The global coalition declared victory against ISIS in Iraq in December 2017 and in Syria in March 2019. ISIS lost territorial control but it did not disappear.
A great number of militants were killed. Those who were captured alive were put into prisons like the one in Hasaka. Some managed to flee Syria and Iraq. Some went underground, waiting for the call.
ISIS began to reorganize in Iraq, mostly in and around Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahaddin and in the vicinity of Baghdad. In Syria, Al Sukhna and Deir Ezzor deserts are at the forefront. ISIS has been conducting hit and run operations, ambushes since a long time now. This year, they struck in Diyala in Iraq and Deir Ezzor in Syria causing deaths and other casualties. The attack on Guwayran (Al Sina’a) prison has been the most alarming ISIS action recently.
Is history repeating itself ? Back in the 2000s there was a process in Iraq which ended up with ISIS. The Iraqi army was dissolved. Sunnis were left outside of the system. Kurds and Shiites were made the main pillars of the new Iraq. On top of that, came the sectarian policies of Nuri al-Maliki. Sunnis were enraged and ISIS soon grew in strength.
Today in Syria, the areas where ISIS is growing bigger and stronger are where Iran is very active in terms of establishing itself and in areas which have fallen under the control of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
These are majority Arab/Sunni and tribal areas. Many locals have decades and in some cases centuries old sensitivities and are not happy with the Shiite and Kurdish presence. It is no surprise that these places have become fertile ground for ISIS activities.
In the north of Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controls Idlib. The area is administered by the Syrian Salvation Government. Economic activity is dependent basically on Turkey. But trade with other parts of Syria including regime controlled is also ongoing.
HTS is on the terrorist groups lists of almost all countries and international organizations, but is trying to portray a different image. Last year, it carried out operations against armed groups consisting of mainly foreign fighters including East Turkistanis and Central Asians. They were pacified.
By now, all the actors are familiar with HTS and if it is gone, no one can know for sure what its replacement would be. Maybe a much more radical entity. HTS continues to survive and some even question the possibility of a Taliban model here.
In any case, Russia keeps reminding everyone of its presence through aerial bombardment. Among its targets are poultry farms, water depots and sometimes spots nearby refugee tents.
Turkey is very cautious about Idlib. Renewed fighting there, among other things, could lead to a new refugee wave and who knows who else would go to Turkey.
Further to the east and north, Afrin and Ayn al-Isa are also volatile. Afrin city center was the target of a car bomb attack and was later hit by shells fired from YPG/regime controlled areas. There were civilian casualties. YPG is testing dangerous waters.
On the other hand, YPG seems adamant to preserve its gains which accumulated over the years. It controls almost 30 percent of Syria. They run these areas through the North and East Syria Autonomous Administration. On several occasions, YPG spokespeople made it clear that they will not accept to return to pre 2011 conditions.
Mazlum Kobani, the YPG leader, stated in a recent interview that the autonomous rule for Kurds must be engraved in the new Syrian constitution and its armed forces (SDG) and Asayish (internal security force) be recognized officially.
Russians have established contact between Assad and YPG. Russia and the US are in close coordination on that issue. Assad and YPG may have what they can call common adversaries, but when it comes to the future shape of the country, the two sides are far apart from each other.
In the south of Syria, there is a very complicated state of play with Jordan, Russia, the US, Iran, Israel, the Assad regime and armed opposition, which are neutralized but still fight the regime when needed. Assassinations and armed attacks have not ceased and all sides are on full alert.
Many thought that last year the Assad regime achieved a lot in terms of normalization. The jewel of the crown was expected to be Syria’s taking back its seat at the Arab League (AL) at the summit to be held in March in Algeria. Syria is one of the six founding members of the AL but its membership was suspended in November 2011.
Last week, after in-house consultations within the AL, Algeria announced that the Summit was postponed due to uncertainties of the pandemic.
But most probably, the real cause for the postponement was major problematic issues such as, Algeria-Morocco tensions, war in Yemen and Syria’s return to the AL. Rather than having an unsuccessful meeting, postponement may have been regarded as the better alternative.
Against some AL members’ support for Syria’s return to the Arab League, some Arab countries have been known to be cautious, to say the least.
Many countries outside the AL, among them, the US, most EU members and Turkey are on the same page as regards to relations with the Assad regime.
The crisis in Syria is not over. Assad portrays himself as the victor and he acts as if he is calling the shots. But that is not really the case is it?
Reconstruction and return of millions of refugees should be important for Syria. Assad has called upon the Syrians abroad to return, but to no avail. Because they do not trust the Assad regime. They are not sure about what future in Syria holds for them.
Nothing is moving in the direction of a political solution. Unless there is a genuine political solution based on UNSC resolution 2254 and genuine support from all parties, normalization and peace and stability seem distant. Nobody really wants crisis to spark again but as things are, this remains to be one of the possibilities.