How Russia won the war
The military contribution of the United States was decisive, but the spoils of victory go to Russia. Iran’s influence grows while Europe is nowhere to be seen.
- Thursday, 01 March 2018
The conflict in Syria and the chaos in the Middle East did not begin or end with the war against Islamic State, but that conflict nevertheless represented one of the fundamental events of recent history. The war ended with the defeat of the caliphate, a creature borne of the minds of former officers of Saddam Hussein’s secret services at the start of the decade. They exploited the weaknesses of both post-Baathist-dictatorship Iraq and a Syria that was in the throes of the Arab Spring. Showing a combination of tactical and military shrewdness, the former officers allied with the Islamist fanaticism taking hold in some Sunni communities both in Syria (afflicted by civil war) and Iraq (in the alQaeda-inspired breeding ground promoted by the infamous al-Zarkawi). Thus Islamic State was able to occupy a territory that straddled the borders of Syria and Iraq, equivalent in size to the United Kingdom. Local jihadi terrorist factions from the Philippines to Nigeria rushed to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters joined the fray from Asia, Europe and Africa, fighting under the black banner of IS. Fearsome images of staged executions outraged the West and galvanised the jihadis and their sympathisers. A succession of terrorist attacks (often carried out by unbalanced individuals or lone wolves, only rarely by organised cells) caused bloodshed and spread fear worldwide.
Now, approximately three years later, it’s all apparently over. The risk of terrorist
attacks in Europe clearly remains, but the myth of Islamic State and its territorial presence have been well and truly destroyed. A few stretches of desert are all that’s left of the caliphate’s territory, which once included cities with hundreds of thousands of citizens such as Mosul, Raqqa, Ramadi and Kirkuk. The caliphate built Islamic schools to indoctrinate the young, imposed codes of conduct and attire, terrorised and massacred minorities and destroyed the archaeological marvels of the so-called infidels. They collected taxes, sold oil and paid their fighters better than any other militia did. Many forces played a part in the ultimate defeat of Islamic State: bombs dropped by the US-led coalition, the revival of the Syrian army with the backing of Iran and Russia, offensives by the Kurdish-Iraqi Peshmerga as well as by the Iraqi army (backed by the United States and the pro-Iranian Shiite militias) and the heroic resistance and subsequent counter-offensive of the Syrian Kurds. But besides the caliphate (of course), who won and who lost the war?
The two main victors were Russia and Iran, not because they contributed more than others in defeating Islamic State, but because they have gained the greatest advantage from both the battle against and subsequent victory over IS. Moscow began operations in Syria in September 2015 to prevent the fall of the Bashar al-Assad regime, an ally of the Kremlin that hosts the only Russian naval base located on the shores of the Mediterranean. Initially, the presence of Islamic State gave Putin an excellent excuse
to intervene. But that's not all: it also put a spanner in the works of Russia’s rival, the United States. The US decided not to depose Assad for fear of giving IS and other jihadi factions free rein. Thus Washington did not attack Damascus in 2013 after the regime had resorted to using chemical weapons. With no post-war strategy in place, the US was not prepared to attack IS directly on the ground. They were very careful while arming the Sunni rebel militias, but even the strengthening of IS’ enemies created problems for the US. Some forces were impossible to support directly: the Assad regime and the Shiite militias allied with Iran (including the Lebanese Hezbollah) are deemed enemies in Washington, as they are in Saudi Arabia and Israel (already enraged by the nuclear deal with Iran). The moderate Syrian insurgents proved unreliable, and even US support for the Syrian Kurds of the YPG, the most effective force on the ground against IS during the course of the war, was rationed in order to avoid upsetting Turkey, which considers the YPG to be a terrorist organisation in league with the PKK.
