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Analysis: Euphrates Fight May Beat ISIS Militarily, but Not Ideologically

As U.S. and Iran escalate their battle against ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq, no one is thinking about the fate of local communities after the militant group’s potential military defeat, writes journalist Lorenzo Trombetta.

Written by Lorenzo Trombetta Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walk in the town of Tabqa, about 35 miles (55km) west of Raqqa city, the former de facto ISIS capital. AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN

BEIRUT – In the weeks following the Astana agreement that set up de-escalation zones, the nucleus of fighting in Syria shifted from the north to the southeastern and eastern regions. The area’s proximity to the Jordanian and Iraqi borders has further complicated the interests of local and foreign actors involved in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, effectively tying together the fates of the Euphrates region in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

What’s at stake in the battle for the Euphrates region? Influence over one of the richest and most strategic regions of the Middle East. Eastern Syria and western Iraq constitute the main pathway between the Mediterranean and the Gulf. In recent weeks, it has been the location of intense clashes between the so-called Islamic State and a variety of actors, positioning it to become the next arena for a confrontation between Iran, whose regional influence is on the rise, and the U.S., which is pushing to regain a leading role in the region.

Since mid-May, tensions have escalated in eastern Syria between various U.S.-backed militias (Kurdish-dominated groups in the north and Arab factions in the southeast) and pro-Iran Iraqi fighters, both of which are fighting ISIS. In the “Battle for the Badiya,” referring to the semi-desert area of eastern Syria dominated by ISIS since 2013, Iran-backed fighters in Iraq and Syria have been advancing on U.S.-backed fighters from two fronts: the western countryside of Mosul and the eastern Damascus steppe.

In Deir Ezzor, Iraqi and U.S. jets, part of the anti-ISIS international coalition, targeted civilians and ISIS positions in the districts of Mayadin and Albukamal, along the lower course of the Euphrates, close to the Iraqi border. Almost simultaneously, loyalist forces clashed with ISIS in the eastern Aleppo countryside along the upper Euphrates river, and U.S.-backed Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advanced on the militants’ former de facto capital, Raqqa, on the northeast bank of the Euphrates.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis looks at a map of the Middle East showing ISIS positions as he holds a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 19, 2017. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)

Local and foreign actors are competing for influence in the vast territory between eastern Syria and western Iraq, which is dotted with oil, gas and phosphate fields. The region’s two main rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, and their respective tributaries, cross the area, as do two international pipelines that link northern and central Iraq to central Syria, and a planned third one connecting Iraq and Jordan. Three major cross-border roads also pass through the area: the Erbil-Aleppo road, the Baghdad-Damascus highway and the Baghdad-Amman highway.

Since 2013, ISIS has succeeded in directly controlling territory along both the Tigris and the Euphrates. Recently, however, militants have lost significant ground and will likely soon have to surrender Raqqa, leaving only control over its river-town bastion Deir Ezzor.

But the Badiya, which covers roughly 55 percent of the central and eastern Syrian desert, is different. The geography and sociopolitical structure in the desert area between the Euphrates and the Tigris works in ISIS’s favor.

The absence of landscape barriers and the fairly flat territory enabled ISIS to maintain control, unlike in other parts of Syria like Idlib and some districts in Aleppo governorate. The Badiya itself also acts as a protective barrier, keeping ISIS-dominated areas far from the sea line.

What’s more, the population is much less dense compared to other Iraqi and Syrian regions, and is organized along tribal lines, both politically and socially. Traditionally, rural conservative ideology generally prevails in tribal areas over urban and multi-communitarian beliefs in tribal areas.

For example, in 2013, when many of the original residents of Mosul, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor had fled, the cities were partly overrun by ISIS fighters and civilians from the countryside. This ruralization of cities, along with the prolonged exposure to violence, the decrease in basic services and the weakened central institutions, strengthened the spread of a radical reading of Sunni Islam and deepened an already present anti-Western and anti-Shiite communal belief.

