The anti-terrorist forces in Iraq and Syria continue to actively eliminate ISIL. Now that ISIL fighters are suffering losses on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, the forecasts that the “Caliphate” will be routed by the end of this year no longer sound as unrealistic as they did before.
A significant part of ISIL’s forces is concentrated in a small territory near Abu Kamal (Al-Bukamal) in Syria. In early Nov, a group of fighters and field commanders moved there from Iraqi Al-Qa’im. The Iraqi governmental troops captured Al-Qa’im on Nov 6 and began preparations for attacks on Rumana and Rawa. Once those two cities are liberated, the campaign to force ISIL out of the west of Iraq will be over. Hence, Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition have serious chances to rout ISIL by the end of this year.
In Syria, things are not so simple. The key problem is that there still are lots of ISIL forces deployed in the east of that country as a lot of ISIL fighters have been driven there from the territory of Iraq over the last months. There are not precise statistics but it is clear that the “Caliphate” has quite a strong contingent in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor. One more problem is that there are more forces fighting ISIL in Syria. As EADaily reported earlier, there was a kind of a race for Abu Kamal between the Russia- and U.S.-supported forces.
The U.S. troops, together with their Arab-Kurdish ally, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), did their best to prevent the breakthrough of the Syrian governmental army to that strategical section of the Iraqi-Syrian border. That breakthrough became even more possible after the fall of ISIL in Deir ez-Zor and Al-Qa’im. The striking force of the Syrian governmental army in Deir ez-Zor was the Lebanese Hezbollah. That pro-Iranian group is the last force the Americans and the Kurds would like to see in Abu Kamal.
That’s why the key tasks of the Americans were to drive ISIL forces from Rumana and Rawa to Syria, to put an air barrier against the Syrian army and its pro-Iranian allies and to help the SDF to capture Abu Kamal. But the last task proved to be impracticable.
On Nov 6, the SDF drove ISIL out of the Khabur valley and liberated six villages. ISIL fighters escaped to the east, while the Kurds began preparing for an attack on Abu Kamal.
In the meantime, the Syrian governmental troops, together with the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards and the Syrian National Defense Forces, captured Akash oil field 13 km far from Abu Kamal.
On Nov 8, they stormed Abu Kamal and soon captured the whole of the city. On Nov 9, ISIL reported battles near the village of al-Sukaria on the eastern bank of Euphrates, but it was already clear that the Syrian governmental army had won the race for Abu Kamal.
The Americans would hate to be the neighbors of Bashar al-Assad’s troops in the Abu Kamal-Al-Qa’im area. That would mean that they would have to stay in the west of Iraq and would have to create one more military base in the region – something they would prefer not to do for the moment. But even if the SDF had captured Abu Kamal, they would not have avoided problems. The Iraqi authorities have always been at dragger drawn with the Kurds and would prefer to deal with the Syrian governmental army rather than with the Syrian Kurds aiming to create a Kurdish state in the north and east of Syria. And even in that case, the Americans would still have to stay there in order to protect the SDF from the Syrian governmental army.
ISIL will soon fall but what consequences will this have for Iraq, Syria and the whole of the Middle East? Both the Americans and the Saudis with their anti-Iranian allies are disappointed to see the “Caliphate” having collapsed so quickly. The vacuum that will be created as a result will be filled by pro-Iranian forces and the U.S.-Saudi alliance has neither tactical nor strategical solutions to this problem.
In early Nov, ISIL occupied 1/3 of the Deir ez-Zor desert and a strip along Euphrates. This is less than 10% of the territory they controlled in 2014-2015.
It is not clear how many fighters ISIL has. Recently, the General Staff of the Russian Army reported that as many as 54,000 terrorists have been killed over the last two years. This figure includes 4,200 people from Russia and the CIS. And obviously, the greater part of those men were ISIL fighters.
So, as of today, ISIL may have no more than 3,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. Some sources report that ISIL has withdrawn the core of its army from Iraq and Syria but where those forces have been sent to is a question. Perhaps, Afghanistan. But in order to get there, they would have had to bypass Iran. So, they may have done this using the territory of Saudi Arabia.
The border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq is not hard to pass but it would have been a hard task for thousands of fighters to do it without being noticed. But almost 30% of them are from Saudi Arabia and for those people this is like going back home. But how the Saudi authorities will receive them is a question: will they arrest them or will they retrain and send them to the Iranian borders?
Now that ISIL is suffering losses in both Iraq and Syria, the Americans, the Saudis, the Israelis and their Gulf allies are starting a campaign to discredit Iran: just remember the recent resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the statement he made in Riyadh that Iran had been plotting a life attempt against him, the interception of some “Iranian missiles” allegedly fired by the Yemeni Houthis on Riyadh, the Americans’ charges that Iran supports the Afghani Taliban. None of Iran’s enemies would like to get involved in a direct conflict with that region power. They prefer creating spots of instability along the Iranian borders and ISIL survivors may help them in the matter. The Saudis would readily support their alliance with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, especially as they are eager to take revenge on all pro-Iranian forces, especially the Lebanese Hezbollah.
For the Saudi special services and their colleagues in the United States and Israel, there are no taboos on Iran. To many, the transfer of “new” anti-Iranian ISIL groups to Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan may seem a geopolitical fiction but now that the U.S.-Saudi-Israeli game against Iran needs high stakes, the principle “the end justifies the means” is welcome.
There are lots of facts proving that the forces that once created ISIL will try to keep it alive and to save the very idea of Sunni resistance to Shia dominance in some Arab states. So, ISIL will hardly run into the sand of the Syrian desert and may find a shelter in the Arabian sands so as to be used against Iran.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau