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Tracking Islamic State

Tuesday 22 May 2018

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Kurdish fighters celebrate taking control of an area in Syria's Raqqa region last year.

QAMISHLI, Syria -- The Kurds have never been lucky with geography, being landlocked and divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. However, due to the Syrian crisis and the threat of an Islamic caliphate bordering Kurdish areas in Syria, the Syrian Kurds have become one of the most reliable coalition allies against the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Most likely they will play a prominent role in capturing the IS capital of Raqqa.

The Kurds seem to fit perfectly into the current U.S. strategy of focusing on defeating jihadist groups and not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is the focus of most moderate rebel groups. Supporting some moderate rebel groups presents problems for Washington as those groups have partnered with the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and the Salafist Jaish al-Islam to fight against Assad. Some rebel groups have also given U.S. supplies to jihadists.

While IS fighters have recently defeated rebel offensives in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurds have been more successful on the battlefield, having proven themselves able to fight IS near the Turkish border. "They've been courageous. They have been successful," U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby recently said in Washington. Battered by Syrian and Russian air strikes, the rebels were quite successful in defending their territory for years, but have been unable to make many in-roads against IS.

While anti-Assad rebels have been losing battles near the Turkish border, the Kurds have been on the advance in northeastern Syria. Colonel Talal Silo, the official spokesperson of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), says they have three possible directions for campaigns after finishing the Shadadi operation last February: west toward Manbij, south to liberate the countryside around Raqqa, or southeast toward Deir el-Zour. Some critics have suggested that the SDF is unwilling to expand beyond traditional Kurdish areas, but when I asked Silo about the subject he rejected this, saying: "Our goal is not only Kurdish cities. The target of the SDF is not only to liberate Kurdish regions, because for example the countryside of Shadadi and the southern region of Hasakah that were liberated, were completely Arabic." "Our forces do not only contain Kurds, but also Arabs, Christians, Turkomans. It's for everyone," Silo said.

One of the main goals of the SDF is to take control of northern Syria, including opening a corridor from Kobani to the Kurdish enclave of Efrin. This conflicts with the goals of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels that want to use the countryside of northern Syria as a supply line to Aleppo, currently besieged by Syrian regime forces. Recently, fierce clashes erupted again when Aleppo's rebels tried to recapture Tel Rifaat from Kurdish-led SDF forces, leading to the deaths of dozens of rebels, especially from the Jaish al-Sunna group that originates from Homs.

Multiethnic Ideology

The Syrian Kurdish fighters are dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is close to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the militant left-wing organization which is banned in Turkey. That is a problem for Turkey as Ankara is against any form of coalition support for the Syrian Kurds, even more so after the cease-fire between Turkey's Kurds and the Turkish state collapsed in July 2015. Therefore, Turkey has tried to back rival rebel groups and even jihadist groups to defeat the PYD and the People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, without any real results.

In February, Turkey started to shell Kurdish-led groups in Aleppo, after the Kurds took advantage of Russian bombings of Syrian rebel groups near Azaz and took the Menagh air base. Turkey has also shelled the YPG-allied forces trying to cross the river into the IS-held city of Jarabulus in July 2015. Off the battlefield, Turkey managed to exclude the Kurdish PYD from the peace talks in Geneva.

However, the PYD, unlike the Iraqi Kurdish parties, follows a multiethnic ideology and its leaders have realized that it's better to also recruit Arabs in a region that is not predominantly Kurdish. In March, the PYD announced its desire to establish a federalized Syria, where all of northern Syria, not only Kurdish "Rojava" -- Syrian Kurdistan -- would be represented. Therefore, they have appointed Mansour Saloum, an Arab from Tal Abyad, as the co-head. "We are all people living in this area, and all the ethnic groups will work together to achieve this project," Saloum said.

The move was condemned and rejected both by the Syrian opposition and the Assad government. This plan also contrasts with the approach taken by the rival Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is part of the Syrian opposition and wants a Kurdistan region, similar to the one in Iraq. As a result the KNC condemned the recent announcement by the PYD and its allies and accused the PYD of seeking "Syrian federalism," instead of the establishment of a Kurdistan federal zone.

