Despite Islamic State ‘defeat’, struggle for Syria set to intensify

Government, opposition factions and other actors jostle for advantage ahead of peace talks

The rout on Thursday by the Syrian army of Islamic State fighters from the eastern border town of Abu Kemal – their last stronghold in Syria – heralds the end of the campaign in the country against the terrorist group. Nevertheless, the struggle for Syria continues and can be expected to intensify.

Radical fundamentalist fighters, including Islamic State survivors determined to continue the war, are clinging to pockets of territory or have gone underground and are firing mortars and conducting raids and suicide attacks in government-controlled areas.

Three key battlegrounds remain: Deir al-Zor province in the east, Idlib province in the northwest, and Ghouta, east of Damascus. The government, opposition factions and regional and international actors seek to secure political advantage by military means ahead of peace talks.

Clashes and, perhaps, full-scale fighting could erupt in Deir al-Zor between the Syrian army, supported by Russia and Iran, and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the US.


Russia and Iran are committed to President Bashar al-Assad's drive to restore Damascus's rule to the whole of Syria. Washington argues there can be no role for Assad in Syria's future, and has deployed the SDF in a race against the Syrian army to take control of strategic swathes of Deir al-Zor province, the Euphrates river basin and Syria's border with Iraq.

The declared US objective is to prevent Iran from establishing a corridor to funnel men and arms across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, where Iran's ally, Hizbullah, challenges the US's partner, Israel. The SDF does not, however, have enough fighters to hold vast Deir al-Zor province or control the 600km-long Syrian-Iraqi border.

Leverage in negotiations

Washington’s real aim, however, is to use the SDF to establish a foothold in northern Syria to match the Russian presence on the coast in the west and to provide leverage in negotiations.

This is a controversial enterprise. Although the SDF has freed Raqqa, Islamic State’s former de facto capital, its population is Arab and resents the Kurdish takeover and the devastation wreaked on the city during liberation. In other areas captured by the Kurds, Arab and Turkmen (ethnic Turkish) communities reject Kurdish rule.

At the opening of the school year, there were protests against introducing the Kurdish language in schools where Arab children are a majority. Non-Kurds seeking to visit or return to Kurdish-held areas can enter only if they were born there.

Ankara is at odds with Washington and is determined to block the SDF – an offshoot of Turkey's separatist Kurdish movement – from imposing its rule on a wide belt of territory along the entire Syrian- Turkish border. The Turkish army has established enclaves within Syria just south of the border and has used surrogate renegade Syrian Free Army factions to impose control along the border in the north of Idlib province.

This province, dominated by the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, is the second potential battleground. The Jabhat has rejected the Idlib ceasefire, or "deconfliction" zone, declared by Russia, Iran and Turkey, and has fought rivals within the zone and conducted raids and shelled targets outside the zone.

The Turkish army has set up posts in Idlib, and while Ankara has committed to a written agreement with Russia and Iran to pull its forces out once the situation stabilises, no one trusts the Turkish regime.

Regular mortar fire

Eastern Ghouta has also been proclaimed a “deconfliction” zone but Saudi- and Qatari-sponsored armed groups based in this stretch of territory have rejected the ceasefire and regularly fire mortars into the capital. The Syrian miliary responds with air and artillery strikes.

The Syrian army vows to do to battle, one by one, with the Kurds, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and factions in Eastern Ghouta. Although improved by Russian and Iranian training and combat-hardened, the army remains undermanned and overstretched and continues to rely on Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Shia militiamen from Iraq, Russian air cover and Iranian advisers and recruits.

The Kurds could be first on the army’s agenda, Syrian sources say. Damascus was angered by the SDF’s seizure of the al-Omar oil field in Deir al-Zor province as the Syrian army was advancing on the site. Russia and the US, which co-ordinate deployments, had, reportedly, agreed the Syrian army would take al-Omar.

During recent talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, the three guarantors of the "deconfliction zones" – Russia, Iran and Turkey – agreed with representatives of the Syrian government and armed groups to establish a new such zone south of Damascus.

Political reform

Seeking to inject momentum into the sluggish UN-mediated peace process, Russia has invited the Syrian government and 33 Syrian groups to attend a “Congress on National Dialogue” with the aim of discussing a new constitution and political reforms. No date has been fixed due to concerns that Russia was trying to usurp the UN’s role in conducting peace talks.

The Syrian government , far stronger than during previous rounds, will face a hollow opposition if round eight of UN-brokered negotiations between Damascus and representatives of the political opposition convenes in Geneva on November 28th.

While supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the west, the main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), has no backing within Syria. The HNC has also been swept aside by developments on Syria's battlefields, where armed groups sponsored by these external powers have lost the war to topple Assad.

Nevertheless, Damascus cannot dictate terms as the HNC can act as a channel for indirect negotiations with the government’s external antagonists.

Once the fighting ends, Shia Iran is expected to withdraw its forces from Sunni-majority Syria, but Russia will remain as it has established permanent air and naval bases as well as a strong political presence.

While Iran’s objective is to stabilise Syria, a long-standing ally, Russia is determined to reassert the role once played by the Soviet Union on the regional scene and to challenge US efforts to reclaim dominance.