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Islamic State Is Collapsing, So Why Is It Suddenly So Successful Against Assad?

  • James Miller

A screen grab from a video released by the Islamic State-affiliated Amaq news agency, said to be in Palmyra on December 11

There are at least four separate coalitions that claim to be battling the extremist group Islamic State (IS). Three of those coalitions are reporting great success, and the failures of the fourth coalition tell us many things about the state of regional and geopolitical affairs.

The physical "dawla," or "state," that was solidified by IS in 2014 at one point stretched from northwestern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq. Now it is attacked on all sides and is rapidly shrinking.

On the eastern front, the Iraqi government, the Kurdish peshmerga, Turkish military units, Iraqi militias, U.S. Special Forces, and a broad coalition of international air support led by the United States has liberated Ramadi and Fallujah from IS control and is now rapidly retaking IS's western Iraqi stronghold, Mosul. It has been a tough fight, but progress in Mosul is now daily, or even hourly, news.

On the western front, in Syria, the Turkish military and Syrian rebels have dealt major blows to IS. Azaz, Jarabulus, Mari, and (most importantly) Dabiq have all been liberated from IS since August. The Turkish coalition has met heavy resistance in the IS stronghold of Al-Bab, but they are making progress in cleaving IS's territory in two pieces. IS's defeat is only a matter of time -- and lives.

At IS's center, the U.S. backed Syrian Defense Force (SDF), made up largely of Kurdish fighters, has eaten a giant crater in the northern part of IS's territory. The SDF is now threatening the IS capital, Raqqa, which is now regularly targeted by U.S. and coalition air strikes.

Together these three coalitions are besieging all of IS's most important cities. They are threatening to capture IS's most important oil and gas resources as well. Perhaps most importantly, the United States believes that it has trapped many of the extremist group's most important leaders in this area.

It's hard to imagine, then, that a fourth coalition, fighting for far less important outposts, would be losing ground to IS's offensives.

This fourth group is the coalition supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is made up of Russian soldiers, special forces, and private mercenaries (many of whom cut their teeth during Russia's invasion of Ukraine), as well as commandos from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hizballah extremists, and Shi'ite militiamen from Iraq. The purported mission of this coalition is to fight terrorists. And yet they have often let extremist groups like IS expand their territory while they concentrated on defeating U.S.-backed rebel groups, some of which were specifically organized to fight IS.

During the pro-Assad coalition's campaign to capture Aleppo from anti-Assad rebels, IS launched a surprise operation to recapture the historic city of Palmyra. IS easily won a victory there because so few military units were left to guard the city.

Even though the battle for Aleppo has ended in an Assad victory, IS has been allowed to expand its territory west of Palmyra. Though heavy battles are being waged near this city today, nothing like a full-scale operation has been launched to halt the IS advance. Though Russia announced it was withdrawing from Syria, evidence suggests that the opposite is true, and the focus of Russia's military might in particular has been moderate rebel groups north of Damascus -- not Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the north, and not IS near Palmyra.

All of this seems to confirm what evidence has told us all along -- that the Russian-led victory in Palmyra nearly one year ago had little to do with fighting terrorism, but was simply an opportunity to spread the propaganda that Russia and Assad were standing up to IS.

Last week, new evidence emerged that Russia and Assad may have had a mutually beneficial relationship with IS rather than an adversarial one, though that relationship dynamic appears to be changing.

The Syrian city of Deir ez-Zour has been largely controlled by IS since 2015, but an oddly shaped part of the city and its surrounding areas have remained under the control of the Syrian military. Most importantly, the military airport has never fallen to IS, allowing the Syrian regime to continue to move troops, ammunition, and supplies into and out of the city. In the last week or so, IS has launched a concerted effort to drive the Syrian military from those positions.

Russia is now scrambling to bomb IS as the extremist group has cut Assad's position there in two.

It is a tale told in two maps -- last week, as IS was collapsing in Mosul, it was advancing in Deir ez-Zour.

But Deir ez-Zour is more than 250 kilometers away from the nearest Assad-held position in Syria, in the heart of IS's caliphate. If IS could have seriously threatened those positions, why did this only happen now when it is in such a weakened state?

Russian propaganda networks and pro-Assad journalists would have us believe that the United States is allowing large numbers of IS fighters to withdraw west to Deir ez-Zour. We have not seen any evidence to support this conclusion. Furthermore, any IS extremists who escape Mosul could threaten U.S. Special Forces who are operating in Syria, so this strategy would make little sense. Even if it were true, why would IS wait until it was so weak to launch a new offensive, rather than send those forces to any of its more important positions that are in need of reinforcement?

The obvious answer is that IS has allowed the Syrian military to hold those positions, and the Syrian military has given little cause for IS to change its mind. Though battles have certainly been fought between these two groups before in Syria, the situation there has been mutually beneficial for Assad and IS. By keeping its positions there, the Syrian government has been able to maintain that it is locked in a desperate struggle against IS extremists. IS's proximity to Syrian military positions has discouraged U.S. coalition air strikes against the extremist group. Instead, when the U.S. had intelligence on potential high-value targets within Deir ez-Zour earlier in the month it launched a risky special-forces raid on the outskirts of the city.

IS is collapsing. It needs victories. And so it is attacking Syrian positions, in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour, because it knows that it can probably win. Experts have repeatedly warned us from the start of this conflict that the Syrian government played a role in the creation of IS. We should not be surprised that the pro-Assad coalition and IS have at best taken advantage of a mutually beneficial relationship and at worst have openly colluded to create the mess in Syria and Iraq that we see today. If the West is to take the fight against IS seriously, it should do so with eyes open as to the motives of both the Assad government and the foreign powers, particularly Russia, that support it.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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