Earlier this month, the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) grew yet more complex, as US troops were deployed to the Syrian-Turkish border to serve as a buffer between two of its allies - the Turkish army and Syrian Kurdish forces. Recent confrontations between the two groups had raised fears that increasing hostilities might develop into a full-blown war.
A few days earlier, on April 25, Turkish fighter jets had bombed Kurdish positions in northern Syria and Iraq, causing the deaths of nearly two dozen fighters in both locations. This act of aggression was widely condemned, with the US military expressing "deep concerns" over Turkey's actions.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post Ilham Ahmed, co-president of the Democratic Council of Syria, firmly rebuked claims that the bombed locations were used to launch attacks inside Turkey, calling the accusations "unfounded".
In the days following the air strikes, Kurdish forces and the Turkish army exchanged cross-border fire. Fearing that Turkish aggression towards the Syrian Kurds might undermine the latter's operations against IS, the US decided to take the remarkable step of protecting the Kurds from potential attacks by its NATO-ally, Turkey.
The Turkish air strikes have exposed the deep-rooted tensions that characterise relations between the different powers fighting IS. The events provide a telling example of the many obstacles before IS extremists can be defeated. Moreover, they also serve as early warning signs to the potential threats lying in wait after victory has been declared.
This raises the question: Can the anti-IS coalition survive the fight against IS?
The fight progresses
The slow, but steadily progressing operations against Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq offer a glimpse of hope that the self-declared caliphate is finally on the retreat. A string of separate victories by anti-IS forces have recently liberated many thousands of square miles from the control of the extremist organisation.
Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces took control over the town of al-Bab after a months-long struggle; the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an independent umbrella organisation that includes the Kurdish YPG along with Arab and other minority militias – have rid much of the countryside north of Raqqa from IS. They are steadily advancing towards the city itself; and approximately three-quarters of the city of Mosul in Iraq is now under control of anti-IS forces.
The complete military defeat of IS is still many months, if not years, away. But the sheer amount of power – politically, militarily and numerically – that is rallied against it, means that in all likelihood at some point the caliphate as we know it today will cease to exist. But that will only be the beginning of yet another challenge.
The Turkish bombings of Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq not only risk seriously undermining the collective effort in beating back IS, they also point to the many regional threats to a sustainable peace.
Confronting new political realities
There are two important questions to keep in mind when considering the fight against IS in the long term. The first is how to prevent a return to the social and politico-economic circumstances that gave rise to IS in the first place; and second, how to acknowledge the efforts of non-state actors who played a role in the downfall of IS.
A military defeat of IS is not synonymous to defeating its ideology, nor its appeal. As long as the social conditions that drove marginalised groups and radicalised individuals into the arms of IS continue to exist, the problem we now call "IS" will also continue to exist, be it in a different form, carrying a different label.
What motivated many Syrians and Iraqis to join the ranks of IS was the structural repression by their governments or the terror of other armed groups. To defeat IS means to change the societies from which it emerged, and to give the people a third choice besides choosing one oppressor over another.
The second question to consider is how to confront the new political realities that have developed as a result of the fight against IS. The effectiveness of some non-state actors in combating IS has stirred fears among national and neighbouring governments that their sovereignty is under threat. In a post-IS political landscape some of these groups will be able to count on strong support among the people they liberated. Ignoring or undermining these groups will seriously decrease chances of a sustainable peace.
Think, for example, of the SDF in northern Syria, which has been promoting local self-governance structures in the areas under its control. It has been setting up multi-ethnic popular assemblies practising a form of grassroots democracy where key governance roles are reserved for women. Over two-and-a-half million people have been adopting this new political system over the past years.
And what of the Hash'd al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an alliance of Shia militias in Iraq? While occupying an entirely different space on the political spectrum to that of the SDF - with some of its allied militias favouring an Iran-like type of clerical rule to be extended to Iraq - the political reality is that in the fight against IS they have become too powerful to simply discard once the battle is won.
Both the SDF and the PMF will insist on being recognised and rewarded for their efforts. Ignoring the sacrifices they made and the support they enjoy among the population will have a destabilising effect on whatever kind of social order will appear after IS is gone.
The defeat of IS is only the beginning
In order to talk about progressing in the fight against IS, we first need to ask what it means to defeat IS. And for that, we must look at the bigger picture. Sure, due to savvy marketing stunts, spectacular victories and an unabated campaign of violence at home and abroad, IS has successfully portrayed itself as everyone's number one enemy in the region.
But in terms of civilian deaths, the number of people killed by IS is eclipsed by the hundreds of thousands who have been murdered by Assad's regime in Syria, or the nearly 200,000 Iraqis who have died since the US invasion in 2003. Is it possible that the fight against IS has blinded some to other many other threats to peace and democracy haunting the region?
The Turkish attacks against the Kurds are thus not only a setback in the fight against IS, but they also serve as an early warning to the pitfalls that lie ahead as soon as the first hurdle - defeating IS - has been cleared.
The defeat of IS should not be a goal in its own right. Rather, it should be a means towards achieving a bigger, more ambitious goal: The promotion of real democracy and a sustainable peace in Iraq, Syria and beyond. In this regard, the fight against and eventual defeat of IS is a crucial first step, but that is not where it ends.
By Joris Leverink
Copyright @ 2021 The New Arab.