The support for federalism may have gained the YPG new enemies. In the mixed city of Qamishli, where there were clashes between the Syrian regime and the Kurds in late April, many of the local fighters are Arabs not Kurds. There have been low-level clashes before between the regime and Kurds in Aleppo, Hasakah, and Qamishli, but this was the first time that the clashes spread throughout Qamishli and the surrounding countryside. Kurds there think the Syrian regime attacked them because the regime feels stronger due to Russian support and to show the Kurds that they reject any form of federalism.

Strong And Diverse Coalition

The PYD's cooperation with Arabs is not new. They have focused on working with Arab tribes since they captured the Syrian-Iraqi border with fighters from the Shammar tribe in October 2013. Relations with the United States were established later, when IS tried to capture Kobani and were pushed back, losing hundreds of fighters due to U.S.-led coalition air strikes and ammunition supplies. After receiving U.S. support, they have achieved several victories, such as defeating IS in Tal Abyad, Al-Hawl, Al-Shaddadi -- all of them Arab areas.

From my observations, the SDF is focusing on recruiting more Arabs for future operations. Although U.S. officials have spoken about the Syrian Arab Coalition, in reality these are the Arabs that have joined the SDF. So far, I haven't met anyone who claims to be representing the Syrian Arab Coalition in northern Syria. "What's the Syrian Arab Coalition?" asked Bandar al-Humaydi, from the Arab Sanadid forces allied to the YPG. Arabs most likely join the SDF for financial reasons, or due to the fact that it is the strongest force in northern Syria. Moreover, it's one of the few forces that can really confront Islamic State in northern Syria -- having both a strong ideology and military force. Nevertheless, the command and control of the SDF is still dominated by Kurds from the YPG, and Arabs do not play a large role in the military leadership.

In the former IS-stronghold of Al-Shaddadi, two Arab members of the local police whom I interviewed told me they receive a salary of around $80 per month. "I joined to liberate the city from Daesh [IS]," said Xalaf Mohammed, a 23-year-old Arab. Although human rights organizations have accused the SDF of rights violations against Arabs, in many Arab regions of Hasakah, local civilians have welcomed the SDF forces.

"In the beginning the Kurdish percentage [of soldiers in the SDF] was like 60 percent, now it's changed, because the people that are joining the SDF now are mostly Arabs," Silo said.

At a former government-controlled prison in Alaya, Arabs who have joined the Kurdish security police, are now protecting the facility. "Arabs are working against the regime, because the regime has oppressed them, and they have seen humanity from our side," said Bave Egid, a Kurdish police officer stationed at the prison.

The SDF is a strong and diverse coalition and one that, for the foreseeable future, will likely be a key partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is currently in Qamishli, in northern Syria, conducting a research project for the Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies (IIST), funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) on Syrian Kurds.

A Syrian government soldier displays an Islamic State (IS) group flag after Syrian troops regained control the previous day of Al-Qaryatain, a town in the province of Homs, earlier this month.

On June 29, 2014, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave a speech from the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq, announcing the formation of an Islamic caliphate, the newly proclaimed "Islamic State" did indeed have many of the hallmarks of an actual state.

It had borders, patrolled by its agents. It had a military, special-forces units, police, an intelligence apparatus, a press office, tax collectors, engineers, a stratified leadership, and both foreign and domestic policies. Unlike its predecessors Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had only been able to establish a state of mind among their followers, Baghdadi's organization had managed to capture and rule actual territory, not just individual cities or neighborhoods.

That is no longer the status quo. If an observer were giving a State Of The So-Called Islamic State speech, one would have to acknowledge that the "state" is weak. The United States estimates that Kurdish forces and the Iraqi military have taken back 40 percent of the territory held by Islamic State (IS). An unnamed U.S. defense official recently told USA Today that IS oil revenues had been cut by 50 percent. U.S. Major General Peter Gersten said that a series of coalition air strikes have destroyed as much as $800 million in cash that IS was hiding in various safe houses and hidden stockpiles, and that there had been a 90 percent increase in IS defections.

Gersten also said that there has been a massive drop in the flow of foreign fighters to IS, from a high of about 2,000 per month just a year ago to about 200. If true, it is now likely that the U.S.-backed coalition is killing IS extremists faster than foreign fighters can join the organization's ranks.