There have been instances in Iraq where Sunni Arab tribes rejected radical groups and sought the help of Western forces to get rid of them. In 2006, the U.S. military backed the Sahwa in Iraq, also known as the Sons of Iraq, a coalition of tribal sheikhs created to rise up against al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) and restore stability. But its success was short-lived. In 2009, AQI, which later became the foundation of ISIS, began assassinating the Sons of Iraq, who were also being denied positions in security in the country by Iraq’s Shiite government. By 2013, ISISbegan offering amnesty to Sunnis” who had been part of the U.S.-backed militia, giving militants the necessary support to overrun Mosul in 2014 with little pushback. In Iraq, this strategy failed because it did not address the local communities’ long-term political and socioeconomic grievances.

The anti-ISIS push may eventually expel militants from Mosul, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, and erase its presence on the surface in the Badiya, but this doesn’t mean the extremist insurgency will disappear from rural central-eastern Syria and central-western Iraq. The eventual military success of pro-government forces is not coupled with a long-term strategy to address economic grievances or a new political pact to the local elite to improve socioeconomic development for communities living in the Badiya. As their situation is unlikely to improve, they will be forced to seek alternative alliances to contain the losses and recover some of their local power.

Some tribes may reach agreements with Damascus and its allies, and others could look to the U.S., Saudi Arabia or Jordan for support. But their options for alliances are slim, particularly as Iran-backed groups advance on U.S.-backed forces, and the battle in the Badiya “will play an important role in shaping these dynamics,” Fabrice Balanche wrote in the Washington Institute.

Members of influential Arab clans already make up a small portion of the Kurdish-dominated SDF. Through this alliance, Kurdish fighters are attempting to expand their influence beyond the borders of Kurdish demographics in northeastern Syria, particularly along the western, southern and northwestern banks of the Euphrates in Manbij, Raqqa and toward Deir Ezzor. Along this frontier, local Arab tribes are divided by those aligned with the U.S.-Kurdish partnership and those supporting the Turkey-backed project to quell rising Kurdish influence in the area.

Iran-backed Iraqi militias already fighting alongside pro-government forces in the central city of Palmyra and southern district of Suwayda recently began a push towards the Tanf border crossing points, which U.K. and U.S.-supported rebels have controlled for months. Last week, a leader of the Iran-backed militia fighting ISIS in Iraq signaled the group’s intent to cross into Syria “to defend the security of Iraq … from the sources of terrorism outside its border” that runs from from Umm Jaris in western Mosul to al-Qaim in Anbar, despite the SDF vowing to to protect U.S. interests in the region and prevent the Iran-backed advance.

The recent push toward U.S.-backed forces follows a string of government gains in western Syria and signals Iran’s intent (with tacit Russian support) to challenge attempts by the U.S. (and its regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia) at gaining influence in southeastern Syria. In fact, as pro-Iranian media has recently noted, Tehran’s strategic priority is to establish a “security link between Tehran and Palestine,” passing through Baghdad, eastern Syria, Damascus and, indeed, the Golan Heights.

For its part, the U.S.’s strategic and historical interests in Iraq and the Gulf keep it indirectly involved in this confrontation: Syria is the key to maintaining a powerful role in Iraq containing rising Iranian influence. Protecting the Tanf crossing using local fighters allows the U.S. to secure control over the proposed oil pipeline between Iraq and Jordan, passing through the Baghdad-Rutba highway. U.S. forces “increased [their] presence and [their] footprint” between Tanf and Albukamal along the border with Iraq.

Russia, which has already signaled its intent to act as mediator, could use its leverage with Iran and Syria as a bargaining tool with the U.S. to lower the tensions in the case of military escalation and propose a final deal to Washington, that, if the de-escalation zone agreement is any guide, will be within the framework of partitioning Syria.

This framework of separating Syria into zones of influence is playing out now in the battle for the Badiya against ISIS. But while it may defeat the militant group militarily, this new status quo along the Euphrates is likely to fuel extremists’ anti-Western and anti-Shiite rhetoric, and push politically and socioeconomically marginalized rural communities to join extremist groups.

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