The word on the streets is that Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL to its many enemies) is going under. In January it lost control of the city of Ramadi in Iraq after a long siege; in June it also lost Fallujah. In March it lost Palmyra to Syrian government troops, and last month it lost Manbij in northern Syria to the US-backed Syrian Kurds after another long siege.
These are all places that ISIS took in mid-2014 in its initial surge of conquests (which ended with the proclamation of the Islamic State), or in the subsequent year of slower advances that ended with the capture of Ramadi and Palmyra in May 2015. Since then it has been nothing but retreats – and last week Turkey entered the ground war in Syria as well, to fight Islamic State and “other terrorists”.
To cap it all, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the closest associate of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and the man who proclaimed him to be the head of a revived Caliphate (“Islamic State”) only 26 months ago, was killed in a US air strike on 30 August. He was the organisation’s chief propagandist and a senior operational commander, and he will be missed.
But the streets on which “the word” about Islamic State’s impending defeat is being heard are in Washington, not in the Middle East. People on the ground know that things have not been going well for Islamic State recently, but they remember that just one year ago it was Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria that was teetering on the brink of collapse.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria last September saved Assad, and it will probably be the Turkish military intervention in Syria this year that saves Islamic State. Not that President Recep Tayyib Erdogan loves Islamic State – he used to let it use Turkey as a transit route for recruits and supplies, but that largely stopped a year ago – but he doesn’t see it as Turkey’s main enemy.
For Erdogan, the big threat is the secession of the south-east corner of the country where Kurds (20 percent of Turkey’s population) are the local majority. All the countries next to that corner of Turkey (Iran, Iraq and Syria) also have Kurdish majorities living along the border, and the Turkish nightmare is for one of those areas to become an independent Kurdish-ruled state
That is exactly what has been happening in northern Syria. The Syrian Kurds made themselves available to Washington as America’s main ally on the ground, and with huge help from American air strikes their army has driven Islamic State back all along the border. It now controls a deep strip of territory along 80 percent of Syria’s border with Turkey, a proto-state that the Kurds call Rojava.
This is entirely Erdogan’s fault. If he had been loyal to Turkey’s alliance with the United States and closed the border with Syria, neither Islamic State or the rival Islamist movement, the Nusra Front, would have grown to dominate the entire Syrian rebel movement. But he didn’t close it, because he was so keen to overthrow Assad that he backed anybody who was fighting against him.
Faced with the threat of an Islamist-ruled Syria, Washington made a de facto alliance with the Syrian Kurds, and they have served it well in the fight against Islamic State. But that just makes them a bigger threat in Erdogan’s eyes, and so he sent his army into Syria last week.
Not very deep into Syria so far, and of course to justify this intervention to the United States Erdogan has said that it is to fight “Islamic State and other terrorists”. But since Turkey always officially refers to Washington’s Kurdish allies in Syria as “terrorists”, it doesn’t take great geopolitical insight to figure out who Turkey’s main target is.
Islamic State is well aware of this, which is why it evacuated the border town of Jarablus, where the Turkish army crossed into Syria, without a fight. Why not just step aside and let the Turks make contact with their real target, the Syrian Kurdish army, without wasting everybody’s time?
Contact has now been made, and Turkey is busily shelling and bombing Kurdish-led forces in Manbij, the next town south from Jarablus. The coming months will probably see a steady expansion of Turkey’s offensive against the Syrian Kurds, and a corresponding drop in the latters’s military effort against Islamic State.
Naively (or was it just fake naivete?), US Secretary of State Ash Carter called on Turkey to stay focused on the fight against Islamic State and not to engage the Kurds. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim curtly replied that “operations will continue until all terrorist elements have been neutralised, until all threats to our borders, our lands and our citizens are completely over.”
So the Syrian Kurds will be busy fighting the Turks, and Islamic State will survive. It is an iron rule of Middle Eastern politics that everbody always betrays the Kurds eventually – and Washington will too.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“To cap…missed”; and “Naively…over”)