To make matters worse for IS, many of the militant group's top leaders have been killed by coalition air strikes. In March, a strike killed Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, IS's "top financier." Earlier that month, another air strike killed Umar al-Shishani, or "Omar the Chechen," the "minister of war" for IS.

A slew of less infamous IS leaders has also been killed, including the IS-appointed "governor" of the Al-Hamadaniya district of Iraq, Barzan al-Husam, and many other field commanders. While the big names make the headlines, the killing of local governors and military commanders and the strikes that hit IS in the pocketbook may have a more tangible impact on disrupting local governance, and thus shaking the perception that IS is indeed a state rather than just a terrorist insurgency.

Not Dead Yet

However, for all the military defeats IS has suffered, it is far from dead -- and a number of challenges for the United States remain.

The United States has had a military presence in one form or another in Syria for months. While U.S. soldiers have been in Syria since late last year, working with coalition members on the ground to "tighten the squeeze" on IS and establishing a headquarters at the Rmeilan air base in northern Syria, it appears that this mission may be expanding. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that the United States will deploy 250 Special Forces soldiers to Syria.

One key challenge is that the United States does not have adequate intelligence on the ground to effectively target its air strikes. According to recent statements by U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) Colonel Pat Ryder, the anti-IS coalition has flown 91,000 sorties and conducted 12,000 air strikes -- that sounds like a lot until you realize that only about 13 percent of coalition sorties end in air strikes. As IS shrinks on the battlefield, it will only become more difficult to find, identify, and destroy targets from the air.
IS's leaders have also adopted a simple-yet-sinister plan to block U.S. air strikes -- militants are reportedly covering the roads of cities they occupy with canvas roofs. An activist news agency covering the IS occupation of Raqqah, its so-called capital, has posted pictures of these canvas awnings, which make it impossible for coalition drones or jets to follow the movement of IS fighters below.

It could become very difficult, then, to differentiate the terrorists from the civilians that they are terrorizing. Worse, if this strategy works we can expect to see it copied in other locations IS controls, a move that could prove to be far more effective at stopping U.S. air strikes than even the most advanced antiaircraft weapons. IS may be hemorrhaging money, but tarps are a lot cheaper than guns.

Changing U.S. Tactics

To help defeat IS, the United States may be attempting to refine its tactics and address a sectarian dynamic that is working against Washington.

Last week, pro-IS social-media accounts tweeted pictures they say show that U.S. fighter jets and A-10 Warthogs have been supporting the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime who have been locked in heavy battle with IS for months but are currently backed up against the Turkish border.

Earlier in the year, a coalition of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) troops, Hizballah fighters, and Iraqi Shi'ite militias fought side by side with the Syrian military to break the battle lines of the anti-Assad rebels who have held northern Syria for years. IS took full advantage of this situation and launched its own offensive, capturing large amounts of territory as its fighters pushed west from their strongholds and north toward the Turkish border. Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters to the west also launched an offensive against the struggling anti-Assad rebels, and a small group of those rebels are now trapped.

The rebels in the area east of Azaz had been making gains against IS in early April, but by the middle of the month that progress had now been reversed. While it's dangerous to ever take the word of jihadist propaganda as truth, the presence of the A-10 in this area would suggest that the United States is providing close air support for the anti-Assad rebels as they push back against IS -- a level of coordination between the United States and local ground forces typically reserved for Iraq or eastern Syria.

If the United States is conducting air strikes against IS, and in support of anti-Assad rebels, it may be an attempt to protect the Turkish border and reassure a frustrated NATO ally. However, IS is still making gains. On April 27, there were reports that IS had captured five rebel-held villages, including Dudyan, west of Al-Rai and right on the Turkish border. IS is now close to closing off and destroying the anti-Assad rebels who are defending their most important border crossing -- and the only one they still control in northern Aleppo.

IS, even more so than Al-Qaeda before it, which survived 15 years of the war on terror, has proven its ability to constantly adapt to both its victories and its defeats. Despite military victories against IS over the last 20 months, even the commanders of the U.S. coalition admit that there are new challenges ahead. IS is currently exploiting the military weakness of one of its principal enemies, the anti-Assad rebels, and it is digging in to its positions in both Syria and Iraq.

The next phase of this fight is far less straightforward, and IS clearly knows that the storm is coming and is preparing accordingly -- with new offensives and canvas tarps.

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About This Blog

"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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