So, even if America’s contribution to the defeat of Islamic State was greater than Russia’s (especially in the two main battles to liberate Mosul and Raqqa), the payoff has gone to Moscow. Russia is viewed by all Middle Eastern players as the power that is gaining ground in the region, while the US is back-pedalling. Turkey, initially very hostile towards Moscow, is now increasingly adopting a pro-Russian stance (out of necessity in order to safeguard its own strategic interests in Syria, if at all possible). Saudi Arabia, the other vanquished power in the Syrian conflict,
has openly acknowledged the importance of relations with Russia. Qatar has followed in the footsteps of Turkey in its process of distancing itself from Riyadh and drawing closer to Moscow and Tehran. Even Iran, which is among the true victors of the IS defeat, has had to admit that the outcome of the war in Syria would have been different without Russian intervention. Now the Kremlin has established umpteen military bases dotted throughout Syria and exercises an unprecedented level of strategic influence on the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Moscow has deployed advanced antimissile systems (S-400), giving itself predominance over the skies of the region. Russia has worked on relations with all parties (the Sunni axis, the Shiite axis, Israel and more) and has generally taken a central role in the big game that has picked up in the Middle East over the course of the last decade.
can also be considered a winner by the same token. Like Moscow, Tehran managed to exploit the presence of Islamic State in order to save Assad at first and then to expand its influence throughout the region. Iraq is now much closer to Iran than it has ever been in the past (something that is viewed as cause for concern in Riyadh and Tel Aviv) and the Shiite militias (headed by Hezbollah) are better armed, better trained and more thoroughly deployed than before. Even Qatar, previously allied with Riyadh, has shifted its allegiance towards Tehran after its own diplomatic crisis with the House of Saud. The Islamic Republic, which already enjoyed a much improved image following the nuclear agreement and Rouhani’s moderate presidency, has further enhanced its reputation as a result of the battle against Islamic State. European countries that wanted to do business with Tehran after the nuclear deal are even more forthright now about obstructing Trump’s hard line against Iran thanks to the improvement of the Shiite power’s international reputation, even compared to the Wahhabi monarchy (which is currently trying to update its image, casting off its very conservative and fanatical embrace of Islam).
A partial victory in the battle against the caliphate was also secured by the Syrian Kurds of the YPG. They managed to liberate their territory (the Rojava) from IS and to govern it autonomously, ridding themselves of Assad’s dictatorship as well. Now they have started up diplomatic relations that are often tense but also productive. They have received arms and materials from the United States and have used them to secure their own presence in the area (apparently 2,000 men and a few bases). The Syrian Kurds should (but by no means certainly will) obtain some form of recognition for their strength and the role they are set to play in the Syria of tomorrow. But their victory against Islamic State and their good relations with the US (and partly with Russia) have unleashed a violent reaction from Turkey which, being in a position to offer much more in terms of strategic clout to both the White House and the Kremlin, is gradually trying to grab the Syrian-Kurd territories and install its own forces there. After many minor skirmishes, Ankara made a decisive attack on the Afrin Canton in January 2018. It’s unclear at present how things will pan out.
Those defeated in the battle against the caliphate are the opposite numbers of the victors. Despite its decisive contribution to the fall of Islamic State, Washington has lost more than it has gained in this match to Russia’s advantage. Saudi Arabia lost its clash with Iran in Syria and has been regionally weakened as a result. Turkey has worn its relations thin with the West as well as having been forced to shelve its attempts to oust Assad, curb its ambition to become a regional power and kowtow to Russia. Now Turkey is facing the increasing likelihood that an independent Kurdish entity will develop on its southern border. The local players in Syria – the regime and the rebels – are also both among the defeated as they have practically been deprived of any autonomous decisionmaking powers.
And the last name on the list of the vanquished is certainly Europe. The Union hardly took part in the battle against Islamic State. In spite of being the Western target hardest hit by IS terrorist attacks, the EU’s contribution was limited to providing support to the USled coalition. It could have instead been an historic opportunity to focus Europe’s strategic interests against a perfect enemy and thus try to gain some influence in a context which (for the prevention of terrorism, the management of migration and the procurement of natural resources) is strategic for the Old Continent. At this point, that opportunity has for the most part been wasted.