering sectarian conflicts and reestablish firm governance over these territories. Where Iran will seek to influence the process, especially in Iraq, it will have to spend a significant amount of time and resources trying to cope with the various political divisions. When it comes to the Kurdish, whose homeland includes territory in Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, Iran may well find itself trying to maintain its own territorial integrity. Ultimately, this will help mitigate Iran’s influence in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
For the Syrian People, the presence of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, even if it is concentrated around Damascus, is a clear problem. As the region needs a stable Syria, the factions favored by the West are groups that will have the resources to do just. Consequently, those forces still loyal to the Assad regime need to recognize they are defending a sinking ship. They should, therefore, turn from Assad and join their former comrades in the Free Syrian Army then regroup in a unified effort to address terrorist groups like the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State, which have exploited the violence of the Civil War to invade their country.
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