Demise of the “Caliphate”: ISIS-held territory shrinks and becomes a big pocket

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The glorious days for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) are just a memory of the past. Now, the “caliphate” project seems to be approaching to its ultimate demise, as most of its rivals forces are advancing on the ground, shrinking its territory and cutting their last supply lines.

At the height of its expansion by mid-2014, ISIS-held territory compromise large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory, extending from Mosul and even reaching the outskirts of Baghdad in the East, to Raqqa and the Syrian-Turkish border in the West. The fall of Palmyra in May 2015 was their last great conquest, threatening to advance even more, towards major Syrian cities.

ISIS’ unstoppable advances emboldened Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to claim “Constantinople (Istanbul) and Rome” as the final objectives of their conquest enterprise. Al-Baghdadi and his cohorts built a “proto-state”, setting governance and administrative institutions and running a lucrative oil-smuggling business through the Syrian-Turkish border, which with no doubt had the consent of the Ankara regime at that time.

During the first months of the US-led Coalition campaign, ISIS’ gains continued – particularly in Syria – with the notable exception of advances by the Kurdish YPG, heavily backed by US airstrikes. It seems the goal of the Coalition was not to defeat but rather to “contain” ISIS (i.e. demarcating an area of operations for the terrorist groups, so they can continue destabilizing the Syrian government), helping to create a Kurdish autonomous entity and laying the ground for a US-backed partition of the Syrian Arab Republic.

Then came the Russian intervention in September 2015. In contrast to the US-led intervention, Moscow’s effort was started under the principles of International Law, at the request and in coordination with the Syrian government. Russian airstrikes proven to be highly effective and targeted not just military objectives but also the economic infrastructure of the “caliphate”; in particular, its oil smuggling apparatus. After a couple of months, the Syrian Arab Army and its allies, backed by Russia’s air support, scored a major victory by putting an end to the two-year-long siege of the Kuweires Airbase in Aleppo in October 2015, and the liberation of the old city of Palmyra in March 2016.

At the same time, Iraqi forces advanced in major cities like Ramadi and Fallujah – with US and Iranian support – and have now set their eyes on Mosul, the ultimate trophy there. US-proxies in Syria, like the Kurdish-led “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) and, to a lesser extent, the so-called “New Syrian Army” (NSyA), sealed large parts of the Syrian borders, in the north and the south, respectively.

Now, with the Turkish-led intervention in northern Syria since late-August 2016, the “Islamic State” is completely separated from the outside world, as it now shares no borders with Turkey, Jordan or any other country. In effect, it has become a “great pocket” inside Syria and Iraq, which only has Raqqa and Mosul being the only major cities under their control and with no remaining supply lines.

In the Turkish-Russian rapprochement lays the reason for this geopolitical development. Erdogan’s shift was underway before the (allegedly) US-backed coup attempt in July 2016. Just week before the incident, Ankara was mending ties with Russia and apologizing for the SU-24 downing.

Erdogan realized that his “Neo-Ottoman” dream of taking over the Middle East after the Arab Spring fell apart and that severing relations with Russia – one of the biggest trade partners and US counterbalance in the region – was detrimental for Turkish interest in the long run. At the same time, Ankara was concerned about Washington’s backing for an independent “Kurdish entity” in northern Syria which inevitably would have a spillover effect inside Turkey (in accordance to the “New Middle East” designs).

It is very clear that ISIS has not been under Ankara’s patronage for several months – the series of terrorist bombings inside Turkey could serve as an example – so their intervention is indeed the last blow to the “Caliphate” project. But the forces of ISIS are not the only one with problems at this point.

Since most of the Islamist militias operating in Syria are Turkish proxies, their redeployment in Northern Syria in order to create a “buffer” against ISIS and the US-backed SDF/YPG, the rebels capability to challenge the Syrian Arab Army inside Aleppo or Idlib will be severely diminished, with their current assaults in South Aleppo and North Hama probably being their last efforts.

On the other hand, the scenario looks pretty promising for the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies, although the road won’t be easy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Al-Masdar News.

Renato is an MA Candidate in International Studies at the University of Chile. His thesis is titled “War in the Levant: Fighting Daesh in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.”

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